The Music of Cesaria Evora

The Music of Cesaria Evora

Zubin Schroff
Zubin Schroff
From remote cape verde, off africa's western coast, comes a music so hypnotizing that a traveler will cross an ocean to find its source.

The first time I heard the music of Cesaria Evora, it came to me as if in a dream, as if some mermaid were calling my name, backed by an orchestra of lyres and guitars. I was in a crowded New York restaurant with forgettable food, but her songs cut into me like a knife. Somehow I felt that I had always known this music's emotional geography--heartache, longing, an infinite sadness--but if you'd asked me to locate its source on the map, I'd have been stumped. There were murmurs of a smoldering Argentine tango, the melancholic lilt of a Portuguese fado, a seductive bossa nova churn of sex and nostalgia from Brazil. All I knew was that I was being called by a voice named Cesaria Evora from a place called Cape Verde.

At the time, I had only the barest knowledge of these 10 islands, an hour and a half by plane from the coast of West Africa. To me Cape Verde signified mystery, song, lush green. A friend told me otherwise. South African Airways flights from Johannesburg to New York make refueling stops on the Cape Verdean island of Sal. From the air, my friend said, Sal looks like desert; in all her years of flying to Johannesburg she'd never seen anyone but Cape Verdeans and hard-core smokers get off the plane. "Why would you want to go there?" she asked. And I told her about Cesaria Evora, the songs, and the verdant islands of my imagination.

Now it's 4 a.m. on a black January night, and Holley and I have just landed at Amilcar Cabral Airport on Sal. About 10 other people have deplaned with us, all of them, it seems, Cape Verdeans. In minutes they are gone, and Holley and I are left in the terminal listening to the inescapably sad and delicate mornas of Cesaria trickling out of the tinny airport speaker. With a few hours before our flight to Mindelo, the largest city on São Vicente, where Cesaria makes her home, we decide to hop a cab for a quick sunrise drive around Sal. We see nothing: no litter, no salt mines (sal means salt), just a few hotels, and fishing boats parked incongruously on sand dunes. Back at the airport, Holley stands on the deserted tarmac, hair blown to pieces. "There are nine more islands," she says, giggling. "They can't all be like this."

LATER THAT DAY WE ARE GAZING OVER MINDELO'S central square from our balcony at the Porto Grande Hotel. The little we've seen of São Vicente since touching down on its tiny airstrip hasn't been particularly promising. Bumping along the black cobblestones to Mindelo, we passed rugged mountains of hardened lava, small stone houses, and the rusting hulks of half-capsized fishing boats jutting out of the sea. It was so windy it felt as if our taxi would fly off the road. By the time we reached Mindelo, we were relieved to be standing still.

Down in the praça, the locals are whiling away the afternoon in a café, a one-room fairy-tale castle--arched windows, turrets, stained-glass doors, all in a bizarre blend of colonial Portuguese and neo-Victorian architectural styles--that we are told was once a weigh station for the nearby market. The entire setting feels more European than African. Of course, Cape Verde is both. The islands were uninhabited when the first Portuguese explorers arrived in 1460, and for the next five centuries, Cape Verde was an extension of the Portuguese empire, more an overseas state than a mere colony.

It has always been desperately poor. Dry harmattan winds from deep in the Sahara make it almost impossible to sustain productive farms. Drought and famine have killed more than 100,000 islanders over the centuries. As a result, the economy was kept alive from the outside. The Portuguese used Cape Verde as a transshipment point for slave trading between Guinea and their empire in the Antilles and Brazil; the British arrived in the 1860's and developed Mindelo's sheltered bay into a coal bunkering station for steamships sailing to Brazil. Ever since the great famines of the mid-1920's, when many islanders emigrated, the economy has been supported by contributions from Cape Verdeans living abroad, mostly in the Portuguese enclaves of Fall River and New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island. Today, of the 1 million Cape Verdeans worldwide, only 400,000 still live on the islands. The large, loyal expatriate community has been a crucial ingredient in Cesaria Evora's global musical success.

Cesaria had played two sold-out concerts in New York shortly before our trip, and her management was eager to help me arrange a meeting with her on her home turf. Once you arrive in Mindelo, they told me, it will be simple: Just go to the central market and introduce yourself to José Lucas, the owner of a music store called Tropical Dance. He'll know exactly what to do.

The market is easy to find, a gabled building on Mindelo's wide main street. On the ground floor are merchants selling abundant produce, albeit in a limited variety--lettuce, tomatoes, papayas, and cracked corn (the basis of the national dish, cachupa)--as well as fresh goat cheese and bottles of home-brewed grogue, a fiery sugarcane liquor flavored with coconut, lemon, or honey. Upstairs are a café, a hair salon, and a few boutiques. It is unlike any other African market I've seen. Each of the vendors has the same city-mandated allotment of space, and their goods are stacked in neat piles. There is no rush, no crowd, no screaming children. The floors are even freshly mopped. And at Tropical Dance, a small record shop covered floor-to-ceiling with Cesaria posters, José is expecting us. We climb into his jeep for the short ride to her house, located in a prosperous part of town where the cinder-block structures are painted in delicate pastels.

Casa Cesaria--even the taxi drivers call it that--is a dull-yellow three-story affair, larger than most, but by no means lavish. Each room is occupied by a different member of Cesaria's large family. Her blind 87-year-old grandmother is asleep in the front, her niece is in the kitchen preparing dinner (lobsters and rice), kids run shrieking through the rest of the house. Cesaria herself is not to be found. Nor does her niece have any idea where she is: Asleep?Out for a walk?We are left to wait in the living room, hung with her gold records, a small Elvis poster, and commemorative plaques from the New Bedford expatriate community. Cesaria's grandniece hums songs in Holley's ear as a treat.

Suddenly, Cesaria materializes in the doorway, moving with a languid grace. She is wearing a rayon dress printed with a green seashell motif; her fingernails are painted a metallic green; and, as is her wont, she is barefoot (in Paris, she is known as la diva avec pieds nus). Through José, who speaks French--Cape Verdeans speak crioulu, a patois of Portuguese with West African inflections--Cesaria offers us a grogue, then sits and lights a cigarette; she hasn't had a drink in 10 years.

"So what can I do for you?" she asks brusquely, as if we were neighbors come to borrow a cup of sugar. I really have only one question, I say. I came here to find the source of your music and its sadness. What--and where--is it?

Cesaria gives a weary smile and breathes a single word: "Sodade." I have heard it before--it jumps through her lyrics even if you don't know a word of crioulu--but I'd never quite understood what it meant. In "The Sea is the Home of Nostalgia" she sings:

Mar é morada di sodade
El ta separá--no pa terra longe
El ta separá--no d'nôs mãe, nôs amigo
Sem certeza di torná encontrá.

The sea is the home of nostalgia
It separates us from distant lands
It separates us from our mothers, our friends
Unsure if we'll ever see them again.

"Sodade is a mystical feeling," Cesaria explains, "a way of saying that you miss someone, a husband, a child. It's a sadness about some other time."

And what are you remembering, I ask--what have you lost?And how does that translate into morna's slippery-soft melodies, the plaintive minor keys?Cesaria lets loose a long explanation: For years, she had sung in bars and restaurants all over Cape Verde without recognition. Life was hard. She married three times, never happily. She even stopped singing for 10 years. But in 1985 she traveled to Lisbon with her Uncle Bana, one of the country's greatest morna musicians, where she met José da Silva, a French Cape Verdean who manages many top musicians. With da Silva producing, Cesaria recorded the trio of albums--Mar Azul, Miss Perfumado, and Cesaria Evora--that won her a worldwide audience (and Grammy nominations for the latter two releases).

Cesaria pauses to exhale another plume of smoke. Fame may have made life easier, she says, fingering the red grosgrain of her Grammy medallion, but it hasn't made her any happier. All she has is her family and her love of her homeland, this place where it is so difficult to stay yet so hard to leave. "You want to know morna?" she finally says. "It's just our version of the blues."

Mindelo looks different to us after that. What appeared before to be perfect blue vistas now seem to be marked with melancholy. In the water, a single windsurfer plies the waves, framed by arid peaks. The sun is shining, kids are playing in the market, men are killing the afternoon hours in cafés with cheap beer and 50-cent cheese sandwiches. Yet there are constant reminders of island isolation, of being surrounded on all sides by water with no place to escape to but the rocky beaches outside of town. That evening brings a different mood. After dinner at Restaurante Sodade (red snapper cooked in rich olive oil accompanied by rice and cabbage; a hunk of fresh goat cheese with candied papaya for dessert), Holley and I return to the hotel to rest. We've been told there will be a party in the praça tonight--but at 9:45, it's as empty as it was the morning we arrived. Then, on the dot of 10, a line of cars comes snaking around the square, horns honking madly. As if on cue, the praça fills with families, and a uniformed oompah band begins pumping out mornas from a little gazebo. There's no singer, but everyone knows the sad words, and gleefully sings along: "My heart is crying out/Full of pain/What can I do?/Where can I go/With this sadness?"

Kids dressed in their Sunday best dance with one another while their parents look on, clapping to the music. Teenagers blade around the square. Everyone knows everybody else, and they all want to know where we're from. By midnight, back in our room, with the band still playing away, we wonder whether they'll ever stop. It seems Mindelo's discos don't even get started until two. Holley laughs. "And you thought nobody has any fun in Cape Verde."

The next day we fly to Praia, Cape Verde's capital, on the island of São Tiago. As soon as we land we can feel the insistent beat of a city. Kids swarm around offering to carry our luggage, pop tunes blast through the P.A., and a line of taxis queue up for arriving passengers. Soon we are bumping along the cobblestoned streets--a legacy of the backbreaking days when the Portuguese ruled Cape Verde as a slave nation. We're en route to our hotel in the Prainha district, a leafy grid that is the picture of urban sophistication.

On a walk around town we stroll up the Avenida Amilcar Cabral, named for the poet and revolutionary who inspired Cape Verde's struggle for independence. Before the revolution, Cabral had started a literary movement, Claridade, that advocated cultural identification with Africa as a means of spreading nationalist ideals. Because Claridade found its strongest support in Praia, this is the most African city in Cape Verde. Here crioulu is spoken with the guttural emphasis of Senegalese Wolof; women carry fish and bananas on their heads in neon-colored baskets; and Praia's danceable, beat-driven funaná (played with a fiddle or accordion and a percussive iron bar) turns morna's melancholy on its head.

Not everyone, however, is so enamored of these African ties. At dinner with some Cape Verdean artists, I learn that a derogatory crioulu word exists to describe things that are "too African"--manjako. "There's an essential ambiguity about what it means to be Cape Verdean," says Mario Lucio Sousa, an elegantly dressed lawyer who makes his own neo-African clothes and is also the leader of the celebrated pop group Simentera. "When the Portuguese arrived, these islands were deserted, and the settlers populated them with slaves. They kept the best ones, the healthiest and brightest, for themselves. So from the beginning the population was a rainbow of colors. But the Portuguese forced us to give up our African traditions. For a long time, the Portuguese even banned crioulu." Morna, Sousa explains, was a revolutionary music--a way of embracing Cape Verde's mixed Creole identity, and a direct by-product of the Claridade movement.

THE FOLLOWING MORNING, ON THE cobblestoned highway that cuts through São Tiago's interior to the coast, all the divergent elements of Cape Verdean life seem to knit themselves together before our eyes. Mountain towns like Assomada and Picos, ablaze with bougainvillea, dip into dark stone valleys, then give way to gardens of banana trees and lush vegetation. Burros plod along the roads and monkeys run through the forests chased by kids. Are we in Africa or South America?The mountains or the jungle?Cape Verde is becoming whatever we want it to be.

At the seaside town of Tarrafal, a wooden sign advertising scuba lessons flaps in the wind. This is the only place on São Tiago that feels like a holiday resort, though it was once the site of a Portuguese political prison. These days the only menaces are the red-faced spider monkeys that occasionally nip at careless tourists. We check into a new, state-run luxury hotel just a stone's throw from a cheap but charming bungalow colony where a few German tourists are sunbathing by some coconut trees on the sandy beach. Several of them have just arrived from Sal. Cape Verde, they say with protective smiles, is the best beach vacation they've ever had: unspoiled, unpretentious, full of musical treats. "I just hope no one reads your article," says one, turning his face back to the sun. "It's bad enough that Cesaria Evora is a big star now in America."

VOLCANIC ERUPTIONS ON THE ISLAND of Fogo--most recently in 1995--have driven away thousands of the island's residents, though its capital, São Filipe, remains a gorgeous town of pastel colonial houses. Here we meet Marian, a Peace Corps volunteer who accompanies us in our rented jeep up the tricky mountain roads to the volcano's crater. Low-lying clouds and billowing steam occasionally obliterate our view.

Finally we stop and walk across shards of dried black lava. It's eerily quiet. No one could possibly live amid such desolation, I think--but back in the jeep we soon come upon a tiny hamlet, Chã das Caldeiras, that has sprouted in the pumice just yards from where the volcano last erupted. At a stone taverna we join the 20-odd villagers for bottles of local red wine, fresh white goat cheese, and butter biscuits. One man pulls out a guitar, and soon the entire village has turned into a morna band, with fiddle, bass guitar, and plastic tubes for percussion. The music comes from the heart, a little drunken, and totally satisfying. Serenaded by candlelight, warmed by wine, we linger until the sky has turned pitch-black. I suddenly remember that we have a long, dangerous drive ahead of us. As we say our good-byes, I ask Marian if we should leave some money for the food and the music. "You can't do that!" she says, horrified. "They live for this. Haven't you heard of sodade?"

BACK TO SAL. OUR FLIGHT TO NEW YORK leaves at four the next morning, so we decide to check into the Morabeza, a seaside resort with airy rooms looking over a grove of shade trees. It's easily the equal of any hotel on St. Bart's or Martinique--any place, that is, catering to well-heeled French tourists. Flocks of handsome wind surfers stand on the giant sandy beach ogling the waves. By the pool, a bevy of half-dressed women are smoking and reading fashion magazines. The French couple who run the resort tell us that Cesaria used to play here before she was famous.

At dinner, under a huge baobab tree decked out in little white lights, a morna band plays jazzy versions of Cesaria's repertoire, and we dive into a delicious buffet of cachupa, barbecued steaks, and seafood. It's hard to believe such luxury exists on this barren island. When our taxi arrives at 2 a.m. to take us across the desert to the airport, we're both reluctant to leave the revelry.

The same mornas are tinkling out of the airport P.A. The 747 from Johannesburg touches down, and 100 bleary-eyed passengers file into the airport for the hour-long stopover. Cigarette smoke fills the air. A wan South African traveler comes over, thinking he recognizes us from New York. He asks how we enjoyed our visit to Johannesburg. "Actually, we've spent the last week in Cape Verde," we tell him. He laughs. "You're kidding," he says. "I thought it was just desert."

Windswept, arid, and sunny, Cape Verde is fairly temperate year-round. To see the islands at their greenest, go in October or November. November to June is the windy season. Carnival takes place in February, when Mindelo explodes with celebrations. Visas, required for American visitors, are available through the Embassy of Cape Verde (202/965-6820) or its consulate in Boston (617/353-0014). All international flights land on Sal. Inter-island flights are handled by Transportes Aerolineas Cabo Verde (TACV); for schedules, call the airline's office in Quincy, Massachusetts (617/472-2227).

Hotel Porto Grande Praça Amilcar Cabral, Mindelo; 238/323-190, fax 238/323-193; doubles from $76. A lovely three-story hotel with a sun-drenched pool. All rooms have new baths, fridges, and terraces.
Foya Branca Resort Hotel São Pedro; 238/316-373, fax 238/316-370; doubles from $106. All by itself on a windy white-sand beach, about an hour from Mindelo. Beautiful villas, a pool, and tennis courts. The ultimate in quiet isolation.
Hotel Trópico Prainha, Praia; 238/614-200, fax 238/615-225; doubles from $70. Located near the beach, with airy rooms, giant bathrooms, and a saltwater pool that has a view of the ocean.
Hotel Tarrafal Tarrafal; 238/661-785, fax 238/661-787; doubles $45. New and rather antiseptic, with large rooms overlooking the beach.
Baia Verde Hotel Tarrafal; 238/661-128, fax 238/661-414; doubles from $36. Bungalows and cottages under towering coconut palms. A favorite of European tourists.
Morabeza Hotel Santa Maria; 238/421-020, fax 238/421-005; doubles from $93. Cape Verde's finest resort, with two restaurants, a disco, and a laid-back French atmosphere.

Restaurante Sodade 38 Rua Franz Fanor, Mindelo; 238/313-556; dinner for two $25. Tasty garoupa (snapper), lobster, chicken, rice, and salads.
Chez Loutcha Rua do Côco, Mindelo; 238/311-636; dinner for two $25. Considered by many to offer the best Cape Verdean food on the islands.
Garden Grill Praia; 238/612-050; dinner for two $30. Delicious barbecue served in a pretty garden. Live morna and funaná most nights.
O Poeta Anchada Santo António, Praia; 238/613-800; dinner for two $40. Great Cape Verdean food in a handsome room, perched over the Prainha bay.
Café Pastelaria Lee Rue Andrade Corvo, Praia; 238/612-259; lunch for two $10. Tiny, crowded pastry shop dishing out the best cachupa in Cape Verde.

Los Violão Praia. Dark and atmospheric, with live jazz bands.
Nos Mornas Hotel Americana, Anchada Santo António, Praia; 238/616-250. A cheesy, mirrored room where many top morna bands appear, including Simentera and Ildo Lobo.
Zéro Horas Anchada Grande, Praia; 238/912-203. The most popular nightclub in town. Comes alive after 1 a.m.

Cesaria Evora's CD's are available at most large record shops in the United States, and include Cesaria Evora, Cabo Verde, Mar Azul, and Miss Perfumado, all on Nonesuch, and Café Atlantico, on BMG/RCA Victor. For a good introduction to morna, seek out the anthology The Soul of Cape Verde (Tinder Production). Two other recordings worth looking for are Ildo Lobo's Nos Morna (Lus Africa) and Simentera's Raiz (Melodie).

When in Cape Verde, visit the record store Tropical Dance, which has branches in Mindelo (238/323-578) and Praia (238/616-009). Both shops can provide information on upcoming gigs.

Explore More

More from T+L