The Barefoot Contessa

The melancholy mornas of Cape Verde's Cesaria Evora

Cape Verde is composed of 10 small islands, nestled in the Atlantic 350 miles off the coast of Senegal. When Cesaria Evora was a girl, her isle, S‹o Vicente, was green and lush, like a perfect tropical paradise. Today, after decades of drought, it's fast becoming a desert. Visions of happier days haunt Evora, imbuing her singing voice with an aching melancholy perfectly suited to her style, a traditional ballad form called morna. Today, Verdeans grow sugar cane, make rum, and support a small fishing industry, but it's Evora's international success as a singer of morna that's put Cape Verde on the map.

In Musica Tradicional Cabo Verdeanal: A Morna, Vasco Martins writes that both fado (Portugal's African ballad style) and morna have common roots in lundun, an Angolan music slaves brought to Portugal 150 years ago. When the Africans played their doleful tunes after sundown, the Portuguese said they were fadiado ("tired"). As the music was taken up by whites, fadiado was shortened to fado, but the minor-key melodies and rhythmic patterns of lundun remained within the new style.

Evora's brand of morna hews closely to the music's acoustic roots; for performances, she adopts the traditional dress and bare feet of Cape Verdean women. In a recent phone interview with Evora and Jose da Silva, her producer, temporary translator, and head of Lusafrica, her European record label, Evora says morna could be considered Verdean "blues." It's not an inaccurate description considering the African rhythmic component that drives both musics, and the lyrics full of hard times, grief, and longing for a distant homeland and the happier days of youth. On her new self-titled release for Atlantic's Nonesuch label, Evora relays another stunning set of wistfully sorrowful vocals subtly magnified by the understated acoustic settings of her backing band.

As a child, Evora started singing morna and coledera, a kind of "Verdean calypso," but had fallen in love with the more traditional style of morna by the time she was a teen-ager. When Evora was growing up, the most influential composers of the genre were her Uncle Francisco Xavier de Cruz, better known under his punny nom de musique of B. Leza (Portuguese for "beauty"), who added a Brazilian influence, and Eugenio Tavares, who integrated blues and jazz shadings. Evora, however, says she wants "to conserve the pure morna and leave out the jazz and blues stuff."

"Morna had been abandoned by young people," da Silva explains, "because it wasn't modern or electric. They wanted coledera and funana [a dance music with fractured rhythms that sounds a bit like Haitian compas]. Evora's first hit in Cape Verde was "Bia Lulucha," a track from La Diva Aux Pieds Nus made with Verdean discos in mind."

"In Cape Verde," da Silva adds, "morna was 'everyday music,' the stuff you heard in bars and restaurants. [To young people,] it wasn't new or exciting, so the early albums were half acoustic and half electric."

In Europe, though, the dance tracks were ignored, while Evora's husky, mournful vocals and the rippling acoustic textures of morna drew rave reviews and filled concert halls.

"With Cesaria's success," da Silva says, "everybody wants to do morna. Young musicians have gone back to their roots, and are including morna into their own music in modern ways."

Evora's professional career began in her teen-age years, thanks to a guitar-playing boyfriend. "In the beginning we didn't get paid," Evora says, "but after I sang on the national radio, I was invited to sing for visiting diplomats, sailors who came ashore from visiting warships, and bars and small restaurants in the countryside. You didn't make much money from the people who owned the bars, but if the customers liked you, they'd give you tips."

After Cape Verde became independent of Portugal in 1975, many of the wealthy patrons fled the new socialist government, and Evora fell on hard times.

"In 1985," da Silva recalls, "an association of women asked her to come to Lisbon and record with other women singers." While she was in Europe, Evora did a few concerts and was "discovered" by Ramiro Mendes, a Verdean producer who travels between Paris and his home in Massachusetts, where he runs MB Records, a label dedicated to educating North Americans about Verdean music and artists. Mendes brought Evora to da Silva's Lusafrica label and produced several of her early discs, including Mare Azul, which went gold in France and made Evora an international world-music diva.

"Cesaria has made Verdeans proud of their own traditions," da Silva says. "The attention Cesaria has brought to Cape Verde has encouraged our younger musicians to try for overseas success, while staying true to their roots. It's a wonderful thing."

Cesaria Evora performs two shows Fri, Oct. 6, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750.

 
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