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This Diva Kicks Off Her Shoes to Sing Cape Verde's Blues

October 07, 1995|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

How does a barefoot grandmother from a small island country off the coast of Senegal become an international singing star? Even Cesaria Evora, the Cape Verdean artist known as "the barefoot diva," doesn't have an answer.

Until a few years ago, Evora was known only in the bars and taverns of Cape Verde. In 1988, French producer Jose da Silva heard about her near-legendary status in her homeland and brought her to Paris to record her first album, "La Diva aux Pieds Nus." Four years later, with the release of her fourth album, "Miss Perfumado," she became a major European star.

As always, she will perform tonight and Sunday at her three sold-out LunaPark shows with closed eyes and bare feet. Asked about the presentation, she laughs softly.

"It's not such a unique thing in Cape Verde," she explains in Cape Verdean through an interpreter. "People go barefoot all the time."

Evora's voice, a dark-toned instrument that blends a touch of hoarseness with a sweet-sounding upper register, is instantly recognizable, one of the unique timbres in popular music.

Her interpretations are straightforward and direct, unornamented by vocal gymnastics. Like Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf, she manages to produce tremendous emotional impact--even upon listeners who do not understand her language--by accenting a word or momentarily suspending a phrase. As comfortable with lightly rhythmic tunes as she is with slower, more passionate numbers, she is usually backed by several guitars (including the four-stringed cavaquinho , a mandolin-like instrument), accordion and violin.

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Evora's music is founded upon the morna , a soulful song form that might be described as the blues of Cape Verde. The tunes--most of which are sung in Creole-Portuguese, a language that includes French and African dialects--are filled with images of longing, nostalgia and sadness.

The small, isolated country of 10 islands in the Atlantic, which gained its independence in 1975, has had a long, bitter history dating back to its 16th-Century foundation as a base for slave trade. Lyrics of the morna often deal with this history, as well as the melancholy aspects of emigration; almost two-thirds of the million Cape Verdeans in the world live abroad.

"They go everywhere," says Evora, 54. "Everyone in Cape Verde has at least one family member living in some other part of the world."

Morna appears to have obvious associations to the passionate Portuguese songs known as fado , and its label has been described as a variation of the English word mourn . But Evora disputes both assertions.

"I know some people say it comes from England, but I'm not sure about that," she explains. "And I don't believe it has any connection to fado . Even during colonial times the Portuguese had their fado and Cape Verde had morna . My parents and grandparents sang it. And morna has always expressed the same feelings about being poor, about immigration, about love, even about the terrible droughts and lack of rain that we have had for so many years.

"To me," she continues, " morna is more like blues, because it is a way to express life's suffering in music."

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In fact, Evora notes that her favorite singers when she was growing up were Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson and fado great Amalia Rodriguez.

Although she visits Paris regularly and maintains a continuing tour schedule, Evora still resides in the dry, rocky islands of Cape Verde (an especially ironic appellation, given the droughts that reach back to the 18th Century).

"Basically," she says, "I live in the same, simple way that I lived before. I have no reason or inclination to become another Cape Verdean emigrant. My family, my mother, my kids and my home are here."

Although she has a daughter, a son and two grandchildren, Evora--despite reports to the contrary--has never been married.

"I haven't had a lot of luck with men," she says, "but I like to be in their company." Then she adds, with a soft chuckle, "Although I don't necessarily want to have them under my roof."

Is she surprised that such a high degree of recognition has come at this point in her life?

"No," says Evora, who resists any suggestion that her often mentioned fondness for whiskey has had any negative effect upon her voice.

"I'm sorry that it took so long," she says, "but I'm glad it finally happened. There were times, in all the years when I sang in bars and in front of foreigners, that I sometimes had an idea that I might someday be successful outside my country. The thought never stayed with me for very long, but here I am."

* Cesaria Evora performs tonight at 8 and 11 and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at LunaPark, 665 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood. Sold out. (310) 652-0611.

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