For a singer in her sixties to be on tour for eight months every year is remarkable. It's even more impressive considering renowned Cape Verdean vocalist Cesaria Evora didn't begin her ascent into international acclaim until the 1991 release of her album Mar Azul when she was 50. So, today, at an age when most people are beginning to consider retirement, Evora continues to sing her enrapturing repertoire of mornas (slow-paced, blues-steeped songs with mournful and often fatalistic lyrics) and coladeiras (spirited up-tempo tunes that share a kinship with Brazilian samba). The Barefoot Diva, so nicknamed because she performs her shows sans shoes, also frequents the studio to document new songs.
Evora's latest recording, Voz D'Amor (Portuguese for Voice of Love) on Bluebird, is her first studio album in two years and her tenth overall (her last CD was the 2002 compilation The Very Best of Cesaria Evora and earlier this year Bluebird released the DVD Cesaria Evora Live in Paris). The captivating new 14-song collection features Evora singing classic songs of her island nation as well as new compositions written exclusively for her voice - of the world's most recognizable and transfixing. While earlier in her career she was described as "Billie Holiday's long-lost twin sister, Edith Piaf on a cloudy day, Susana Baca on a steady diet of cognac and cigarettes," today she has become such a signature artist in her own right that it takes only a couple of notes of her honey-toned and soft-burred vocals to identify her.
While in her teens and early twenties, Evora had a career in Cape Verdean clubs and on radio shows. However, she went on hiatus from singing professionally to raise a family. She didn't return to the stage until 1985. In 1988 she was invited to Paris by a French record label owner with Cape Verdean bloodlines to record La Diva Aux Pieds Nus (The Barefoot Diva) that found favor in the expatriate Cape Verdean community in France. It wasn't long before she found equal appreciation in the rest of Europe, though her break in the U.S. didn't come until 1995 with the release of her self-titled album which became a hit and was nominated for a Grammy. At that time, her earlier albums, previously unavailable Stateside, were reissued in the U.S. and heightened her popularity leading to widespread tour dates.
Relaxing on one of her rare days off (she performs, on average, 16-17 shows per month), Evora says that even though Voz D'Amor is her first new release in a couple of years, she has been no stranger to the studio. "Whenever I have time off during my tours, I like going into the studio to record one or two songs to prepare for my next album. Because there always seems to be so little time, over the years I have learned this is the best way for me to do a recording."
The source material for Evora's songs range from contemporary composers that she favors to the tunes of her Cape Verdean youth. "I listen and listen to songs, then I discuss them with my producers." Is she interested in composing her own tunes? Cesaria laughs, "No, my talent is to sing." She laughs again and adds, "One time I did write lyrics for a song without even knowing it. I was very angry with a friend who had borrowed my car and not returned it right away. When she returned I expressed my anger to her. Another friend was writing down what I said, which then became the lyrics to a new song."
Recorded in Paris, Voz D'Amor opens with the sumptuous morna "Isolada" ("Isolated"), a song written by her uncle, Cape Verdean poet B. Leza. It tells the story of a young girl longing to be free and features guitar and mandolin instrumental support. "That's a very old morna," says Evora. "I've been singing this for a long time. Of course, this has been recorded by other people. I bring the same feeling to it as they do."
The second track, the more upbeat "Velocidade" ("Velocity"), is highlighted by a vocal choir and a lyrical clarinet line. It was written by composer Luis Morais, the father of modern Cape Verdean music who died in September 2002. "Luis gave me this song and asked me to sing it," Evora recalls. "It was very short, so I asked him to make the lyrics a little longer. He did. I wanted to sing this song to honor him and his music. It's a shame he died because he was a clarinetist. It would have been perfect if he could have recorded this with me."
Evora superbly mixes the lively with the sad on Voz Dí?or. There's the celebrative "Monte Cara" (a new tune written by Luis Lima and Toy Vieira) about the mountain on her island of S?o Vicente, the spirited story song "Milca Ti Lidia" and the hip-swinging "Saia Travada" ("Wraparound Skirt") about "fake lovers -full of manners -with only fancies in their head." The saxophone-announced romp "Pomba" ("The Dove") features Evora being joined by a vocal choir on the chorus. "This is an old song," she says. "It's about women who go around showing off their new clothes. They are as beautiful as doves."
The slow-tempo numbers include the sensuous "Beijo Roubado" ("Stolen Kiss"), a Brazilian song from the fifties about "the guilty pleasure of the stolen kiss" made famous by Brazilian vocalist Angela Maria; the passionate but regretful "Djarmai Di Meu" ("My Island Maid"), a new song sent to Evora by Adalberto Silva; and the lament "Mar de Canal," a traditional song about the beauty and the treachery of the sea channel between Sao Vicente and Santo Anton. Manuel de Novas, a former long-distance sea captain and old friend of Cesaria, contributes two new ballad-like songs to Voz D'Amor: "Nha Corao Tchora" ("My Heart Wept") and "Ramboia" ("The Party"). Both numbers express the islandí³ melancholy feeling that is often transformed into the pursuit of pleasure. Of the latter, Evora says, "This is about a party where a couple meet for the first time, then develop a romance."
There are three new songs on the CD written by one of Evora's favorite composers, Teofilo Chantre. The first is "Amdjer De Nos Terra" ("A Woman of Our Land") with its gently percussive, wailing saxophone and folky violins. "This song is about the struggles and suffering of Cape Verdean women," Evora says. "All the women in Cape Verde will understand this and appreciate what I'm singing. Women from other places around the world will also relate to this." Chantre transformed the American tune "Greenfields" into the lament-turned-to-hope "Jardim Prometido" ("Promised Garden"), about Cape Verde once again becoming a green land of beautiful gardens. Chantre also contributes the title tune of the album, a moving number that features artists from Cuba, Madagascar and Brazil along with Cesaria's stage band led by pianist Fernando (Nando) Andrade.
Evora delivers "Voz D'Amor" with deep passion. She sings about "a deep-rooted ache of the heart," yet also yearns for redemption: "But a song will be born again to give us a reason to believe." It is this compelling expression of both deep pain and buoyant faith that makes her one of the world's most treasured artists. As with her earlier albums, on Voz D'Amor Cesaria Evora plumbs the depths of her heart and sings into its core, capturing a universal sentiment that only a select few vocalists are capable of expressing.