Cesária Évora’s story is reasonably familiar to world music fans by now. Hailing from the port city of Mindelo, on the Cape Verdean island of São Vicente, Évora began performing the islands’ distinctive musical styles, most notably the mournful morna and more upbeat coladeira, at a young age. Attaining wider recognition in her forties, she went on to have a successful career on the international world music circuit, becoming, for many, the voice of Cabo Verde and of the morna.
The familiarity of Évora’s work, which has received international dissemination since the mid-1980s via a number of releases on the Lusafrica label, has meant that new material is sometimes received as though it were largely unnecessary, as if the world music audience had got the point of morna and didn’t really need any more of this particular model. What this really highlights is an unfortunate tendency where world music releases are asked to fulfill different criteria than more mainstream rock and pop fare. True, the way in which difference and novelty are initially praised and then later criticized when they coalesce into perceived repetition is something that occurs regularly in rock and pop reception. But world music releases arguably have to mark their difference more explicitly given that they exist in less familiar musical styles and languages. A slight change in musical style or particular skill with lyrics might rescue Anglo-American music from criticisms of repetition; similar moves in unfamiliar languages are more likely to go unnoticed.
Perhaps the comparison to rock and pop is less useful than to jazz singing. Could anyone, for instance, seriously claim that the recorded output of Billie Holiday represents a repetitive body of work? Évora’s voice is most usefully compared to Holiday’s, not so much in terms of timbral similarity (there is something to this, but perhaps not enough) as in the way the singers individualize existing musical templates to often hypnotic effect. But also, as central as voices are to these two artists’ work, we should take into account the variance over time of arrangements, favored composers, and instrumental textures.
All of this is another way of saying that the continued beauty and relevance of Cesaria Cesária Évora’s work lies as much in the subtle details as in those other qualities we’ve come to know so well. Yes, the pace is sensuously languorous, the rhythms unmistakable, the voice as smoky as ever — smokier even. But there are many other things to listen out for: the work of the Egyptian strings and flute on “Sentimento” (a result of the involvement in this project of Egyptian composer and arranger Fathy Salama, the man behind the arrangements of Youssou N’Dour’s Egypt album); the Latin jazz piano on “Resposta Menininhas de Monte Sossego”; the gorgeous interaction of guitar, percussion, and voice on “Verde Cabo di Nhas Odjos”, which signals its accomplishment via a hard-earned casualness.
Even where the album is familiar, it’s an irresistible familiarity. It’s possible to imagine “Fatalidade” appearing on a number of earlier Évora albums, but, once heard, it’s impossible to shift this languorous gem from the memory. Now that we have this song, we couldn’t not have it, couldn’t do without the soft lilt of its horns, its endlessly inviting backing vocals, and its lyrical obsession with fatality, melancholy, and the Cape Verdean yearning known as sodade. “Tchôm Frio” also rehearses textures with which we can be gladly familiar: stabs of brass, coladeira rhythms, assured singing. The violin which emerges midway through “Noiva de Ceu”, meanwhile, is both beautifully understated and immensely reassuring.
To return to the smokiness of that voice, and to the comparison with Billie Holiday. What is striking about the work of both singers is their relationship to what we might call a ‘late voice’. This lateness could refer to a number of issues. Firstly, there is chronology, understood as the stage of an artist’s career. Billie Holiday’s late work had a distinct sound to it, a voice drenched in experience and ravaged with abuse that made her sound far older than her forty years. Évora, who only attained international acclaim in her forties, has long been known as an elder, as someone who sings from a lifetime’s experience. But lateness in the voice can also be something attained early, via songwriting or a particular vocal act; numerous vernacular musics produce exponents who, as young adults, sound as though they already have a lifetime behind them (the Dylan of “Bob Dylan’s Dream” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, the Sandy Denny of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, the Hank Williams of nearly everything Hank Williams wrote and sang). This was a quality that defined Billie Holiday’s vocal work and gave her early songs a melancholic lateness; so too with Cesária Évora, some of whose early recordings can now be heard on the Radio Mindelo album from 2008. Whether or not that voice was up to the emotional and experiential demands the material demanded is a question that has divided critics, but the intention was certainly there.
Another sense of lateness is that associated with retrospection and afterlife, identified with lifetime achievement and posthumous appreciation. Thankfully, Évora fits the former rather than the latter, though it would not be inaccurate to say that Cape Verdean music–and morna especially–is now, and for the foreseeable future, in a “post-Évora” state; it is difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate the considerable talents of younger performers without some form of reference to the “barefoot diva”. Sadly, posthumous lateness has another place here, following the passing, in September 2009, of poet Manuel de Novas, who wrote six of the songs on Nha Sentimento. The album stands as a fine testament to Novas’s work, and to the continued relevance of Cesária Évora.