There was a time in the early 2000s when the soft yet strong, round sounds of Cesária Évora’s voice could be heard on radios, in shops, on the streets, and almost anywhere in any country. Her death in 2011 did not silence her voice, though it has taken over ten years for a definitive film about her to come out. In 2022, Portuguese director Ana Sofia Fonseca released her evocative and inspiring documentary, Césaria Évora. The film about the Cape Verdean singer had its northern Italian premier at the SEEYOUSOUND International Music Film Festival in Turin at the end of February.
Nearly a year after its worldwide debut at the 2022 SXSW festival, seeing this music documentary at the 9th edition of what is fast becoming the Italian NXNW version was fitting. With a rich program including various competitive sections for features, documentaries, video clips, live music, and DJ sets, Fonseca’s Cesária Évora was screened on the opening night of the non-competitive section Rising Sound – Music is the Weapon, curated since its inception by Juanita Apraez Murillo.
Cesária Évora is beautifully constructed from videos made by Évora’s manager, close friends, and band members, along with archival footage and photographs. Contemporary interviews with people who knew Cesária are heard over a collage of moving and still images. In this way, a stirring story is woven about the Grammy-winning “barefoot diva” whose voice was heard and loved worldwide.
Évora is credited with putting Cape Verde, an archipelago of ten volcanic islands, on the cultural map. Her gentle, lulling timbre recounts some of the darkest moments of a place that has suffered ongoing pillaging of its people who have been emigrating in search of economic opportunities. Though she gained popularity when she was over 50 and had been rejected numerous times by record companies, Évora and her manager persevered. Fonseca recognizea the importance of telling Évora’s story to new generations and keeping her music vivid among her fans.
When asked what drew her to tell this story, Fonseca relates that she had been a reporter for over 20 years. She says emphatically, “I am passionate about telling stories, amazing women’s stories. What is incredible about Cesária’s story is that to understand her voice, you need to know her life because her voice is a portrait of her life. It’s so strong, so deep that you need to understand why she has that voice.”
The director’s eyes light up when she talks about the singer and how she has listened to Évora’s music all her life growing up in Portugal. She and her Cape Verdean husband now have a house “two steps from Cesária’s” on the island of São Vicente. Over the years, she has grown close to Cesária’s granddaughter, Janaye, who features prominently in the film along with José da Silva, her manager and friend. Telling Évora’s story has become “a kind of mission. I would love for Césaria’s voice, the music from Cape Verde, and her story to travel around the world and through time. I would love for young people to understand the importance of her story and music and get inspired.”
Évora sang from an early age in local bars and nightclubs, but in the early ’70s, she “locked herself in her home for 11 years,” explains her granddaughter in the film. “She had no contact with anyone, was completely isolated, her voice was silent. Those 11 years were a long, strange case of depression.” When Évora finally emerged from being “trapped in her head”, she discovered a Cape Verde that was freed from colonialism and “experiencing the euphoria of freedom”, as the journalist Jorge Araújo recounts. Upon reemerging from her home, she slowly began singing at small venues again.
Da Silva details how he was in Lisbon on vacation when he discovered her singing in a restaurant there. “The day I met Cesária was the luckiest day of my life.” He describes the sensation of hearing her singing, “I felt something I’d never felt before. I was totally moved by her voice.” Da Silva believed so fully in that voice that he took out a bank loan and had her stay in his kids’ bedroom. Many warned him that she liked to drink, but he “found out that she drank to get over shyness. She needed to drink to get on stage.”
Da Silva had an elaborate strategy that he would use to stretch out the time before Évora would start drinking before she performed. He also discusses that “the hardest thing at the beginning (starting around 1989) was making Cesária realize that she was going to perform for an audience that came to see her only.” Coming from a nightclub background, she was used to sharing the evening with other performers and having short shows. It was established that she would take a break during the set to sit down at a table to smoke and have a drink. However, she eventually “quit drinking because she couldn’t keep it up with the tours and the work schedule. It was impossible.”
Having created Lusafrica Productions, an independent record label based in Paris in 1988, da Silva launched Évora’s career. The label’s first release was La Diva aux pieds nus in 1988, followed by Mar Azul in 1991, and then Miss Profumado in 1992, which contains the hit “Sodade”, her interpretation of a 1950s Cape Verdean tune. As with many of her songs, “Sodade” utilizes morna, a kind of blues native to Cape Verde, sung in local Creole to a slow tempo reflecting a melancholy state of mind. “Sodade”, in particular, talks about the nostalgia experienced by Cape Verdean workers who were contracted to work on the Central African island of São Tomé. Emigrating globally for work began in the 1800s and led to a diaspora that continues today.
Césaria Évora‘s credits acknowledge that morna was classified as an “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO in 2019. When asked about the significance of this classification, Fonseca fervently recounts, “Cesária took morna from Cape Verde to the world. If morna is now an intangible cultural heritage, it is mostly thanks to Cesária. She put Cape Verde on the map and morna out into the world.”
The documentary is gracefully stitched together, weaving the tale of Évora’s rise to fame through the tales and images of those close to her. Yet Fonseca makes it clear that her search for material was not simple. While many people were willing to collaborate, she explains that most didn’t own recording equipment, given how poor the country is. “I worked on the film for a whole year without finding one image,” she says. Finally, after months of searching, a band member and manager da Silva presented Fonesca with “dirty plastic bags filled with video tapes” that had been stored and forgotten in basements. It was good fortune that they were found because these tapes show Cesária in relaxed scenes such as rehearsing casually, shopping barefoot at the outdoor market, and cooking effusively for the many friends and family members entertained in her home.
Many of these ‘home movie’ style videos illustrate the warmth and beauty of the Cape Verdean legend who, once she started to make money through her albums and touring, bought herself a house where she could welcome others. Janaye describes her grandmother’s dream was “to have a house. She had always lived in other people’s homes, and she had a house that collapsed, so she wanted to have a roof of her own over her family.” As her childhood friend, Manuela Fonseca recalls, “Success gave her the means to do what she wanted, like feeding everyone.”
There are lively, joyous scenes where rooms overflow with people laughing, cooking, eating, singing, and talking together. Cesária’s butler and friend Piroc adds, “The room was full of people, and so was the kitchen. There were people everywhere…. She and I were like brother and sister, more like mother and son.”
Fonseca worked closely with her film editor Cláudia Rita Oliveira on this documentary, even though they had never collaborated before. “After meeting her, I felt like she was the right person. We had the same opinion about the story and how to construct it. It was very hard to edit the film and a challenge for both of us, but it was great working with Claudia.” Noting in our interview that Oliveira was listed second in the credits, which is uncommon for a film editor, Fonseca answered with an appreciative, “Oh yes! She was wonderful.”
Regarding her use of off-camera voices while showing footage or photos, Fonesca states, “From the beginning, I had the idea of making Cesária Évora without talking heads. I think each person who speaks is in the film because he or she is important and has something to reveal about Cesária or give context. Sometimes they are speaking, you hear their voice, and you have them in the images or the archival images. But I don’t feel the need to see them now, and I don’t want to take attention away from Cesária. I want the audience to be with Cesária, go deep into her world, go to her house, and go with her on her tours. I want the viewers to have the sensation that they are with Cesária. I don’t want distractions.
“On the other hand, she was a star worldwide because of her voice. I wanted Césaria Évora to be a voice film, so you always hear a voice.” The effect is very powerful in that the story is well-paced, with many revelations about the global star from very personal points of view. Évora is revealed to us as the layers of her life and difficulties are peeled away, unveiling the heart and soul of the person who was, and still is, loved and revered, up close and from afar.
Throughout Césaria Évora, there is historical context about Cape Verde’s past as a Portuguese colony until its official liberation in 1975, along with its longstanding diaspora and deep-seated music culture. Friends and journalists comment on Cesária’s and the archipelago’s experiences and the changes that have occurred. The French journalist Bouzaine Daoudi refers to the growing interest in world music, which “began in the 1970s with the discovery of African music. In the 1980s, there was an explosion, in the 1990s, world music was very popular and sold well. There was an openness to the world. Today it’s the opposite. We’ve turned our back on the other.” Daoudi says this regarding Évora’s timing and popularity but also as a reflection on a trend that is taking place currently.
Fonseca echoes the journalist’s opinion, “….(N)ow we are much more closed to differences and others. We don’t have as much curiosity about ‘others’ these days, which is why we see the right wing’s growth everywhere, which is a big problem. We must collectively begin to have a conscience and curiosity about everyone and understand diversity’s importance.” Jose de Silva explains Cesária’s success in entering the mainstream, “You could find Cesária’s albums in world music, jazz, classical and French music. We had the chance to enter a world where no African artist had been before.”
Indeed, Cesária broke barriers worldwide, using traditional music and lyrics from her home country to which she was very connected and influenced generations of singers and musicians. Furthermore, without knowing terms like empowerment or acknowledging feminism, Évora was an example for many women. As her assistant and interpreter Jaqueline Sena says, “Cesária valued her freedom above everything else. She came from a male-dominated society but was the head of her family. She projected and defended the freedom of all women.” Thanks to Fonseca’s portrait of Évora, people are invited to have insight into the tenacious but fragile person behind the sorrowful and sultry voice and to understand better why her voice had that particular sound and gained such notoriety.