World-renowned singer Cesária Évora died from cardiorespiratory insufficiency and hypertension today at the Baptista de Sousa Hospital in Mindelo, on the Cape Verde island of São Vicente. She was 70.
The heavy-smoking, heavy-drinking Évora had suffered from numerous health issues in recent years, including a series of strokes in 2008 and undergoing open-heart surgery in May 2010. Last September, she had to cancel several planned concerts after announcing that she was retiring due to ill health.
A former seamstress who grew up in poverty, Évora (born Aug. 27, 1941, in São Vicente) began her career singing “morna” [Portuguese for “lukewarm”] songs in São Vicente’s local bars. “Morna” music, which sounds like a mixture of Portugal’s soulful fado and Brazil’s lively tropical jazz, is the national rhythm of the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde, a series of volcanic islands off the northwestern coast of Africa.
Évora’s international career was launched following the success of the 1988 French-produced album “La Diva aux Pieds Nus” (“The Barefoot Diva”), in reference to her habit of taking off her shoes before each performance. In 1992, the Paris daily Le Monde said about her: “Cesária Évora, a lively fifty-year-old, sings morna with mischievous devotion … She belongs to the aristocracy of bar singers,” one with “a voice to melt the soul.”
In the next two decades, she went on to record songs in studios in Paris and Rio de Janeiro, and to perform in countries as diverse as Romania, Mexico, and South Africa. Along the way, she won two Victoire de la Musique Awards (“Café Atlantico” in 2000, “Voz d’Amor” [“Voice of Love”] in 2004) in France and a Grammy (also “Voz d’Amor”) in the United States.
For the big screen, Évora composed music for Laurence Ferreira Barbosa’s French-made dramatic comedy Les gens normaux n’ont rien d’exceptionnel / Normal People Are Nothing Exceptional (1993), which starred Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Melvil Poupaud; Pol Cruchten’s Cape Verde-Portugal-Luxembourg immigration drama Black Dju (1997), in which Évora also had a supporting role as the mother of the film’s heroine; and Jilani Saadi’s Tunisian drama Tender Is the Wolf (2006). Additionally, she had a minor role in Francisco Manso’s Cape Verde-set love story O Testamento do Senhor Napumoceno / Napucemo’s Will (1997).
While performing in Los Angeles a few years ago, Évora, ever the barefoot diva, took her shoes off onstage. She then looked at the prominent NO SMOKING sign, casually picked up a cigarette, deliberately lit it, and then started to sing. Her gesture was greeted by enthusiastic applause.