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by Rachel Devitt

March 6, 2013

Cesaria Evora's 'Cafe Atlantico': Source Material

by Rachel Devitt  |  March 6, 2013

It's been just over a year since the music world lost one of its greatest treasures: Cape Verde's Cesaria Evora, aka the Barefoot Diva. One of world music's biggest stars, the husky-voiced, charismatic singer was also one of the greatest ambassadors for Cape Verdean morna music, a folk style born of African and Portuguese influences. Morna speaks to the struggle and heartache of life in the Cape Verde islands, an archipelago 350 miles off the west coast of Africa where Portuguese colonization and the slave trade weighed heavily on cultural life. Morna's overarching aesthetic is called saudade, or longing, a quality Evora embodied not only in her deep, tear-streaked voice but in her everyday life.

The diva began singing in her teenage years, but found no success on the islands and spent much of her young adulthood drowning her sorrows in alcohol. Producer Jose Da Silva "rediscovered" Evora when she was in her late 40s, inviting her to Paris to record La Diva aux Pieds Nus (named for her habit of performing onstage barefoot). The 1988 album was a critical darling; along with 1992's Miss Perfumado, it made Evora and morna topics of international conversation.

Cafe Atlantico, released in 1999, is sort of an odd choice for a feature on morna's grande diva. The album finds Evora -- at the height of her career by this point -- dipping her bare toes into a host of other global musics, from Cuban bolero to Brazilian samba. But I chose it for several reasons. First, it showcases a dexterous artist stretching her wings in fascinating directions. Moreover, Evora's diversification of morna speaks to the genre's own hybrid, multicultural, globally reaching roots, which encompass everything from Portuguese fado to British sea shanties.

At the same time, the album is named for Evora's home (where she hosted many musical gatherings) and pays tribute to her hometown, Mindelo. It's a pitch-perfect portrait of morna's driving forces: a strong sense of cultural identity that's both richly diverse and historically complex, and a powerful feeling of nostalgia for what was or might have been coupled with longing for more. Cafe Atlantico also happens to be the album that introduced this fan to Cesaria Evora -- the album that made me fall in love with both her and this yearning, aching music. And that ability to personally, powerfully connect with listeners is one of morna's and Evora's most significant traits.

Our Source Material guide to the roots and routes of Cafe Atlantico is, thus, overflowing with a wide-ranging, heart-yanking collection of music. We begin with some of the younger morna artists the barefoot diva inspired (like Lura and Mayra Andrade) before moving on to some of her forebears and contemporaries in African music: Saozinha, a fellow Cape Verdean artist singing the works of early influential morna poet Eugenio Tavares; the equally multicultural and passionate music of Angolan artist (and Cesaria collaborator) Bonga; and the grand South African diva Miriam Makeba. Then we explore the Portuguese side of Evora's and morna's musical family, from great-aunt fado to Brazilian Tropicália, before moving into some of the other sounds Evora explores here (Latin nueva cancion, Caribbean dance music, even jazz). Finally, we turn to a few more of the artists who carry on Evora's legacy, from genre-jumping morna singers Sara Tavares and Tcheka to modern fado singer Mariza. Enjoy.

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