'Barefoot Diva' Of Cape Verde Islands Dies At 70

Singer Cesaria Evora was known for winning over international audiences with the slow, somber ballads about love and sorrow from her native Cape Verde islands. She always performed barefoot as a sign of solidarity with the impoverished women of her island. Guest host Allison Keyes speaks with NPR's Felix Contreras about the life and legacy of Evora.

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ALLISON KEYES, HOST:

The music world lost one of its greatest voices this past weekend with the passing of Cesaria Evora, also known as the Barefoot Diva. She was from a small island off the coast of West Africa, and was the queen of a genre little-known in the U.S. - that is, until we heard her records.

NPR's Felix Contreras is here to tell us a little more about Cesaria Evora. He's the host of NPR's online show about Latin alternative music, ALT.LATINO.

Welcome, Felix.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Thank you very much.

KEYES: First, tell us a little bit more about her, the place she came from and the music that she became so famous for.

CONTRERAS: Well, as you mentioned, she was known as the Barefoot Diva, and that's because she performed without shoes. And she said it was in tribute to the poor women and children of her island. Now, Cape Verde is actually a group of islands just off the coast of Senegal in West Africa. It's a former Portuguese colony. It's isolated, but influenced by Africa and Portugal in music, language and culture.

There aren't many forms to their music, and Cesaria Evora specialized in a form called morna, which became the unofficial national song style.

KEYES: Let's take a listen to a little bit of her music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CESARIA EVORA: (Singing in foreign language)

KEYES: This is beautiful. But she sounds so sad. What was she singing about?

CONTRERAS: It is a bit melancholy. You know, there are lots of theories about the origin of the music. And some of the theories include the history of the island, because it was a major part of the slave trade. The people that were there were abused by the colonizers, and there's a substantial number of people who have left the island just because of there's really nothing there, in a sense.

Cesaria Evora touched on all that with her voice, and I think that's what touched people - so much so that she became a national hero for Cape Verdeans all around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EVORA: (Singing in foreign language)

KEYES: Felix, talk to us about where else she was popular. Most people in the U.S., I think, haven't really heard of her music.

CONTRERAS: Well, you know, she had a substantial following here in the United States. But I think it was more so in Europe and Africa and different parts of the world, where Cape Verdeans sort of spread. There aren't enough to make her the biggest star that she was, but her music just touched a nerve - particularly in Europe and France, where she recorded some of her first records. And I think that people there had a different ear for music, a different type of appreciation, because there are so many people from different parts of Africa and from the Mideast. So whenever someone comes along and does something like this, I think their ear's already tuned to hearing different music just walking down the street.

KEYES: She started singing as a young woman, but she didn't become popular until later in life. What finally put her on the map?

CONTRERAS: You know, at about age 47 - this is her story. At about age 47, a producer who was from Cape Verde heard her, and he was already working in Paris doing other types of music. He said, you know, you ought to come to Paris and record some tracks, and let's see what happens. And what happened was that that album that they recorded really struck a nerve in Paris and France and in different parts of Western Europe - so much so that when she recorded her second album in 1992 - it's called "Miss Perfumado," the track we just heard was from that album - it just exploded. She went worldwide. I mean, all of a sudden, she went - she did a big tour, like, 30 concerts in places like Montreal, Barcelona, Lisbon. She sold out two nights at a big room in Paris. Essentially, she went from a local folk artist to this international world music star.

KEYES: And her voice is very visceral, even if you don't really understand what she's saying. Why do you think it touches people so?

CONTRERAS: I have my own theory. This is the Felix theory. You know, I think each generation has a musical mother-type figure. Now you think back to Miriam Makeba or Mercedes Sosa...

KEYES: From South Africa.

CONTRERAS: ...from South Africa, or Mercedes Sosa from Argentina, even in this country, Nina Simone, to a certain extent. These women provide a voice of consciousness and reason. And a lot of times, it's like a mom waving a cautionary finger at you on how to live your life, but also at the same time enjoying life. So I think that that's - she falls in the category of those other singers like that. She struck that kind of chord.

KEYES: And almost getting a little bit of a conscious, as well.

EVORA: Exactly.

KEYES: Let's hear a little bit more from her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EVORA: (Singing in foreign language)

KEYES: After her initial success, there were more towards and albums. There were awards from a lot of different countries, Grammy nominations, and one Grammy here in the U.S. for the rest of the '90s and into this century. It's really amazing that all of that came from the style of music dealing mostly with the slave trade history in her country and the massive emigration from this isolated little island.

CONTRERAS: Well, you know, I think that music taps something deep within us. And if you think about our attraction to, you know, my-baby-done-me-wrong songs, you know.

KEYES: Right.

CONTRERAS: You know, I think that's the best equivalent here, a song like "I'd Rather Go Blind" by Etta James, or even the Spanish-language boleros that have a lot of melancholy - what the Brazilians call saudade - or even the wistfulness...

KEYES: You mean it takes pictures in your head.

CONTRERAS: Oh, and taps, like, this - a little bit of sadness. Even a wistful song like Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life," you know, that music taps something deep within us, and each of those styles always has one singer who nails it. And for Cape Verdeans and the entire world, it was Cesaria Evora.

KEYES: Felix, what do you think her legacy is going to be? Is her music influencing anybody that's performing today, other contemporary artists at all?

CONTRERAS: Her music has already influenced people. There's a young woman named Lura - L-U-R-A - who's already kind of taken on the mantle, or at least following up on that tradition. She's from Cape Verde, and she's doing the same type of style. And I think singers all over the world - just like Miriam Makeba did and Mercedes Sosa - I think that those singers have such a profound and cross-cultural impact. There could be some singer in some country we don't even know about right now who's listening to her CDs and will someday become, you know, popular, or popular enough so we recognize her, and she may cite Cesaria Evora as an influence. So you just never know.

KEYES: And it's always nice to hear music that actually means something, as opposed to your typical club anthem.

CONTRERAS: You said it. There you go. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEYES: Felix Contreras is co-host of NPR's online show ALT.LATINO, and he is a producer for NPR's Arts Desk. Thanks, Felix.

CONTRERAS: Thank you, Allison.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EVORA: (Singing in foreign language)

KEYES: And that's our program for today.

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