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Anyone who has listened to Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora has heard the word sodade. In Creolu, the mixture of Portuguese and West African languages spoken on the tiny chain of islands 300 miles off the coast of Senegal, sodade means nostalgia, yearning, longing for love lost. Portuguese sailors felt sodade when they dropped anchor near the archipelago in 1492. Captives from Angola felt sodade when they slaved in Cape Verde's rocky hills. Today more than half of the people who call "Cabo" their homeland -- after fleeing famine, drought, dictatorship, and a bleak economic future -- feel sodade for the islands they left behind for a more secure life in the United States and Europe.
Standing onstage without shoes, her ample frame wrapped in a simple shift, her torso swaying slightly or not moving at all, her flat, oval face practically expressionless, the 62-year-old "barefoot diva" summons a voice so full of sodade that it seems to come from somewhere else: from Cabo itself, the sea that surrounds it, or from the doleful depths of its history. She sings morna, a genre of sorrowful poems set to song whose name likely came from the English words for mourning or moaning. Evora's biggest hit -- the song that made her a star when it was released on her album Miss Perfumado in France in 1991 and then made her a worldwide sensation when that album was re-released in the United States in 1998 -- is simply called "Sodade." The chorus of another hit, "Petit Pays" ("Little Country"), from her 1995 self-titled release, laments sodade "without end." On the recently released Voz D'Amor (Voice of Love), "Amdjer de Nos Terra" ("Woman of Our Land") describes the typical Cabo woman as "Solid as a rock at sea/Carrying her child on her back/Crying with sodade." The chorus goes so far as to say that the Cabo woman isthe tiny country's emblem of sodade.
All this tearful yearning for the past might seem a little odd coming from a woman who, after 47 years of relative obscurity singing in piano bars in her hometown of Mindelo on the northern Cape Verdean isle of São Vicente, finds herself finally being recognized as one of the most powerful vocalists in the world. Evora's hard-knock life is the stuff of myth that, like the lines on her face and rolls about her belly, only serves to make the sorrow in her voice more believable and more beautiful. She is romanticized as a chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking grandmother thrice abandoned by the fathers of her three children. She recorded four albums in Cape Verde (which she points out that she was never paid for) before meeting Paris-based Cabo producer Jose Silva while she was performing in a Lisbon lounge in 1987. Silva not only made her famous -- he built his own label, Lusafrica (an imprint of BMG), on the success of her records. Now after selling more than four million albums and regularly playing packed houses around the globe, does she still dream of some great love dashed against the island rocks?
"My husband hasn't been born yet," she says through a translator over the phone from Paris. "The true love that we all dream of hasn't been born for me yet." When she speaks, her voice is as rich and smoky as when she sings, but there is no hint of sadness when she talks about the three men who fathered her kids. "None married me," she points out. "None ever lived with me." For the pretty if impoverished young men she met while working in bars in the magical São Vicente twilight, supporting a family was out of the question. "They didn't have the means to take me in," she explains. "So I always lived with my mother." Now that she is Cape Verde's biggest star, have any of her old lovers returned, hoping to rekindle the flame? "Even if they did, I would not go back to them," she insists. "Not even if tea turns to coffee. No way."
Evora interprets lovelorn laments; she doesn't write them. Her repertoire was composed by Cape Verde's romantic songwriter-poets like B. Leza, Manuel de Novas, Ti Goy, Luis Moraes, and Amandio Cabral. In fact the only song she received a credit for on her nine studio albums is "Ponta de Fi" on São Vicente di Longe (2001), a track named after a bar where one of her more recent companions was waylaid while borrowing her car. "I had to go get the car the next day," she remembers. "He was there washing my car like nothing had happened. I was really mad. I was telling him all kinds of things. I said some stuff about his mother." Evora's friend Arturo Silva, who drove her to the scene, recorded her outburst in a notebook. Later he proposed the two craft a song from her outburst with de Novas, and the result was a lively tune filled with more pique than longing. Evora's song suggests that she feels less sodadefor her love on the island than pissed off at men who romanticize women in song but don't take care of them in real life.