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Cesaria Évora: At Home on the Road

These days, vocalist Cesaria Évora spends much of her time touring, performing for foreign audiences in regions as remote as Siberia. Yet she always returns home to her native Cape Verde.

"You won't see gold or diamonds or anything like that," Évora says through a translator. "But you will see the pure, tropical beauty: wonderful weather, gorgeous beaches, and just wonderful and warm people."

Évora's music draws deep from the hybrid musical traditions of the verdant island country, where African and European styles blend freely. Her rich, full voice commands lushly orchestrated ballads, drifting between breezy melodies and nostalgic plaints in equal measure.

The 65-year-old chanteuse is on tour to support her tenth studio album, Rogamar. She took a few moments to speak with Melissa Block about her home country, her latest CD, and her life in music.

Évora began her professional career at the age of 16, singing in a Cape Verdean ensemble that was otherwise all-male. "They actually told me that I had a good voice, that my voice was very pleasant," she says. "And from that moment on, I didn't stop."

Her talent brought her multiple performance opportunities throughout the islands: local bars, private parties, government functions, and the like. After a 10-year period in which financial constraints forced her off the stage, Évora relaunched her singing career in the mid-1980s. This time, much wider exposure led to international stardom. A series of critically acclaimed releases began in 1988, and in 2004, Évora won a Grammy for her album Voz d'Amor.

Her latest album, Rogamar, translates roughly as "prayer for the sea." Évora rhapsodizes about the ever-present Atlantic Ocean surrounding Cape Verde. Ironically, she never sets foot in the water.

"True, I do not go in the water only because I don't know how to swim," she says. "I never took the time to learn, but I appreciate [the sea]. I was afraid of the waves."

In her travels, though, Évora has crossed many seas, traversing the globe to crowds captivated by her voice. The songs she performs are stories about the lives of Cape Verdeans — from the clamor of Carnaval to the daily routine — and tales of immigration and diaspora.

"Most of the Cape Verdeans are not actually in Cape Verde," Évora says. "People go out to look for a better life, but they are always longing to go home."

Évora might be able to consider herself among that category. But as far as she strays, her music and her message is still rooted in her home.

"The first thing, when I get to the airport [in São Vicente], is to say Hallelujah! I am home," Évora says.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Almost 20 years ago, when Cesaria Evora was in her late 40s, she left her home in the African island nation of Cape Verde to record an album in France. The world fell in love with her rich voice, and soon she became an international star.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Cesaria Evora still lives in Cape Verde. She's been on tour in the U.S. and Canada, and stopped by our studios. She's a commanding woman, short and round. She spoke in Cape Verdean Creole through an interpreter.

If I were on your island in Sao Vicente, looking around, driving around for the first time, what would I see?

Ms. CESARIA EVORA (Singer): (Through translator) You won't see gold or diamonds or anything like that, but you'd see just the pure tropical beauty - wonderful weather, gorgeous beaches and just wonderful and warm people. You just have visit. It's just too much to describe.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Take me back to when you just started singing, when you were a pretty young girl.

Ms. EVORA: (Through translator) I started at a very young age. I started when I was 16. I started with a boys' band. It was all boys. I was the only girl. They actually told me that I had a good voice and my voice was very pleasant. And from that moment on, I didn't stop.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Did you know before that that you had a voice, that you like to perform?

Ms. EVORA: (Through translator) Actually, for a period of my life, I lived in a orphan house, and I used to sing for a church. But I had no idea that it'll take me this far. I used to sing just for fun. I love singing. And after a while, I asked my mom to take me out of the orphan house. I would just stay with her no matter what. I wanted to get out so bad that I started telling my grandma and my mom that I was seeing ghosts, I was having visions and I couldn't stay there any longer. And it was all lies, of course. I just wanted to get out of there. I just felt I wanted freedom.

BLOCK: And did it worked?

Ms. EVORA: (Through translator) At that time in Cape Verde, people were very superstitious.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You have a song on the CD about carnival on your island in Sao Vicente that makes me want to pack my bags right now and go.

(Soundbite of song "Mas Um Sonho")

BLOCK: When we've been listening to that song, you were - you started to dance a little in your chair.

Ms. EVORA: (Through translator) Of course, that's what it does. You can't, you just can't listen to it and stay put. If you're familiar with the carnival in Brazil, you can just picture that but in a smaller place. It's almost the same thing. We have the groups that just get all beautiful with all the costumes and everything. It's almost the same thing as in Brazil just, you know, the place is way smaller than that.

(Soundbite of song "Mas Um Sonho")

BLOCK: There's a huge diaspora from your country, from Cape Verde, people who've gone all over the world, and a lot of the songs that you sing are about that, are about people longing to come home.

Ms. EVORA: (Through translator) Yes, you're right. In my songs, you hear a lot of it because most of the people, the Cape Verdeans, are not actually in Cape Verde. They are out. So that's one of the things people who go out to look for a better life, but they are always longing to go home. Even here in America, you have a big Cape Verdean community.

(Soundbite of song "Sombras Di Distino")

BLOCK: Do you feel that same longing, even though you know you're going home when you're on a long tour, like you are now? Do you feel that same sort of lust to be home?

Ms. EVORA: (Through translator) Absolutely, because when you leave Cape Verde, you have the hope. You're leaving, looking for a better life, and you always have the hope of going back.

(Soundbite of song "Sombras Di Distino")

BLOCK: When you go home, at the end of this tour, what would be the first thing that you will do when you're home in Cape Verde?

Ms. EVORA: (Through translator) The first thing, once I get to the airport, is to say hallelujah, I am back home. And then once I get home, it's my family and just tell them my tour is over, everything went fine. I still love my fans. They still love me, so now it's time for some family time.

(Soundbite of song "Rogamar")

BLOCK: Cesaria Evora, thanks so much for coming in. It's a pleasure to meet you.

Ms. EVORA: (Through translator) Well, I'm very pleased to meet you as well, and I just hope we meet more often.

(Soundbite of song "Rogamar")

BLOCK: With interpreter Hilda Matthews(ph), Cesaria Evora. Her new album is titled "Rogamar." You can hear more songs from the album, and watch a video of her singing a duet with Ismael Lo from Senegal at npr.org/music. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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