'Here," commands Cesaria Evora in her rough English, bending her head forward. "Feel it." I reach out my hand to touch her hair, styled in elegant, sculptural waves. It's hard as a helmet. She leans back in her chair and draws luxuriously on her Camel Light, cackling with laughter.
The 62-year-old singer Vanity Fair once called "world music's Earth Mother" peers at me with a mixture of amusement and ennui. Through a long exhale of smoke, she spouts a sentence in Portuguese; sharp words like a round of machine fire. "Her hair is like a cake coming out of the oven," translates the beautiful young woman who accompanies her. Four months ago, a stylist shaped her hair with water and gel into waves, then put her under a hot dryer for twenty minutes. It has barely budged since, I am told. At night, she wraps her head in a turban, and before a performance, simply sprays her hair with lacquer so it's shiny.
I, too, feel like a cake she's trying to quickly bake and yank out of the oven. She likes brutal efficiency, and that applies to interviews as well.
"She's in a great mood. She is just having her dessert," whispered the BMG publicist, clearly relieved, when he met me in the lobby of the downtown Toronto hotel to explain that Evora, in town to perform at Massey Hall and promote her ninth album, Voz D'Amor (Voice of Love), was about half an hour behind schedule.
And she is rather ebullient. But that doesn't mean she is grandmotherly.
She enters the suite where she will talk with a concupiscent sway peculiar to women of a certain age. On the table beside her chair, there is a glass tumbler filled with tap water and about five cigarette butts. Shuffling across the carpet in flat leather sandals that reveal thick ankles and red toenails, the woman also known as the Barefoot Diva, because of her practice of singing on stage without shoes, lowers herself into her seat, plucking at her loose shirt and long flowing skirt to arrange the folds over her bulging stomach. Finally, she lifts her face to me, a beautiful face in its own way, of defiance, strength, humour and a hint of contempt.
Contempt for what, you ask. I'm not sure either.
Her translator sits beside her, listening to my questions, while Evora turns her head, offering me the profile of a chubby cheek, a thick, painted-on black eyebrow, a wrinkled neck, encircled by bright gold chains, and a round, high forehead. She answers in her rat-a-tat-tat Portuguese to the ceiling, her head tipped back as she exhales a plume of smoke. I'm quite sure she understands the questions without translation. At times, she demonstrates a grasp of English. But the delay a translator provides seems like one more act of defiance. It's a barrier that says we should not presume to know her well; that we have no right to expect intimacy.
I ask about her love for her homeland, Cape Verde, a desolate string of hilly, windswept islands off Africa that were uninhabited before the Portuguese arrived in 1456. Her music, which she sings in Crioulo, a dialect that combines West African language with Portuguese, is called the "morna" -- a musical style of Cape Verde that captures some African rhythms and Portuguese fado in its melancholic sweep of love and loss and hardship.
Why does she continue to live there? "It's where my umbilical cord is buried," she replies tersely.
She surveys me, black marbles of eyes through her screen of smoke. She spends four months on tour, she tells me, then comes home for three months.
"I go home for the solar energy," she says. "Whenever you go to Cape Verde, you will see. You'd get a beautiful tan," she says, scrutinizing my white skin, looking me up and down. "Like chocolate," she continues with another cackle.
The contempt is not for me, I suddenly realize, as much as for the unnatural state of being famous. In Massey Hall, she emerged from the shadows of the backstage into the spotlight beside her jazzy band, barefoot, of course, to thunderous adulation. But she barely acknowledged it and sort of scowled into the darkness of the packed theatre, as if she couldn't understand what we were so excited about.
It's only now, as I ask about the hardship of her life, that I see that love, from all sources, is something she does not easily embrace. "Cape Verdean women are always struggling," she says, when asked how her gender has affected her outlook and music. "They go through a lot of difficulties with men. A man has a thousand and one ideas and you never know what's going through his mind. When you get one, you fall in love with all your heart and you give all your love, and then it goes down the drain. Some day he is going to betray you, cheat on you and leave you."
It's one thing to read that diatribe in a newspaper column, quite another to hear it from a woman who says it, flatly and without bitterness, as if she is following a corporate script.
Cesaria Evora. The name sounds like a description of something beautiful: The way the sun slips behind the waves or a certain flower at the moment of its silent blossoming. Like her name, her being, in all its frankness and calm, suggests transcendence, too.
Evora grew up poor. Her mother worked as a cook to raise her seven children. Her father, who played the guitar and violin, died when she was seven. At 15, she was singing in the local bars and clubs in Mindelo on São Vicente, a hot spot of nightlife in the islands. She recorded some albums, but, she says, "they took advantage of me and I didn't see any money from it." In her early thirties, the nightclub scene had faded following Cape Verde's independence from Portugal in 1975. She had given birth to three children from three different fathers. One died in infancy. She never married. Suffering from depression and an unhealthy love of cognac and whiskey, she gave up her career.
For ten years, she didn't perform. "I was disgusted, so I wanted to quit," she proclaims. "Then everything started again in 1988," she explains with a matter-of-fact dryness. That was the year she met Jose da Silva, a Frenchman of Cape Verdean ancestry who saw her perform in Lisbon, where she had travelled to revitalize her prospects. He invited her to Paris where they recorded her album, La Diva aux Pieds Nus ( The Barefoot Diva.) Evora is a diva, but not in the traditional sense. She is not a diva who expects special treatment and luxury. Rather, she is a diva of the simple life and will scoff at anyone who makes things more complex than they need to be. "I have been smoking for 45 years," she says in an exchange about her health. "And it has been fine so far." (da Silva once offered her a Mercedes if she would quit smoking, but she could not.) "And since December 15, 1994, I have had no drink!" she states. "I had had enough so I decided to stop." I ask if there is any significance to the jewelry she wears, all the rings, bracelets and necklaces. "No! I like them, so I bought them," she sniffs.
Evora has become an emblem of fringe music from the edges of the world, an antidote to the pre-packaged glammed-up over-promoted icons of popular music. But she is aware of what the audience sees in her -- and finds it a bit silly. "I hate shoes. That's why I am barefoot," she says as the interview draws to a close. "It's a way of life on Cape Verde. If I didn't sing, I wouldn't be the barefoot diva. I would just be another barefoot Cape Verdean woman."
Her contempt for what the world and interviewers want is also a function of age, I suggest to her. Has she seen it all? Have her difficulties enriched her? She blows smoke in my direction and offers a wry smile. "Antiquity is a status," she states, without really answering the questions. One of her other monikers, she adds, is Grogue Velwa, a Cape Verdean rum that gets better with age.
I get up and thank her. Evora fires off one more sentence. What did she say? I ask the translator. "Hallelujah, the interview is over," the young woman dutifully replies with a little laugh.