By GUS MARTINS
Cesaria Evora’s mournful death one week before Christmas Day has left an indelible mark on World Music and industry professionals who witnessed her rise in the niche musical category say her void will be hard to fill while her unique talent might never again be seen.
Evora, who toiled for decades in West Africa’s Cape Verde Islands, distilled through her remarkable voice the joy and pain of her 500-year-old homeland that beneath the sun-splashed serenity was often beset by scarcity, emigration and anonymity. She died at age 70.
Her irresistible contralto burst onto the world’s musical stages in the early 1990’s and the professionally polished, but socially shy, vocalist grew from strength to strength, performing in the four corners of the world, her trademark ballads and upbeat numbers turning her into a beloved international star.
Equally fascinating was learning the vocalist was in her late 40’s when she finally met with the professional backing that could record, market and promote her and assure success.
Chicago-based Ron Kaplan, Evora’s only North American agent over a 15-year span, was smitten back then when he finally put a voice to her growing reputation and was equally saddened by her December death from respiratory failure in her hometown of Mindelo on San Vincente island.
Evora , considered one of the world’s great singers, had encountered major health issues during the last five years or so, including two strokes and an open heart surgery. A lifetime of heavy cigarette smoking and a period of hard drinking that moderated substantially after her career took hold, likely played a role in her declining health.
“It was just a very unique special thing,’’ said Kaplan, who heads Monterey International. “What can you say other than she was just very, very, very special. There was nothing like it. I never heard it before. I don’t remember how I first heard her music or who turned me on to this, but I got to tell you it just blew my mind.
“I came from a blues background. I came from that and my first signings were Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Albert Collins, Koko Taylor,’’ added Kaplan. “I had already loved World Music. Blues was from Africa. Jazz was kind of from Africa. And when I heard the music it was a blend. I had been to Brazil a number of times. My brother worked there. And this was a music I had never heard about. When I heard it I just said, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ And I’m not one to second guess my intuition. I feel something is right I jump at it.’’
Evora, by then had been enjoying a growing reputation in Europe, with France serving as a launching pad. The French, their music moguls, media and public jumped all over Evora’s fourth release, “Miss Perfumado’’ and the previous work “Mar Azul,” which recorded Evora in an acoustic setting and harkened back to the intimacy of Evora’s formative work in small Mindelo bands.
Evora, who would be denied a Grammy for the 1992 release Miss Perfumado featuring her signature song “Sodade” and which sold 300,000 copies alone in France, and for her 1999 smash “Café Atlantico,’’ finally captured her one and only Grammy for the 2003 release, “Voz Di Amor,’’ a gem that returned to simpler arrangements focusing on her sublime voice. She would win three “Kora” or All Africa awards, and be feted in 2009 with the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest cultural award, while state awards in Portugal, Brazil and Angola and other distinctions were also bestowed.
But would the aesthetic observed by the French, the rest of Europe and her growing reputation around the world play in the United States, a place notoriously difficult for non-English acts to penetrate.
“She was a surprise because she had this big hit in France and then into Europe, but the surprise for me was to the extent that she crossed over into the North American market,’’ said Maure Aronson of World Music in Boston, who’s organization booked Evora on eight separate occasions. “Part of that was just the strength of what record companies could do then. They would get behind the artists and help the artists with touring. Also, she got pretty significant radio play on many stations. A lot of college World Music radio stations but also a lot of jazz stations picked her up. Starbucks sold her music and she was on a lot of playlists where you wouldn’t really expect to see a non-English speaking artist on.’’
Aronson said Ms. Evora’s ascent here served as a catalyst to World Music because the category was still in a period of self-definition. Additionally, musical entities at that time were willing to pour money into it to ensure its success. Her aromatic voice was even picked up by Starbucks where her CD’s in the mid-1990’s were played and sold. The labels, “World Music” or “World Beat” were coined in the 1980’s or 1990’s to help categorize it for international consumption.
“In a broad sense of that time it came about I think in London by a bunch of guys who were recording records and they needed a bin in record stores to put it in,’’ said Aronson. “It was a marketing tool. It really was music that was from non-western countries.’’
Among the biggest names that came to be known were already famous in their respective homelands, but now could be united under one umbrella.
“It was names like Salif Keita, Angelique Kidjo, Baba Maal, Youssou N’Dour, the Cubans had their moment after Buena Vista Social Club, the Brazilians have always been prominent, Caetano (Veloso) Marisa Monte, Gilberto Gil and groups like that,’’ said Aronson. “There were dozens of groups. (South Africans) Black Mambazo (and) Johnny Clegg was at the forefront of it. It was a happening scene but I don’t know if it was any less happening now. It’s just that the genre is very blurred right now. ‘’
In this context she would make her mark. Barefooted, modestly dressed and physically unmade up early on and seemingly unmoved about the buzz she was creating, she entered the scene backed by her five-or-six-piece band, the forerunner to the almost orchestra-like 10-piece ensemble that would follow by year 2000 as her sound modernized, and held audiences spellbound with her plaintive sound.
“The music was entirely haunting,’’ said Kaplan. “Entirely irresistible. I remember the funniest thing. Our company was one year old at the time. We had been agents somewhere else. We had just started working with a company called Monterrey International Artists. I had some major artists. Dave Mathews, Huey Lewis, who was huge at the time, Bob Lovett, Bonnie Raitt, blah, blah, blah, and we became the division of that company solely for taking World Music, blues and roots music, you know. And to have this come along at the time was so fortuitous for me. Because I connected with it and it was so what our company was about. And we represented her from 1994-95 for the next 15 years. It was new. It was the right time in the record business. It was the right time where people would spend the money to market something like that. They wouldn’t do it now.’’
New York City, with its crush of media, moguls and fellow musicians, was a big first test. Over the years, many big-named musicos would take in her shows. Artists, Evora herself, said she had followed.
“The first New York date she did I think in 1995 she played at the Bottom Line,’’ added Kaplan. “ “It was two shows, two 70-minute sets. The first show Madonna came. I sat right next to Madonna and her bodyguard and watched the whole show. It was like a 400-seat venue and it was just a lot of people who wanted to see her. She played small clubs and then she started playing theaters and then on to the Carnegie Hall and the Beacon Theater in New York.
“It was something different for me,’’ added Kaplan. “I had never seen a female do this before. There were a lot of Brazilian artists that came about that I had talked about. But the timing of this was amazing. This was before Buena Vista Social Club. There was a point where she was one of the top five selling World Music artists in the country. Females, there was Miriam Makeba and who else was there? I don’t know? But it really, really, started growing and as a result it felt really good. This was very unusual because I had never heard any music like this before. It was Brazilian, it was blues, it was sad. It was wonderful. It wasn’t that we were going to sign a World Music artist. We signed an artist from Cape Verde.’’
Aside from her concerts, Evoras’ record sales were solid. Perhaps only her manager Jose da Silva, a Parisian of Cape Verdean descent who was raised in Senegal, knows for sure. Estimates start at about six million and go considerably higher. But it appears her fan base continues to grow with the help of social media and Youtube.
Aronson thinks there was only one World Music act in the U.S. that was bigger than Evora, the Buena Vista Social Club. They, of course, were an ensemble of big names like Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Ruben Gonzalez and others, coming from a country whose music was well-known to Americans for more than a century. Cesaria Evora hailed from a tiny country almost completely unknown in the U.S.
“She certainly wasn’t as big as the Buena Vista social club,’’ said Aronson. “Nothing was and nothing ever has been in terms of the genre of World Music. But, next to them, it was her in my opinion in terms of the tickets she could sell and the venues she played. I don’t think she played anything less than a 1,200-seater in Boston and most of the time spent her time in 2,500-seat capacity theaters in Boston and in the rest of the United States where there were not large Cape Verdean communities.
“She would do 25-30 dates per tour in the U.S. in average 2,000 capacity venues and I think she did pretty well because she went back year after year in these places so she must have been selling tickets or otherwise she wouldn’t have been going back,’’ Aronson insisted.
Despite her abject beginning and the austere conditions she lived under until her breakthrough, Evora managed to pick herself up and was ready when her opportunity, some say her final one, came.
“She drank a fair amount. She smoked like a chimney. But, in her element, Cesaria’s the great one, I tell you,’’ said Aronson. “In terms of an artist from a non-western country singing in a non-Western musical idiom, no one is going to surpass her in a long time. It’s really difficult. I can’t think of anybody doing those types of numbers in this day and age other than bands that are quite commercial bands that are coming out of the influence of World Music. Bands like Vampire Weekend. But in terms of authentic World Music by an artist of from the developing world, she was the benchmark.’’
And now that is no more. The death of a survivor, a woman revered equally by the peasant class from which she emanated to the educated elite that she would never aspire to be and all admirers in between, will be celebrated through her recordings and for the naked vulnerability she was able to convey in her singing and way of being.
“We, toward the end, when we knew she had cancelled the tour in 2010, we knew something was up,’’ said Kaplan. “And they started reducing the number of dates she could do and asking more money to do them. It just got to a point where it was more difficult to tour her here. ‘’
And for the news that came out of Mindelo on Saturday, December 17of last year, Kaplan said he was not unprepared.
“I wasn’t stunned,’’ he said. “When you have an artist that you have represented for 15 years and they are off and they had surgery – and you know this woman was not one to take care of herself – you just know that something was going to go down, and it’s very sad but that’s what happens. It’s a void for me of not being able to book her anymore. It’s frustrating. I’ve had other artists pass on me. It’s sad. You work so hard and you believe and then it’s over. It’s sad.’’