There is a nostalgic undercurrent in the music of Cape Verde called saudade, a pensive yearning for home and loved ones that permeates its mornas, a genre of song that has clear connections, particularly emotional ones, to the blues. Languid, generally built around minor key melodies, melancholy mornas evoke the convoluted history of this isolated chain of islands 300 miles off the coast of Senegal. Once uninhabited, the islands were claimed by Portugal in 1460 and gradually populated by West African slaves, colonists and traders who, as they did in Brazil, created a distinct Afro-Portuguese culture with a language, Crioulo, combining old Portuguese and African elements.
In this century, the majority of Cape Verdeans have chosen to live elsewhere, particularly around Paris, Lisbon and Boston. Of 1 million Cape Verdeans, less than 400,000 still live on the islands. It's hardly surprising, then, that much of their music mournfully addresses emigration and separation from home, family and lovers.
Cesaria Evora mostly sings in Crioulo, but there is such universal longing and sadness in her huskily warm, weathered contralto that she manages to pull listeners into her music in ways that transcend language. Folks may not recognize the words, but they certainly feel the emotions, as they might in similarly romantic ballad forms like Portugal's fado and Brazil's samba.
The 58-year-old Evora, who performs at Lisner Auditorium Friday, has been singing since she was 16, but was "discovered" only in the last decade when she began recording in Paris. She's since become an international star with frequent comparisons to Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday.
"Cafe Atlantico" (Nonesuch), her seventh album in the '90s, represents an expansion of its morna-focused predecessors. It's a cosmopolitan project exploring musical and emotional links between Cape Verde, Brazil and Cuba, where five of the album's 14 tracks were recorded. A half-dozen tracks feature arrangements by Brazilian cellist Jacques Morelenbaum, best known for his work with Caetano Veloso. All this provides Evora with a brighter and at times more upbeat and propulsive sound than normal. Case in point: the vibrant "Carnaval de Sao Vicente," which celebrates Evora's home island and the port of Mindelo, where sailors from all over the world left their mark on the local music.
Other pulsating tracks include the samba-flavored "Vaquinha Mansa (Sweet Little Cow)," the percolating danzon-style "Beijo de Longe (A Kiss From Afar)," "Amor di Mundo (Love of the World)" and the wry "Nho Antone Escaderode (Like Crooked Mr. Antoine)." "Terezinha (Little Theresa)" has a subtle Cajun flavor, while the pop standard "Marie Elena," one of two songs sung in Spanish, is delivered as a bolero, swamped in shimmering strings. "Cabo Verde Manda Mantenha (Cape Verde Greets You)," where Evora notes to her ever-expanding audience that "I have come to bring you the aroma of this country," suggests samba and Caribbean zouk.
As solid as these tracks are, "Cafe Atlantico's" greater appeal comes when Evora focuses on such deliberate, graceful mornas as "Paraiso di Atlantico," the torchy "Flor di Nha Esperanca (The Dream of My Hope)" and "Perseguida (Persecuted)." On the majestic ballad "Desilusao Dum Amdjer (A Woman's Disappointment)," the melody is stated by an African kora and strings, and when the singer addresses the twin sorrows of separation from country and lover in such lines as "You have destroyed my world/ leaving my soul in agony/ filled with pain/ with no hope or faith," that's the blues, delivered with great majesty and dignity.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8174.)
Cape Verde Collections
Cesaria Evora's international success has focused attention on Cape Verdean music, as evidenced by two recent compilations.
"Putumayo Presents Cape Verde" (Putumayo) collects both mornas and examples of coladeria, Cape Verde's bouncier, more rhythmically rooted dance music. It also reflects a wider variety of influences. There's the Latin pulse of Boy Ge Mendes' "Cumba Ietu," the airy, Senegalese-flavored "Cabinda a Cunene" by the veteran Bana, and such world-beat stars as Fantcha, Djurumani, Nana Matias and Teofilo Chantre, whose "Nha Fe" features the haunting sounds of the accordina (an accordion with fewer keys).
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8175.)
"The Spirit of Cape Verde" (Tinder Records) also shows a broader range, from Ildo Lobo's deliberate "Nos Morna," the legendary Tito Paris's smooth modernism and soaring political commentary on "Preto e Mi" ("Let me tell you all the sorrow of my color"), and the upbeat zouk-flavored "Bengosin" by Katchupa Rica. Among the best tracks: Bau's waltzlike "Jailza," the Mindel Band's flamenco-tinged "Stancia," Teofilo Chantre's supple, sensual "Tonte Vontade (So Much Desire)" and Maria Alice's "D'Zemcontre (Discord)," in which she evokes a Piaf-like sorrow describing "how sad it is to be a rose in a garden of bitterness."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8176.)
CAPTION: Cesaria Evora has become an international star performing the mournful and emotional music of Cape Verde.