Cesaria Evora's stately entrance at Lisner Auditorium Friday night--slowly gliding barefoot to a center-stage spot she would hardly move from the rest of the evening--was about it for theatrics. In fact, Evora performs pretty much stock-still, with not a single wasted movement, transfixed in the spotlight and absorbed in the somber ruminations at the heart of her songs. Evora is the remarkable vocalist from Cape Verde, the islands far off the coast of West Africa, and her music is richly informed by sodade (in fact, the name of her first song), a haunting sadness for home and loved ones that reflects the islands' large-scale emigration over the past 50 years.
Great longing and remembrance informs morna, a spiritual cousin to the blues, and Evora was at her best on such languorous ruminations as "Flor Di Nha Esperanca," "Mar Azul" and "Miss Perfumado." These were the kind of songs that first brought Evora, and Cape Verdean music in general, to the attention of international audiences. A full house sat in quiet rapture as Evora spun sad tapestries in her native Crioulo with a warmly enveloping voice that gripped the soul in ways that belied language. Despite her stolid manner, the deep emotions of the songs were made palpable by the singer's internalized fire.
Evora was working with a larger group than usual--11 pieces, augmented by a trio of Cuban musicians--and not only were there more up-tempo selections, there was also more space within the material for instrumental flourishes and solos. This proved particularly important on sizzlers like the Mardi Gras-spirited "Carnaval de Sao Vicente" (its festive flame fanned by band leader and soprano saxophonist Antonio Gomes Fernandes), the percussively passionate Afro-Cuban "Angola" and the playfully jubilant "Terezinha."
Yet even when the band cut loose and swamped the auditorium with roiling rhythm, Evora remained the calm, immobile eye of the hurricane. Midway through the show, the singer sat down at a small cafe table and took a cigarette break while the band smoked in its own way. The extra musicians also added subtle grace to the acoustic morna "Luiza," a melancholy reading of the standard "Besame Mucho" that transformed it into morna, and an elegantly swaying "Maria Elena," another pop standard on which Julian Subida's airy violin evoked the spirits of Paris and Madrid.
One of Evora's final songs was "Sorte," a prideful celebration of the acceptance afforded Cape Verdean music and culture, and of Evora herself so late in life--she's been singing for 40 years, but has only become well known in the last 10. In a charming meld of "My Way" and "I Will Survive"--at least in spirit--Evora thanked luck for "landing on me like a butterfly. . . . I welcomed you with open arms, to share you with my people/ Thanks to you I have spread the reputation of my land/ Thanks to you I have carried the message of our poets around the world/ I have sung sodade for those who have left/ I have sung regreso for those who have returned/ Good luck to me, good luck to my country, good luck to all those who listen to me."
Good luck was rewarded all around Friday night.