Cesaria Evora was a Cape Verdean singer and Grammy Award-winning artist known for singing the island's little-known blues style, morna. She earned the nickname "Barefoot Diva", based on her fondness for going without shoes while giving voice to the emotional chronicles of her country's bitter history.
Evora was born and raised on the West African island of São Vicente, Cape Verde. After her father's death she had a tumultuous childhood and by the time she was a young adult she was already routinely performing in the bars of her home town.
She sang morna, a music and dance genre sang in Cape Verdean Creole and accompanied by the cavaquinho (a four-stringed instrument similar to a ukulele), clarinet, accordion, violin, piano and guitar. NPR Music described her unique style and content by saying, "Évora had a gift for elevating morna ballads, a style whose lyrics address poverty, longing and, most deeply, partings: of both the physical and emotional kind. Her melodic voice conjured the beauty and struggle, melancholy and yearning of life in Cape Verde."
In the mid 1970s, after years of performing for tips, a frustrated Evora withdrew from the stage over financial struggles and the turmoil that came with Cape Verde's independence. Thankfully she resumed singing in 1985, when in her 40s. Ironically, this was when she was "discovered", after leaving the island to perform in Lisbon.
While in Lisbon she caught the eye of concert promoter José da Silva, who convinced her to perform and record her music in Paris. With him by her side, she won over the French masses with her debut album La Diva aux pieds nus ("Barefoot Diva" - the nickname based on her fondness for going without shoes). While the album went on to sell 3 000 vinyl records to a mostly Cape Verdean audience, her follow-up album, Miss Perfumado, released in 1992, went on to sell 100 times more worldwide.
This sophomore album not only included one of her most celebrated songs, "Sodade", composed by Armando Zeferino Soares, but also led to an international tour. She went on to create the 1996 Grammy Nominated Best World Music Album, Cesária.
"Cesária sees Évora's exquisite vocals paired with the opulence of guitars, percussion and violin. For the first time, her music was carried by a celebratory quality, suggesting that even in mournful morna some moments call for one to dance and sway in pleasure," NPR Music stated.
Evora's international appeal stuck and in 2004 she won a Grammy Award for her album Voz d'amor. For her final album before her death in 2011, she collaborated with musicians from several countries to create a collection of duets.
"Évora's blues transcended the limitations of language, allowing her to blaze a one-woman path forward. And this groundwork she set has paved the way for others as diverse as the Buena Vista Social Club and Daymé Arocena. Today, artists in the genre of morna remain indebted to, and live in the shadow of, Cape Verde's chanteuse of blues," NPR Music concluded.