American music listeners, typically a xenophobic lot, are occasionally smitten by the voice of a foreign singer. We fell for Germany’s Marlene Dietrich in the 1920s, France’s Edith Piaf in the ‘40s, and Brazil’s Astrud Gilberto in the ‘60s. As the century closes, we’re overdue for a new global diva—and two promising candidates from different parts of the world are poised to make a breakthrough.
Cesaria Evora, from the Portuguese-speaking West African island nation of Cape Verde, has become known as “the barefoot diva” for her propensity to perform shoeless, in solidarity with the disadvantaged women and children of her country. It would be easy to dismiss this trademark as an affectation, but when Evora, begins to sing, there’s no doubting her sincerity. Her voice, low and burnished with experience, seems to carry the very weight of the world.
Evora, essentially unknown before 1995, now fills halls in London, Paris, Tokyo, and Chicago, and she was nominated for a Grammy last year after a long stay on the world-music charts. She’s frequently compared to Piaf and Billie Holiday, but her world-weary alto has a character entirely its own. Though it’s easy to imagine Evora as a jazz singer, á la Holiday, she draws her entire repertoire from Cape Verdean songwriters and remains steadfastly within the idiom of the morna, a regional, relentlessly melancholy music form. “I don’t think I’ll ever leave my roots,” she has said. “It’s in my blood, it’s in my veins.”
This is a singer with a vivid sense of place. She named her new album simply Cabo Verde, and its final track, “Ess Pai,” is the most gorgeous tourist jingle a country could ever have. After praising Cape Verde’s poets and people, she sings, “We have no riches . . . but we have a godly peace.” Listening to the evocative melodies on this album—imagine a slow samba, played on a balmy night near the sea—it’s easy to believe that claim.
If Evora, in her 50s, is the voice of maturity, Brazil’s Marisa Monte is the voice of youth, brash and sexy. Monte, 30, is less concerned with cultural purity than Evora, especially on her new album, A Great Noise, which prefigures the 21st century with such decidedly nontraditional songs as “Cerebro Electronico” and “Tempos Modernos.” But even with her pop persona and artsier trappings, she is a quintessentially Brazilian star—“la gran diva de Rio de Janeiro,” as she has been called. Her voice, trained for opera, is breathy and precocious, a technically brilliant tease that skims and coos over the bossa nova backing of her band.
A Great Noise, recorded partly on her worldwide Rose & Charcoal tour, is a fetching collage of Monte’s many faces. “Arrepio,” written by frequent collaborator Carlinhos Brown, is simple but seductive, thanks to her mantra-like repetition of the minimal lyrics. Strings and horns add a sumptuous sheen to “Magamalabares,” while “Maraca” is all cool funkiness.
Monte fully indulges the showiness that Brazilians love—and she knows how to cause a stir. The CD booklet for A Great Noise, for example, features vintage soft-core comics by the controversial Brazilian underground artist Carlos Zefiro. (The naughty bits on the cover were blacked out for its U.S. release.) Monte is a sex symbol, albeit within her own cultural millieu and on her own groundbreaking terms.
In a world cluttered with two-dimensional pop stars, it’s refreshing to listen to singers who can really sing, singers who can transport you to their worlds on the wings of their magnificent voices. Whether you prefer Evora’s elegaicpathos or Monte’s steamy allure—and this might depend on your mood at the moment—you’ll know when you hear them that these are two of the great divas of our day.