In the run-up to the holiday season, a disproportionate number of well-known public figures died. Firebrand author Christopher Hitchens, Czech playwright and politician Václav Havel, and North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il, to name a few. But for all the press that the deaths of those three garnered, Cape Verdean singer Cesária Évora’s silent passing seems to have gone largely unnoticed. Sad and fitting, you might say, for someone from a republic speckled off the west coast of Africa like so much wind-blown Saharan sand.
Cape Verde comprises a small, 10-island archipelago off the coast of Senegal. “Cape Verdeans are a small people,” writes Janine de Novais–a Cape Verdean living in Massachussetts–in an obituary-cum-mini-memoir for the Paris Review, “a million split evenly between the islands and the diaspora.” Part of their relative invisibility and hardship, both common topics in Évora’s music, stems from a nebulous cultural identity in a big, globalized world.
De Novais recounts her own hesitancy to explain where she’s from while growing up in Belgium, a task that often “required cutting the air in the shape of Africa and picking a spot somewhere in the middle of an imagined ocean. There–that’s where I’m from. I might as well have said, Nowhere.” When Évora became a globally-known diva, however, de Novais found she could mention her birthplace without meeting blank stares. “You’re Cape Verdean? Oh, Cesária Évora!” people would say in response.
But for de Novais, Évora was more than a touchstone, she was a symbol for the home she had so much trouble explaining. “[Évora] encompassed all I wanted to say about home” she writes, “her voice was the easy pace, the maritime air, the raspy beauty, and the full sound of the port city of Mindelo, her hometown and mine.”
Another obituary written for British magazine The Independent remembers how Évora’s somber singing-style–part blues, part African Creole folk, and part soul–enchanted the world’s heart. “The genre she specialized in, the sad, poetic morna, is distinctive and atmospheric and Évora’s voice, mellow and simple, was perhaps its loveliest vehicle.” The Independent explains the genre just as well as I could:
Sodade is the morna’s key emotional basis, Cape Verdean Creole for the Portuguese saudade, or nostalgia and longing–for home, often, because Cape Verdeans are great departers. One of Évora’s most celebrated songs, called simply “Sodade,” encapsulates this world with its hauntingly matter-of-fact lyric, “You write to me, I’ll write to you/ You forget me, I’ll forget you.”
As my own coda, I’ll leave you with the video to “Sodade”: