CAPE VERDE: Miss Perfumado - Cesária Évora
Updated: Apr 10
The Barefoot Diva takes us on a musical journey as we are challenged to reflect on the eternal beauty of home, loved ones from our past, as well as the gloomy history behind the international influences of her music
As Black Lives Matter protests take place all over the world and remind us of the deep injustices of police brutality and institutional racism, so too do they encourage us to re-educate ourselves as a society and redress the balance of power through small acts such as familiarising ourselves with black history, literature and culture. Black women in particular are heavily under-represented in all walks of life and often do not receive the accolades they deserve for their outstanding talents. Despite the fact that by the end of her career Cesária Évora began to receive high praise from those within the music industry, her legacy mostly lives on in the Portuguese-speaking world, and in her homeland of Cape Verde and its diaspora. Whilst her faultless 1992 album, Miss Perfumado, predominantly serves as a melancholic homage to the small islands, over 500 miles off the coast of West Africa, her powerful music speaks to its audience regardless of their capacity to understand the Portuguese/Cape Verdean Creole that she sings in. So, if you wish to be introduced to this black musician’s extraordinary talent then I implore you to keep reading this review and ensure that you spend one hour listening to her album as soon as you can – I assure you, it will be worth it.
“We can hear in the sounds of Évora’s music this system did not allow for Cape Verdean culture to flourish in their homeland and instead forced them to adopt and inherit the culture of their oppressors who profited from slavery”
Musically, the album is blessed with Évora’s soulful voice, reminiscent of the likes of Aretha Franklin, and through her voice her emotion and pain can be heard, most notably in songs such as Direito di Nasce, Lua Nha Testemunha, and my favourite track, Bia. Known as the 'Barefoot Diva' for her trademark image of performing without shoes, which to me portrays a unique confidence and purity that is evident when you listen to the silkiness of her voice, Évora’s music is full of international influences. For an album that I later discovered is lyrically about Évora’s African homeland, it has obvious stylistic influences from both Europe and the Americas. In a perverse way, the instrumentation of this album arguably taught me more about the sad story of her country than her lyrics did, even after I eventually translated them.
She sings in a genre native to Cape Verde known as morna. This genre is perfect blend of Angolan landu, Brazilian modinha and Portuguese fado. I have a particularly strong connection to the latter of these genres. Last September, I was fortunate enough to go to a fado concert in Porto. At the time, the enchanting twang of the 12-string guitars, sipping the very strong port which was brewed in-house, and the magnificent company with whom I got share that experience, put me into a sensory overload where I felt nothing but pure contentment deep in my heart. Miss Perfumado transported me back to this wonderful memory and, for the most part, made me unable to contain my joy thinking of this magical moment in my life. However, scratch the surface a little bit, and this album did so much more than just force me into a state of nostalgia. This is despite the fact that Évora’s main aim is, ironically, to remind of us of the places and the people we love who today are distant memories.
Whilst this album is redolent of this Portuguese tradition of fado, for me it also paints a series of pictures in different places and times in history. Visions in my mind appear from how I imagine a café in Rio de Janeiro around the birth of the bossa nova movement might look like, to a cabaret bar in the bohemian Parisian district of Montmartre in the swinging '60s, where you might find other troubled but talented artists such as Édith Piaf performing live. Yet, there is a poignancy to these images. Why is an African album evoking such a seemingly non-African experience in its visions? Well, the answer is that it is paradoxically reflecting a tragic aspect of African history. For five centuries, Cape Verde was a Portuguese colony whose port served as a hub for the slave trading operations because the islands did not have the climate for sugar plantations. Goods from Europe were sold in exchange for Cape Verdean slaves who were shipped to the Americas. At this point, different goods were transported by the slaves back to Europe in a triangular cycle that would leave Cape Verdean society perennially exploited. As we can hear in the sounds of Évora’s music, this system did not allow for Cape Verdean culture to flourish in their homeland and instead forced them to adopt and inherit the culture of their oppressors who profited from slavery. The Latin and European sounds whilst blended beautifully with the agony in Évora’s voice tell us of the tragic past of this West African nation.
However, don’t despair, this album is not mainly about colonialism or slavery. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that a country with a history of drought, famine and slavery overcame its struggles and it reminds us that this small African country will forever be the spiritual home to the large Cape Verdean diaspora spread across the world. To this day there are more Cape Verdeans living outside than inside the country due to the hardships inflicted by the natural conditions of the island. Even Évora herself had to go on endless world tours and make her success away from home as opportunities away from the tourist industry are scarce. Yet, tracks like the opening song Sodade, of which the lyrics convey a mixture of longing and hope that come from long voyages away from home, have a powerful resonance for Cape Verdeans scattered across the globe. However, the album reminds all of us, regardless of our ethnic descent or heritage, that whilst we might feel far away from nostalgic memories, for example the one I was blessed to share in Porto last year, they will never die and that there is still hope to one day reconnect to those special people, experiences and places that never escape our soul.
If Cesária Évora and her masterpiece has intrigued you, then I perhaps suggest that in the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement there are two other prominent figures in Cape Verdean history that you might want to read about. The first is the poet Eugénio Tavares, who also wrote in the Morna style and was critical of Portuguese occupation of the Cape Verde islands. The second is anti-colonialist revolutionary, Amílcar Cabral, who was an instrumental force to arrive at Cape Verde's long overdue independence in 1975. To me Miss Perfumado is as close to perfect that an album can be, and the fact that it has inspired me to find out about other interesting individuals in the tale of this relatively obscure country's story, acts as proof that music can be a superb tool to spark curiosity in cultures that are different to our own.