On Music

On December 17, Cesária Évora died of respiratory complications following a stroke and heart surgery. Thousands of mourners not only sang but also applauded loudly during the funeral procession. She had said, when announcing her retirement in September, “I’m sorry, but now I have to rest.”

Before Cesária Évora, being Cape Verdean meant being from an invisible country. When I was growing up in Europe in the early eighties, the islands I called home did not appear on the maps we studied in school. Little obnoxious Belgian classmates would accuse me of inventing the place. My other friends had it easy. If someone asked where they were from, they could answer, “I am Belgian,” “I am Dutch,” “I am Moroccan.” They could respond, whereas I always found myself giving long-winded answers that included the phrases five hundred kilometers, west coast, and Senegal; and 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.

I distinctly remember how this changed when Cesária Évora became a worldwide sensation. It was sudden and startling; I could now tell anybody I was Cape Verdean and expect them to reply with her name, as if it were a greeting: You’re Cape Verdean? Oh, Cesária Évora! She encompassed all I wanted to say about home: 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.

In the summer of 2005, when I was home in Mindelo for the summer, my grandmother took me along to visit Cesária. To me, it was very much like visiting a living national monument. I was nervous that day. When we arrived at the large house, there was a crew of Portuguese journalists seated in her immaculate living room, seemingly awaiting her. My grandmother walked us past them, through a small inner courtyard, and straight to the kitchen, where Cize, as she was known at home, was busy cooking. She told us she had no intention of joining her guests but pointed to the stove and joked that they should be glad she would feed them. Both women laughed out loud as we sat. Cesária served us cold beer and we snacked on pastel—fish fritters. She was older and shorter than I expected from seeing her on screens or on stage in New York City. She wore a simple house dress, along with what seemed like a significant portion of her gold jewelry collection. She had on one of those multipocket aprons that Cape Verdean women often use, the central nerve system of domestic life: out of one pocket comes the change for the kid to go buy fresh bread, out of another the keys for the guy picking up the relative from the airport. She kept everything close at hand as the apron jingled with the running of her home, and occasionally one hand went up to wipe the sweat off her face. Like my grandmother, she wore only eye makeup. The two women gossiped about their love lives for a while before talking about family. Cesária asked my grandmother about her children, and I was surprised that she remembered all their names and countries of residence. She asked who had had children since last they had spoken, and I had. “With an American?” she asked in disbelief. “Spanish—a Dominican,” I added quickly. I wanted her to understand I had veered off, but not too far off.

For a “barefoot diva,” as she was known for performing barefoot, Cesária was shy onstage, sometimes withholding. She would often stare in a way that made the audience feel they did not exist. Then she would make jokes in creole, and chuckle with her musicians and the Cape Verdeans in the audience—inside jokes. Her stage presence was small and fierce, hard to read. She seemed to be minding her own business up there, only worried about singing the songs: we wanted to stay back home but we were broke and had to immigrate; we blame the drought; we blame the ocean; we act a fool with our lovers; politicians act a fool with us; we survive; before we die we will go back.

She always made time to visit with the Cape Verdeans who came backstage, whether in New York or New Zealand, in Boston or Barcelona. She sat so people could hug her, take pictures with her, and afterward go back to the places they lived, and stand up a little straighter, a little prouder. In the early days, in between songs, she would smoke and drink, sitting on a small table onstage, just like she did in her kitchen back home in Mindelo. We all grew up around tables like that, cigarettes here, liquor bottle there, flanked by chatter and a couple guitars. She understood what we needed. Cape Verdeans are a small people, a million split evenly between the islands and the diaspora. We have never wanted or expected recognition; we have always taken to the ocean and gone to meet the world ourselves. We run fickle and deep like that ocean. We’re a perpetual imprecision of identities and desires and destinies, busy creolizing everything. But when she sang, we settled. Wherever Cesária Évora stood, she was all that we are, and we felt we were real.

Janine de Novais, a Cape Verdean New Yorker, currently resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her son, Jalen, where she is pursuing a doctorate at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.