On the day of Cesária Évora’s funeral, December 20th, 2011, the singer and Cape Verdean Minister of Culture at the time, Mario Lucio, summed up the diva’s legacy on her country’s outreach: “Cape Verde conquered the world barefoot“. Her producer José da Silva, remembers fondly what this symbol, which became the singer’s trademark, covered:
“The story of not wearing shoes comes from her childhood. In Portuguese times, you couldn’t walk on the pavement or in the square without shoes, but you had to walk on the road. At the Gremio, the place to be in Mindelo where high society met with the Portuguese at big parties, she was once invited by people who wanted her to wear shoes. She said OK, they bought her a pair: she went in with them, and just after the entrance she took them off and sang barefoot.”
At the end of the 1980s, before founding his now iconic label Lusafrica, José da Silva was a train station agent with a passion for music. In 1987 during a trip to Lisbon, he heard her voice in a restaurant and immediately decided to invite her to Paris for a concert. “And suddenly we were overwhelmed, we had too many people, 800 people for the 400 that the hall could accommodate. And it was the same in Belgium, in Holland… everyone wanted to see her!” Indeed, the “barefoot diva” was already famous, having come to prominence at a very young age on Radio Barlavento, where she recorded her first songs (reissued in 2008). But deceived by men and exhausted by her lifestyle, she had stopped singing for 10 years.
José da Silva brought her back into the studio. Together, they recorded La Diva aux pieds nus (1988), Distino di Belita (1990), and finally Mar Azul, recorded acoustically, which revealed her to the general public. Two years later, the song “Sodade”, present on the album Miss Perfumado (1992), exploded, cementing her status in the musical landscape for good. A popular song in Cape Verde, which Angolan singer Bonga had already covered in 1974. Teofilo Chantre, who wrote an important part of the album, explained its meaning: “’Sodade’ is a song composed on the island of San Nicolau, which evokes the departure of Cape Verdeans to the island of Sao Tomè to cultivate cocoa. These people left in a forced manner, they had no money so they had no choice but to sign these contracts, or else they would have committed small crimes… so they travelled in the holds of the boats, without knowing if they were going to return to Cape Verde”. The song says:
Who showed you the way, the long way to Sao Tome?
Sodade, from my land San Nicolau.
If you write to me I will write to you, if you forget me I will forget you, until the day you return.
Cesária’s international career was launched: she toured the world several times and rubbed shoulders with great artists (Caetano Veloso, Salif Keita, Compay Segundo…). With, everywhere, the same obsession:
“When she arrived in Paris, all of a sudden the barefoot lady wanted to buy shoes, and every day I had to take her to the shoe shops. And so when she was performing she wanted to go in shoes, but the Cape Verdeans would steal them from her as soon as she took them off to make herself comfortable, and they would fill them with money. She would go back to Cape Verde with money, and suitcases of shoes. Then she would go back to Europe without shoes. I would ask her: ‘What did you do with the shoes?’ She would answer: ‘I gave them away, they don’t fit me’.”, says José da Silva.
On 17 December 2011, Cesária passed away of respiratory failure in Mindelo. In the midst of all the ceremonies and tributes, the diva, who was known for not being afraid of death, must still be smiling up there, sitting barefoot on a pile of shoes.