A man carrying a bottle of cognac in a box burst into a dressing room backstage at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday night as singer Cesaria Evora waited to perform to a sold-out crowd. Joe Killian, Evora's U.S. manager, bought the fine brandy for her. But it's not the brand she had requested, the one that comes in the pretty green bottle and costs $450. So Killian did a little song and dance to defuse his client's displeasure.
"Tell Cesaria I went looking for the bottle she wanted in Beverly Hills, but it's a special order and it takes weeks to get it," Killian said to Evora's translator, who speaks in Portuguese to the renowned "barefoot diva" from Cape Verde.
Evora, who kicked a heavy drinking habit on Dec. 15, 1994, didn't wait for the translation to show her unhappiness. Her eyes, those bulging orbs with droopy lids, nailed Killian with a glare of mock anger for letting her down. She still likes to share cognac with friends and she loved the color and shape of this particular bottle, which she had received as a gift during her tour but had left behind in a hotel room.
"This is almost the same," the manager bravely asserted, taking the beautifully sculpted substitute out of its box and placing it on a counter next to the singer's pack of Camels.
"No, I don't want to open it," protested Evora, stomping her feet in a playful display of celebrity pique. The lighthearted moment soon turned bawdy when Killian kiddingly offered to find a new boyfriend for the heavyset, 62-year-old grandmother, who is not shy about spelling out her requirements, a sassy hand on her hip.
The singer's lively repartee lighted up the green room. But within minutes, an almost somber Evora shuffled slowly onto L.A.'s prestigious new stage and launched into a two-hour concert of her sweet and sorrowful songs without saying a word. As usual, she was barefoot, and she remained stone-faced during her performance, except for a soft sway or an occasional wave to her fans.
Evora allowed her warm and tender voice to convey all the ache and loneliness contained in the traditional mornas of her homeland, a cluster of dry, impoverished islands off the coast of West Africa. But the respectful audience saw none of the sharp wit and fun-loving nature the artist had just displayed in private.
From Evora's mournful music, it's easy to see how people get the impression of Cape Verde as a sad and desolate place, a former Portuguese colony suffering from drought and steady emigration. But judging from the singer's picaresque personality, it's clear that Cape Verdeans also know how to have fun.
Hers is one of those heart-warming, romanticized success stories in world music, the poor woman from a remote corner of the world who becomes the toast of the glitterati, invited by Madonna to sing at her wedding. Despite her international fame, Evora still lives in the small port city of Mindelo, where she raised her three children as a single mother and once sang in bars for sailors and merchants. She never married and likes to joke that her husband hasn't been born yet.
Evora found success at 50, after losing faith in her career and going through a prolonged period of depression and excessive drinking, scorned by her fellow musicians for her low social standing.
"They say she wandered naked and wild through the streets of Mindelo in the grips of a fietico [an evil spell]," states a biography on her official Web site, maintained by BMG France, which distributes her music.
But when asked about that shocking image of despair, Evora stoutly denied that she had ever sunk to such depths.
"Yes, I drank," she said through the translator during the preshow interview. "But I never lost my mind. I'm the one who decided to stop drinking, and whenever I decide to start again I will, because I make my decisions."
The tone of indignation came through even in her native tongue, an Afro-Portuguese dialect called Crioula. On stage, Evora projects that sense of inner dignity and self-respect, the cornerstone of her commanding presence. In her stillness, she seems to make the world revolve around her.
Evora was the first world-music artist to appear in the Music Center's acclaimed new concert hall, which warmly accommodated her low-key, predominantly acoustic sound. Tuesday's show, presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, also marked the first time she performed with a string accompaniment.
Evora's tasty sextet, led by pianist Fernando Lopes Andrade, was backed by 31 members of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra led by conductor Charles Floyd. She performed 19 songs, sticking mostly to hits from her nine albums, including her latest release, "Voz D'Amor."
Though Evora's voice has been described as whiskey-soaked and bluesy, it's actually as smooth and soothing as a lullaby. It floats above the gentle, languorous groove of the music, creating a pleasant, hypnotic effect. It's easy to see why a couple of people in the audience actually dozed off, swept away in a musical reverie.
On the more upbeat, rhythmic numbers, the crowd clapped along. Fans especially appreciated solos by mellow guitarist Joao Pina Alves and seasoned saxophonist Antonio Gomes Fernandes. The band was rounded out by Virgilio Duarte on bass, Ademiro Miranda on percussion and Jose de Almeida Soares on cavaquinho, a small guitar.
On the downside, the solos were kept too short, curtailing moments of spontaneity just as they were getting going. The songs themselves seemed a little cut and dried, sometimes even ending abruptly. It made you wish Evora had more room to improvise.
The idea to add strings came from the Philharmonic's management as an attempt to interconnect its diverse programming. Though a worthy experiment, the elements never quite came together Tuesday. The subtle string arrangements, used only on half a dozen numbers, were often drowned out by the amplified sextet. And the conductor seemed to be constantly on his toes, turning to look for cues from Evora's band.
Andrade, Evora's longtime music director, agreed that the strings threw the singer off her stride a tad. But the audience didn't seem to notice. In the end, they cheered enthusiastically as Floyd stepped down from his podium and leaned over to kiss the beloved vocalist and embrace her band members as they filed out.
Evora likes to leave immediately following her shows. But earlier, she reflected, in her characteristically simple way, on what the future may hold.
"I'll continue to sing," she says, "until I decide to stop."