Evora delights with simplicity

Boston Globe, April 5, 2006

Cesaria Evora is an icon: Her gorgeous albums of Cape Verdean morna and other Afro-Atlantic sounds are part of today’s world- music canon. At 65, she has brought the sound and sentiment of her rocky archipelago into even the sparsest CD collections.

Evora plays to full houses, as she did Friday at the Orpheum, filling its tattered confines with sodade the melancholy that infuses morna and with her own simplicity and grace. She sang from her new album “Rogamar” and her catalog, from her eponymous 1995 album’s “Petit Pays” to her version of the ballad “Besame Mucho.” “Africa Nossa,” a vibrant hymn to the continent, was a standout and reappeared as an encore.

A fine nine-man band supported, discreetly directed by pianist Fernando Andrade. Paulo Vieira, on cavaquinho guitar, and Jose Neves, on bass, were the workhorses, but the spotlight went to the sinuous, seductive harmonies of Kim Dan Le Oc Mach on violin and Domingos Fernandes on saxophones.

If there is a mild criticism to be leveled at an Evora performance, it is a certain mannered predictability. Her command is so absolute and her songs so well-known that she never needs nor, perhaps, is expected by her audience to rearrange them or free them for improvisation. Instead, she and the band give more of a recital, disciplining the inherent rhythmic possibilities with elegant but forceful restraints.

This tension, present in all Creole cultures, results in beautiful songs but can also feel a little less than liberated. It has taken brilliant remixes of Evora’s work by deep-house DJs to transcend the contradiction, albeit in a genre and a venue the dancefloor that not everyone would find suited to the sodade.

Still, this demureness took nothing away from Evora’s charisma and delivery. Her voice, equally earthy and ethereal, exquisitely expresses the blend of acceptance and yearning that makes nostalgia. The sentiment had extra resonance for the Boston crowd. The city’s large Cape Verdean immigrant community was well represented in the theater.

Earlier, Brazilian troubadour Seu Jorge opened with an appealing solo acoustic guitar set. Jorge has grown in mastery since his last Boston appearance; despite missing his band’s joyful noise, he held the crowd rapt with his earnest songs, his delivery which is raspy and a little flat in a strangely winning way and his affable sensibility.