September 1998

From Sacred
to Samba

The lyrical ecstasy of Virgínia Rodrigues introduces World Music to a new spectrum in the rich tradition of Bahian music. That Virgínia Rodrigues could appeal to an international public was demonstrated by the release of her album Sol Negro. Audible murmurs of "About time too!" were heard.

Bruce Gilman

Last summer, when the sound of Banda Eva was spilling from every Bahian radio, Caetano Veloso initiated a flood of commotion by "discovering" Brazilian music's newest diva. Veloso had been at the rehearsal of a theater piece about social inequalities called "Bye Bye, Pelô'' performed by the Olodum Theater Group when he heard Virgínia Rodrigues. Throughout the play, she had been only a silent presence, but toward the end she sang "Verônica," a Catholic a cappella chant. The feeling she communicated through the song was crushing and authentic. Her unrivaled instrument exuded a remarkable warmth and an involvement with words that deeply moved Veloso. He knew that this voice, with its mature and authoritative quality and its emotional depth, had to be documented.

Veloso arranged for Rodrigues to officially debut at the Teatro Rival in Rio. He also negotiated the recording of Sol Negro, her first CD on Natasha Records. Soon after release, the CD started to raise issues about whether the World Music audience was really taking Brazilian music, and in particular music from Bahia, seriously enough. Sol Negro was not the recording of yet another synthesizer-based band from Bahia with heavy percussion fronted by an idealized white Baiana. It was the affirmation of a buxom black woman's celestial voice delivered dramatically a cappella or accompanied only by harp, contrabass, or berimbau and percussion. Lending emphasis to the controversy, two dignitaries of World Music began competing for the rights to release Sol Negro in the United States—Joe Boyd of Rykodisc and David Byrne of Luaka Bop.

Virgínia Rodrigues da Silva is a shy, yet fervent person from a poor family in Salvador, Bahia. Her father was a construction worker; her mother sells fruit and vegetables in the market place. Although the family could never afford a record player, her grandfather played accordion and drew Virgínia toward music at an early age. The Catholic church provided Virgínia with her first formal music making. As she imitated her peers, the rudiments of singing rooted in Virgínia's subconscious, and she became acquainted with voice projection, intonation, harmony, part-singing and phrasing. Later she was able to gain an elementary knowledge of the piano from a short series of afternoon lessons, which lasted until funds ran out.

After leaving the church in her twenties, Virgínia accepted candomblé, which has become an increasingly important aspect of her life and a strong influence in her music. While dreaming of having a career as a singer, she has worked as a manicurist, a domestic, and a cook. Márcio Meireles, director of the Olodum Theater Group had been looking for a performer with a lyric voice to fill a particular roll. But it had to be someone with Virgínia's background—someone of "the people." By chance he happened to hear Virgínia's rare vocal gift as she performed with a Renaissance choir. It was Márcio who introduced Virgínia to Caetano Veloso.

That Virgínia Rodrigues could appeal to a wide public—a public outside of Brazil—was demonstrated by the September 15, 1998 release of Sol Negro on Hannibal Records, a subsidiary of Rykodisc. Audible murmurs of "About time too!" were heard in informed circles. According to Joe Boyd, "MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) is a huge commercial venture. And the commercial structure, the record companies—as they would in any country—churn out ever more modernized versions using synthesizers, drum machines, recording techniques. And in a way the public in Brazil seems to want it. They like a slick modern sounding samba. But the World Music audience wants classic Brazilian music. And so there's a disconnection between what Brazil is producing and what the outside world wants. Virgínia is fascinating because she's almost like post-modern samba, like a return to the roots."

On Sol Negro, Rodrigues moves from the sacred to the samba with consummate ease performing a diversified repertoire of tunes that were chosen specifically to exhibit her talent in the perfect settings. The line up of musicians involved in the project reads like a virtual "Who's Who" of Brazilian music: Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, Djavan, choro virtuosi Paulo Sérgio Santos, Mauro Senise, and Zeca Assumpção to name but a few. In addition, Celso Fonseca, one of Gil's oldest stage colleagues, arranged and produced the CD. Further, Rodrigues seems relaxed in the company of these exemplary musicians as she uses melody to its best advantage, extracting the maximum from lyrics that are especially poetic and meaningful.

Sounding almost electronic in its haunting persistence, Dorival Caymmi's "Noite de Temporal" features the undulating berimbau of Ramiro Musotto. The surging, wave-like manner in which percussion plays the opening phrase establishes an exotic and powerful flavor before Virgínia's penetrating entry. Musotto, an Argentine who lives in Brazil, created the percussion arrangements for the entire CD. He is well-known among Brazilian musicians and artists and has worked for Caetano, Gil, Maria Bethânia, Gal Costa, and Lulu Santos. "Negrume da Noite" is a powerful bloco-afro chant that has been too rarely recorded. Although it appeared years ago on Ilê Aiyê's Canto Negro album, here the tune is invested with a new and unconventional spirit and is another tingling balancing and blending of berimbau, percussion, and hand claps by Ramiro Musotto.

"Nobreza," written by Djavan, is a gorgeous ballad performed almost as a duet for voice and contrabass with Zeca Assumpção (Egberto Gismonti Trio). Following the brief but captivating contrabass introduction, Virgínia enters with a line of exquisite depth. Subliminally, Quarteto Guerra-Peixe enters after the second verse. Assumpção's arpeggiated harmonics on the final chords are excellently placed. Truly, there are few bass players with as sumptuous a sound as Zeca Assumpção.

Using a tone that is uncannily arresting, Virgínia establishes the mood of "Israfel" from the first moment. Her voice, ringing and declamatory, contours the phrases and particularly complements the tranquility of the harp accompaniment. The performance of this adaptation by Zuarte, a sculptor and close friend of Virgínia's, is fluent and supple, a lyric flight. Yet, the fixed atmosphere of its haunted melody reveals this setting of the poem by Edgar Allan Poe to be tense and fascinating. I spoke briefly with Virgínia about her life and music, and I'll have to admit that the most enjoyable aspect of interviewing her was listening to the sound of her voice. It has a sublime sound that can induce the eyes of any self-respecting lyricist to genuine tears of joy.

Brazzil—Your music sounds so refined, not like MPB, axé-music, or pagode. No synthesizers or electronics. How would you describe the music on Sol Negro?

Virgínia Rodrigues
—My music is a mix of every thing that I've heard in my life and that has happened in my life—in my childhood, in my church. I don't define it as something special, but a music that touches everybody. I'm very concerned about telling you this because people in Brazil apply terms like classical and lyrical to my music. Many people still think that my music is genuinely refined and elegant. And I'm afraid that these people are trying to put my music above the music of others. My music is for everybody. It is a music for the people. I want everybody to understand. Most of all, it is music that reaches your heart.

Brazzil—Did you receive formal training?

—No, people in Brazil are poor. Studying music in Brazil is only for the rich. In Brazil, music training is a luxury. I sang with church choirs.

Brazzil—Who were some of your biggest musical influences?

—I can't say that I was strongly influenced by anyone in particular because we couldn't afford a record player. But I used to hear a lot of music by Caetano, Bethânia, Selma Reis, Gil, and Milton. I always loved Milton's music. Today I listen to the great divas: Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, and Billie Holiday.

Brazzil—What about artists like Banda Eva and Daniela Mercury?

—No, I don't listen to Banda Eva or Daniela Mercury, but I like some of the new artists like Jussara Silveira, Clécia Queiroz, and Daúde. It's interesting that when I originally wanted to sing popular music, the director told me that it would be a waste of my talent.

Brazzil—Can you tell me a little about the conditions of the recording session at Natasha Records in Santa Tereza?

—Santa Tereza is a neighborhood in the hills, and it's beautiful. You can see Sugar Loaf and Guanabara Bay. The view is truly beautiful, and I was inspired. You have to realize, I wasn't an experienced artist. I hadn't been in a studio before, so it was a lot more comfortable for me to be in a place where the view was magnificent and the acoustics were perfect. Studios are closed places where artists aren't as comfortable as they are at home. Celso (Fonseca) tried to make me feel like I was just singing at home.

Brazzil—Celso Fonseca seems like the most valuable player on the recording. How did you like working with him?

—Working with Celso Fonseca was magnificent. We didn't have much time to work together, but we had an important element in common: artistic sensibility. I was really happy because he's not overly technical; he's really concerned about the sound and how the artist feels. He is sensitive, brilliant, non-technical.

Brazzil—How was it working with Milton Nascimento?

—When I was recording with Milton, we were face to face. I kept pretending that it was nothing because I love his music and have always been a big fan. I didn't want my emotions to show. I was looking at him pretending he was my brother or somebody else because he's really shy, worse than me. I didn't want to act like a fan at the time. Afterward we were all laughing about it.

Brazzil—Which tune was the hardest to record?

—It was my first recording so in a professional way all of them were difficult, except "Verônica" because I sang a cappella. In a personal way the recording was difficult because I had just lost my father.

Brazzil—Can you tell me a little about the tune "Verônica"?

—It is a song heard every year in the procession of Senhor Morto in Bahia. A woman dressed up as the mother of Jesus is calling, calling, Verônica, and telling everyone to look at the pain that every mother has.

Brazzil—The spiritual "I Wanna Be Ready," a gorgeous duet with Zeca Assumpção, is only on the Natasha release in Brazil. Were you disappointed that it was omitted on the U.S. release?

—People from record companies are business people. First they do and then they ask. And when you're beginning you have to be open-minded to that kind of thing. You can't let yourself be hurt by that. People from record companies are good business people, and they know what to do about business. But at their level they are concerned more with the market place than the music. I'm not disappointed because I know what I'm dealing with. It's not a big deal.

Brazzil—Has your life changed much since the recording?

—My life has changed a lot because now I can live from the music. I used to work as a manicurist, a domestic, and a cook. I still don't have my own house, but I can live and pay the rent just by singing. This is really important for me because now I can do what I love.

Brazzil—Is it harder for a woman in Brazil to have a career in music than a man?

- It's difficult for both, most of all when you come from a poor family because you have to work to survive, to bring food home, and you also have to work on your music. You have to have a guardian angel. Otherwise you have to be in the "format." You have to be white, you have to be beautiful, you have to have good social position and money. And if you don't have all these things, it's almost impossible.

Brazzil—Do you have any advice for women artists hoping for a career in music?

—Be persevering and look for perfection. In my country, commercial music is still in the spotlight. But, I think, either way a person should be courageous and persevering. Many women didn't have to fit the format because they had a sponsor. But in my case, because I come from a poor family, and like many other cases in Brazil, the women who succeeded were courageous and persevering.

Brazzil—Do you think the music of Bahia is as important today as it has been in the past?

—I think the music from Bahia is really important for Brazil. But now it's respected more. Years ago it was like, `Oh, these crazy people from Bahia.' And `Oh, it's nice. It's good, but crazy.' People didn't take the music from Bahia as seriously as the bossa nova. Now, it's stealing the spotlight and not just the music, but also theater. Bahia is an artistic environment.

Brazzil—Tell me about your other roles in the Brazilian theater and film.

—In the film Jenipapo, I played a person who doesn't have a job, a homeless person. This person goes every day from farm to farm in the country to look for work and at night finds just any place to sleep. I sang three songs in the film. I only appeared when I sang. After that I participated in the movie Tieta do Agreste (director: Carlos Diegues) and in the movie Diário de um Convento.

Brazzil—What are your future plans musically? Are you working on a second CD?

—I am already planning my second CD with universal Black music. In general, I like blues, jazz, Negro spirituals, all of the music of Blacks: American black music, African Black music, Brazilian Black music like samba and the Yoruban influences of candomblé. I've come to realize how close-linked I am to all of them in spirit and how each represents the irrepressible richness and vitality of the Black race, its gifts of laughter and melody and sensuous feelings.

Brazzil—When will you be coming to the United States?

—The idea is just starting to take shape, but it looks like I'll be going to the United States at the end of October or the beginning of November for shows in California—Los Angeles and San Francisco. I think there might also be a performance in New York and maybe Miami, Florida.

Brazzil—Are you looking forward to the tour?

—I performed a concert in Bahia yesterday and there were ten Americans from California, some of them from Los Angeles and some of them from San Francisco. They came backstage afterward and asked me when I would be coming to their country. Performing in the United States will be very special for me, and I'm very happy that there are people in the United States who appreciate my work.

Brazzil—There are many. Thank you for sharing so much of your time.

—Thank you.

Noite de Temporal

Dorival Caymmi

Stormy Night

É noite, é noite
É lamba é lambaio
É lamba é lambaio
É lamba é lambaio

Pescador não vá pra pesca
Pescador não vá pescar
Pescador não vá pra pesca
Que é noite de temporá
Pescador não vá pra pesca
Pescador não vá pescar
Pescador não vá pra pesca
Que é noite de temporá

É noite, é noite
É lamba é lambaio
É lamba é lambaio
É lamba é lambaio

Pescador quando vai pra pesca
Na noite de temporá
A mãe se senta na areia
Esperando ele vortá

É noite, é noite
É lamba é lambaio
É lamba é lambaio
É lamba é lambaio
É noite, é noite

It is night, it is night,
It's tough, it's hard work
It's tough, it's hard work
It's tough, it's hard work

Fisherman, don't go after the fish,
Fisherman, don't go fishing,
Fisherman, don't go after the fish,
Because it is a stormy night.
Fisherman, don't go after the fish,
Fisherman, don't go fishing,
Fisherman, don't go after the fish,
Because it is a stormy night.

It is night, it is night,
It's tough, it's hard work
It's tough, it's hard work
It's tough, it's hard work

When the fisherman goes after the fish
On a stormy night,
His mother sits in the sand
Waiting for him to return.

It is night, it is night,
It's tough, it's hard work
It's tough, it's hard work
It's tough, it's hard work
It is night, it is night.



Trad. sung in Latin and
arranged by
Virgínia Rodrigues


O vos omnes
qui transitis per viam,
attendite et videte
si est dolor
sicut dolor meus

Oh, all you
who pass along the road,
Look, look, and then see
If there is pain
Like my pain.



Zuarte, Edgar Allan Poe

Israfel (1)

Edgar Allan Poe, 1831
set the first of eight stanzas.

Há no céu um espírito
Em que as fibras do coração
Formam um alaúde
Canção nenhuma
Tem a mágica virtude do teu canto
Oh, Israfel
Israfel quando é voz, vibra
Os astros que estão no firmamento
Cantam as lendas em desatino
Cessam seus hinos
Emudecidos de encantamento
Israfel, Israfel, Israfel

In Heaven a spirit doth dwell
"Whose heart-strings are a lute";
None sing so wildly well
As the angel Israfel,
And the giddy stars (so legends tell)
Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell
Of his voice, all mute.





Nossa velha amizade nasceu
De uma luz que acendeu
Aos olhos de abril
Com cuidado e espanto
Eu te olhei
No entanto você sorriu

Concedendo-me a graça de ver
Talhado em você
A nobreza de frente
O amor se desnudando
No meio de tanta gente

Um doce descascado pra mim
Eu guardo pro fim
Pra comer demorado
Uma grande amizade é assim
Dois homens apaixonados

E sentir a alegria de ver
A mão do prazer
Acenando pra gente
O amor crescendo enfim
Como capim pros meus dentes

Our old friendship was born
From a light that kindled
On the eyes of April
With caution and surprise.
I looked at you,
Meanwhile you smiled

Granting me the grace of seeing
Engraved in you
The nobility of appearance,
The love baring itself
Amid so many people.

A piece of candy unwrapped for me,
I keep in the end
To eat later.
A great friendship is like this,
Two men impassioned.

And to feel the gladness of seeing
The delightful hand
Beckoning to the people.
Love growing at last,
Like grass for my teeth.

1. The Koran says that the angel
Israfel,whose heart-strings are a lute,
has the sweetest voice of all God's

Bruce Gilman, music editor for Brazzil, received his Masters degree in music from California Institute of the Arts. He leads the Brazilian jazz ensemble Axé and plays cuíca for escola de samba MILA. You can reach him through his e-mail: 

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