Investors have been pulling their money out of the Brazilian market
at a frantic pace. In one single day in September, the Rio de Janeiro Stock Exchange
(BVRJ) Index dropped 15.98%, while the São Paulo Stock Exchange (Bovespa) Index plunged
By Brazzil Magazine
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 StatesJoe 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 backgroundsomeone 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 publica public outside of
Brazilwas 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 companiesas
they would in any countrychurn 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
"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.
BrazzilYour 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 RodriguesMy music is a mix of every thing that I’ve heard in my life
and that has happened in my lifein 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.
BrazzilDid you receive formal training?
V.R.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.
BrazzilWho were some of your biggest musical influences?
V.R.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
BrazzilWhat about artists like Banda Eva and Daniela Mercury?
V.R.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.
BrazzilCan you tell me a little about the conditions of the recording
session at Natasha Records in Santa Tereza?
V.R.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.
BrazzilCelso Fonseca seems like the most valuable player on the recording.
How did you like working with him?
V.R.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.
BrazzilHow was it working with Milton Nascimento?
V.R.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.
BrazzilWhich tune was the hardest to record?
V.R.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.
BrazzilCan you tell me a little about the tune "Verônica"?
V.R.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.
BrazzilThe 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?
V.R.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.
BrazzilHas your life changed much since the recording?
V.R.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.
BrazzilIs it harder for a woman in Brazil to have a career in music than a
V.R. – 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.
BrazzilDo you have any advice for women artists hoping for a career in
V.R.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.
BrazzilDo you think the music of Bahia is as important today as it has
been in the past?
V.R.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.
BrazzilTell me about your other roles in the Brazilian theater and film.
V.R.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.
BrazzilWhat are your future plans musically? Are you working on a second
V.R.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.
BrazzilWhen will you be coming to the United States?
V.R.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
CaliforniaLos Angeles and San Francisco. I think there might also be a performance
in New York and maybe Miami, Florida.
BrazzilAre you looking forward to the tour?
V.R.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.
BrazzilThere are many. Thank you for sharing so much of your time.
Noite de Temporal
É noite, é noite
Pescador não vá pra pesca
É noite, é noite
Pescador quando vai pra pesca
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,
It is night, it is night,
When the fisherman goes after the fish
It is night, it is night,
Trad. sung in Latin and
O vos omnes
|Oh, all you
who pass along the road,
Look, look, and then see
If there is pain
Like my pain.
Zuarte, Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe, 1831
Há no céu um espírito
|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
Concedendo-me a graça de ver
Um doce descascado pra mim
E sentir a alegria de ver
|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
A piece of candy unwrapped for me,
And to feel the gladness of seeing
1. The Koran says that the angel
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