The story of the early days of the career of this Brazilian singer is what musical dreams are made of: she was playing the part of a deaf-mute girl in Bye Bye Pelô, a play staged by the Olodum Theater Group in her native Salvador, Bahia.
At the end of the play, her character finds her voice and sings "Verônica," a traditional Brazilian song.
So it happened that the legendary Caetano Veloso sat at one of the play’s rehearsals, and was moved to tears by the "celestial voice that came from this robust black woman." He also said that Rodrigues’ voice "transcends the distinction between erudite and popular."
He invited her to open one of his shows, and then went on to secure a record deal (a necessity in Brazil for an artist – there is an astonishingly small market for independent artists there) for her, and helped in the production of her début album, Sol Negro (Black Sun), which was supervised by guitarist Celso Fonseca.
Under Veloso’s watchful eye, the album showcased Rodrigues’ versatility by including songs in various styles, from Afro-inspired beats ("Negrume da Noite") to Brazilian classics by Ary Barroso ("Terra Seca"), Luis Bonfá ("Manhã de Carnaval") and more jazz-inflected moments ("Nobreza," written by Djavan).
The title track, written by Veloso, is one of the most beautiful tracks on the CD – it includes subtle orchestration and guest vocalist Milton Nascimento (he appeared at the New York Blue Note this past week), who adds to the tune without stealing the show.
The album did not make her a household name, as the pop-heavy radio stations in Brazil couldn’t find a niche to include her music in, but she gained the respect of the audience at home and especially abroad, where she has toured regularly.
Born in 1964 to a poor family in Salvador, she had to quit school at age 12 in order to help her family earn a living. At the age of 18, she began singing in church choirs and also at wedding and parties. In the meantime, she supported herself by working odd jobs until she finally – at 32 – found her place in the sun after the release of Sol Negro.
"I had three strikes against me", she once said. "I am a woman, I’m black and I’m poor".
Her statement is evidence of the camouflaged racism in a country where nearly 50% of the population is of African origin, but where so many stars in the music business are white. You won’t, however, find political statements in her music. Instead, you find songs that, in the words of her mentor, "are the unsuspected liberties that beauty takes when it presents itself."
She has since released two more albums. In her follow-up, Nós (Us), she changed direction and recorded a mix of songs in the rhythmically heavy Axé music, which is enormously popular in Brazil. The album was well received, reaching no. 15 in the World Music Europe Charts.
Always eager to explore new sounds, her next CD, Mares Profundos (Deep Oceans), she revisited the Afro-sambas composed by guitarist Baden Powell and Vinicius de Morais in the 60s. The recording was described as "a finely crafted and beautifully presented" album by BBC’s Jon Lusk.
She will be singing at the Blue Note, in New York, this weekend. Expect a mix of the three albums – her band includes a berimbau, the famous one-stringed instrument used in capoeira meets and also in Candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian religion that Rodrigues follows.
"I sing for people of African descent", she said in an interview, "for the Orixás (the gods of Candomblé), for the earth, water, air, for myself, and us".
Virginia Rodrigues at The Blue Note
October 29 and 30
131 W3rd St. NYC
212 475 8592
Sets at 8:00 and 10:30 PM
For tickets and more information: www.bluenotejazz.com
For additional tour info: www.eyefortalent.com
Ernest Barteldes is a freelance writer based on Staten Island, New York. He is a regular contributor to The Miami New Times, Brazzil, The New York Press, Global Rhythm magazine and All About Jazz-NY. He is also a columnist with The Brasilians and The Greenwich Village Gazette. His work has also appeared on The Staten Island Advance, The Florida Review (in Portuguese), Today’s Latino (in Spanish), Out Magazine, The New York Blade, The Boston Bay Windows, The New Times BPB, The Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.