Virginia Rodrigues has been called "the new voice in Brazilian music" by
The New York Times
. Her home town Salvador
de Bahia, where African culture blends with Portugese, is called the
New Orleans of Brazil.
The popular Brazilian singer and
songwriter Caetano Veloso was invited up to Salvador to see a dress
rehearsal of a play in which Rodrigues played a deaf-mute. She was
still totally unknown. The director promised Veloso a surprise.
the very end of the play, finding her voice, Rodrigues's character
sings a traditional song called "Veronica," which Veloso
used to sing when he was a child. He was in tears listening to her
Later, Veloso explained: "To hear
this song in the celestial voice that came out of the plump body of a
robust black woman moved me greatly. Her voice transcends the
distinction between erudite and popular. I was deeply impressed with
her unique timbre and her profound sensibility. From that time forward
I had it in mind to cooperate in the recording of her art on record."
went on to produce her first album "Sol Negro" ("Black
Sun") which has recently been released in Europe on Hannibal
Records and on which the Brazilian stars Milton Nascimento, Gilberto
Gil and Djavan make guest appearances. One of the songs, a samba
called "Adeus, Batacuda" (Goodbye Dance Hall) has "unexpected
freshness," Veloso wrote, with unintentional kitsch, in the album
notes, "because she learned it without ever having heard the
famous recording by Carmen Miranda."
Veloso said he
wanted to produce "the kind of record that she deserves - and
that Brazil needs. With the dense culture at the base of her calm and
firm singing, it would be, without a doubt, a phonographic event of
great importance. Uniting a religious soul and a sensitive body from
Bahia, her voice, if heard by many, would reveal essential aspects of
the cultural spirit of this land."
Brazilians tend to
regard their music and the relationship between the people who make it
on an intense spiritual level. They have been known to go a bit
overboard about it. Still, there is obviously something very special
about Rodrigues. Her voice is more reminiscent of opera arias, of
leider and gospel, than of jazz, rock or the samba. When you do not
understand the language, her Portugese might conceivably be confused
with Latin. Regardless of the meaning of the words, her texture is
spiritual, even religious. Her arrangement of a traditional song like
"Veronica" defines "tradition" almost in medieval
Her mother sold fruit and vegetables in a street
market. Her father, who died two years ago, was an ice cream vendor. "I
have three strikes against me," she said. "I'm a woman, I'm
black and I'm poor." But her album should not be taken as social
commentary. "What should rouse one's attention," Veloso
writes, "are the unsuspected liberties that beauty takes when it
At the age of 18 she started to sing in church choirs and for
weddings and parties and she won a prize on a TV amateur hour. When
there were not enough singing engagements, she worked as a manicurist,
a cook and a cleaning lady. Just before recording "Sol Negro"
last year, she was 29, she had been singing Bach and baroque music in
general in a Catholic church choir. From choir practice she learned
how to read music, she has begun to study musical theory and she
learned enough piano to be able to rehearse alone at home.
only recently began to make a living doing what she loves. Her income
from singing made it possible for her to rent her own apartment. While
she has plans involving long visits to Paris (this is her first visit,
she loves it) and New York (a year to learn English and study with a
voice coach), she will always return to live in Salvador.
on her first international showcase tour, she is traveling from one
city center to another - Paris, Brussels, Hamburg, New York, Chicago,
San Francisco, Miami - show after show for small groups of record
business people, journalists and cognoscenti. They add up to a tough
audience; sensitive and intelligent people who hear too much music and
tend to be easily distracted. Seeing her on stage you sense the
fragility of her talent. Nevertheless, her voice has been seducing
them all along the way.
Not yet habituated to international
success - indeed, not quite yet internationally successful - she loves
to travel because she discovers different degrees of tension. Changing
cultures and languages change the quality of excitement before she
goes on stage. There is always fresh anticipation. She gets nervous,
but nothing serious. Her experience is beginning to add up. For
instance, she has appeared on television with David Byrne.
what she listens to, the answer included Bach, Pavorotti, Milton
Nascimento, Billie Holiday ("everybody in Brazil knows Billie
Holiday") and Aretha Franklin. Her parents could not afford a
record player so most of it came over the radio and from friends.
Before she left for this tour, a friend gave her some song lyrics and
asked her to write music to them. She would like to be able to do it,
she never has, she plans to try. Her smile is beautiful, open, shy
childlike. Now it turned sly as she said: "It gets hard to learn
how to do new things when you're old."
To plan "Sol
Negro," she and Veloso chose between the songs she liked. Then
they chose the instruments to accompany her - two percussionists, a
viola, an acoustic guitar and a contra-bass plus the occasional
wah-wah peddle. There are two women and three men in her band and two
of them double on a one stringed Brazilian instrument called the
Rodrigues calls the record a "salad." It
is a mixture of samba, jazz, percussion and violins: "A caviar
salad." It did better than expected in Brazil. It was intimate
and yet dramatic, classical yet popular. The reviews were positive but
the radio was not expected to play it because it did not fit into any
one niche. As inspiration for her next one, she has been listening to
Marion Anderson and Paul Robeson.
Her innocence and
spirituality combine to support Veloso when he says: "This is our
wealth; the love that in Brazil those who love music devote to one
another. No one takes this from us. And the voice of Virginia is the
expression of this loving substance in a pure state."
Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the
International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the
European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author
of several books on jazz and the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.