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The Unsuspected Liberties That Beauty Takes When It Presents Itself
by Mike Zwerin


PARIS - 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.

At 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 angelic contralto.

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."

He 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 terms.

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 presents itself."



V I R G I N I A   R O D R I G U E S

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.

She 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.

Currently, 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.

Asked 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 berimbau.

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.


Photo: Virginia Rodrigues.
Credit: Hannibal Records / John Maier Jr.

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