A Cinderella from Bahia:
"Once upon a time" – the amazing success story of Virgínia Rodrigues contains all the elements of a fairy tale – in the mid-90s, Márcio Meirelles, director of the Bando de Teatro de Olodum (Olodum Theatre Group), became aware of her exceptional talents and invited Rodrigues to join his ensemble at the Teatro Vila Velha in Salvador. She played the role of a deaf-mute girl in Bye Bye Pelô, who only finds her voice at the end of the play. But what a voice! She sang a heart-rending version of "Verônica", a Brazilian traditional song which would later turn up on her début album, Sol Negro. As the story goes, Caetano Veloso was in the audience at one of the rehearsals, and when he heard her sing he was moved to tears by "the celestial voice . . . that transcends the distinction between erudite and popular". After the rehearsal, Meirelles told Caetano that Virgínia had the wish of making a record of her own, but hadn’t found an interested record company. Caetano invited Virgínia to open a show for him, and then he made her wish come true.
Born in 1964 to a poor family in one of Salvador’s favelas, Virgínia Rodrigues dropped out of school by the age of twelve. Like so many Brazilian girls of humble origin, she had to help support her family by working as washerwoman, cleaning woman, manicurist, and cook. In her spare time she sang in Catholic and Pentecostal Evangelical church choirs, occasionally making a little extra money by performing at wedding parties and graduation balls. As she admits, she never went to church for the religion, only for the music. The choir practice gave her the chance to learn to read music, and she also received some instructions in music theory and on the piano. For three years she studied lyrical singing.
At that time and despite her socio-economic background, Virgínia had already developed quite uncommon musical tastes. Unlike the other girls of her age, she did not only listen to the Brazilian popular music that blared out of transistor radios everywhere in her native country, but also developed a special interest in black female singers, ranging from jazz greats like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, and soul divas like Aretha Franklin, to African-American opera and concert singers such as Marian Anderson and Jessye Norman.
"I have three strikes against me", Virgínia once said. "I’m a woman, I’m black, and I’m poor." It is a fact that female black singers are still astonishingly rare in Brazil, even though more than 45 per cent of the population is of African ancestry. Caetano Veloso, however, did not hesitate to help the then completely unknown 32-year-old singer make her first record. The album Sol Negro ("Black Sun"), produced and arranged by guitarist Celso Fonseca, featured guest appearances by internationally acclaimed Brazilian musical stars Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, and Djavan. The repertoire included Brazilian classics by Luiz Bonfá, Ary Barroso, and Synval Silva, and contemporary songs by Caetano, Djavan, Dorival Caymmi, and Carlinhos Brown, as well as the American spiritual "I Wanna Be Ready" (which was only released on the Brazilian edition). The album and the concerts which followed in Europe and the US earned Virgínia Rodrigues rave reviews.
The Times of London wrote: ". . . the new diva of Brazilian music. The 33-year old from Bahia has stunned all of Brazil with her heavenly début album Sol Negro, a rich mix of Portuguese and African influences and rootsy samba." The New York Times added: "[She is] the new voice of Brazilian music", The Observer said: "Her achingly pure voice is that of a miscreant choirboy, albeit one as comfortable with the percussive power of Bahia as churchy yearnings", and Rolling Stone acclaimed: "A spellbinding début from a South American diva".
On her second CD Nós ("Us"), released in 2000, Virgínia took a chance and interpreted a repertoire entirely consisting of axé music, a musical genre that is known less for its sophistication than for its infectious, thundering rhythms. But the songs of popular axé groups such as Ilê Aiyê, Olodum, Timbalada, Ara Ketu, and Afreketê served to emphasize Virgínia’s versatility and originality. "One of the most impressive international releases from the last few years", stated Stephen Cook in the All Music Guide. By the end of the year, Nós had reached no. 15 in the World Music Charts Europe (WMCE) and was included in the list of Amazon’s 100 best-selling international albums of the year in the US. In 2001, she again toured Europe, the US, and Japan. She also made a guest appearance on Lisboa – Rio, an album by António Chaínho, one of the masters of the guitarra portuguesa.
On Mares Profundos, her first recording for Deutsche Grammophon’s new label edge music, Virgínia Rodrigues, her mentor Caetano Veloso, and producer/guitarist Luiz Brasil present us with yet another facet of Afro-Bahian music and culture. This time they have chosen to revisit a classic song cycle written by two Brazilian musical legends: Vinícius de Moraes and Baden Powell. The first, a lyricist immortalized through his verses for bossa nova classics such as "Garota de Ipanema" ("Girl from Ipanema") and "Desafinado" as well as the musical and film soundtrack of Orfeo Negro ("Black Orpheus"), was left without a songwriting partner when Antônio Carlos Jobim left for New York at the height of the bossa nova craze in the early ’60s. He then teamed up with Baden Powell, a guitar virtuoso and composer who was more at home in samba than in bossa nova and had established his international reputation during long stays in Europe. Searching for new musical challenges, the two decided to go to Salvador da Bahia to explore the Afro-Brazilian culture which, at that time, was still almost unknown outside Brazil. The result was a collection of songs they called Afro-sambas and which they recorded in 1966 for Philips.
Virgínia Rodrigues, who is proud of her Afro-Bahian and African roots and a fierce critic of Brazil’s camouflaged racism, approaches these Afro-sambas in her own way and with enormous sensitivity. For almost twenty years she has been an initiated member of the polytheist Afro-Bahian Candomblé cult. A determined person, she is a daughter of Ogum, the god of war and iron, and therefore prepared (even more than Vinícius de Moraes and Baden Powell, who needed to do field research in Bahia before writing their Afro-sambas) to breathe new life into songs such as "Canto de Iemanjá", "Canto de Ossanha", and "Canto de Xangô" which deal with Candomblé divinities and ceremonies. "I sing for people of African descent", she once said in an interview. "I sing for the orixás, the gods of the Candomblé religion, for the earth, water, and air, for myself, and for us."
Virgínia reveals the full beauty of Vinícius’s and Baden Powell’s masterful pieces. As on her first two records, she subtly makes the songs she interprets her own. After listening to her eloquent renditions, you can hardly imagine these songs sung differently.
Jörg Eipasch 9/2003
Virginia Rodrigues toured Ireland in March 2004 performing at The Half Moon Cork and Liberty Hall DublinSee also: