Described as “an explosive mixture of Tina Turner with Celia Cruz,” by Time Out magazine, the main cultural guide of London, Elza Soares (da Conceição) is today an icon of Brazilian music.
In the following Q&A, the singer that Louis Armstrong called his “daughter” reveals her impressions formed from over seven decades of experience and more than 50 works. Recognized as BBC’s “Singer of the Millennium”, she embodies the essence of Brazilian myths and beliefs.
The raspy voice is her trademark, with which she won great success in and outside of Brazil, overcoming the barrier of social difference. Raised in a favela (shantytown/slum) in Rio de Janeiro, the daughter of a washerwoman and a factory worker, Elza became pregnant at only 12 years old, and six years later became a widow. She worked as a washerwoman, just like her mother, and, like her father, in a soap factory. At the age of 20 she came across the opportunity to audition as a singer, at the academy of professor Joaquim Negli, and was hired by Orquestra de Bailes Garan. After singing in a play in Argentina, she ended up singing on the Radio Tupi program of top composer Ary Barroso, and on to a club in Copacabana in Rio.
Her first album was recorded in 1960, on the Odeon label, singing the song “Se Acaso Você Chegasse” which was also the title of her first LP. Two years later she sang with the legendary Louis Armstrong, who referred to her as his “daughter”, at the World Cup in Santiago, the capital of Chile. It was there that she met Garrincha, one of the greatest players in the history of the Brazilian national soccer team, with whom he married and went to live in Italy for a few years.
However, the singer’s life was not rosy as it may seem: she had eight children, but lost four of them, besides having suffered domestic violence. Her musical career includes about 30 albums and numerous participations in national productions of top songwriters such as Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso and Toquinho. In 2000 Elza Soares was awarded by London’s BBC as “Singer of the Millennium”.
Elza doesn’t reveal her age, but it is believed that she born on June 23, 1937, which would make her 75 years old. Despite the pain caused by a bad fall on stage in 2003, she is in shape and has a body that would leave even a model with her mouth open. But more than that, what surprises even Elza herself is her strength in the face of many adversities. “I am my own the Phoenix, always rising from the ashes.”
Throughout your career, you steered clear of political issues, but even so you still suffered from this, right?
During the (military) dictatorship (1964-1985) they took my house, kicked me out of the country and I had to go to Italy. They shot up my whole house. I don’t know why they sent me away. I went and I left my children. Within 24 hours they were put on the street. They took everything. Because of this, I have a sick child today.
What was the charge?
To this day I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I did a show with (singer-songwriter) Geraldo Vandré (1), who was a very close friend. I don’t know. When I started singing, (songwriter/producer/journalist) Ronaldo Bôscoli gave a title to what I did: Bossa Negra (2). He thought that I would be a great woman to defend the race. I said: “Look, my children today are eating beans, rice and steak. For God’s sake, I can’t go back to eating grass.” He said I was “the strongest woman that Brazil ever produced.”
Have you ever thought of quitting singing?
One day I thought (about this). But singing is still my greatest sedative. Without music I am nothing. Without the stage, I am nobody. But I wanted to stop. I moved to São Paulo and found a women’s home that cared for children and they needed volunteers. When I went in the house, one of the ladies was shocked: “What are you doing here? You can’t leave music.” But the truth is that I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt very pressured to be what I was not.
What did you want to be?
They always liked to label me as a sambista. I love Samba, but I’m not a sambista (3). I sing Samba, I sing Jazz, Samba-Jazz; I sing Samba-Rock. I consider myself the greatest Samba-Rocker. Throughout my life I’ve received many titles. I’m very grateful. They say that Brazil is the country of Samba, but I think this is the country of Rock and Roll. I like Hip Hop, I like everything. I am Cazuza, I am Titãs (4), I am this whole race.
Elza Soares – Rio, Carnaval dos Carnavais (1973)
In 2000, you and Tina Turner were considered “Singers of the Millennium” by the BBC. What was that like?
In the presenting of the award, I was still recovering from the fall. When I arrived in London, they brought me a wheelchair. I refused to sit in that thing. In the dressing room before going on stage, I decided to take off the vest I had to wear. I felt like a heron…so light, flying. At the entrance to the stage, I put down the cane. I never sang so much in my life. There was my idol, (popular Brazilian singer-songwriter) Chico Buarque, who is everything in this world. In this show, I went crazy. I didn’t feel any pain. Afterward I paid the price: I was in bed five days taking medicine.
What was your major musical reference?
To tell the truth, in the beginning, nothing. I was too poor, I didn’t have money for anything. And being poor at that time, you bought a radio, you didn’t buy bread. But one day my father bought a radio. And every night he listened to A Voz do Brasil (the Voice of Brazil, long-running radio program). It was so boring. But it had that opening [hums], and that deep voice: “Good evening to you (all).” After that I started my career, I got to know the singers who were successful. When I met (singer) Dalva de Oliveira for the first time … Whoa! And (singer) Ângela Maria? She made many beautiful dresses for me to sing in. How will I forget a woman like that?
What were your childhood dreams? It never passed through your mind to be a singer?
I had this desire because my father was a musician and I got used to singing. He sat me on his lap and asked me to sing. But when he saw that the thing had become reality, he said: “You will be a teacher.” He didn’t want his daughter in the night (life).
Despite the ups and downs of your career, you’ve always had your space it seems?
Thank God. Even in the down moments here, like the phoenix, I was at my peak. Everyone needs a moment to reflect, to be alone, listen to classical music, rock. My life is like this. Every five minutes, (there’s) a challenge.
Elza Soares – Malandro
What day were you born on?
I don’t know nor do I want to know. If you know, I’ll be sad.
Her first success came with the single “Se Acaso Você Chegasse” in which she introduced the “scat” vocal à la Louis Armstrong, injecting a jazzification into Samba divergent from Bossa Nova.
Some of her hits of the ‘60s were “Sambou, Sambou”, “Mulata Assanhada” and “Devagar com a Louça”, among others. In 1970, on a trip to Italy, she recorded the Jorge Ben-penned “Que Maravilha” and the Zé Keti-composed “Máscara Negra”. Also popular were her interpretations of “Maria-vai-com-as-outras” and “Saltei de Banda”. With her exaggerated and sincere style she conquered audiences in Brazil and around the world, spending periods in the United States and Europe. In the ‘70s, she found success with “Salve a Mocidade” and “Malandro”, the song that launched popular singer-songwriter Jorge Aragão’s career. In the 80s, she almost walked away from her career until (popular singer-songwriter) Caetano Veloso invited her to record “Língua” in duet with him. Thereafter, she recorded two more LPs in 1985 and 1988. She spent some time in the United States and in the mid ‘90s returned with a vengeance performing in various shows, particularly in Rio de Janeiro. She released two more CDs: Trajectory (1997) and Carioca da Gema (Ao Vivo) (1999). In 2000, she won the “Singer of the Millennium” award from the BBC in London, and in that city she performed in a show alongside popular singers Gal Costa, Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Virginia Rodrigues.
In 2009, Elza was moved to tears in a recording studio where she would record the classic Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit”. Two years later, before another series of photos and interviews, Soares was still captivated by the sound of the song as it played in her car CD-player and on her way to a studio in the Rio neighborhood of Santa Teresa, where he would spend eight hours. The voice is her own, piercing and impregnated with emotion; the song had been done for a Jazz CD that she was preparing. Prior to this interpretation, only Holliday, who released “Strange Fruit” in 1939, and Nina Simone, who re-recorded it in 1994, had done the song in such a visceral manner.
A poem by Lewis Allen, “Strange Fruit” depicts the lynching of two black men who were hung in a tree so that their blood drained from their bodies, rotting in the sun to serve as a “lesson” to other southern rebels of the United States, anxious for rights equal to those of whites. Elza didn’t sleep at night, she woke up with stomach pains and her breakfast was restricted to a guava juice. “As I sang, the music took me to other places, the experience was so strong,” she says. Asked if she was speaking of transcendence, Elza responded that she felt close to blacks who bled for an ideal, of Billie and Nina, who died in 1959 and 2003, respectively. “When I dare to sing Jazz, I liberate myself, I take part of something that I consider to be mine also. It’s the cry of blacks from Africa, which sounds in Rio, Bahia (and) in Haiti.”
In 2004, she released a definitive statement with Do Cóccix até o Pescoço, a great artistic rebirth according to José Miguel Wisnik, the CD’s artistic director. “The CD brought Elza back to her place of importance.” The rap, A Carne, conquered generations who had never heard of her, and the singer filled huge houses like Canecão, the famous concert hall in Rio. In 2007, a cheeky and even better Elza released the live DVD Beba-me.
Over the years, even the casual observer will have noticed the changes in Elza’s face that have nothing to do with age. Her first facelift was in 1963. Since then, the singer has had others. “I can’t stand to see a little wrinkle. I stomp my foot and say: ‘I don’t want it!’ I go to the surgeon and he asks me to return 20 years from now to remove it.” At that time, Elza gets right to the point: “So you want to see me with grey hair and a cane? In 20 years I’m bent over the ground! I’ll go out and seek another one.” And she recommends it to women:” They don’t condemn me for my plastic surgery, they do it too. It’s damn good for your well-being. Old age would be nice if I lived in a country that respects wrinkles. Brazil doesn’t tolerate the elderly.” She also steers clear of cigarettes and alcohol. I only drink a little wine. I take care of my body, workout at the gym…I only drink to get fat.” Her health is teetering. She’s faced two problems that have marked her: her fall on stage in 2003 (she broke three ribs) and diverticulitis in 2007, which led to the operating table. Elza had a fantastic recovery in both cases and returned to singing, avoiding doctors before being discharged.
The tenacious vocal cord, which allows her to sing hoarse, deep and sharp, and this irreverent improvisation caught the attention of the sacred master of Jazz, Louis Armstrong, who heard her in Chile in 1962. “He called me his daughter, he said that, musically, I was very like him,” recalls Elza.
|Elza and soccer legend Garrincha|
The artist also lost her mother in a disaster that had Garrincha at the wheel drunk. Elza did what she could to help the man who had been the idol of the Brazilian national team overcome his shortcomings, but 14 years later she gave up. He died from alcoholism, in misery, after four suicide attempts.
You were the first Brazilian artist to speak of blackness in your work. Before the black woman came onto the music scene as the “mulher do cabelo duro (hard-haired woman) who doesn’t have a comb to comb her hair.
Elza Soares – The color of my skin does not mean less character or lesser value. I sing what I think, because the carne negra (black or dark meat) is still the cheapest on the market (referencing a lyric in her song “A Carne” (The Meat) that she recorded). Brazil owes me a lot. I became a professional very young and inexperienced. I was humiliated, offended and I remained silent. The need to eat and to raise my children was so great that if I stopped to argue in court, I would have lost my livelihood, my satisfaction. So I kept it moving, but I’m always singing to remind you that blacks exist. And not just blacks; gays and prostitutes don’t have a voice, and they are part of this great nation that I represent and that walk on the margins (of society).
1. Geraldo Vandré – 1960s Brazilian Popular Music artist who was forced into exile due to writing song lyrics that were deemed to be open opposition to the Brazilian military dictatorship that lasted from 1964-1985.
2. Bossa Negra – Bossa refers to the late ‘50s Brazilian music style known as Bossa Nova, a new way playing the Brazilian Samba with strong influences of American Jazz. The term negra translates as black in English. A Bossa Negra is also the title of Soares’s 1961 LP.
3. Sambista – Singer or musician who is known as a specialist in the style of music known as Samba. Here, Soares speaks of her desire to avoid being labeled a “sambista” as Brazil’s music industry often labeled black Brazilian singers and musicians in an almost folkloric, stereotypical manner that would also exclude these artists recording other types of music and expanding their audiences. For a further discussion of race and music in Brazil see the articles….
4. Cazuza and Titãs are both icons of the Brazilian Rock music scene beginning in the early 1980s. Cazuza’s career started as a member of the Rio-based band Barão Vermelho before pursuing a solo career. He died of complications of AIDs in 1990. The São Paulo-based band Titãs remains active today.