Carmen Costa: The daughter of sharecroppers, the woman with the powerful voice recorded many hits and sang at Carnegie Hall


Yes, I admit knowing that the Mexican rancheira “Cielito Lindo” was written in 1882 by Quirino Mendosa y Cortés, but its transformation into a farewell waltz, in the Brazilian version of Henricão and Rubens Campos, is unsurpassed and it made so many forget the original, in Spanish, that it deserved so many re-recordings worldwide and even the English version recorded by Bing Crosby.


This, thanks to a young, black singer with a beautiful smile named Carmen Costa, who recorded this waltz in her first LP in 1942, and that became successful in all the Carnivals that followed. For me, Carmen’s interpretation of “Está chegando a hora” is exceeded only by the swinging version by (Brazilian Popular Music singer) Wilson Simonal (hear both versions below). Rereading an old edition of Raça Brasil magazine (1), I found the story of the struggle, suffering and over comings of this singer whose real name was Carmelita Madriaga, born in 1920, in the city of Trajano Moraes in the state of Rio de Janeiro, where her parents were farmers, working on a farm as sharecroppers, and died in Rio de Janeiro in 2007 at age 87.


As a girl, Carmelita worked as a maid in the house of a Protestant family and became enchanted with the religious hymns. It was then that she started to display her powerful voice, leading employers to believe that she would be a soloist in religious praise. But at 15 years old she was already in Rio, cleaning the home of the “Rei da voz (King of the voice)” Francisco Alves and frequenting the amateur programs such as those of composer Ary Barroso, which she would one day win.


The composer Henricão (Felipe Henrique da Costa), with whom she lived and formed a duo for many years and with whom she recorded, among other successes, “Casinha da Marambaia”, suggested she change her name to Carmen Costa. They separated in the first half of the 1940s, and in 1945, Carmen married the American Hans Van Koehler, and went to live in New Jersey, New York and Los Angeles. And since at that time, neither here nor there, did the Maria da Penha Law (2) exist, she could never denounce the beatings she suffered at the hands of her husband. If there were many sad memories related to the United States, there was at least one glorious one, such as the historic of Bossa Nova concert at Carnegie Hall in 1962, in which she participated. With this performance she became the first black Brazilian woman to sing at Carnegie Hall.

Historic Bossa Nova at Carnegie Hall concert in 1962
Historic Bossa Nova at Carnegie Hall concert in 1962

In the 1950s, back to Brazil, she went to live with composer Mirabeu Pinheiro. Two beautiful products of this union: Silésia, the only daughter, and the marchinha “Cachaça não é água (Cachaça is not water)”. Another big hit of the same era is the samba-canção “Eu sou a outra (I’m the other), in which the lyrics said, “Ele é casado. Eu sou a outra na vida dele (He’s married. I’m the other in his life)”. A reality she was living at the time.


The list of her musical hits, sambas, choros, marchinhas (such as “Você pensa que cachaça é água? Cachaça não é água não…” “Do you think rum is water? Cachaça (4) is not water, no …”), xotes, maxixes, frevos, batucadas, sambas-canções (3), boleros and other musical styles, is immense. Her talent was also recorded in films like Pra Lá de Boa (1949), Carnival em Marte (1955), Depois Eu Conto (1956) and Vou Te Contá (1958). Anyway, I’m here just trying to stir the memory of the amnesic Brazilian people. After all, isn’t it this that makes the plow on the ground where you want to throw seeds? So that we plant a lot of Brazilian-ness and blackness so that they are plentiful socio-cultural future harvests of our people.

Samba Abstrato – Carmen Costa (1974)

Source: Assistente Social, Raça Brasil


1. Raça Brasil is the only Brazilian magazine targeted specifically to the black Brazilian community. It was released in 1996.

2. Brazil’s Federal Law 11340, also called Lei Maria da Penha (Maria da Penha Law) was put in place with the intent of reducing domestic violence. It was sanctioned on August 7, 2006 by the President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2006-2010). Among the changes initiated by the law was an increase in punishment for those who practice domestic violence towards women. The law was put into practice on September 22, 2006; the first offender was arrested in Rio de Janeiro the next day, after trying to strangle his ex-wife. Source: Wiki

3. Samba-canção is, in its most common acceptance or interpretation, the denomination for a kind of Brazilian popular songs with some sort of samba rhythm. It appeared after the World War II, at the end of 1940s, and practically disappeared in the middle of 1960s when majority of composers began to present their songs without category denomination. The name is somewhat arbitrary, adopted by the music industry, that is, publishers and record companies, and some composers. Like many popular songs of the world, Samba-canção (plural ‘sambas-canções’)’s principal theme is the love relationship, typically moaning for a lost love. Tempo is moderate or a little slower. The denomination suggests that the song is more sophisticated, less earthy, than ordinary samba songs. Source: Wiki. For more on the previously mentioned musical styles, see the notes section of this article.

4. Cachaça is a liquor made from fermented sugarcane juice. It is the most popular distilled alcoholic beverage in Brazil. It is also known as aguardente, pinga, caninha and by many other names. Cachaça is mostly produced in Brazil, where, according to 2007 figures, 1.5 billion litres (390 million gallons) are consumed annually, compared with 15 million litres (4.0 million gallons) outside the country.[3] It is typically between 38% and 48% alcohol by volume. Source: Wiki

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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