Zaira de Oliveira (1891-1951) was a classically-trained soprano that studied at the Instituto Nacional de Música (National Institute of Music) which is currently called the Escola Nacional de Música (National School of Music). Although she sang such compositions as Puccini’s “Tosca”, as well as the compositions of Brazilian composers like Eduardo Souto, Alberto Nepomuceno and Carlos Gomes, she also sang popular songs of greats like Donga, Pixinguinha e João da Bahiana, all legendary black musicians who shaped the formation of Brazilian Popular Music.
In the mid-20s, she found success participating in various artistic festivals and singing fox-trot
numbers as well as Carnaval “marcha” tunes. The era would find her performing in some of Brazil’s finest halls of entertainment such as the Municipal Theatre in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro as well as Rio’s Cassino Copacabana Palace. The beginning of the 30s also found her performing on the Rádio Sociedade of Rio de Janeiro.
Although she was what Brazilian critic, poet and diplomat Paschoal Carlos Magno called “one of the greatest black singers in the world”, and the “Brazilian Marian Anderson”, her talents weren’t enough to avoid the inevitable effects of racism as many black women in Brazil must have felt in that era. In December of 1921, de Oliveira won first prize in a music school competition in which the winner would have been given a trip to Europe. De Oliveira was denied this honor simply because she was black. This didn’t deter her. In her view, having won the highest distinction in the most important official teaching organ of artistic expression in the then capital of Brazil was a motive of great pride for her.
De Oliveira also sang in various church choirs, and in 1932, she married the great Donga (Ernesto Joaquim Maria dos Santos), who is credited with recording the first Samba, Brazil’s national music, in 1917.