The musical ‘Elza’ about the life of the ‘Brazilian Tina Turner’, Elza Soares, wins theater awards; question remains: Where are Brazil’s black women superstars?
Note from BW of Brazil: Last April, in an article about musician/singer Júlia Dias, the mention of a musical about the life and career of the legendary Elza Soares first appeared here. Needless to say, I was excited about the project that was feature seven black women interpreting different stages in the trajectory of the singer that the BBC named the “Singer of the Century”, Brazil’s Tina Turner and Celia Cruz. I didn’t get around to doing a report on the musical because I was hoping to see the show myself. In November of last year, I was able to catch the last performance of the spectacular when it made a stop at the SESC Pinheiro auditorium. To sum it up, I was simply blown away! Today, with the last show of the season of the musical winding down in Rio’s Imperator cultural center, I am finally publishing a post I starting writing after that November 18th performance at SESC Pinheiros in São Paulo that I never got around to finishing. I hope the musical continues and hits other cities because the show is absolutely dazzling! Proof of this are the awards the musical took last month at a prestigious award ceremony recognizing the best in theater.
Check the pieces below including my own thoughts on the show and what it represents.
An award-winning piece, musical ‘Elza’ debuts season at Imperator
The show will be held from January to February on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Courtesy of O Dia
The musical “Elza” was awarded in several categories by art and theater critics and will celebrate the success of the assembly with a season at the Imperator. From Jan. 31 to Feb. 24, singer Elza Soares’ trajectory can be seen from the musical that narrates the life and career of the artist synonymous with resistance and reinvention.
Actresses Larissa Luz, Janamô, Júlia Tizumba, Késia Estácio, Khrystal, Laís Lacorte and Verônica Bonfim will take to the stage at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and on Sundays at 7 p.m.
The cast of the musical Elza awarded: “Representativeness matters”.
By Leonardo Torres
The musical “Elza” received two trophies at the Prêmio Cesgranrio (Cesgranrio Awards) – one for the direction of Duda Maia and special one for for the cast. Janamô, Verônica Bonfim and Késia Estácio, three actresses from the show, took to the stage to represent the others, who could not attend. “Representation matters and it matters a lot,” said Veronica, reading a text prepared previously. This was the first award given to the cast of “Elza”, composed of only black women.
“To talk about Elza [Soares] is to talk about us, to talk about women, especially black women. Viola Davis, on receiving the Emmy for best actress – the first black woman to receive this award – said: ‘a única coisa que separa as mulheres negras de qualquer outra pessoa é a oportunidade (the only thing that separates black women from anyone else is opportunity). (…) We hope that new stories can be written, where we are not made invisible, silenced or reduced in our powers. A carne mais barata do mercado FOI a carne negra (The cheapest meat on the market WAS the dark meat),” the actress said.
Note from BW of Brazil: As I mentioned in the intro, the piece below was initiated on last November 19th, the day after I attended the Elza show in São Paulo.
‘Elza’ the Musical
By Marques Travae
Yesterday, November 18th, I had the pleasure of attending the musical Elza, a show highlighting the life and career of singer Elza Soares. For those outside of Brazil who have probably never heard of her, Soares was named by the BBC as the “Singer of the Millenium”, an enormous honor considering the countless number of prominent American singers of the 20th century that she beat out. Rolling Stone Brasil magazine also listed her among the 100 greatest voices of Brazilian music. The BBC also labeled her the “Brazilian Tina Turner”. Soares’ career spans from the early 1950s to the present day, with her latest CD Deus é Mulher, meaning ‘God is a woman’, being released earlier this year. In 2016, Soares won a Latin Grammy Award in the category of Melhor Álbum de Música Popular Brasileira (Best Album of Brazilian Popular Music) for her album A Mulher do Fim do Mundo.
Today, at the age of 81, Soares is enjoying an outpouring of respect for her body of work as well as her courage, perseverance and representation as a black woman in the world of Brazilian Popular Music. The musical that takes her name features seven black singers representing different eras of Soares’ life. Singers Larissa Luz, Janamô, Júlia Tizumba, Késia Estácio, Khrystal, Laís Lacorte and Verônica Bonfim all share the stage in presenting the success, triumphs and difficulties of the artist’s life, from her poor origins in Rio de Janeiro through her rise to stardom that would bring her national and international fame.
The seven artists all take turns presenting not only Soares but also various figures who played prominent roles in the singer’s life, such as family and friends and people such as Ary Barroso (1903-1964) one of Brazil’s most important songwriters and the host of the program in which she performed for the first time, and futebol legend, Mané Garrincha (1933-1983), with whom she had a highly publicized and rocky marriage.
Having endured a career that has lasted 65 years, Soares made a name for herself singing Samba, Bossa Nova, Samba Jazz, Samba Rock and Samba Enredo in her raspy vocal style that was her signature. An intriguing detail about Soares’ style of singing was that she claims that she had never heard the “scat” style of singing she became famous for that most music fans associate with Jazz greats Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Hearing Armstrong for the first time, Soares thought the American musician was imitating her as she wasn’t familiar with his work. The sound of her voice fascinated the public and would lead to tours of the United States and Europe in the 1970s.
The 21st century has seen Soares gain popularity with a new generation at a time when black Brazilian women are demanding their place in the sun in Brazilian society and see in Soares a role model of the survival that is the black Brazilian woman’s life and the representation she desires.
The musical features a script by Vinícius Calderoni, is directed by Duda Maia with musical direction by Pedro Luís, Antônia Adnet and Larissa Luz, one of the original seven women featured in the show. For the show that I attended, Luz was replaced by the equally incredible Bia Ferreira, arguably the standout of the show even among such amazing performances by all of the singers.
One of the most important facets of the show that grabs one’s attention and brings a new life to Soares’ music were the new arrangements of her classics by Letieres Leite, of the Orquestra Rumpilezz. The Leite arrangements bring a bright modern sound mixing funky, jazzy elements that are only challenged by the vocal exercises of the seven vocalists. Adding to night of the feminine power of the show, the six-piece band was also composed of all women.
Elza: The Musical
But it was the vocals of the seven women that were the highlights of the night. With dialogue that had the audience laughing, and feeling every moment of the show, the spectacular was frequently punctuated by the thunderous applause of an appreciating audience. And why not? The ladies perfectly performed two-part, three-part and seven-part harmonies that were sheer vocal perfection. Listening to the often times soaring voices of these women continuously reminded the audience that the voice is indeed a musical instrument. These women weren’t singing; they were SANGIN’!! The vocal dynamics and complexities displayed during the numbers led to numerous moments in which everyone in that audience must have been getting collective goose bumps demanded by the musical dominion and perfection emanating from the seven figures on that stage. Such was the power of the these voices, I found myself wondering how these ladies recovered and put this show on night in and night out. I don’t ever remember hearing this type of singing on Samba albums, which leads me to another point.
In a 2012 article, after the death of one of the greatest pop singers of all-time, I opined how Brazil would never allow a black woman to reach the levels of success of a Whitney Houston, regardless of her talent. In the article, I referred to the book Solistas Dissonantes – História (Oral) de Cantoras Negras, by author Ricardo Santhiago. In the book, Santhiago interviewed 13 black Brazilian female singers that fought throughout their careers to sing the type of music they wanted to sing without being forced to sing a certain type of music simply because they were black. In Brazil, that music is Samba. For many years, the music industry standard was that if a woman were black, she would automatically be pushed into singing Samba, which blocked the possibility of black female singers from reaching the more lucrative Brazilian Popular Music market, which was dominated by white singers and bands.
Anyone who has gotten into Brazilian music has probably spent their fair share of time listening to sambas. I enjoy and respect Samba, but in some ways it is similar to the Blues in which there are times when all of the songs begin to sound the same. In my many trips to Brazil over the years, whatever major city I would visit, I would always take the time to find a sebo (used record store) that sold vinyl albums. Over this period, I explored all sorts of music, including Samba, Brazilian Rock, MPB (Brazilian Popular Music), Choro and Bossa Nova.
Having gone through hundreds of music album bins over nearly two decades, I began to notice a certain trend. If I was flicking through the Samba section, I would see numerous black singers and groups but when I would switch over to the MPB, Rock and Brazilian Instrumental sections, the black faces on the album covers became few and far between. Of course there were greats such as Gilberto Gil, Djavan, Milton Nascimento, Jorge Ben and Tim Maia, but for every black singer in MPB, it seemed there were 25-30 white artists. And black women were also noticeably scarce in the MPB category.
The Santhiago book also makes the point that having piano as one of the instruments in a singer’s band was a symbol of status and ascension. It’s not hard to tell why. In typical Samba songs, the instrumentation centers around an acoustic guitar, cavaquinho (similar to a ukulele), cuíca, tambourine, reco-reco and a surdo, the last four all percussion instruments. On thousands of Samba album covers, the image is often the same: A group of four to six black men all side by side holding these instruments with wide grins on their faces.
Like the Blues, in Samba you often hear similar chord progressions to the point that the rhythms get quite monotonous. What I noted in searching these music bins was that the more sophisticated and experimental the music got, the fewer black faces you would find. Go to any well-stocked American used vinyl album stores and you’ll find thousands of instrumental Jazz albums with complex arrangements, chord progressions and solos by hundreds of black musicians whose musical experiments make Jazz one of the most sophisticated forms of popular music. Unfortunately, black musicians in Brazil apparently didn’t have the same opportunities. I mean, where are Brazil’s equivalents to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk?
This is not to say there are no great Afro-Brazilian great instrumental musicians. In my crate digging, I discovered names such as Bola Sete, Moacir Santos, Moacyr Silva, Paulo Moura, Raul de Souza, Waltel Branco, Baden Powell and Pixinguinho, who some see as a Brazilian Louis Armstrong. There are a few more respected black Brazilian instrumental musicians that are recognized as being among the best Brazil has to offer, but they are few and far between. I must also mention pianist Johnny Alf, who is credited with initiating the style that would come to be known as Bossa Nova, which most music critics define as a mixture of Brazilian Samba with American Jazz. But interestingly, the style known as Bossa Nova from the late 1950s and early 1960s was a musical movement dominated by white, middle class Rio-based musicians.
Another interesting fact I noticed in my discoveries of Brazilian music was that, in general, when Brazilian musicians make it on an international level and begin collaborating with American singers and musicians, most of the time, they are white representatives of Brazilian music. Antonio Carlos Jobim, generally recognized as the most important of the Bossa Nova movement, collaborated with Frank Sinatra. Guitarist João Gilberto, another important Bossa figure, collaborated with saxophonist Stan Getz in some classic recordings. In the late 1970s, musician/producer Eumir Deodato produced a number of albums for R&B/Funk group Kool & the Gang. Popular singer/songwriter Marcos Valle also collaborated with R&B musician/producer Leon Ware. This isn’t to say there are no American musicians collaborating with black Brazilian musicians (Dizzy Gillespie with Trio Mocotó, for example), but, from what I’ve seen, when Brazilian music and musicians gain exposure in the US, they are generally white. One black Brazilian whose music caught on in the US was MPB great Milton Nascimento whose music caught the attention of American Jazz musicians sometime in the 1970s. As if the rule of black musicians still being more prominent in the realm of Samba today, I find it intriguing that, although all of the musicians of the Elza musical were women, they were all white women.
What I can confirm from watching Elza is that Brazil probably has an enormous, untapped population of black talent that we may never get to know. A few years ago, I did a story on Thalita Pertuzatti, a young woman from Itaboraí, a city in the state of Rio de Janeiro, who was being billed as the “Brazilian Whitney Houston”. The girl had the pipes even as she was still perhaps a bit rough around the edges. In that article, I mentioned that, even though she was clearly vocally gifted, I wondered what the Brazilian music market would do with her. She’s not a funkeira (funk singer) or a rapper and she’s not singing samba. The singer with gospel origins first became recognized for her talent after being crowned champion on the Programa Raul Gil, in 2009, and being a finalist on the first edition of the The Voice Brasil in 2012, both entertainment reality shows.
Thalita has been performing Whitney Houston tribute shows for some time, wowing TV audiences with her golden voice and attracting millions of views of her YouTube videos. But she hasn’t managed to secure a major record deal that would bring her voice to radio stations across Brazil. One must ask the question: WHY?
Black women across Brazil nowadays are demanding a representation that Brazil has never offered to them. And the Elza musical reiterates this point in not saluting Soares, but in bringing her relevance to the 21st century in which black women no longer want to automatically be defined as “the help“, the Carnaval dancer or the hyper-sexualized mulata.
For me, perhaps the most memorable part of the show was when Bia Ferreira and later her co-stars all began chanting the phrase “A carne mais barata do mercado é a carne negra”, meaning “the cheapest meat on the market is the dark (black) meat”, taken from the Soares 2002 hit “A Carne”. The song is a outcry that speaks on how Brazil has treated and disrespected its black population for centuries, figuratively lowering the value of black lives in Brazil. After chanting the phrase “A carne mais barata do mercado é a carne negra”, the ladies change the lyric to “A carne mais barata do mercado ERA a carne negra”, meaning ‘the cheapest meat on the market WAS the dark (black) meat.” The interjection speaks defiantly to the fact that the black Brazilian woman of today will no longer sit passively and be relegated to “the place” Brazilian society has long placed her. The song has become a cry of resistance of black Brazilians in general and black women specifically.
“A Carne” from the Elza musical
The Elza musical is an amazing show that will blow you away if you ever get a chance to see it. But this musical also demonstrates that black women and black people in Brazil, still don’t get the opportunities to become multi-platinum divas of the pop stratosphere like a Whitney, Beyoncé or Mariah. But yet Brazil wants us to continue to believe color has nothing to do with it. I ain’t buying it. And the simple fact that we can’t name more than a few black women who managed to reach the heights of Elza Soares is proof of this.
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