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Elis Regina: The Voice of Brazil

 

by Dan Caine


In Brazil, where she was variously known as Pimentinha (Little Pepper) and Furacão (Hurricane), Elis Regina still wears the aura of sainthood, but in North America Elis Regina remains Brazil's best-kept secret twenty years after her death. The quality of her recordings guarantees that she someday will be heard here, too, as she was discovered in Europe and in Japan during her lifetime. When she finally does get that opportunity, some listeners will be reminded of Sarah Vaughan, others of Dinah Washington or Patsy Cline or even Janis Joplin, though, of course, she would never be mistaken for any of them. There seemed to be no song, no style, she could not make her own, and she did just that with hundreds of performances on stage and in studio.

Elis Regina Carvalho Costa was born on March 17, 1945, in Porto Alegre, in Brazil's southernmost province. She was the daughter of poor parents-the house she grew up in had a dirt floor-and she brought with her always the attitude of an outsider, a gaúcha, as the cariocas of Rio de Janeiro pejoratively tagged their countrymen from the south. Her entry into show business at the age of seven, a local radio singing contest, was not an auspicious one; Elis was unable to summon a syllable when her turn came to sing into the microphone, and she ran away in tears. Five years later, however, at the same radio contest she delivered an electrifying performance and began entertaining local audiences. She had her first recording contract at the age of fifteen, and by1965 had relocated to Rio and taken Brazil by storm. Yet even to the end of her career she was haunted by insecurities about her origins. At her triumphant 1979 performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Elis was overcome by a sudden onrush of tears and nearly blinded by her mascara. "I remembered that I was the daughter of a cleaning lady," she recalled. "What was I doing on that stage?"

A popular television variety show cemented Elis's supremacy among Brazilian entertainers in the mid-1960s, a highly volatile period politically and culturally. A military junta seized control of the country soon after the singer had arrived in Rio de Janeiro, and it soon used its instruments of repression against artists and intellectuals, forcing many into jail or exile. At the same time, popular music in Brazil, as in the United States, was undergoing a profound revaluation, a transition from older styles and bossa nova to what would be known as MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira)-Brazilian Popular Music. Elis Regina, on her European tour in 1969, angered her country's dictators by calling them "gorillas." She was also among the first mainstream entertainers to champion the works of the up-and-coming generation of Brazilian songwriters, including many of the dissident "tropicalistas" whose songs had been banned officially: Edu Lobo, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento, João Bosco, Ivan Lins, Joyce, Rita Lee, and scores of others whose names are now synonymous with the very best in Brazilian pop. At the same time, she was probably the finest-and most loyal-- interpreter of the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, whose international success and subsequent residence abroad were shrilly derided by his critics at home.

Elis's personal life was equally stormy. Her highly publicized marriage to her rakish early rival from the club years in Rio, Ronaldo Boscoli-under whose tutelage she developed much of her stage manner and appearance, including her trademark Mia Farrow hairstyle-- ended in an equally publicized, acrimonious divorce. Her second marriage, to her musical accompanist Cesar Camargo Mariano, lasted longer and led to a fruitful professional partnership, but it, too, ended in divorce. Friends and acquaintances were often subject to her extreme mood changes, and some became her enemies. (Others, like the cartoonist Henfil, turned an initial antagonism into a long friendship. His brother, exiled by the junta at that time, is honored in Elis's rendition of Bosco and Aldir Blanc's moving "O Bêbado e A Equilibrista," which became the anthem of Brazil's political amnesty movement, as the days of the junta drew to a close in the early 1980s.) Her relationship with her parents remained precarious to the end of her life.

The 1970s represented the apex of Elis Regina's career as a recording artist and concert attraction. The late years seemed to carry her into ever-newer and more challenging material. Her annual tours grew into extravaganzas with multiple orchestras, mixed choruses, and dancers. The voice itself continued to explore, to dance very near the flame. Her final recordings at the turn of the decade, perhaps influenced by the drugs that were to take her life, could be described as incandescent, as if she were aware of the little time she had left. Elis died alone in her bedroom in Sao Paulo, aged 36 and the mother of three, on January 19, 1982, wearing a t-shirt she had been officially forbidden to wear on a recent tour: it was the flag of Brazil, with her name in place of "Ordem E Progresso." Her body was waked by all of Brazil's artistic community and her death and funeral were headline news throughout the country, but perhaps the greater shock came two weeks later, when the cause of her death was determined to be an accidental combination of alcohol and cocaine, an addiction of which not even Elis's closest friends were aware. All of Brazil mourned her loss, the loss of the voice transcendent and triumphant.

Perhaps their loss- and ours-- might best be expressed in the words of one of Elis's songs,"Samba da Pergunta" ("Question Samba") by Marcos Vasconcellos. Where is the voice of intimacy, the voice of saudade?

She now lives in our thoughts or in the sky,
In all that travels in the heavens.
She might be an astronaut or maybe a little bird,
Or maybe a whirlwind, or maybe a silk paper kite, or maybe a toy balloon.
She could be on an asteroid or in the morning star you see from here, or she might be living on Mars.
We never heard about her any more.
She disappeared.

Hers was the voice of Brazil: the irresistible rhythms, the insistently memorable yet subtle melodies, the harmonious blending of the native, the African, and the European that spans the very best of American culture. She could transcend language to reach recesses of the heart impenetrable to words. According to her great contemporary, Antonio Carlos Jobim, "She could change in a song; suddenly she was water, wine, cachaça (Brazilian rum). She had complete command of her body and soul." And it could be added, the body and soul of her audience.

Next Month: Elis Regina Recordings

 

 

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