Virgínia Rodrigues is a Brazilian vocalist whose talents are highly praised by international critics, but they have struggled to describe her many vocal attributes. An entry in the book MusicHound World: The Essential Album Guide declared that Rodrigues "brings a classical insight and excellence to a thoroughly modern variety of expression." Ever since her discovery by Brazilian singer and songwriter Caetano Veloso in the 1990s, Rodrigues has been thrust on the world stage, recording and touring internationally and achieving a level of success that is worlds away from the poverty in which she grew up.
Rodrigues was raised in the favelas or shantytowns of Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. As a black woman, opportunities to succeed or leave this world of poverty seemed non-existent. Her mother was a produce vendor; her father, an ice cream vendor and construction worker. Her grandfather, who played accordion, was a formative influence on Rodrigues. She dropped out of school at the age of 12 and began working as a cook and manicurist in order to help support her family. "I had to fight being poor, being black and a woman—three strikes against me there," she told Down Beat in 1999. "Only music can break that chain of stupid things that men can think and do."
Rodrigues sang in both Protestant and Catholic church choirs, as well as at weddings and parties. Singing in the local churches was a refuge and provided her with hope. It was there that she received what little formal vocal and piano training was available to her, and where she learned the rudiments of music reading and theory. As she continued to study piano, she learned enough to accompany herself while practicing.
Rodrigues left the church while in her twenties, becoming a devotee of Candomblé, a West African-based religion that is practiced in many Afro-Caribbean nations under a variety of names, including Santería in Cuba and Voudon in Haiti. She sang in Candomblé ceremonies throughout her teens, and this would continue to have a profound influence on her spiritual and musical life.
In the mid-1990s Rodrigues was performing in the play "Bye Bye, Pelô" with the Olodum Theatre Company, when her life changed radically. An invited guest to the dress rehearsal was Caetano Veloso, the legendary Brazilian vocalist. At the end of the show, Rodrigues's character sang a capella the liturgical song "Verônica." Veloso had sung this song in his youth, and her performance deeply affected him. "To hear this song in the celestial voice that came out of the plump body of a robust black woman moved me greatly. Her voice transcends the distinction between erudite and popular," Veloso said in an interview with the online publication Culture Kiosque. "I was deeply impressed with her unique timbre and her profound sensibility.… Uniting a religious soul and a sensitive body from Bahia, her voice, if heard by many, would reveal essential aspects of the cultural spirit of this land."
Veloso began to work with Rodrigues. When production began on Rodrigues's first album, he obtained assistance from several colleagues who represented a who's who in Brazilian Popular Music: Djavan, Gilberto Gil, and Milton Nascimento. The result was Sol Negro, a captivating debut consisting of a wide variety of song styles, from the popular "Adeus, Batucada"—popularized by Carmen Miranda, with whom Rodrigues was not familiar—to religious songs including "Verônica."
Rodrigues made her five-night performance debut at the Museum of Modern Art in her hometown, "at the spot where they brought in the black slaves from Africa," she told Down Beat in 1999. She went to Rio de Janiero in June of 1997, where her debut concert was sold out. The world press became as enchanted with her autobiography as with her music, causing writers to compare Rodrigues's life story to that of a musical Cinderella or a discovery worthy of "golden era Hollywood musicals," according to Aaron Cohen in Down Beat. Sol Negro soon became an international phenomenon. MusicHound World described the album as "forty minutes that changed the course of world-music history. Just wait and see."
The praise continued. Nos, released in 2000, "cements [Rodrigues's] place among the world's great contraltos, regardless of genre," wrote critic Harvey Pekar in the Austin Chronicle. "Her timbre is exceptionally broad and rich—she has a fine range—and her time and pitch are right on the money. Not identifying with any particular style of Brazilian music, she instead makes every song her own." Among her own musical influences, Rodrigues has variously named Bach, Luciano Pavarotti, Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin, as well as Brazilian popular artists including Nascimento, Veloso, Gil, Bethânia, and Selma Reis. In more recent interviews, Rodrigues has also named African-American vocalists, including operatic stars including Jessye Norman, Marian Anderson, and Paul Robeson, as well as popular singers Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, and Sarah Vaughan.
Mares Profundos, an album consisting primarily of Afro-sambas written by Vinicius de Moraes and Baden Powell in the 1960s, was released in late 2003. It draws from Rodrigues's own roots and is reflective of her spirituality. Most songs are based on Candomblé and Umbanda rituals. Both are offshoots of the West African (Nigerian) Yoruban religion, typically practiced by Brazilians of African descent. The album was named a Critic's Choice by Billboard. Other critics continued to praise Rodrigues's voice. Entertainment Weekly called it "a billowing contralto that turns vowels into cloud-scapes," and Billboard 's Leila Cobo wrote that she "never ceases to sound beautiful—nor is this album ever less than tasteful."
According to MusicHound World, "Rodrigues's story has a happily-ever-after, and whatever rewards she now reaps can't compare with her gift to the world." In an interview with Brazil online, Rodrigues said, "My music is a mix of every thing that I've heard in my life and that has happened in my life—in my childhood, in my church. I don't define it as something special, but a music that touches everybody.… Most of all, it is music that reaches your heart."
Rodrigues has continued to seem genuinely untrammeled by her success. "I'm trying to show with my music … the beauty that all human beings have," she told the Los Angeles Times. "In Brazil, if you are black it's almost as if the only way you can be accepted is if you are [soccer star] Pele.… I'm trying to show people, little by little, that the black Brazilian people should have pride in who they are. Their history. Not by turning the racism the other way, but by educating people. To show them how to look for a place under the sun."
For the Record …
Born Virgínia Rodrigues da Silva in 1964, in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil.
Discovered by Brazilian vocalist Caetano Veloso, c. 1996; stage debut, Olodum Theatre Company, c. 1996; began recording, 1997; released album Sol Negro, 1997; singing debut, Salvador de Bahia, 1997; sold-out performance, Teatro Rival, Rio de Janiero, June 1997; released album Nos, 2000; released Mares Profundos, 2003.
Addresses: Record companies— Deutsche Grammophon, Alte Rabenstrasse 2, 20148 Hamburg, Germany, website: http://www.deutschegrammophon.com. Universal Music Group, Worldwide Plaza, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019.
Sol Negro, Natasha, 1997; reissued, Hannibal/Rykodisc, 1998.
Nos, Hannibal/Rykodisc, 2000.
Mares Profundos, Deutsche Grammophon, 2003; Edge/Universal Classics, 2003.
Krich, John, Why is This Country Dancing: A One-Man Samba to the Beat of Brazil, Cooper Square, 2003.
McGovern, Adam, editor, MusicHound World: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 1999.
Billboard, November 22, 2003.
Down Beat, April 1999; August 2000; February 1, 2004.
Entertainment Weekly, January 9, 2004.
Interview, March 2000.
Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2003.
New Internationalist, July 2000.
Times of London, April 18, 2000.
"From Sacred to Samba," Brazzil, http://www.brazzil.com/mussep98.htm (February 26, 2004).
"Record Reviews: Virgínia Rodrigues—Nos," Austin Chronicle, http://www.austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2000-06-02/music_reviews8.html (February 26, 2004).
"The Unsuspected Liberties That Beauty Takes When It Presents Itself," Culture Kiosque, http://www.culturekiosque.com/nouveau/portrait/ra1vr.htm (February 26, 2004).
Additional information was obtained from publicity materials for Mares Profundos, Edge Music, 2004.
—Linda Dailey Paulson
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