Elza Soares, 91, Who Pushed the Boundaries of Brazilian Music, Dies

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Elza Soares, 91, Who Pushed the Boundaries of Brazilian Music, Dies

Elza Soares, the samba singer whose meteoric rise from the favela to stardom was later eclipsed by a scandalous affair with one of Brazil’s most famous soccer stars, died on Thursday at her home in Rio de Janeiro. She was 91.

Her death was announced in a statement on her official Instagram account, which added that she “sang until the end.”

With fine features that led to comparisons with Eartha Kitt and a rough voice that was reminiscent of Louis Armstrong, Ms. Soares became one of the few Black women singers in Brazil to be featured in films in the 1960s and on television in the ’70s.

Her first album, “Se Acaso Você Chegasse” (“If You Happen to Stop By”), released in 1960, introduced scat singing into samba. Her second, “A Bossa Negra” (1961), was conspicuously lacking in bossa nova. Instead, it featured the kind of samba popular in the favelas, thus reclaiming the African roots of a sound whose international success stemmed from taking away samba’s drums and adding complex jazz harmonies.

As her fame grew, she remained true to her roots. “I never left the favela,” she liked to tell reporters, and she often finished shows thanking audiences for “every scrap of bread that my children ate.”

Such talk was almost unheard-of in the 1960s in Brazil, where — despite a yawning gap between rich and poor, and despite a larger Black population than any other country outside Nigeria — publicly discussing issues of poverty and race was considered inelegant.

RCA Records declined to offer her a contract after learning that she was Black, and she spent years singing in Copacabana nightclubs before being signed to Odeon Records in 1960, where she began a long recording career subtly — and sometimes not so subtly — pushing the boundaries of Brazilian music.

But by the 1980s, she was perhaps better known as the wife of the soccer star known as Mané Garrincha — considered in Brazil to be second only to Pelé — than for her music. When Garrincha left his wife and eight children to marry Ms. Soares, it was a national scandal. She was widely disparaged and labeled a home wrecker. Angry fans pelted their house in Rio with stones and even fired shots at it.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s, long after the death of her husband, that Ms. Soares staged an unlikely comeback, embracing younger composers and producers who were just beginning to discover her music. Her new songs were even more direct than her earlier ones in addressing social issues, openly advocating for the rights of Black people, gay people, and especially women.

Elza Gomes da Conceição was born on June 23, 1930, in Rio de Janeiro’s Padre Miguel favela. Her mother, Rosária Maria da Conceição, was a washerwoman; her father, Avelino Gomes, was a bricklayer who played guitar and liked samba music.

Her father forced her to marry Lourdes Antônio Soares when she was 12; by the age of 21, she was a widow and the mother of five.

She said it was a desperate need to buy medicine for a sick child that led her to take a chance singing at a popular radio talent show when she was 15. She showed up in pigtails and a dress, borrowed from her mother, hemmed in with safety pins. She was nearly laughed offstage until the show’s host, Ary Barbosa, asked her what planet she had come from. She disarmed him with her reply: “The same planet as you — Planet Hunger.”

“At that moment everyone who was laughing sat down in their seats and everyone was quiet. I finished singing and he hugged me, saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, at this exact moment a star is born,’” Ms. Soares said in a 2002 television interview.

Her singing career took off, leading to appearances in movies and on TV. She was one of the few Black Brazilian women to rise to stardom at the time.

Her career, however, was soon overshadowed by her fiery love affair with Manuel Francisco dos Santos, known as Garrincha. Their romance began at the 1962 World Cup in Chile, where she was representing Brazil as an entertainer, and where her career might have taken a very different turn: She also met Louis Armstrong, who invited her to tour the United States with him, but she chose instead to follow her heart and return to Brazil with Garrincha. That move would have disastrous repercussions.

Harangued by the public and the press, the couple were forced to move to São Paulo and eventually to Italy, where they spent four years. They married in 1966.

Ms. Soares was pregnant with their son, Manoel Francisco dos Santos Júnior, when the couple returned to Brazil in 1975. By that time, Garrincha’s alcoholism was becoming a serious problem. He had been driving drunk in 1969 when he had an accident that killed Ms. Soares’s mother. He beat Ms. Soares, who became known for visiting bar owners to implore them not to serve her husband. But her efforts proved futile; Garrincha died of cirrhosis in 1983.

When their son died in a car accident in 1986 at age 9, Ms. Soares was devastated and left Brazil. She spent several years in Los Angeles, trying in vain to launch an international career.

She credited the Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso with helping her return to music when she was ready to give up, by featuring her on his 1984 album, “Velo.”

But her output was spotty throughout the 1980s and ’90s, and it wasn’t until 2002 that she regained her stride, connecting with composers and producers from São Paulo’s samba sujo (“dirty samba”) scene to record the album “Do Cóccix Até o Pescoço” (“From the Tailbone to the Neck”), which was nominated for a Latin Grammy Award.

In 2016, her “A Mulher do Fim do Mundo” (“The Woman at the End of the World”) won a Latin Grammy for best Brazilian popular music album.

Ms. Soares is survived by her children, Joao Carlos, Gerson, Dilma and Sara, and by numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her son Dilson died in 2015.

She continued to find success with younger audiences in the new century, working tirelessly as she approached 90, exploring musical styles including electronic dance music, punk rock and free jazz, and recording albums that fearlessly addressed social issues.

The title of her album “Planeta Fome” (“Planet Hunger”), released in 2019, referred directly to how her career got its start on the radio talent show that would forever change not only her life but the course of Brazilian music.

Source: New York Times

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