One of Brazil’s most distinguished singers, Elza Soares confronts the reality of 21st-century Brazil. Danny Wright describes how she uses her platform to give a voice to people on the margins of society.
This year may have seen Brazil host the Olympics, a glittering celebration of sporting achievement, but lurking behind the glamour of the games is a different Brazil, a Brazil fighting an economic crisis and facing a wave of popular protests.
It’s Elza Soares, the 79-year-old daughter of a washerwoman and a labourer, who is telling the tales of these real issues facing Brazil in its Olympic year: racism; domestic violence; drug addiction; global warming; sex.
Her voice has been a defining presence in Brazilian music since the fifties, starting when Elza was just a teenager on Rio’s talent show Calouros em Desfile. Wearing a dress borrowed from her mother, she was asked by the show’s incredulous host, ‘What planet are you from?’ Soares didn’t miss a beat, replying, ‘Planet Hunger’.
She won the show, her captivating voice mesmerising the audience, and was immediately catapulted into the limelight. And, despite a life filled with as many tragedies as triumphs, Soares has used her platform to give a voice to people on the margins of society. ‘I’m always singing to remind you that blacks exist,’ she once said; gays and prostitutes, too.
‘I have suffered a lot of prejudices but it’s never held me back’
Soares grew up poor and desperate in one of Rio’s favelas, and even since she found fame she has endured exile, scandal and racism. But she has always sung from the heart. ‘I have suffered a lot of prejudices but it’s never held me back,’ she says defiantly. ‘God gave me my talent, though, and the only thing I feared was hunger and poor living conditions – not what the music industry might think of me.’
You can hear all of this pain, history and life in her husky, unique voice. Her latest album, The Woman at the End of the World (A Mulher do Fim do Mundo), the one she will perform at the Barbican, marks a creative highpoint. It is a vivid, captivating cocktail of post-rock and post-samba, confronting the reality of 21st-century Brazil. ‘I knew this album would be a different, bold, modern sound,’ she says. ‘It’s not samba and these are not typical songs – they were very difficult to sing and they do not allow you to relax.’
The album channels both her life’s agony and her incredible resilience; it paints bright, vivid pictures. These are authentic, palpable stories of a life fully lived, taking in corruption scandals, the worst recession in over a century, a wave of police brutality, and a rising tide of anti-gay violence.
It makes The Woman at the End of the World one of the most revelatory collections of music you will hear this year. Soares is still extraordinary, still defiant, still full of life after all this time. ‘I am a samba-subversive’, she says, ‘I paid my dues so now I make the kind of samba I want to. You can make anything you want from samba. It is rich, but most people who make it nowadays don’t do it properly.’
Originally published in the November Guide.
Elza Soares performs in the Hall on Sunday 13 November.
Photo: Stephane Munnier