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POP BEAT

She's found her own place under Brazil's sun

Virginia Rodrigues' singing encompasses the complex nation's past, present and future.

October 25, 2003|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

On a cooling Thursday night, at Santa Monica's Temple Bar before a crowd murmuring mostly in Portuguese, Virginia Rodrigues works her charms -- those of the incantatory variety.

Backed just by cello, guitar, spare percussion and the whisper of woodwinds, hers is a timeless, undistilled voice, and so this tiny, jasmine-scented room could very well have been in Salvador de Bahia's old square, Pelourinho, or West Africa; could have been 40 years ago, or 300 -- or perhaps 10 years in the future.

In a butter-yellow dress, braids pinned high, adorned with a spray of cowrie shells, she spins old stories and utters invocations to the orixas (Afro-Brazilian deities) and to the sky. She slows the familiar passages of a song down to stop-motion to reveal the very fibers of a lyric. Her face a blank obsidian slate, often without even a hint of a smile, she appears more a vessel for these ancient messages. Whether her body rocks to the waves of a samba or her movements are as staccato as the pulled string of the berimbau, Rodrigues is still reworking Brazil's story the best way she knows: verse by verse.

When Rodrigues' star first began to rise, just five years ago at the age of 34, she shed an intense, bright light on our expectations of Brazilian popular music -- and of Brazil.

Her debut album, 1998's "Sol Negro" (Natasha/Hannibal Records), etched new trails. Pared down, free of of-the-moment pop trickery, the album merged the classical with the populist, the joyous with melancholy. The music, shot through with wonderment and longing, reflected the country's complexity in her voice -- both the complex history and conflicted soul.

The album -- and the woman with the worldly voice and childlike face -- were as disarming as the fairy-tale story that accompanied them. Up from little, Rodrigues grew up in the crumbling favelas of Salvador de Bahia. Working as a cook and manicurist, she would soften the edges of the day's labors by singing through her duties. Her luck would change during a theater rehearsal put on by Bahia's venerable Olodum Theatrical Group and attended by singer/cultural icon Caetano Veloso, who was moved to tears, by not simply her performance but her presence.

Suddenly everything was fast-forward: performing with Veloso, in the studio to record "Sol Negro," with cameos from her idols, Gilberto Gil, Djavan, Milton Nascimento.

"It was like Alice in Wonderland! It was a crazy time," she says seated in the lobby of her Santa Monica hotel, on the eve of the Temple Bar show. "My father had just died and I had just buried him. Then, all of a sudden, here I was standing in front of Milton Nascimento. I couldn't find my voice. "

She was the toast of her hometown, the new treasure of her country. And just north, in the States, she became a critic's darling and the hip cocktail-party spin.

It wasn't a fairy-tale fluke.

Her follow-up, the critically acclaimed "Nos," once again dislodged the unexpected, taking the brilliantly hued anthems often associated with Bahia's street carnivals and peeled them out of their flashy wrappings down to a smattering of strings, the heartbeat of percussion, strewn about like post-party discards. Her latest release, "Mares Profundos" (edge music), follows the same path. This time, Rodrigues reshapes a classic suite of songs dubbed "Afro-sambas" written by poet Vinicius de Moraes and virtuoso guitarist Baden Powell and recorded in the 1960s. For a month, she sat with the music and "listened to what was happening inside me." For the following two months, she worked through the songs, engraving her impressions -- these pieces that give more than a nod to the African influences that are part of the foundation of Brazil's history that course through its daily life.

So much of it is "camouflaged," says Rodrigues. Like her own journey, the country needs to go through a process of rediscovery, she believes. "I'm not radical. But I try to do a little bit with what I have."

The Afro-sambas merge popular musical forms with cultural artifacts, including invocations of African Candomble and Umbanda ritual. The messages in the music dovetail with Rodrigues' journey in connecting with her history and spirituality.

Not until she was 25 did Rodrigues begin to see disparate racial attitudes. "In school we didn't get the history. Our own story. You get the part about slavery," she said, her bright eyes trained on middle distance, "but you don't get what happened to black people after it. In fact, slavery remains."

Even her quest for something larger, bigger, was often met with surprise, Rodrigues recalls. "As if a black woman should not look for better things." A young girl from the favelas who dropped out of school at 12, who sang in church, Rodrigues could only imagine herself a singer. It was just that the road there remained unclear. Her success was, she knows, as much about her voice as it was about timing -- as well as providence.

Making this spiritual journey, engraving her mark on these songs, which celebrate West Africa's Yoruba culture by way of Brazil, is Rodrigues' way of keeping a story moving and alive.

"I'm trying to show with my music, with these Afro-sambas, the beauty that all human beings have. In Brazil, if you are black it's almost as if the only way you can be accepted is if you are Pele," she says with a laugh that is less light than rueful. "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."

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