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The daughter also rises

With past ever present, Brazil now pins its hopes on Maria Rita, whose mother was its guiding voice and a revered treasure.

June 27, 2004|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

You could call it a slump.

But "slump" would suggest something more finite than the rather protracted dry spell that's kept Brazil, when not mired in mediocrity, quoting its past for musical inspiration.

For a country where musicians are as vaunted as statesmen, the whole issue has been worrisome.

Brazilians, after all, have long been smug about their rich tapestry of musical traditions -- samba and bossa nova, Tropicalismo and musica popular brasileira. There've been striking voices recently, sure -- Virginia Rodrigues, Marisa Monte. Sparks of energy: Daniela Mercury, Carlinhos Brown. Even flirtations with hip-hop and dance -- Daude, remix-masters Bossacucanova. But Brazilian popular music and its stars -- eloquent singer-songwriters like Milton Nascimento and Chico Buarque, vocalists like its undisputed queen, Elis Regina -- celebrated their glory years three decades ago with music that was marked by spiritualism, lyricism, political metaphor and stylistic innovations that made it the center of activity and imagination. Until late last year, nothing of recent vintage came close.But with the release of 26-year-old-singer Maria Rita's eponymous album (it arrived in March in the States), hope has sprung. The collection of songs is a flirty, stylish foray into Brazilian popular music for the 21st century. The Brazilian-born but New Jersey-bred Maria Rita places her coy, elastic voice amid noisy, clattering drums, Afro-Cuban rhythms, funk and, of course, some slithery samba for good measure. It captured the imagination of Brazil to the tune of more than 600,000 copies sold, becoming one of the country's bestselling albums of 2003.

In three months' time, says veteran composer guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, she's become "the Norah Jones of Brazil" -- playing to packed rooms across the nation.

At first listen, it seems unlikely that this semi-retro, low-key endeavor would be the antidote to the cheery pop that Brazilian music had become. "Compared to what has been selling in Brazil, her album is very conservative," says Sergio Mielniczenko, host of KPFK-FM's Global Village. "Brazil is a very young country ... demographically. So they are often looking for music to dance. To have fun. Summer music. So the record companies are looking for very commercial productions that will hit quickly," Mielniczenko says. "But Maria Rita's record is different, more traditional. Good quality. Good musicianship."

"Can you imagine what it must be like?" says Maria Rita by phone from her recording studio in Sao Paulo. "I'm the great hope. I'm going to fill the hole. 'Oh you can be the savior of MPB!' ' Too much pressure!"

It doesn't help matters that she happens to be the daughter of pianist-composer-arranger Cesar Camargo Mariano and MPB's guiding voice, Elis Regina. And, at the time of her untimely death at 36, Elis was known in Brazil not merely as a singer, but as a national treasure, a towering figure whose legacy has cast a long shadow. "That's why," Maria Rita says, "it took me so long."

The resemblance between mother and daughter is eerie at moments. Heart-stopping. Maria Rita's voice possesses the same first-day-after-the-rain clarity that distinguished her mother's. "She passed away when I was 4. So the resemblance is something only a scientist could explain. Some memory inside my head." It wasn't conscious, she's been known to quip: "Our resemblance is genetic."

What was conscious was her decision to strike out on a different path -- one as far from her family's beaten track as possible.

Maria Rita spent her teen years in the U.S. growing up on the East Coast with her dad, consuming American pop culture -- television, Michael Jackson, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ella Fitzgerald. "My friends here [in Brazil], call me 'gringa.' "

She enrolled at NYU, where she focused on communications and Latin American studies. "My idea was to study journalism ... and become a critic." She chuckles. "Again, it was just the pressure. My parents and their careers -- it was very strong, and they were very important. For me, since I was 11 or 12 years old I'd been hearing: 'You have to sing. You have to sing.' It was like this necessity. A hole you felt you had to fill. Because of the bloodline. They wanted a substitute."

To make matters more complicated, with two brothers, Joao Marcello Boscoli and Pedro Mariano, involved in the music business, Maria Rita says she didn't want to be seen as opportunistic. "I didn't have any options to figure out who I really am. So I had to get out and find me. In a different context. I worked for a film production company. A magazine. I was happy as an academic and intellectual."

The draw of the music

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