Elza Soare’s obituary | music

Elza Soares, who has died at the age of 91, was one of Brazil’s best and most popular singers, a glamorous, spirited performer who triumphed over personal tragedy and never forgot her hungry childhood in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. She was an exponent of the many different forms of samba, Brazil’s most enduring and ever-evolving style, and was always looking for new experiments and fusions. And she was a brave fighter for women’s rights and against racism. As a black musician, she experienced racism in the industry first-hand – despite her remarkable talent, record companies were reluctant to sign her.

Two albums recorded 54 years apart demonstrate their extraordinary breadth. She began recording in the early 1960s when João Gilberto, Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes pioneered the cool new fusion of samba cançao, jazz and classical styles known as bossa nova. Soares had very different ideas. On her second album, A Bossa Negra (The Black Bossa, 1961), she combined sensual, tender and husky vocals with swinging big band horns in songs that suddenly changed direction when she switched to angry, growling scat singing on Perdao worthy of Louis Armstrong (Forgiveness) or an ecstatic scream at the end of Beija-Me (Kiss Me). These were fresh, exciting songs that matched the optimism of Brazil in the early ’60s and established Soares as a major force.

Fast forward to 2015 and there was a very different Brazilian music scene. São Paulo had now replaced Rio as the creative hub of music, and she was joined by members of the punk, candomblé and jazz-influenced Méta Méta and Afrobeat-inspired Bixiga on the extraordinary A Mulher Do Fim Do Mundo (The Woman at the End of the World). 70 for a set that mixes samba with distorted rock and jazz influences. There were offbeat, nerve-wracking songs about domestic violence or the death of a crack addict, and Soares dominated the set with her often edgy, powerful vocals. It was Brazilian Album of the Year and deservedly earned her a Latin Grammy Award.

Elza Soares performs with the Mocidade samba school during the 2020 Rio de Janeiro Carnival parade. Photo: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

She liked to experiment, but stayed true to her musical roots. The samba schools that compete at the Rio Carnival with their music and extravagant costumes are also social hubs with strong ties to the local community. Soares supported the Mocidade school in the neighborhood where she grew up, and on a hot Saturday night in 2007 she gave a rousing performance there that was filmed for the BBC series Brasil, Brasil. She sang from a balcony overlooking the large, packed dance floor, wore a short black dress, a black wig with a red flower, and looked decades younger than her age. She began with a stirring, emotional tribute to the school, Salve A Mocidade (Save Mocidade), which she first recorded in the ’70s, telling me, “I love this school. i love this community. It’s my heart”.

Soares was born in the Padre Miguel neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro to a samba-loving, guitar-playing factory worker, Avelino Gomes, and a laundress, Rosária Maria da Conceição. When she was 12, her father forced her to marry Lourdes Antônio Soares and a year later she gave birth to their first child. Desperately poor but already a music lover, she took part in a singing competition put on by musician Ary Barroso on popular radio station Rádio Tupi in a dress borrowed from her mother. When asked where she was from, the teenager replied “planet hunger”. She won the competition and money to support her growing family.

She was inspired to continue singing, but problems continued. Her husband died of tuberculosis when she was 21, and she worked in a soap factory and said she stole food to survive. She was now a widow with five children to support. But she persevered, building a reputation as a singer in Copacabana clubs and touring Argentina before eventually recording her debut album Se Acaso Você Chegasse (If By Chance You Came) in 1960, introducing scat singing to samba.

Elza Soares with her second husband, soccer star Mané Garrincha, whom she married in 1968.
Elza Soares with her second husband, soccer star Mané Garrincha, whom she married in 1968. Photo: AP

Becoming a best-selling celebrity, she traveled to Chile when Brazil played at the Fifa World Cup, met Armstrong and worked with singer Miltinho and virtuoso percussionist Wilson Das Neves. In 2007 he described them to me as “unprecedented. Nobody can match her as a performer.”

But her personal life now brought scandals and more tragedies. In 1968, she married soccer star Manuel Francisco dos Santos, better known by his nickname Mané Garrincha, who was a national hero in Brazil. She was accused of destroying his previous marriage, her home was attacked, and the couple was forced to leave Rio for São Paulo and then Italy for several years.

Garrincha was a heavy drinker and was driving drunk when Soares’ mother was killed in a car accident in 1969. Soares tried to help him by roaming the bars to prevent her from serving her husband, but this made her all the more unpopular with his friends. Garrincha died of cirrhosis in 1983, by which time the couple had separated, but she was said to be devastated. Three years later, her only son, named after his father, died in another car accident.

Elza Soares on stage at the Paradiso in Amsterdam in 2004.
Elza Soares on stage at the Paradiso in Amsterdam in 2004. Photo: Frans Schellekens/Redferns

Depressed, Soares left Brazil for Europe and Los Angeles, trying to launch an international career. She returned after encouragement from Tropicália star Caetano Veloso, who asked her to sing on his 1984 album Velô, and gradually regained her success. In 1999 she appeared on the celebrity-filled Since Samba Has Been Samba show at London’s Royal Albert Hall alongside a cast that included Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque and Georgie Fame.

But her most experimental years were yet to come when she began researching Samba sujo (“dirty samba”), influenced by the hip-hop and funk styles that were gaining popularity in the favelas. Do Cóccix Até o Pescoço (From Top to Tail, 2002) featured a Veloso song and a human beatbox artist and was nominated for a Latin Grammy, while Vivo Feliz (I Live Happily, 2004) featured rap and heavy bass lines. When she performed the songs at the Jazz Cafe in London that year, she jumped on stage and made meowing and growling noises before stomping through a new anthem, Rio De Janeiro, with rapper Anderson Lugão.

After the groundbreaking A Mulher Do Fim Do Mundo, she recorded two more critically acclaimed albums, Deus É Mulher (God and Woman) in 2018 and Planeta Fome (Planet Hunger) in 2019. Both were nominated for Latin Grammys, with the title hers Final and 35th album commemorating that now legendary comment she made as a teenager.

She is survived by four of the children from her first marriage, João Carlos, Gerson, Dilma and Sara.

Elza Soares, singer, born June 23, 1930; died January 20, 2022

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