Some people never allow themselves to forget where they're from, even when the memory of that place is complicated, stark, and carries with it a reminder of shared burdens, small victories, and narrowed expectations. The place where Viríginia Rodrigues hails from — a favela shanty town — is all of those things.
The Brazilian vocalist, now praised around the world for her evocative, soulful voice, has no doubt where that "soul" originates. It was there in the impoverished circumstances of her upbringing in Salvador, Brazil's oldest city and its former capital, in the northern province of Bahia.
Rodrigues' heritage is Afro-Bahian and African. In the past, she has spoken of having been born with three strikes against her dream of a career in music: "I'm a woman, I'm black, and I'm poor." While nearly half of the Brazilian population traces their ancestral roots to Africa, female black singers are not at all common.
It's easy to see why the story of her being discovered by Caetano Veloso, and nurtured, under his mentorship, to exceptional success, has been called a fairy tale. Rodrigues herself seems to have little time for fairy tales, but magic must have been in the air just the same. That first time Veloso heard Rodrigues singing "Verônica," a traditional Brazilian song, he was moved to tears by her "celestial voice." It would not be the last time someone chose to describe her voice in heavenly terms.
For her part, Rodrigues has often defined singing as something spiritual. "I feel I am a better human being when I sing," she says. And music itself is, to her, something ethereal. "Music is an entity which is above us. By thinking that we are bigger than music we end up losing communion with it. I am nothing. I am just a body which is used by that entity called music — music that I love so much and that makes me feel better than I really am."
Her direct experience with these connections to the spiritual nature of music inform her approach to song and her sense that something may be missing from most of what we call popular music. "Many things are lacking in Brazilian and world music: feeling, soul, creativity, truth, and talent," she says.
When people begin rediscovering their own musical traditions, she believes, they are seeking out those missing pieces, the essential roots. "People are treating music as if it could be manufactured," she says. "The relationship between mankind and music today is basically the search for fame. Some want to be famous and rich. Talent has become totally disregarded. Maybe that's the reason why we need to find our way back home."
Rodriguez is an ardent advocate of social justice for those left behind in Brazil's headlong economic expansion, and an outspoken critic of ongoing corruption. Asked what she feels are the most important things to preserve in her homeland's traditional culture, she says, "This is still the country of social inequality. We don't have healthcare nor an adequate educational policy. Here, abominable things, such as Indians, black, and northeastern people being murdered and farmers killing Indians for their lands, happen under the eyes of the government. The corruption is as high as it has ever been. If this is growth, what is recession, then? What I think I can do is to denounce such things in the interviews I do and in the poems and melodies I sing."
Her activism puts her squarely in the tradition of Brazil's legendary musical talents. People like Caetano Velos and Gilberto Gil, known to their countrymen not only for their music, but also for their courage, political exile, and eventual return to the land of their birth. Her talent has earned her such accolades as the title of "the new diva of Brazilian music," and mash note write-ups from critics boldly abandoning themselves to her music.
To date, she's recorded four albums, and her repertoire spans the gamut of Brazilian classics and contemporary songs.
After two albums released to effusive critical praise, her third, Mares Profundos, saw Rodrigues' taking on a labor of love: a series of Brazilian standards by songwriters Vinícius de Moraes and Baden Powell. These songs, with their bossa nova lilt, draw directly from Rodrigues' home turf and confirm her deep connection to the Afro-Brazilian religion called Candomblé. With imaginative musical arrangements backing her, Rodrigues' take on these classics is authoritative.
The wellspring of that authority is no mystery. As Rodrigues herself might acknowledge, keeping faith with the memory of your origins is reverence.