Home / Arts & Life / Elza Soares, a Revered and Fearless Samba Legend, Brings Her Throne to New York

Elza Soares, a Revered and Fearless Samba Legend, Brings Her Throne to New York

“I always try to improve upon what I’ve done,” she said in an interview this spring, speaking backstage at Town Hall. “If something’s not working, I’ll change it to make it better. I’m an artist and a performer above all, and I don’t limit myself.”

So when the drummer and producer Guilherme Kastrup approached her two years ago about reinterpreting a collection of her old songs with a band of young musicians, she wasn’t enthused. “I already recorded those,” she explained, moments before taking the stage. “It’s important to me to do something new, to take risks.”

Mr. Kastrup came back to her with a fresh book of songs, curdled and vicious pieces that draw on forrò, post-punk and Tropicalia. The lyrics confront domestic violence, sexism, racial hierarchies, homophobia, the ennui of displacement. “From the very beginning, I knew those songs were absolutely perfect for me,” Ms. Soares said. “And I love working with young musicians.”

The result was “Woman at the End,” a late-career moonshot of recombinant surrealism and poetic lamentation, driven by acrid guitar and synth bass. Still, on tunes like “A Mulher Do Fin Do Mundo” and “Luz Vermelha,” a tug of samba rhythm hides just underneath.

At the Town Hall, she was perched high on a dark throne with a golden dress tumbling down below her and a purple Afro as her crown. The group played every cut from “Woman at the End,” plus a few classics from Ms. Soares’s catalog, and her voice came through as strong and keen as on the album.

About two-thirds of the way into the set, she sang “Maria da Vila Matilde,” a first-person tale told from the perspective of a woman in a physically abusive relationship. As Rafa Barreto and Rovilson Pascoal’s guitars nipped and sawed, the song’s aggressive jangle — something like Os Mutantes tangled up with Battles and Sleater-Kinney — culminated in a final line, repeated in unrelenting succession: “Cê vai se arrepender de levantar a mão pra mim.” It translates to, “You’ll regret putting your hands on me.”

Elza Soares – “Maria da Vila Matilde” Video by Elza Soares A Mulher do Fim do Mundo

She glided into another demand: “Diretas Já!” she intoned, meaning “elections now.” (It’s an old protest refrain that has been repurposed this year in response to the rise of an unelected, right-wing government in Brazil.) Then she turned her call to the audience: “Grita, grita!” — “scream, scream.”

“The way that she speaks honestly and thinks about gay people, and thinks about black people, has caused her many troubles,” said Mr. Kastrup, who was on drums at the Town Hall. “But a lot of people here have felt represented by her. It happened in a different time and it’s happening now, with young people who still feel represented by what she’s speaking about on this new album. She’s an important force.”


Elza Soares performing at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark in June. In New York, she will be singing from atop a six-foot-high throne.

Abdellah Ihadian/Red Bull Content Pool

For Ms. Soares, it was inevitable that she would use her art to galvanize. “As a poor person you’re always an activist,” she said. “It happens naturally.”

She was born in Moça Bonita, an impoverished favela in Rio de Janeiro. Her father, a musician, recognized her talent, and encouraged her to pursue singing. But he also forced her into marriage when she was just 12. By age 13, she was a mother; by 21, a widow. One of her five children died from malnutrition.

When Ms. Soares entered a televised talent show at 15, she turned heads immediately; half of it was the natural fearlessness of her voice; the other half was the commanding physicality of her stage presence.

From the beginning she made it clear that she had no qualms about her identity. Her second album was called “A Bossa Negra,” or “Black Bossa.” She eventually remarried, to the soccer star known as Garrincha, enduring sexism and haranguing in the press because he had not yet divorced his first wife.

Ms. Soares’s connection with Garrincha was electric, but his alcoholism drove them apart. When driving drunk one night in 1969, he got in a crash that killed Ms. Soares’s mother. In 1983, he died; soon after, so did the only child from their marriage, also in a car accident. Ms. Soares disappeared from public view for a number of years, living for a time in Los Angeles. Devastated by grief and frustrated with her inability to catch on with audiences abroad, she considered ending her career.

But, encouraged by the famed musician Caetano Veloso, she soon returned to public performance. In 1985 she released “Somos Todos Iguais,” toggling between plaintive samba and bluesy ballads, backed by a mix of hand drums and synthesizers and electric guitars (on that album she and Mr. Veloso duet on Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady”). By the early 2000s, she was making records that explored hip-hop and electronic rhythms, including “Do Cóccix Até O Pescoço,” from 2002, and “Vivo Feliz,” from 2004.

On “Do Cóccix,” she covered Seu Jorge’s “A Carne,” a biting protest against racial hierarchy. (The title lyric translates to, “The cheapest meat at the market is black meat.”) For more than a decade the song has been a mainstay of her repertoire; by now it’s as much hers as his. A few years ago, she would have performed it in while slinking assertively about the stage, but at the Town Hall she was stuck in the chair.

Rather than a hobbled performer, what you saw onstage was undaunted royalty. Her chin was raised, projecting an impenetrable authority. As is always her way, she had bent the circumstances to her favor.

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