Waters of March

A Fine Day to Salute
Hurricane Elis Regina

‘If she were still alive, Brazilian music wouldn’t be in such a bad shape.’ That’s guitar player Nathan Marques about Elis Regina, likely Brazil’s greatest singer, who’d be 76 today. She died of an accidental overdose in 1982, and the country’s rich musical tradition still mourns her loss.
Most survivors of Brazil’s golden generation of songwriters and musicians, from the 1960s on, would endorse her guitarist’s stinging comment. Besides being impossibly gifted as an artist, Elis is also missed for her uncanny talent scouting skills, as many a career was either launched or enhanced by her renditions.
Her rise from anonymity to national stardom was meteoric. At 20, with Vinicius de Moraes and Edu Lobo‘s Arrastão, she won the TV Excelsior Festival de Música, the first of a series of festivals that took the country by storm, and revealed a new batch of interpreters that would dominate Brazilian music for years to come.
She then co-hosted with Jair Rodrigues O Fino da Bossa and turned it into the most important music program on TV at the time. She seemed born to star in the medium, a crucial part of the young nation’s cultural integration, even as it also served well the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 85.
In many cases, hers were the first recordings of composers who’d go on to become national treasuries, like Milton Nascimento, Ivan Lins, Beto Guedes, and João Bosco, among others. Or she added considerable wattage to the work of contemporaries, like Lobo, Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, and Gilberto Gil, by recording their songs.

Even though they all wrote lyrics, she also helped usher an entirely new lineage of lyricists. Fernando Brant, Ronaldo Bastos, Aldir Blanc, and Victor Martins, to name but few, had their urban poetry-infused words first played on the radio and performed on TV by her, in a country whose majority by now were living in big cities.
By the 1970s, Brazilian music, or MPB, had several streams of high-quality output, and composers of talent to boot. As Bossa Nova entered its second decade, and Tropicália, its own maturity phase, even artists identified with purer musical idioms, such as samba and Chorinho, were registering on vinyl their arguably best work.
Thus as Tom Jobim, João Gilberto, Baden Powell, and so many others were consolidating the then most famous representative of the country’s music, Veloso, Gil, Tom Zé, and Os Mutantes, plus Buarque, Paulinho da Viola, Nascimento, and Bosco were hard at work rewriting popular music to a younger audience.
One of the most remarkable facts about Elis Regina’s trajectory was that she was developing her sophisticated interpretative touch while at the vanguard of all these currents. Credit must be also given to husband and partner Cesar Camargo Mariano, who contributed (more)
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elements of jazz and chamber music to her palette.
Above all, she earned, without ever wearing it thin, her spot at the top by getting better and better. She was often compared to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone, and the fact that they’re all black musicians is no surprise, as Elis felt early the strong pull of American Black culture.
She stuck up among contemporary voices, such as Astrud Gilberto, Maria Bethania, Nara Leão, Nana Caymmi, and Gal Costa, for both musicianship and a volatile personality. It’s no wonder that she was nicknamed Little Pepper, and known as Hurricane in some circles. But she was also a fearless advocate of musicians’ labor rights.

There’s a moment of delight during the 1974 recording of Águas de Março, the Jobim song that Brazilians chose in 2001 as their best. While trading, in a back-and-forth with him, the free-association lyrics, Elis throws back her head and just sways, smiling. It’s a moment that encapsulates how much music meant to her. And vice versa.
Waters of March’s lyrics is an almost surreal list of objects and actions, at times only hinted at, that puzzles even Portuguese speakers, without denying anyone access to its overall meaning. And it ends up on an unexpected rap when words are reduced to their basic sounds and rhymes while retaining their power to surprise.
Elis recorded and performed until shortly before her untimely passing, on Jan. 19, 1982, at the beginning of the decade many thought it was going to get her global exposure. But it wasn’t to be. So that song, and that moment with Jobim, remain vital to fans, for when her loss aches and they need her voice to soothe their broken hearts.
As usual, Brazil has been slow to recognize the full extent of Elis Regina’s sway over its music and culture. But she remains as popular as ever, and a recent biopic ‘Elis‘ beat box-office records. After 32 years, though, a bibliographic and cultural legacy is simply not quite there yet to prevent the memory of her artistry from fading.
Besides an Irish saint, she shares her birthday with another music giant, Nat King Cole, born 98 years ago, whose Fascination she recorded in 1976. The song was also in the repertoire of the great French singer Edith Piaf, with whom she shared the diminutive size, a similar pathos in life, and, of course, unmitigated talent.
To Elis Regina, a now quite storm and still young seven-decade star, Happy Birthday.

(*) Originally published on March 17, 2017.

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