First Ladies

Little-Known Great Women
Who Challenged the World

A Brit who wrote the first book in English and an Italian grandmaster; a sailor disguised as a man and a round-the-world biker; a war photographer and the first female in space. Ground-breaking pioneers, these women beat the odds and inspired mankind.
Julian and Artemísia, Hannah and Annie, Dickie and Valentina, forged a new identity for women everywhere, one that’s often been at odds with male-dominated institutions, and that only modern age could fully embrace. These were no tamed spirits.
Along the way, the mastery of intellect and mysticism, of great art and entrepreneurship, became one with what all that came after. Each generation that followed had more of their independence of thought, the courage to report, and dare to reach for the stars.
These were no followers either. What each carved on the fabric of their own age still stands now, be it as a spiritual path or pictorial record, a skill for subversion or example of non-conformity, the capture of the battlefield or a flight into the future.
But only six, you may ask, and why them, instead of, say, the other few billion? Well, shortlists keep things moving: room only for names, times, and the life that defined their accomplishments. Ultimately, though, it’s our choice and we’re running with it.
That won’t settle the argument, but hope for a first female U.S. president got a boost Tuesday, and next week is International Women’s Day. Both fitting brackets for a possible breakthrough year in equality, a battle these women fought and won, so now we know their names.
Great humans create entire epochs around their existence, not always acknowledged in time. Many would enlist their own mothers on this roll. Shortlists help to leave them out, or yours would be certainly here. It also beats having to rewrite so many well-known bios.

THE MYSTIC WRITER & THE PROTO-FEMINIST PAINTER
On its way to world domination, 14th century England struggled to survive the wreckage of the Dark Ages. The pestilence and ravaging left in its wake were the cause of much soul searching and exacerbated religiosity. Times were ripe for Julian of Norwich.
After surviving illness, she walked out of public life to become a religious recluse, an anchorite, living her remaining years in closed quarters to ‘speak with god’ full time. While others like her burned at a stake, Her Revelations of Divine Love is considered the first female-penned, English-language book.
Two hundred years after, Rome was at the center of the art and religious world, and artists were busy carving their reputations through the glorious Baroque style. Most were male, but Artemisia Gentileschi would defy gender conventions, even as she was long gone when she was recognized as a grandmaster.
Raped by her tutor, who her family successfully sued – not without enormous public shaming of Artemisia, during the trial – she became a rare female working artist whose talent, and tumultuous relationships, equaled that of established painters, such a Caravaggio, with whom she’s often linked.

THE CROSS-DRESSED SAILOR & THE WORLD CYCLIST
There were few options for a woman to sail the world in the 18th century, and to become a soldier of the Royal Marines was hardly one of them. Hanna Snell managed to do both, even as she concealed her gender under the alias James Gray; heaven knows how she survived those long stretches at sea.
Remarkably, her bravery granted her full military pension, and her story, The Female Soldier, made her into a minor celebrity, no small feats for a woman at the time. Till the end, despite three (more)
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* Beautiful Bandit
* Women’s Day
* Sunken Ships
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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 72 this Friday. She died at 36 of an accidental overdose, 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 scouting talents, 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, beside others. Or she added considerable wattage to the work of contemporaries, like Lobo, Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, and Gilberto Gil, by recording their songs.

WHEN BRAZILIAN MUSIC MATTERED
Even though they all wrote lyrics, she also helped usher an entire 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.
MOOD SWINGER & ADVOCATE
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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* Lil’ Pepper
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A Century’s Voice

Frank Sinatra and His Many
Nights & Days Left Inside Us

Frankie was the singer baby boomers loved to hate. But then along came maturity, and the recognition of his maverick spirit, and they finally connected with the Chairman of the Board. By then, he’d already earned the nickname that the so-called Greatest Generation had given him: The Voice.​ Still, he never seemed to care much about that sort of stuff.
That’s part of the allure of Frank Sinatra, who’d be 100 this Saturday: first he grew on the very people who grew up with him. They were enthralled and disgusted, at times sympathetic and repulsed about every one of his ups and downs. And he had many, collected as sobriquets, each marking a distinct moment of his trajectory. And then, he got to you.
The great swinger was a reference point to the popular music that animated and chastised the many revolutions of the 20th century, with two world wars to boot. He also added a few deep sulks of his own to its history. Like sex, for instance, arguably his greatest contribution as an interpreter, and the differential between his art and that of other crooners of his time.
It permeated his whole carrier, from the screaming teenage girls, anticipating Beatlemania by decades, to the virile enunciation and graceful phrasing of his maturity, to the weariness of his final years of artistic brilliance, in the early thunders of the rock and roll explosion. He faced the decline of his vocal chords prowess with the stoicism of a fallen hero.
As Sinatra progressed towards irrelevance, a man who’d conquered one too many heartbreaks to count, he could no longer understand the primeval beat that had replaced the precise jazz syncopation he used to excel at. The urgency and straightforwardness of rock lyrics offended his American Standards-educated sensibility. Even his political sympathies were out of step with the times. (more)
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* The Standards
* 50 Summers
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The Standards

Songs That Make You Long For
What You’ve Hardly Experienced

For the generation that grew up during the cultural turmoil of the 1960s, a lot of what it was determined to break free from was the placidity, conformity, and political conservatism of the U.S. in the 1950s. The rock’n’roll explosion only made that rupture more visible.
But there was a world that preceded it, marked by two wars, where ideological conflict, social hardship, and technological impact, helped shape a musical tradition that proved itself as one of the greatest cultural achievements of our era: the American Standards.
2015 may turn out to be a landmark year, as milestone anniversaries are bound to shed light on such a rich tradition and its main protagonists. Billie Holiday, Billy Strayhorn, and Frank Sinatra, are just but three of such luminaries who would’ve been 100 this year.
And so would Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Les Paul, all giants on their own, whose association with early country, blues, and jazz insert them, permanently, into the mainstream of American music. But it was the deceptively lowly popular song format what helped usher the Standards into an art form.
To many, the addition of Eastern European Jewish melodies, the Klezmer and other Gipsy traditions, to rhythms and syncopations of African tribal beats, converging for two centuries to the U.S., was what created the two main streams of American music, Blues and Jazz. The Great American Songbook is a worthy heir to those two.
It was also a rare combination of a few generations of extremely talented composers and musicians, with race and immigrant blood running in their veins, that took advantage of a nascent record industry, and offered the perfect antidote to the bleakness and economic despair of the early 1900s in the just industrialized world.

ALT-PORTRAIT OF A WORLD AT WAR
Armed conflicts helped spread that sense of urgency – French songbird Édith Piaf would also be 100 this year – with vaudeville, music hall, variety theater, and a general cultural miscegenation of sorts, all fit snugly into 3-minute songs that encapsulated a badly needed sense of hope for the era.
Even though such gems were not exclusively American, it was in the U.S. that the genre thrived and produced some of the most memorable and enduring melodies and lyrics ever written in English. Then, they were supposed to be about escapism and romance. Now, they can be enjoyed for their distilled wisdom and artistry.
Which is odd, since those Tin Pan Alley composers were working overtime to meet an inflated demand for hits. But what their produced then, under pressure, now betrays none of the rush with which they were writing them at that time; the craftsmanship of some of these songs still has few peers compared with much of those that came after.
The songwriters created an alternative universe, where longing, redemption, and the allure of romance is always within reach, even when they refuse to concede the singer the grace of happiness and fulfillment. At times, the world these songs promise or allude to was the only world worth living for, even if only for a few minutes.

AN ENTIRE NOVEL IN A FEW VERSES
Lovers who wished to be reunited with their dears, warriors whose losses made them cry silently for the first time, common people who saw their world coming apart right in front of their eyes, found comfort in these lyrics that invite them to dance, to dream, and to remain hopeful for another shot at life.
Thankfully, the great majority of American Standards stayed clear of any exacerbated patriotism or xenophobic Continue reading