Soares, one of the queens of Brazilian music, passed away last month at the age of 91.
Elza Soares died sleeping at home, according to her close entourage. It was a tranquil passage for an artist whose life is marked by an impressive talent and a constant fight against racism and sexism—elements that hold an important chunk of the global debate today, thanks to the efforts of women like her.
Born in a Rio favela in 1930, Elza devoted her life to music and left an impressive catalog of 34 albums and hundreds of EPs. It’s a life's work that assures her place as a staple of the Brazilian songbook, ranging from different samba strains and surpassing genres. Wherever she could, Elza took her exquisite vocal technique and interpretation, reshaping old standards, bringing life to lyrics and transforming great songs into undisputed classics. See below some of the songs that help understanding her greatness.
'Libertação' w/ BaianaSystem & Virgínia Rodrigues
When she first went on stage, at a talent show in the early 1950s, Elza Soares said she was from Planet Hunger—a jab at the show host, who was about to make fun of her outfit. In 2019, she revisited that motto with the album Planeta Fome. Reflecting the political crisis that took Brazil, culminating in the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, and aiming global and introspective questions, Elza sings with the punk rock and hip-hop energy that she never left. Her voice is not as majestic as in her early days, but she still shows prowess in this afoxé-like arrangement by Letieres Leite, another Brazilian music master who passed away a few months ago. When Elza says “I won't succumb,” she claims that not only will she last forever: all of what she represents will prevail, no matter what.
'Mulher do Fim do Mundo'
The 2015 album Mulher do Fim do Mundo is Elza Soares comeback letter written in bold and uppercase letters. Over the past decade, she was rediscovered by a younger audience and a new generation of artists--who saw on her the unstoppable verve of an artist that would bleed her music through her vocals. In the album’s eponymous track, a broken-tempo samba crossed by a melancholic spleen, she cries out loud: "I will sing until the end."
From the '80s to the late '90s, Elza was a rather inconstant figure in Brazilian music. Cherished by the likes of Caetano Veloso—who invited her for the 1985 song “A Língua”—she didn’t pull out a real comeback until early 2000s. In 2002, she teamed up with pianist Miguel Wisnik to record the black-funk-soul album Do Cóccix Até o Pescoço. “A Carne” is one of its singles and an anti-racist far cry. Having this issue as an important element of her music, since her career first years, Elza amplified the struggle of Black people in Brazil in this version of a Seu Jorge song.
'Eu Sou A Outra'
“Eu Sou A Outra” is a samba-canção, an offspring of the Latin American bolero and slow-paced sambas accompanied by big bands. In this song, Elza reveals she's more than a singer of upbeat, easy-listening tracks while sending a jab at Brazilian society: the song title means “I am the other one,” a role she upheld in the first years of her relationship with Brazilian superstar soccer player Mané Garrincha, who was married at the time.
By the end of the '70s, Elza Soares was aiming for a royal place in the Brazilian songbook, not only the samba throne. Her convulsing marriage with Garrincha and public agressions made things hard for her. Still, she managed to record the intimate album Lição de Vida in 1976. And, as a samba queen, she wouldn’t decline great pieces like “Malandro”, where she explores all of her vocal range. Written by Jorge Aragão, then a young sambista, the song was one of the first recorded sambas de partido alto—a subgenre that changed the samba landscape in the years to come.
In her eponymous 1973 album, Elza Soares explored new possibilities for her voice. “Solidão” is not commonly recalled as one of the most impressive exhibits of the then 30-year-old singer's artistry, probably because she passes far from ornamented tones in the track’s less than two minutes. But that’s the beauty of it. Instead of tackling higher pitches, she goes deep and low, almost as if she’s attending to the song calling. “Solidão” means loneliness, and the abuse and violence Garrincha perpetrated in his marriage with Elza—much of that due to his alcoholism—echoes in this song.
'Mas Que Nada'
“Mas Que Nada'' is one of the most Brazilian songs of all time. It’s an overpowering, irresistible samba jazz that embodies Brazil’s soul throughout a number of singers and musicians' interpretations. This is a very hard task when it comes to bringing novelty and freshness to the track, but not for Elza. Her sweet and yet deep singing shines along with Milton Miranda's striding piano style. Miranda was one of the top Brazilian musical arrangers and directors in the turn of 60s to the 70s and his albums with Elsa are a lighting rod of Brazil's samba diversity at the time.
'Deixa isso para lá'
With several EPs, live TV performances and albums, Elza was already a samba mainstay by the end of the '60s. Her feature album with drummer Wilson das Neves was the crowning of two of the most important Brazilian artists at the time. Jair Rodrigues’ syncopated “Deixa Isso Pra Lá” sounds like a joyful call and response game, with Elza playing around with syllabic tones and Neves finding different paths throughout his drum set. It’s a blend of rap and scat singing, a gnarly Billie Holiday dueling with a devilish Art Blakey.
'Se Acaso Você Chegasse'
After being left aside by a major for being “too black,” Elza finally landed a deal with Odeon and made no excuses in her debut. In the opening track of A Bossa Negra, she not only resonates her crystal clear voice with an unusual experience for a newcomer; she uses it as a melodic and rhythmic instrument, showing off her unique technique of phonation for the first time—a sort of tremulous vocal.