There is a new voice in Brazilian music, at times ethereal and at times of the earth. The voice belongs to 33-year-old Virginia Rodrigues. She was raised in the grim slums of Bahia, in northeastern Brazil, a region where almost half the people live in poverty.
Virginia Rodrigues was one of them. "It's very difficult to be poor and black in Brazil," she recalls. "And although it was always my dream to become a singer, I never thought it would be possible."
By age 12, she was working to help her family. Although she was clearly talented, they had far too little money for any kind of formal training. So, young Virginia turned to the church to sing.
It was a Catholic hymn that pulled her out of obscurity. When Brazilian superstar Caetono Veloso attended a local theater production and heard Rodrigues sing Veronica -- in Latin, a capella -- he was moved to tears and offered to record her first compact disc.
Rodrigues' admirers include Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, which distributes her CD in the United States.
Blackwell says, "Her voice is like an instrument, and... is a very sort of unique contralto voice, something that you don't normally hear in this form of music."
Virginia Rodrigues' voice has taken her a long way from the Brazilian slums where she grew up. Her music, a mix of samba, Catholic hymns, and African rhythms, is hard to define but that's what makes it so interesting. There are no expectations.
That's what attracted veteran producer Joe Boyd, the man behind her album Sol Negro. "I get a lot of records, and I tend to work while just playing them," Boyd admits. "And if it doesn't attract my attention, I just keep working. And this, from the first bars of the first track, I was like 'what's this?' And I just sat there and I just listened to the record from beginning to end."
Boyd continues, "All over the world I think there is a tremendous affection for Brazilian music... I mean going back to Stan Getz, and Astrid Gilberto, and Charlie Byrd, you know all that stuff - the bossa nova movement. And Virginia represents, in a way, what people have in their dream world about what Brazilian music is, because she's got all those roots, all those Afro-Brazilian roots. And at the same time she has a very cultured voice."
While she cultivated her voice in the Catholic Church, you can hear the rhythms of a different religion in her music. She now follows candomble, which was first practiced by African slaves in Brazil.
Rodrigues says it all fits. "Spirituality comes in first place in my life in general... Candomble in fac preaches that the most important elements of life are earth, the sky, the trees, water, the sea, nature. That we are born of the earth, that we will return to the earth."
Rodrigues also sings about the struggles of working people. After all, it was just two years ago that she was doing domestic work to get by.
"I did just about everything you could imagine - everything that was necessary to put together enough money to allow me to survive and do what I want: music," she says. "I was a manicurist. I gave lessons in manicure. I was a cook. I was a cleaning lady."
But on this night, she will be Virginia Rodrigues, singer, on tour, for the first time in the United States.
Rodrigues will tell you, "Success for me is very simple, it's doing what you like well, and it's a privilege."
As this tour takes her from New York City to Miami, Virginia Rodrigues, the thoughtful woman who speaks only Portuguese, has accomplished her dream: to communicate through song with others. And that, she says, is all she ever hoped to do.
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