Beth Carvalho in concert tonight. Recorded in 1993 and issued on CD.
With the sad news earlier this week of the death of The Godmother of Samba, Beth Carvalho, I felt a sense of irony that, I had really only just started investigating the current state of Brazilian music when one of its most noted practitioners passed away.
Since I know comparatively little about this legend of Brazilian music, I asked my friend and Brazilian Music expert Bruce Gilman if there was something he could provide that would give a background on this extraordinary singer and her contribution to the music scene in Brazil. Within ten minutes he produced an article he wrote for the music website Brazzil.com in 2005 that lays it all out and gives a comprehensive look at her career and the music scene around her.
Since I understand this piece is not currently available on the site, and because it is an essential read, I asked if he would be so kind as to give me permission to run the article in full tonight, as tribute to this legendary artist. Lucky for me (and you) he was happy to comply. So, here it is:
Brazil’s Emissary of Samba
BRUCE GILMAN JUNE 1, 2005
Brazilian samba singer Beth CarvalhoSamba brings instantaneous images of Rio’s world-famous Carnaval, of fabulously decorated floats, enormous drum sections, and enticing costumed dancers parading through the night. Samba, the soul of Brazil, is the foremost symbol of Brazilian culture.
Originally confined to the poor peripheral neighborhoods, samba exerted a unique fascination, became fashionable, and since the 1930’s has been the daily bread of all social classes.
With the exception of soccer, nothing has given Brazilians more pride in their country. And although its themes change constantly, as do the regional variations from São Paulo to Bahia, samba remains the primary agent of national unity.
Among the long list of samba talents who have been brought to the public ear, one artist has emerged who preserves the authenticity and purity of Rio style samba with considerable force, resisting the influences of rap, rock, and funk.
Shunning commercial ambitions, yet impregnated with talent, she is more than a fine musical instrument that transmits emotions. An idiosyncratic stylist and a restless promoter of culture, she is the only white female singer respected more in the samba community than the popular one.
And there is no samba singer with more infectious gaiety and feeling for rhythm, none who can make us cry or indeed who can make us think anything other than how fortunate we can count ourselves that Beth Carvalho, the godmother of samba, is making her Los Angeles debut.
Raised middle class in Rio de Janeiro’s South Zone, Carvalho began her career singing bossa nova, and was catapulted to prominence in 1968 at the third International Festival of Song performing “Andança” (Walk).
Having been attracted to samba from childhood, and influenced by Clementina de Jesus and Elizeth Cardoso, Carvalho had by the seventies evolved a samba style of intense, personal feeling that was at the same time sophisticated.
This ambivalence lies at the heart of her singing persona and is inherent in the stylistic means she employs. There is, for instance a wine-rich, yet gravelly undertone about her voice that makes it compulsive listening, and at the same time, no one ever handled barely controlled passion to greater effect.
But, these devices aside, Beth Carvalho’s most captivating quality is her ability to make notes and words dance together, which is – or should be – the definition of a good samba singer.
Beth, among the first female samba singers to be commercially successful, is conventionally grouped with Alcione and Clara Nunes as one of the ABC samba singers.
Arguably the most adventurous of the three, her affinity for both material and musicians who are unerringly good has manifested itself in sundry ways, not the least of which has been the variety of genres and samba styles she has helped to preserve – partido alto, samba de bloco, pagode, jongo, afoxé – by including them in her repertoire, and by introducing more up-and-coming artists on her recordings than any other samba singer.
After visiting a samba jam session in the Ramos neighborhood of Rio and being impressed with what she heard, Carvalho invited a few of the nameless players, known shortly thereafter as Grupo Fundo de Quintal, to record as supporting musicians on her 1978 album De Pé no Chão.
The album released a samba tidal wave, and what had been an exclusively suburban ritual became fashionable, spreading throughout Rio. From recreational gatherings in an underprivileged area, a movement grew within samba itself, enticing all social and economic classes as the new sound of pagode samba became one of the most commercially successful styles in Brazilian music history.
Its new sonority brought with it instrumental innovations such as the banjo, an instrument of proven African origin that combines the guitar and drum and is tuned like a cavaquinho; the light and versatile repique de mão, a tiny tambourine-like instrument without rattles that is played with a plastic stick; and the conical tan-tan as a replacement for the unwieldy surdo.
Pagode proliferated throughout Brazil, launching the careers of a new generation of samba artists and earning for Carvalho the nickname Madrinha (Godmother). Furthermore, her 1983 recording Suor no Rosto introduced the singer who was to become pagode’s benchmark, Zeca Pagodinho.
And in 1984, the year Rio’s Sambódromo was inaugurated, the Cabuçu samba school showed their gratitude by selecting Beth Carvalho, “Samba’s Girlfriend,” for their enredo, or parade theme.
Her career, spanning almost four decades, has always maintained one guarantee – quality. Beyond Carvalho’s concern for maintaining the authenticity of samba, her support for new artists, and the sheer exuberance and exquisitely personal renderings that distinguish her performances, she also earns notice for dedicating recordings to samba’s distinguished poet/composers, paying them homage and, in some cases, bringing them long-overdue recognition.
Carvalho has been extremely prolific, forging an estimable career by focusing her considerable talents on the most poetic samba material and releasing nearly an album every year, decisions that have paid handsome dividends: 20 gold records, 10 platinum records, 6 Prêmio Sharp awards (Brazil’s earliest equivalent of the Grammy), a TIM (Brazil’s current Grammy equivalent) for Beth Carvalho Canta Nelson Cavaquinho, the 2001 Latin Grammy for Pagode de Mesa 2, and the Brazilian Record Producers award for greatest record sales.
In addition to touring worldwide – Angola, Athens, Berlin, Frankfurt, Havana, Johannesburg, Lisbon, Montreux, Paris, Zurich, Soweto – in 1997 her recording of “Coisinha do Pai” (Daddy’s Girl) was programmed by NASA to activate the first vehicle sent to the surface of the planet Mars.
Invariably present on her recordings have been, and continue to be, samba’s luminaries, which can be seen by the array of talent on her latest CD and DVD, Beth Carvalho, A Madrinha do Samba.
Its emphasis on good-humored group interplay brings out the best from her special guests and backing musicians, a “who’s who” of samba that includes, among others, Dona Ivone Lara, Nelson Sargento, Monarco and the Velha Guarda da Portela, Sombrinha, Almir Guineto, Arlindo Cruz, Hamilton de Holanda, the Bateria da Mangueira, and Zeca Pagodinho.
Opening with “Andança,” this propulsively driven retrospective of a venerated career, displays both a distilled majesty and a wonderful sense of spontaneity.
As the collective personnel suggests, Carvalho, over and above a due reverence for the finest material, has an ear for creative musical forces and masters of enormous instrumental command who, acknowledging their indebtedness and appreciation to their madrinha, perform with passion and commitment, attacking everything with resounding spirit.
That Carvalho has a track record for culling all-star casts who look to their roots for inspiration will be obvious, on Sunday, June 26, 2005, when samba’s godmother touches down in Los Angeles for her debut at the Ford Amphitheater, our most intimate outdoor venue.
Finally, Southern Californians will become fully aware of the vast significance of her role in samba as well as the vitality and sheer enjoyment value of a Beth Carvalho performance.
Rather than touring as a singer with local accompaniment, Carvalho will be able to relax as a member of the much sought-after ensemble she has worked with for over five years, her skilled regular group, the infectiously buoyant Quinteto em Branco e Preto.
The stars over Los Angeles will pale with envy as the music of Beth Carvalho goes unerringly to the core of the matter – into our ears and out our feet. I asked Carvalho about her background, her politics and, of course, the samba.
Brazzil – Beth, you were initially a bossa nova singer. Can you talk a little about your transition into samba?
Beth – I started to play guitar after hearing João Gilberto; though, bossa nova was just an addition to my universe. I already had a connection with samba, with the samba schools, and with many samba composers before bossa nova, so singing samba was a natural step.
When I started singing samba and connecting with a larger public, the samba infrastructure, my horizons erupted. Samba was bigger, the real thing – a music for the majority. I felt a stronger bond, maybe because there is a little black girl inside me.
Brazzil – Did your family background affect your samba?
Beth – My father introduced me to many fine musicians who were his close friends – Aracy de Almeida, Sílvio Caldas, Elizeth Cardoso, Dorival Caymmi – so I learned from an early age what was good. We weren’t that well off, but my father had a good position that allowed me to attend a school where I became familiar with classical music and ballet, influences that brought a lot of fluidity to my samba.
Brazzil – Was your home life different from the other students?
Beth – My family situation shaped me to always feel comfortable, making it easy for me to connect naturally, easily, with everyone, to treat everyone the same. Although I was middle class, I had, from an early age, a natural synergy with the poor. My mother had many friends in the suburbs, and we used to take a train to visit them, which was not very stylish.
Trains in Rio are for visiting people far away; just the poor people take them. The other young middle class ladies I knew at school led very different lives. No one from that social environment went to the samba schools as I did. And the political awareness I received from my family also pointed to the country’s broad popular basis.
Brazzil – A political awareness?
Beth – Like everyone, I was molded by my environment. My father was a high-ranking customs officer and lawyer, but he was put out in 1964 by the military dictatorship. For years they followed, punished, and harassed him, never letting him have a life, because of his opinions. The thumb of circumstance formed and hardened me to always stand up for the oppressed.
Brazzil – That was a horrible period and, if nothing else, showed the resilience of the Brazilian people.
Beth – They are simpatico, they are creative, they have big hearts, they have a great sense of humor. What I love most about Brazil are the Brazilians. Our people have a little bit of the best from each race. Racial mixing has brought out an unusual people with unique characteristics and with a kind of swing that you can’t find anywhere else.
Brazzil – Did you then, or do you now, follow a specific philosophy or a spiritual path?
Beth – Because I’m Brazilian, I’ve been influenced by umbanda and candomblé, very beautiful faiths that are so much a part of our cultural experience and our environment. I attend several terreiros, or churches, of macumba and candomblé although I don’t strictly follow any specific religion.
Brazzil – You recorded tribute albums to both Nelson Cavaquinho and Cartola. Can you tell me a little about your relationship with Cartola?
Beth – I have deep reverence for both men, composers of real class. The opportunity to share life, develop strong relationships, and provoke the long-overdue recognition of their work was very, very satisfying. Both were forgotten talents of Brazilian music.
When I went to Cartola’s house in the hills of Mangueira, he showed me, among other tunes, “As Rosas Não Falam,” which became a huge success throughout Brazil and was adopted as the theme for a Globo TV soap opera; the attention rejuvenated his life. He came back on the scene again, playing clubs and providing the record company with a new and impressive discography.
Brazzil – Speaking of impressive discographies, yours has received the Latin Grammy, 6 Prêmio Sharps, the Tim award, 20 gold records, and 10 platinum. Which achievement has made you proudest?
Beth – The award from TV Globo’s Festival of Song as the best interpreter was very important. But being the Carnaval theme, or story, for the Unidos do Cabuçu samba school in 1984 was, for me, the most important.
Before that time, Carnaval parade themes were often tributes to distinguished people who had already passed away. That year Carnaval had the first theme for a living person. My story was presented by all the different sections of the school by and to thousands and thousands of people – fantasies, costumes, music, floats, percussion, dancers.
It was something really, really spectacular. That was the first year of the Sambódromo and also the year that Unidos do Cabuçu was the champion. I can’t imagine anything more magnificent.
Brazzil – You introduced pagode on a large scale, so I’m wondering what its current state is and whether the word still has negative connotations?
Beth – When I first encountered pagode at Cacique de Ramos, the neighborhood musicians were getting together to drink, dance, and enjoy themselves, playing and exchanging musical ideas. I’m happy to say that the district, which was declining, received a boost after my album De Pé no Chão was released.
From that point on, the same instrumentation – surdo, pandeiro, cavaquinho, 7-string guitar, 6-string guitar, banjo, repique de mão, and tan-tan – was used by all my godchildren, all of whom became successful, especially when pagode was at a peak in 1984.
That, unfortunately, was also when a lot of bad imitators turned up who were only interested in making money. They latched on to the name, put together a kind of music that had nothing to do with real pagode, made a lot of money, and gave the style a very negative image.
As we Brazilians say, “They could hear the cock crow, but had no idea where he was.” Although these groups were talking about something they didn’t understand, they multiplied and dominated the airwaves until a natural selection occurred and the “wheat was separated from the chaff.”
Now, in 2005, because of the success of many of the real pagode artists – Zeca (Pagodinho), Sombrinha and Arlindo Cruz – the real pagode has extra finesse and is doing wonderfully. Pagode events are taking place in Lapa, the bohemian section of downtown Rio, and young people are getting involved. The real samba, samba de raiz (roots samba), is alive and well.
Brazzil – Is it being played on Rio’s major radio stations?
Beth – You hear very little of the real samba. What we hear more are still the mediocre imitations with a quality ratio at a hundred to one. Money talks in the music business, and radio stations receive “incentives” to promote certain recordings – all dollars, no sense, no background. I worry that the Brazilian audience is being conditioned to digest a steady diet of our worst music.
Brazzil – In the nineties, radio stations weren’t giving your music much airplay. Did that have anything to do with the voice problems you were experiencing?
Beth – That’s true. In the nineties, I suffered, especially from a media boycott, but the motive was political. I had declared my support for (Leonel) Brizola, the great Brazilian intellectual who founded the Democratic Labor Party (PDT), and I was blacklisted.
Politically, I belong to the left, and at that time, the people in power didn’t like Brizola. When he died last year, we lost one of our finest politicians. The loss of airplay wasn’t because of a problem with my vocal chords. I had surgery and was sick for only one year.
Brazzil – What is your take on Brazil’s popular music scene?
Beth – Without belittling any other music, I feel that Brazil’s popular music, our MPB, is the richest in world. It’s not like the music from any other country. Brazil is a continent of music. Its rhythmic variety and the poetry of its lyrics is unknown anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately, our radio stations play the worst, so foreigners are often disappointed.
Brazzil – Record company incentives?
Beth – I am among the people, so I’m aware of what is happening. And I know that a lot of very good artists, the ones who are growing, receive very little, if any, airplay. They don’t receive the exposure they deserve. The media, which is concerned with financial gain, doesn’t give them the space.
Many of the better young Brazilian artists are leaving the country and going wherever they can to make their music, since at home they can’t. So much of Brazil’s best music is heard outside the country.
Brazzil – You and Lobão led the crusade to pass a law requiring every CD, DVD, and CD-ROM be numbered, for which you received a lot of media and record company harassment. Can you explain the law, and its impact?
Beth – Because artistic exploitation is rampant, with everyone making money on top of an artist’s work, except the artist himself, as of April 22, 2003, every disc printed in Brazil has to be coded with two letters, the first indicating which 50,000-unit allotment the disc is a part of, and the second, the total number of units in circulation.
With this numbering, the artist, who formerly only had the record company’s word for how many units sold, is able to get some idea of the money owed him. We have many things left to do, but this is a beginning.
Brazzil – Lobão has also said that. What’s next?
Beth – The companies are still claiming they don’t know where to send the fees for songwriters, which is absurd. Creators going unpaid is a historic inequity. And with changing technologies and the emerging trends in music – downloading, digital music, and file-swapping, artists have to be compensated for their content.
Radio stations need to join the rest of the industrialized world and compensate artists for using their works on the air. If people were less greedy, all of this impropriety would change.
The International Security Recording Code, or ISRC, which is a digital impression that permits the tracking of reproductions and transmissions of a CD on the radio, the TV, even on the Internet, anywhere in the world, could be the next step.
My concern is that artists be paid what they deserve and be able to live the quality of life they’ve worked so hard for and rightly deserve. They are the industry’s backbone.
Brazzil – Your new CD went gold and the DVD, platinum. How did it feel bringing so many fine talents together for the project, and how complicated was the final mixing process?
Beth – I was very happy I could bring together so many of the people who have been important in my life. We were trying to create a résumé of my career, and that’s a lot of information. But I think with the 19 tracks on the CD and 35 on the DVD, we’ve covered a lot, not everything, but a lot.
When we went to make the DVD, there weren’t any problems. We had rehearsed a lot, everything was very well prepared, and since we customarily use Pro Tools, the mixing was easy.
Brazzil – You’re bringing some fine talent to California with you. Can you talk a little about the quintet that will be supporting you on this tour?
Beth – I have always tried to bring the best musicians into my band, but I had an easy task in selecting these guys. I’m an instrumentalist (cavaquinho and guitar), and by developing an instrumental dialogue, I can better evaluate musicians than the singer who doesn’t play.
The quintet and I have been performing and recording together for some time now, and they know samba de raiz. These guys are very tight. Their sole objective has been mastering the works of samba’s finest composers.
Fundo (Grupo Fundo de Quintal) may have that scoundrelly mischievous edge, the malandragem so indicative of Rio, but the quintet plays as well. I suggested the name Café com Leite in 1998, but when we met some time later, they told me, “Madrinha, we can’t keep the name. There’s a forró group with the same name. Can you give us another one?” Quinteto em Branco e Preto seemed to resonate, so that’s what I called them.
Brazzil – Many tunes of lasting value have become associated with you over the past forty years. Which ones can your fans expect to hear in Los Angeles?
Beth – There are some classics from my repertoire, like “Coisinha do Pai,” “Vou Festejar,” “Andança,” and “As Rosas Não Falam” that fans never tire of hearing, so, of course, I’ll have to sing those. I know that I have a lot of Brazilian fans in California, that a lot of my fans are American, and I also know that all of them are expecting Beth Carvalho. We’ll perform as if we were in Brazil, and those that don’t already know me, will.
Brazzil – Beth, you’ve gone to great lengths to spread quality samba, but Mars?
Beth – Oh, (laughs) that was especially touching. Now I’m an interplanetary singer. I had just had throat surgery and was extremely emotional when I found out that a Brazilian scientist with NASA selected “Coisinha do Pai” to start up a robot on the planet.
She had been living in Pasadena for over 15 years, but still remembered her samba. It really touched my heart, but it was more of a tribute to the samba and an affirmation of how strong the samba is in the soul of the Brazilian people.
Title Label Date
A Madrinha do Samba – Ao Vivo Indie 2004 (DVD)
A Madrinha do Samba – Ao Vivo Indie 2004 (CD)
Beth Carvalho Canta Cartola BMG 2003
Nome Sagrado – Beth Carvalho Canta Nelson Cavaquinho Jam Music 2001
Pagode de Mesa Ao Vivo 2 Universal Music 2000
Pagode de Mesa Ao Vivo Universal Music 1999
Pirajá – Esquina Carioca – Uma Noite com a Raiz do Samba Dabliú Discos 1999
Pérolas do Pagode Globo / Polydor 1998
Brasileira da Gema Polygram 1996
Beth Carvalho Canta o Samba de São Paulo Velas 1993
Pérolas – 25 Anos de Samba Som Livre 1992
Ao Vivo no Olympia Som Livre 1991
Intérprete Polygram 1991
Saudades da Guanabara Polygram 1989
Alma do Brasil Polygram 1988
Beth Carvalho Ao Vivo (Montreux) RCA 1987
Beth RCA 1986
Das Bençãos Que Virão Com os Novos Amanhãs RCA 1985
Coração Feliz RCA 1984
Suor no Rosto RCA 1983
Traço de União RCA 1982
Na Fonte RCA 1981
Sentimento Brasileiro RCA 1980
Beth Carvalho no Pagode RCA 1979
De Pé no Chão RCA 1978
Nos Botequins da Vida RCA 1977
Mundo Melhor RCA 1976
Pandeiro e Viola Tapecar 1975
Pra Seu Governo Tapecar 1974
Canto por um Novo Dia Tapecar 1973
Andança Odeon 1969
Journalist, musician, and educator Bruce Gilman has served as music editor of Brazzil magazine, an international monthly publication based in Los Angeles, for close to a decade. During that time he has written scores of articles on the most influential Brazilian artists and genres, program notes for festivals in the United States and abroad, numerous CD liner notes, and an essay, “The Politics of Samba,” that appeared in the Georgetown Journal.
He is the recipient of three government grants that allowed him to research traditional music in China, India, and Brazil. His articles on Brazilian music have been translated and published in Dutch, German, Portuguese, Serbian, and Spanish. You can reach him through his e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now you get to sit back and enjoy her music for yourself – hit the play button and crank it up.
(RIP: Vera Carvalho – 1946-2019)