Photography Erick Amarante
The 79-year-old Brazilian samba icon Elza Soares has been compared to both Ella Fitzgerald and Tina Turner; in 1999, the BBC christened her the "singer of the millennium." But she's not a household name for non-Portuguese speakers who grew up in the age of the internet. She hasn't toured the U.S. in years, rarely gives interviews in English, and, until recently, hadn't released a new record in roughly a decade.
That's not to say Soares isn't a genre-defining artist who will inevitably be canonized with the best of 'em, but rather she's exactly the type of figure who young Americans should be paying attention to. At a time when we're all increasingly vocal about the toxicity of the status quo, we need uncompromising leaders who speak truth to power. Elza is just that.
Born in destitution, forced into an oppressive marriage at age 12, widowed in her early 20s and left to care for several children, Soares was discovered after appearing on a Brazilian talent show wearing stolen clothes. It's a rags-to-riches story that makes the Horatio Alger catalog pale in comparison, and despite becoming one of Brazil's most beloved artists during the 60s, it was never smooth sailing.
Elza was often forced to perform offstage due to the color of her skin, several of her children passed away, and she suffered from further domestic abuse after marrying the world-renowned (and notoriously alcoholic) soccer player Garrincha, who also crashed a car in 1969, killing her mother. But, as Soares sings on her transcendent new album A Mulher do Fim do Mundo (The Woman at the End of the World), "My turmoil turns me into a she-wolf / You're my prey, you're going to cry!" This line comes from a track titled "Pra Fuder," or "To Fuck" — ample evidence that this almost-octogenarian is a bona fide (and timeless) badass.
Recorded with a group of experimental musicians from São Paulo, including preeminent artists from the "samba sujo" (aka "dirty samba") scene, the new full-length (her 34th album!) is unforgettable. As the music writer Philip Sherburne put it in his glowing review for Pitchfork, "The Woman at the End of the World marks the kind of record few artists ever make, much less iconic figures who could be reasonably expected to live out their remaining years resting comfortably on their laurels."
Released last summer through London-based label Mais Um Discos, the album morphs the trappings of samba music (a full ensemble band, the presence of cavaquinho and other stringed instruments, declaratory verses over frenetic Batucada rhythms) with noise-rock and contemporary electronic production. After all, Soares has said she doesn't like being labeled a "sambista," instead declaring, "I consider myself the greatest Samba-Rocker." With an unshakeable lyrical focus on the plights of marginalized people and her fresh new band, the release not only redefines Elza's own legacy, but also spotlights a new generation of Brazilian artists and the myriad problems it's facing today.
As the title suggests, The Woman at the End of the World is a testament to dogged persistence. Soares's peerless voice alternates between velvet and gravel as she literally spits out lines like "I'll throw boiling water at you if you dare" ("Maria Da Vila Matilde") or "I look at my body/I feel the lava ooze down" ("Pra Fuder"). The songs focus on everything from death and misogyny to Brazil's drug epidemic and its attitude towards sex workers. Soares tells i-D her intent "was to yell, so I can wake up those who are sleeping."
This week, the artist is visiting New York for the first time in nearly 25 years to headline the Red Bull Music Academy Festival, where she'll be performing with a full band at Town Hall on May 19. She spoke to i-D about her new record, the responsibility of artists to resist oppression, and the time she performed wearing garbage bags in front of the President of Brazil.
What inspired you to make A Mulher do Fim do Mundo almost 10 years after your last album?
I think things just happened at the right time with the right people — maybe we weren't ready to create this piece before now. What inspired me to make this new record was the ability to address issues that I think are important, such as racism, homophobia, abuse to women... we can't keep quiet about these things, we need to yell, and wake up those who are sleeping!
The 11 tracks on the album were written and produced by a group of experimental musicians from São Paulo. How did you pick the songs that appear on the record?
When Guilherme Kastrup [the album's co-artistic director and co-producer alongside Rômulo Fróes] proposed to make a record of all original material, I got crazy excited! I like challenges — new things are what keep me going. While we were sitting on the floor of my living room, Kastrup showed me over 50 songs from artists of the new generation of São Paulo composers, and each was made specifically for [me to record]. It was hard choosing the 11 songs that made it onto the record because they were all so beautiful. I [picked the songs] I identify with most, such as "Maria da Vila Matilde" because I have also suffered from domestic abuse. To women who suffer from domestic abuse, I say: denounce it because screaming is only acceptable if it comes in the form of pleasure!
Tell me about recording the album with members of the bands Passo Torto and Metá Metá, as well as Guilherme Kastrup and Rômulo Fróes. What was it like collaborating with them on A Mulher do Fim do Mundo? Do you have any particular memories from the recording sessions that stand out?
I feel very lucky, sweetheart! It was a lot of talent working together, and I want to take them with me forever! They are musicians of great artistic potential, and I'm impressed with the modernity and compositional prowess of their work. I learned a lot from them and I thank them for this opportunity... When I grow up I want to be like them [laughs]. One memory that stands out was the day when we recorded the title track — we all cried together in the studio.
Over the course of your career, have you noticed the pressures of censorship change in Brazil? Are artists — particularly women, people of color, and queer-identifying Brazilians — more free to express themselves today without fear of repercussion?
In the past we lived under a [military] dictatorship and there was no freedom of expression. When the dictatorship ended in 1985, we went back to democracy. But today we are living in a difficult time, as a lot of the world is becoming more conservative each day. Believe it or not, Brazil is a conservative country and freedom of expression is being threatened, especially for women and black people. Artists have to question things that are happening. They have a fundamental role in the transformation of society, and it is important for them to address social issues, to give voice to the oppressed.
What do you think the next generation needs to do in order to fight oppression?
I've always embraced those who are marginalized and suffer from prejudice because I also feel that in my own skin. This is my duty as a citizen and an artist. The newer generation has a difficult task ahead of them because the world is regressing and this is very dangerous. As long as God provides me with a voice and those who will listen, I will use my art to wake up those who are sleeping! Again, I want to yell so I can wake them up!
The album addresses many issues in contemporary Brazil — from violence and racism to drug addiction. How did you want listeners to react?
I have listeners of all ages, but I believe young people identify more with my work and I can notice myself making an impact on them. In some way, I am able to move and touch them. My new record was not backed by mainstream radio, but it was successful because of the power of the work. It shook up the public, especially among young people — at [concerts] they sing along to all the songs with me! There are fans of mine that get emotional from the beginning to the end of the show, and sometimes when I receive them in the dressing room we will embrace. I have fans that go to all of my shows in many different cities, and it really makes me feel something. Before A Mulher do Fim do Mundo it wasn't always like this.
What's your relationship like with contemporary music? What artists do you find inspirational?
I've always strived [to find] the new, the modern, the different — I've never been the type to stay in my comfort zone and only sing the hit songs from my career. I'm very restless! I listen to everything, but I love Chet Baker — every day I have to listen to Chet Baker. I love Karol Conka, John Lee Hooker, Joyce Candido, Larissa Luz, Liniker... Today, there are a lot artists from the new generation that are revolutionizing the music scene in Brazil.
For an American who isn't familiar with samba, what is the difference between traditional samba and dirty samba?
Traditional samba has a very frenetic rhythm, it is cadenced. What I like about samba sujo is that it doesn't follow the traditional cadence and it has very modern elements to it.
Your fashion sensibility is super unique. Can you talk about how your personal style has changed over the years?
I've never liked the conventional, the traditional. I like fashion that doesn't belong in time. Today, I have two great fashion producers: Leo Belicha and Isaac Silva — they inspire me! One outfit I remember is when my stylist created a dress made entirely out of trash bags before I sang in front of the President of Brazil at the Municipal Theater in Rio de Janeiro in 2008. The public went wild!
You're playing in New York twice in the next few months — at Town Hall for Red Bull Music Academy and later at Brasil Summerfest. What's your relationship with New York?
I lived in New York in the 80s — in Brooklyn and also on 43rd Street. I have wonderful memories — my greatest friend in New York was Eartha Kitt and we had a lot of fun together. I moved to New York when I lost my son and wanted to escape the pain a mother feels from losing a child. New York was the city that took me in its arms. It's been over 25 years since I've visited, but I think it will be a happy reunion.
This interview was conducted with the help of a translator. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Text Zach Sokol
Translation Noel Mateus
Photography Erick Amarante