Before Beyonce and other individual stars today wielding their financial success and popularity to construct narratives of experience, there’s a long tradition of women musicians who simply sang experience to a working class audience that shared it. One of those was Brazil’s ‘Godmother of Samba’, Beth Carvalho, a singer, composer and guitarist who died yesterday in Rio de Janiero aged 72. For those of us who saw Carvalho at the Joburg Arts Alive Festival in 2000 it was an experience still vibrant in our memories.
Carvalho was taken by her lawyer father to watch Rio’s samba schools rehearsing from an early age, and fell in love with the sound. She won a national TV talent contest with a song influenced by the radical bossa nova movement, but her musical life from that point was dedicated to samba, and particularly identified with the Manguiera school.
The shapers of samba cited outside Brazil are often predominantly male, with women mentioned only as ‘singers’ – but Carvalho was a sambista of massive distinction who won the Latin Grammy in 2009. She defined the sound, drawing music from the finest composers, wrote songs herself, brought rising stars (such as the group Fundo do Quintal) on to her stages so that they benefited from her success, and was always at the leading edge of the modernisation movements within the genre.
Her work with Grupo Fundo do Quintal ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cRe4YSdFQY ) for example, helped foreground the pagode (backyard) movement: get-togethers of favela (shack settlement) musicians and lyricists that were essentially communal and community-based. Their work provided a powerful counterpoint to the middle and upper class patronage and gentrification of samba, which was also under way at the time. The discourse of the pagode insistently reminded listeners of the 1930s roots of the music in impoverished communities uprooted to the favelas on the outskirts by capitalist city development. Samba pagode was not a tourist-friendly, appropriated ‘national’ music, but a specific and proud assertion of Brazil’s African communities; their heritage and history.
Carvalho had more than 30 albums to her name, possibly the most substantial opus of any woman sambista. Her 1979 song Coisinha do Pai
was one of the ‘Earth songs’ carried into space on the Mars Pathfinder mission, while many of her lyrics echoed the struggles of Brazil’s working class communities and indigenous peoples. A lifetime socialist, her latter years saw her appearing at many events in solidarity with ousted and imprisoned former president Lula da Silva, even though she was in crippling pain from a spine disorder. Descansem em paz.