Virginia Not So Plain

These days it's no different for 34-year-old Virginia Rodrigues than for any other international celebrity. The fame, the concerts, the glowing press, the people in her hometown who once ignored her and now court her favor. "Everybody in Bahia has heard about me now," she says via phone from her home in that city. "Whenever I'm on the street, people stop and want to talk to me."

That marks a huge change from Rodrigues's life growing up in the coastal Brazilian city of Salvador de Bahia, which boasts the nation's largest African population, and one of Brazil's poorest. In Bahia's slums Rodrigues took odd jobs cooking and doing manicures. She also sang, learning Catholic chants and canticles from her grandparents. She performed in churches and with the Olodum Theatrical Group. And she dreamt of stardom, though her family cautioned her against expecting too much, lest she get her hopes dashed. "When I was a child," she recalls, "my grandmother told me that blacks have to be crazy to try to be someone in their life, to try to be famous." But the Olodum troupe had a good reputation, and Salvador is a musical nexus in Brazil, the place where African percussion and Portuguese melodies collide; Paul Simon enlisted the region's drummers for his 1990 album Rhythm of the Saints.

It's also the place where Brazil's mainstream Catholicism meets with other religions, including Protestantism, as well as candomble, the mystical faith of Rodrigues's ancestors in Nigeria. "There are a lot of influences from candomble," she says. "It's in the blood. The African candomble culture is very important to me and my songs, but it's very difficult to receive and use this influence," which focuses on a variety of gods, appealed to in song and dance. All of these factors were at play when Caetano Veloso, Brazil's most famous musician, came to attend a dress rehearsal of an Olodum performance three years ago. Rodrigues was playing, of all things, a mute maid, until the end of the show when she sang "Verônica," a Catholic chant which, sung in the original Latin, served as a summation of her experience: "Look, look/And then see/If there is pain/Like my pain."

Stunned by Rodrigues's beautiful, otherworldly contralto, Veloso appealed to her to make a record. The resulting album, Sol Negro, was released in the United States by Hannibal Records last year but had caused a sensation among critics and Brazilian music fans a full year before in its release on the Brazilian imprint Natasha. Veloso served as the CD's artistic director, and other famous Brazilian musicians made guest appearances, including Milton Nascimento, Djavan, and Gilberto Gil. But at heart it's Rodrigues's album throughout, rooted neither in the soft, elegant pop of Brazil's icons nor the heavy beats of Salvador's percussion groups. Instead it's a simultaneously somber and uplifting cycle of songs focused on the African experience in Brazil. There are mournful ballads -- the piano and strings that drift slowly on "Manhã de Carnaval," Veloso's "Lua, Lua, Lua, Lua," the closing lament "Israfel," and the infamous "Verônica," but there also is room for the joyous samba "Adeus Batucada" and songs like "Noite de Temporal" and "Negrume de Noite," where the haunting, spare percussion drives Rodrigues's prayerful voice.

Hannibal president Joe Boyd was ignorant of all this two years ago when he was at home doing what record executives do: trying out demos and getting more depressed with every new tape in the stack. "[Natasha Records] sent us an advance copy of this record that they'd done, and I just put it on the record player," he recalls. "I was going through demos one night and, you know, you listen to 30 seconds and chuck it in the reject bin. And this thing just stopped me in my tracks. I just stayed for an hour listening to the record."

Boyd, most famous for his work as a producer of British folk and folk-rock acts such as Fairport Convention and Nick Drake as well as more recent records by Billy Bragg and R.E.M., had actually seen Rodrigues perform in London with the Olodum Theatrical Group four years ago. "I remember thinking that there was this amazing voice in the cast, but it was very theatrical and all a cappella. It wasn't something where I thought, Oh, I should sign her up or something, because it was just this wonderful a cappella voice."

After hearing Sol Negro, however, Boyd went to see Rodrigues in Brazil, and began to pursue the prospect of releasing her album internationally. The music press was gossiping about a bidding war over the singer (particularly between Hannibal and David Byrne's Luaka Bop label), though Boyd dismisses that rumor. "It took awhile to sort out a deal. Some other companies were interested," he admits, but adds, "I wouldn't feel comfortable characterizing it as a bidding war. We're talking about the small-potatoes world of world music."

By the platinum-plated reckonings of the pop machine, Sol Negro is a flop; the Hannibal release of the record has only moved 50,000 copies. But in the arena of international musicians, who are ever-more-clumsily shoehorned into the world-music bins, Rodrigues is a superstar. "I'm happy that Americans like my work and my songs," she says. "I didn't expect it." Since the album's release, she's been touring and recently finished her second album, Nós, which was released in late February by Hannibal. Instead of the compilation of various Brazilian musics showcased on Sol Negro, Nós focuses on, as Rodrigues puts it, "musical perceptions in Salvador de Bahia," emphasizing percussion more and taking its cues from the popular songs of Salvador's Carnaval, as performed by guitar-based trios electricos and drum groups (blocos afros) like Olodum.

"I did discuss with the label that I felt it was important that there was kind of a story to go with the second album," says Boyd. "The Carnaval in Bahia is much less touristic and more local than the Carnaval in Rio ... and Virginia has really gone back into history, taken some of the most wonderful examples of these Salvadoran Carnaval songs and done them her way, which reveals the beauty of the melodies."

While all this attention is flattering to Rodrigues, the singer notes that her life wouldn't be much different if she hadn't been discovered. "I would be trying to sing," she says. "At weddings, at choirs, and in theater, too. I would be trying. But it's easier when you have an important name to give you support, like Caetano gave me."