Divas with a Cause

North American audiences tend to romanticize (when we don't simply trivialize or dismiss) both art made by women and art made by Latin Americans, particularly commercial art. While virtually all popular music, especially Latin-American music, trades in romance, it would be a great disservice to the unique Brazilian Divas performance to view it as anything less than it is: a phenomenal collaboration by four distinct, innovative, and politically sophisticated artists.

After all, the three real veterans here -- Alcione, Maria Bethania, and Rita Lee -- made their names as progressives in the Sixties and Seventies, when Brazil was ruled by five successive military dictatorships, and censorship was the norm. In this climate Alcione (one of the preeminent divas of samba) fought against the prejudice she experienced as a black from northern Brazil and used her success to found a samba school for poor children. Alcione's story alone is phenomenal, though it may be lost on a North American audience unfamiliar with Brazil's own history of slavery and racism. Most here in the North don't know that Brazil's slavery of West Africans continued for two decades after the U.S. Civil War. And we tend not to understand Latin America's sometimes Byzantine class differences, either. According to one Brazilian Internet page devoted to the samba, for instance, the elitism that separates Brazil's European culture from that most influenced by West Africa is more extreme than that which divides opera from the blues.

At the same time, for pretty clear objective reasons, Latin America's popular artists tend to have a much more highly developed sense of class unity than those in the United States, and the art naturally reflects that conception. From the beginning of her career, Maria Bethania made political statements in the face of censorship by mixing popular music disdained by elites with classical forms, and Rita Lee played with the limits of political and sexual outspokenness using that cultural equivalent of the atomic bomb, rock and roll. Today she is called "the godmother of young Brazilian rockers." Even the young pop star here, Zizi Possi, after ten successful Polygram CDs, made the most personal of political statements by leaving her producer/husband and forging a new deal with Universal on her own.

The show itself is attempting to break new ground. Promotions by the Brazil 500 Anos Project promise not just these women's greatest hits, but "duets, trios, and quartets never seen before." For that reason Jose Possi Neto, an acclaimed theatrical director with more than a quarter of a century's experience, is at the helm of this performance. Listening to the disparity between these four talents, one can imagine why.

Each of these women has a stunning voice, and each is stunningly different. Maria Bethania has a gorgeous alto that manages to match wide-open vocals with subtle textures and phrasing, moving from the big gesture to the most intimate, sounding utterly genuine wherever she lands. Alcione's alto is similarly wide ranging and expressive, but it is far more tough and bluesy. Rita Lee's airy, playful vocals, by contrast, sound more European, but they capably head up arrangements that bring to mind everyone from Elton John to the Doobie Brothers to Lynyrd Skynyrd. And Possi, though she visually brings to mind Celine Dion, musically avoids such bombast by texturing her pop vocals with phrasing as delicate as lace. Simply on a musical level, the U.S. equivalent of such a grouping is difficult to imagine, but it would have to be as extreme as making a quartet of Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon, and Aaliyah.

And yet this will certainly work much better than that would, for a number of reasons. First, Brazilian music -- whether it be samba, bossa nova, or tropicalismo -- is fundamentally fluid and inclusive. Latin rhythms invite a world of styles into a groove, while our tightly formatted U.S. markets, based largely on superficial differences in production styles, tend to erect divisions where they shouldn't exist. (Figuring out the differences in the eighteen cable radio stations devoted to popular music is quite a bit harder than figuring out the demographic difference in the Coke and Pepsi markets.)

Even more important, the sense of common cause links these Brazilian women in such a way that similar artists are rarely brought together. There is the bond of women in a male-dominated society, the bond of women from the Southern Hemisphere in the North, and the bond of those who have worked their entire lives to break down the divisions between cultures. In that sense this one-of-a-kind performance is a fundamental expression of who these women are, and it is hardly a romantic notion. The very existence of such a show reveals how pragmatic a tool music is for breaking down the divisions between people, and the talent of these artists is more than enough to build real meaning in the new space created.

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Danny Alexander