Virginia Rodrigues’ recordings bring the classic songs of Vinicius de Moraes and Baden Powell home to Salvador da Bahia, the city that inspired themBy John Ryle • 2003 • Virginia Rodrigues: Mares Profundos • CD Liner Notes, Deutsche Grammophon • Posted 2016 • 1,500 words
The songs to be heard on Mares Profundos (Deep Seas) are the result of one of the most fruitful collaborations in the history of Brazilian music, a partnership that played a key role in bringing the African-derived traditions of Brazil into the national cultural mainstream, and thence to global attention.
It was during the early 1960s, at the height of the bossa nova era, in a nightclub in Copacabana, that Vinicius de Moraes (1913-1980), a diplomat-turned-poet, met Baden Powell (1937-2000), a young classical and jazz guitar prodigy. Baden Powell’s work was just beginning to be heard on record and radio. Vinicius, then in his late forties, was already an established figure in the music scene in Rio de Janeiro. For a decade he had enjoyed a fruitful writing partnership with Tom Jobim (1927-1994), a collaboration that gave rise to many of the classics of bossa nova, including its biggest international hit, “Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl from Ipanema”). But it was with Baden Powell, in the mid- 1960s, that Vinicius was to produce the most innovative compositions of the time, culminating in the suite of songs, first recorded in 1966, that they termed “Afro-Sambas”. These Afro-Sambas are the heart of the song sequence that Virginia Rodrigues performs on the present album.
The Afro-Sambas combine—or recombine—the famously cool refinement of bossa nova with lyrical and rhythmic motifs drawn from Afro-Brazilian religions, the polytheistic belief systems that evolved from the heritage of African slaves in Brazil. With their invocations of divinities such as Shango (Xangô in Brazil), Yemanja (Iemanjá) and Ossain (Ossanha), the songs form one of the earliest examples of a new strain in Brazilian popular music, one that draws on the deep well of African-derived culture found in the coastal cities of Rio de Janeiro and Salvador da Bahia (the latter having a claim to be the most African city in the Americas). This incorporation of Afro-Brazilian themes into Brazilian popular music is a process that continues to this day, most recently in the “Axé” music, growing out of Bahian carnival, that forms the material for Virginia Rodrigues’ earlier album, Nós (“Us”, Hannibal/Natasha 2000). But, as the present recording shows, Vinicius and Baden Powell’s early exploration of the field remains unsurpassed.
African religions of Brazil
Candomblé and Umbanda, the two principal Afro-Brazilian religions, are ecstatic religions in which devotees, cued by prolonged drumming and chanting, enter trance and become possessed by African gods or other spirits. Of the two, Candomblé (of which Bahia is the heartland) has the most unmodified African characteristics, with a liturgy largely in the Yoruba language and a more-or-less exclusively African pantheon. Thus Shango (Xangó) and Yemanja (Iemanjá)—names that are invoked in several of Vinicius’ and Baden Powell’s compositions—are both Yoruba orishas (orixás), that is to say, divinities brought to Brazil by slaves from West Africa. Xangó is, among other things, the god of fire; Iemanjá, mother of all the orixás, in Brazil is venerated as goddess of the sea.
The second of these two Afro-Brazilian religions, Umbanda, is the form most commonly practiced in Rio de Janeiro. This is a city where the heritage of Africa is more mixed with that of Europe than it is in Bahia. Umbanda is correspondingly more syncretic than Candomblé, incorporating elements from a number of non-African cultural traditions. Among the spirits worshipped by followers of Umbanda are representatives of the indigenous Amerindian and mestizo worlds, the caboclos. Added to these are elements of European spiritualism. The resultant pantheon is as various as Brazil itself.
The hymns and chants of umbanda are generally in the Portuguese language, but they have a distinctive vocabulary. “Saravá”, for instance, a term heard in the Vinicius/Baden Powell songs, is the form of salutation used in Umbanda ceremonies when greeting a divine being. One such being is the caboclo Pedra Preta, tutelary spirit of a celebrated umbanda temple in Rio, who is the subject of the sprightliest of the Afro-Sambas (“Black Rock’s Song”).
Vinicius and Baden Powell would certainly have visited Pedra Preta’s temple and other such places of worship and paid their respects to the presiding babalaô, or priest. Hence Vinicius’ lines, in “Sadness and Solitude” (“Tristeza e Solidão”).
I am from the lineage of Umbanda
I am going to see the Babalaô