Rosinha de Valença: Apresentando

[31 March 2008]

By Brendon Griffin

No surprise that the titles translates as Presenting: this is the record that introduced Rosinha de Valença to the world, or at least the world outside of Copacabana. For those familiar only with her trademark shock of curly hair and hippy threads, the cover is a surprise: she looks prim—matronly even—in a button-up blouse, hair straightened in a chin-length bob. But then this is Rio pre-tropicalia, an enclave of monied aesthetes blending samba, jazz, and elements of both European and Latin American classical into something supremely Brazilian. Their attitude is a studied lack of one, the delivery of sublimity and complexity in the most unassuming of packages: it’s a serious business, as much for those who stayed up all night playing it in the clubs of Beco das Garrafas (Bottles Lane), as for, presumably, those sleep-deprived residents whose irate bottle throwing—as the story goes—lent the place its name.   

Valença, though, was a relative outsider, at least in the sense that she wasn’t a native carioca. No surprise either, perhaps, that her hometown was indeed Valença, a colonial outpost in the mountains north of Rio, nor perhaps a coinicidence that the town lies in close proximity to the border of Minas Gerais, the mountain state of gold mines and mysticism. Rosinha de Valença brought something indefinable to bossa nova, sonorities with their roots in the hills, but which readily adapted themselves to the urban environment and bossa’s quiet revolution. It’s a revolution in which she was intimately involved without ever really accruing the plaudits she deserved. Unlike Nara Leão, she wasn’t a vocalist per se, and her intepretations of bossa songwriters were largely instrumental, supported on her debut by the likes of Oscar Castro-Neves and Sergio Porto (who—blown away by her very first performance in Rio—coined the “de Valença” tag; Rosinha’s birth name was Maria Rosa Canelas).

Apresentando is a formative record, then, but still an engrossing, elegant listen, with more or less all the Valença trademarks in place: deeply resonant tone and insistent rhythm, dynamic, often dazzling phrasing, and elaborations of obscure beauty. Like her contemporary Baden Powell, whom her playing most resembles, Valença flaunts a highly original guitar narrative, manipulating nylon and wood in as unique and expressive a range as Brazilian Portuguese manipulates the tongue, palate, and nasal passage. The material here is all fairly standard stuff for a mid-‘60s bossa album—only after she’d served her time with the likes of Sergio Mendes would she begin transforming British and North American standards.  Among it, it’s the ruminative bass motifs and quicksilver fills of Powell signature “Consolação” which most impressively flourishes her talent. The delicacy with which she handles the Jobim/Moraes number “Ela É Carioca” is likewise exquisite, proving she’s no mere hick from the sticks on a song which could’ve been written for her Rio assimilation. Even this early on there are premonitions—in the way she plunges down the scale, flashes between percussive sinew and fine-boned intricacy, and turns up double helixes of melodic DNA from nothing—of the interpretive genius to come.   

Even vocally, she finds something untouched in other people’s songs. Witness the time delayed, lip smackingly fluid syncopation of “Com Que Ropa”, the signature samba-canção of bossa forefather Noel Rosa: Valença transforms a ‘30s Carnaval standard into highly personalised, deliciously off-kilter comment, walking the syllables to bed at a naturalistic, solipsistic canter. While her actual singing voice has a coy, unplaceable conversationality to it, a funky reticence in the vein of her friend João Donato, it’s almost as if—in the cover of Donato and João Gilberto’s “Minha Saudade”, for example—the forces to which she’s in thrall effectively break down the lyrics for her, compelling her, and us, into a sweet abandonment of blurts and yelps. Earthed in that ridiculously demonstrative language of Brazilian scat, “Até Londres” bristles with dialectical charge—Valença flies through the melody, picks up her vocal part and runs with it, trading whoops and flomps with Neves, flirting, scolding and exclaming in an urgent dib-a-dob duel worthy of Ella and Louis.

Just as worthy of mention are the accompanists; chiefly Neves on a piano which sounds—in a good way—like it’s being played underwater, but also Nelsinho on slippery trombone, Jorginho on flute, and one Doum on flawlessly syncopated, rick-a-tick-tack bateria. Those unaccustomed to ‘60s bossa albums might find the material homogenous on first expsoure, but Apresentando is essential listening for anyone with an appreciation of the possibilities of the acoustic guitar, or merely for those curious about the early years of one of the great unsung guitar heroines of not just Brazil, but the western popular musical tradition.

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