There is such a thing as beauty, beauty that exists and cannot be denied or dismissed or even really explained, and Virgínia Rodrigues's voice is as close to that definition as we are afforded in the world of music. It's nothing less than the entire personality of her hometown of Salvador, Brazil: operatic and large and lovely just like her (I swear that if she lost 150 pounds she'd be one of the world's great sex symbols -- but what would be lost?) but unschooled, untutored, unspoiled, a voice that transcends language and class and racial barriers, a voice that could save lives.
Sorry about all that. I know I'm supposed to be objective here, have a critical distance on everything. It's just that I've been racking my brain trying to find anything wrong with this album, so I could slip in words like "however" or "although" or "albeit", those words we use when we want to qualify our prejudices and tastes, make them sound rational and considered and more important than just what we like based on other stuff we like and who we are.
I just cannot imagine anyone not hearing Rodrigues sing and not falling completely under her spell. Her legend is well-known in world music circles: born poor, black, and female in Salvador (the promo material quotes her as calling these her "three strikes", but do Brazilians really use baseball metaphors like this?), she dropped out of school at age 12, sang while washing other people's clothes and cleaning their homes and in the marketplace, in church and in local theater performances. At one of these performances, her performance of "Verônica" brought instant tears to the eyes of audience member (and Salvador's most storied musical alumnus) Caetano Veloso, who quickly got her into the studio. Now that, my friends, is a legend to be reckoned with.
Her first album, Sol Negro, mixed pop songs with more traditional Brazilian fare, had some guest appearances from the likes of Gilberto Gil and Djavan, and was only amazing. But it was Nós, her second record, which established her forever in my heart. This collection of axé carnival folksongs, treated seriously as works of art and given brand-new intricate neo-classical treatments is, I think, one of the bravest and most beautiful works ever recorded. The mountains of strings and labyrinths of horns on that record, with bubbling Afro-Brazilian percussion ebbing and flowing underneath, and Rodrigues's voice sailing over the top like a beacon to all her people -- it might just be the greatest Brazilian album ever recorded.
Mares Profundos is built along the same lines as Nós. It is built on a song-cycle known as the "Afro-Sambas", written by poet/songwriter Vinícius de Moraes and brilliant guitarist/composer Baden Powell and first recorded by them in 1966; Mares Profundos also incorporates some other songs in the same vein by the two, and another one with lyrics by Paulo César Pinheiro instead of Vinícius. These songs were compositions, rather than actual folksongs, and are perhaps a little too clean, a little too clinical in their scrupulous invocations to candomblé spirits like Xangô and Iemanjá and Exu, and maybe Vinícius was a little too poet-like in his lyrical deftness (he is, after all, the man who wrote the words for what we call "The Girl from Ipanema").
But that doesn't mean they're not songs of great expansive loveliness, and it doesn't mean that Virgínia Rodrigues wasn't born to absolutely murder them in these lovely settings by Luiz Brasil. "Canto de Pedra Preta" is, on its face, simply a samba, the same kind you could find on any cheap compilation -- but the interplay of Luiz Brasil's guitars dueling in each speaker and the absolutely insane timbale breaks by Thamyma Brasil, with Rodrigues singing her heart out up above it all, makes it into something more important, somehow.
Then, when the art starts on "Tristeza e Solidão", the next song, it sounds right instead of oppressive or pretentious. This simple song about going to see the gods to restore a lost love, sounds made for Brasil's string arrangement, and no one can sell lyrics that translate to "If I stay like this I will die of sorrow" like Ms. Rodrigues. The pieces here that get the neo-classical treatment are really chamber-pop of the highest order. "Canto de Iemanjá" starts slowly and softly, with echoing guitars and Marco Lobo's "ocean drums" -- and then the violins enter, followed shortly by Pink Floyd guitar lines and thumping crioulo drum hits; no orisha has ever received more appropriate tribute, except perhaps for the one named in the title of the last song, "Lamento de Exu", with Rodrigues's voice haunting the string arrangement with melancholy and hope and fear, brave and helpless, that voice that knows all the world's pain and love and all without words, just the voice itself. Perfect way to end an album, this is.
But it's not all strings/drums/Rodrigues, either. Some arrangements are crazily ambitious, like the horn arrangement with bossa-nova intricacy of "Lapinha" (a capoeira chant adapted into beauty), or the Afro-classicist vocal arrangements on "Bocochê" and "Canto de Ossanha". The latter song brings to mind such triumphs of Euro/Afro collaborations like the "Missa Luba" sung by the Muunango National Choir of Kenya, the most beautiful piece of music ever recorded; when everything pauses halfway through, and Rodrigues continues solo in a different key to warn us not to sing the song of Ossain the deciver, that we will regret it, and goes on to break our hearts and lift us up with "Amor só é bom se doer / Vai, vai, amar / Vai, vai, sofrer / Vai, vai, chorar / Vai, vai, dizer" ("Love's only good when it hurts / Go, go on and love / Go on and suffer / Go on and weep / Go on and speak"), and the doo-wop chorus made of five classical singers starts to chime in like the bells of the church of the world, I literally cannot keep tears out of my eyes.
Then there are the simpler arrangements, which throw these fancy arrangements into sharp focus. "Consolação" brings in special guest Celso Fonseca to play guitar in the left speaker, balanced against Brasil's right-speaker work, and nothing else exists suddenly except the three of them, with Rodrigues telling us that she loved too much but that she wouldn't give it up for the world. And there is almost nothing going on in "Labareda" except simple guitar, simple drums, a couple of trombones for seasoning, and the duet between Rodrigues and her mentor Veloso, who still employs (after almost 40 years in the music business) the purest voice in the world not possessed by anyone not named "Virgínia Rodrigues".
Take, if you will, this unqualified recommendation with a grain of salt. After all, I lose any sense of objectivity when it comes to this record. And I don't care, really, honestly, I don't care at all about being objective about Mares Profundos. All I want is for this music and her voice to wash over me like the way the sea washes up on the beaches of Brazil, full of danger and promise and love.