Brazilian singer Virginia Rodrigues began her gentle, subtle performance at Penn's Annenberg Center on Friday night offstage, with the lights off, singing to her pai or father, her orixà, her personally designated guide deity, Ogum, the god of iron.
In her sweet, strong quasi-operatic contralto, she chanted in her a cappella mixture of Portuguese and Nagô (liturgical Yoruba) - "Coia, coia, coia." The song laid the path for the rest of her uneven but ultimately satisfying two-hour show.
For vastly different reasons, the 43-year-old Rodrigues' presence evokes that of two other iconic Lusophone African women - the Afro-Brazilian folkloric singer Clementina de Jesus, and the Cape Verdean legend Cesária Évora.
Like the late, great de Jesus, Rodrigues is the embodiment of the spiritually anointed baiana, the black woman who knows and protects all of Brazil's religious and cultural secrets. Like Évora, Rodrigues is small, round and preternaturally dignified, a shy, unpretentious diva whose impact on the world's popular culture belies her working-class roots.
Sans her trademark braids, her hair simple and natural, Rodrigues was surrounded by a trio of admiring, protective musicians - Raul Mascarenhas on soprano sax and flute, percussionist Marcos Lobo and guitarist Fernando Mauricio. With songs from composers such as Baden Powell, Caetano Veloso and Vinicius de Moraes, the four Brazilians wove a gentle, multitextured tapestry of African-Brazilian popular and cultural music.
Rodrigues seemed affected by the cool fall weather, and she sometimes had problems hitting her highest notes and controlling her rich vocal timbre. After several songs, the show's momentum seemed to wane. But it was the samba that revived her. Throughout the evening she had showed hints of her ability to move, throwing in short circular sambas as she sang.
During "Adeus," as appropriate a despedida (farewell) as anyone from Brazil could have, Rodrigues turned up the heat both with her voice and her feet, moving briskly and expertly across and around the Philadelphia stage.
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