Iconográfica: A Tribute to Elis Regina, the “Little Pepper” of Brazilian Pop Music

GIF by Cristóbal Saez for Remezcla

In the 1960s, the world fell head over heels for the lovechild of jazz and samba: bossa nova. Its buttery smooth sound evoked the beaches of Ipanema in a picturesque image of Brazil. Yet this glamour turned a blind eye of the reality of a looming military dictatorship, as well as the hardships of working-class Brazilian society. In 1965, a year after the coup that brought on the military dictatorship, a fresh-faced, 20-year-old Elis Regina performed at the first Brazilian Popular Music Festival with a televised performance of the song “Arrastão,” penned by composer Edu Lobo and legendary poet and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes. It tells the story of a fisherman lost at sea and references the Yoruba goddess Yemanjá, featuring a booming samba chorus that fits perfectly with Regina’s vibrato. The song was a first step towards a new genre of music called MPB (música popular brasileira), a mix of samba and bossa, but with lyrics that speak to an inclusive sense of Brazilian identity, not just the fiction of an exotic, postcard-perfect paradise. With the passionate performance of “Arrastão,” Elis Regina jumpstarted her 21-year career by winning the competition – and the hearts of the Brazilian people.

“As a singer, she was the best. She spoke the words, on top of the notes, very sophisticated in the way she emitted the notes…She thought of herself as one of the musicians in the orchestra,” Gal Costa fondly said about Elis Regina. A great example of this musicality can be found in one of her most famous recordings, a collaboration with Antonio Carlos Jobim called “Águas de Março.” In pure bossa nova fashion, Regina kicks off the song with a cool breeziness that fits well with the genre. But as the song progresses, she starts riffing with Jobim, ending the song in a playful scat session worthy of Ella Fitzgerald herself. On stage, her exuberance was charming and captivating, but Regina also garnered a reputation for mood swings; as a result, de Moraes nicknamed her “pimentinha,” or little pepper. While she was largely loved by the Brazilian public, her life was tinged with controversy, due to her stance on Brazilian politics.

While touring Europe in 1968, Regina commented on Brazil’s political situation by calling the military junta a group of “gorillas” in the Dutch newspaper Tros-Nederland. Her popularity allowed her to remain free of persecution and exile, but her outspokenness came with a price. Once the junta got ahold of the Dutch newspaper years later in 1971, she was coerced into singing the national anthem at the government-sponsored military olympics of 1972. This spawned backlash from fans for the singer’s newly found public alliance with the Brazilian government. She was ridiculed by political cartoonist Henfil in a drawing where “she metamorphosed into [French artist] Maurice Chevalier singing to a crowd of saluting Nazis.” In a true showcase of her fiery personality, Regina confronted Henfil and debated with him until he apologized. Her public stance on the military junta was still unclear until she performed the song “O Bêbabo e A Equilibrista (The Drunk and The Tightrope Walker),” in which she calls for exiled Brazilians to be brought back to the motherland, even including a verse summoning Henfil’s banished brother. According to writer Kirsten Weinoldt, this hymn served as an “allegory about the absurdity of the military government” and cemented Elis Regina’s place in Brazilian musical history.

Elis Regina’s authenticity shined through her voice, even if she sang in Italian, French or Spanish. She died tragically in a cocaine and insomnia medication overdose, just a few months shy of turning 37. Her Brazilian fanbase was so vast that at her memorial, 100,000 people sang her songs in unison through the streets of São Paulo. She once summed up her perspective on life with a bold comparison: “Between the wall and the sword, I am drawn toward the sword.” Years after her funeral, fans continued to draw “Elis Vive” graffiti on city walls across Brazil. Her legacy lives on through her authentic voice, fiery persona, and the deep mark she left on MBP.