Ronaldo Bôscoli, one of bossa nova’s most influential songwriters, once referred to Elza Soares as “the strongest woman that Brazil ever produced.” Brazilian music critics have called her “The Phoenix” due to her six-decade career, in spite of the fact that she’s survived violence and discrimination in the form of sex scandals and forced political exiles. But Elza Soares’ powerful voice remains strong, and she’s definitely not afraid to give you a piece of her mind.
Born in a Rio de Janeiro favela in the 1930s (though she famously prefers keep her age a secret), Elza Soares rose to fame when she won a radio competition in her teens. Soon enough, she was shaking up the bossa nova world with her 1961 record “Bossa Negra” by swapping out the typical smoothness of the genre with raspy tones and improv scatting.
Her throaty, coarse voice garnered the attention of Louis Armstrong, who famously referred to her as his “daughter” the first time they met at the 1962 World Cup. There, she met her future husband: Brazilian soccer star Garrincha. But at the time, he was already married with seven children. Their infamous love affair brought a whirlwind of media scrutiny, a drop in record sales, and even death threats. Soares and Garrincha stayed together for 16 years. The couple separated, and Garrincha’s alcoholism eventually took a fatal turn.
Her mainstream visibility and outspoken pride for her Afro-Brazilian roots landed her on the Brazilian dictatorship’s blacklist. Her house was violently fired at and seized by militants, and she was forced into exile in Italy. Years later, in the 1980s and 1990s, Soares returned to Brazil to find herself with a fading career and many mouths to feed. Like a phoenix, she rose again, with a little help from a new crop of Brazilian musicians such as Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, and Gal Costa. This time, she channeled all her struggles into her brand of soulful samba and rock, all while tackling Brazil’s racial injustices. In her 2002 song, “A Carne,” Soares stands up against racism with a chorus that cries, “the cheapest meat in the market is dark meat.”
Nowadays, the Brazilian phoenix of samba is still in the studio, concocting samba and rock ‘n’ roll fusions. Even though she was bestowed the Singer of the Millennium award by BBC, Elza Soares’ legacy goes beyond just her international recognition. To this day, her “bossa negra” is still empowering Brazilians of all genders, colors, and sexual orientations.