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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Elis Regina, Águas de Março

It's stick, it's stone
It's the end of the road
It's a rest of stump
It's a little alone - Águas de Março (Waters of March)
The famous bossa nova song composed by Antonio Carlos "Tom" Jobim, named as the all-time best Brazilian song in a poll of more than 200 Brazilian journalists, musicians and other artists. Covered in the U.S. by Jane Monheit, Holly Cole, Art Garfunkel, and Cassandra Wilson among many others, and probably known best to the general public thanks to the Coke commercial. Here's the definitive original performed by Elis Regina, a woman whose voice I am deeply in love with.

Known as "The Little Pepper," and sometimes as "the Hurricane," Elis Regina was born in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 19 and 45. She began her career as singer at age 11 on a children's radio show. At 13, she recorded her first LP, Viva a Brotolândia.

In 1965, Regina sang at Brazil's first National Festival of Music - winning both first prize and kicking her career into hyperdrive with a blistering rendition of Arrastao, a song that had almost been censored by Brazil's new ruling military junta, apparently because of its allusions to a fisherman alone at sea, hauling in his nets while praying to St. Barbara for aid, being a little too close to the situation of the Brazilian everyman. In the incident that Dylan refers to in the TTRH Around the World episode, Regina posed in Christ-like crucifixion, tears streaming down her face, at the song's conclusion. Regina's 1965 performance is actually on YouTube, and can be found here.

From Dylan's remarks, the TTRH researchers seem to have conflated that story with a later one from Elis Regina's career. In 1969, while Elis was touring in Europe, she referred to the junta ruling Brazil as "gorillas." While her popularity precluded the military from immediately jailing Regina upon her return, she was pressured to "rehabilitate" herself by singing the Brazilian national anthem at a ceremony put on by the government to celebrate the anniversary of Brazil's independence - about the equivalent of convincing Bob Dylan, say, to perform at Richard Nixon's second inauguration. According to later reports, Regina was threatened with prison if she didn't show up and sing. She did both, and following her performance at the junta's celebration, Regina appeared as the subject of a newspaper political cartoon in which she was portrayed as Maurice Chevalier singing to a crowd of saluting Nazis.

The criticism that she was a junta sympathizer and collaborator lasted almost a decade, until Regina recorded a song in 1979, O Bebabo e A Equilibrista (The Drunk and The Tightrope Walker) an allegory about the absurdity of the military government. The song became the anthem for the amnesty movement to return exiled Brazilians to their home, a movement which eventually succeeded. Elis Regina would sing the song triumphantly to a cheering crowd when the government capitulated.

Regina apparently began using cocaine around the time of the breakup of her second marriage. As Dylan noted, she was careful to hide her use of the drug from family and friends, secrecy which ironically probably contributed to her death. As the new year of 1982 began, Elis Regina had many new ventures underway: she was planning a new marriage and a new home for her family, she had a new recording contract, and was starting a new album. Alone in her bedroom, studying songs for that new album, Regina accidentally overdosed on a lethal combination of cocaine, tranquilizers and Cinzano.

It was yesterday, January 19th. It was twenty-six years ago yesterday, 1982. She was not yet 37 years old.

Regina's collaboration with Jean "Toots" Thielemans on Aquarela Do Brasil that Mr. D. played on TTRH can be found on the album of the same name at Amazon. Highly recommended, as is nearly everything in Elis Regina's canon.
"When I get old like Edith Piaf, they will put me on the stage. It's the only thing that I know how to do, and which will be left to me: singing." - Elis Regina
Sources: Elis Regina Life Story (Google cache only); Wikipedia article; translation of 1965 newspaper article reporting Regina's performance of Arrastao.

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