Brazilian singer Elza Soares performs at the Town Hall theater on May 19, 2017 in New York. KENA BETANCUR / AFP
The emaciated teenager from a Rio favela, dressed in her mother’s clothes held tight by pins, showed up in 1953 at a radio studio. She wanted to sing in return for cash to buy medicine for her sick baby.
“And what planet do you come from?” the program’s host, famous composer Ary Barroso, asked mockingly to the audience’s laughter.
“From Planet Hunger,” the teenager, Elza Soares, replied, bringing silence to the crowd.
Minutes later, after hearing Soares sing, the astonished conductor declared the birth of a star.
“I haven’t forgotten that exchange. I can’t forget it,” Soares, now 79, told AFP.
“I felt sad. I was a poor girl who was poorly dressed. I just sang well,” said Soares, her voice hollow after a life full of pain as well as success.
Soares spoke by telephone before singing Friday in New York at Town Hall as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival.
The show was based on “A Mulher do Fim Do Mondo” (“A Woman from the End of the World”), her Latin Grammy-winning 2015 album with previously unreleased tracks that offers a futuristic, even gothic, take on her samba with art-rock backdrops and electronic effects.
Dressed in black with a blonde afro that has made some call her the Brazilian Tina Turner, Soares performed sitting, as she has for some time.
But she still managed to rouse the audience out of its seats as she reached into her voice’s gutteral depths on classics such as “Malandro” (“Hustler”) and “A Carne” (“Meat”), with its line: “The cheapest meat on the market is black meat.”
“Black! Black! Black!” she screamed at the end, to which an audience member shouted back, “Wonderful black!”
The show culminated in calls by audience members for the impeachment of Brazil’s center-right President Michel Temer in his corruption scandal.
After the curtains closed, Soares shouted: “Direct, already!” backing calls for direct elections in a country whose previous president Dilma Rousseff was impeached.
After New York, Soares will perform in Barcelona, Porto and Rotterdam as well as at Denmark’s Roskilde rock festival.
– Garrincha ‘my greatest love’ –
Tragedy has repeatedly hit Soares, but her resilience has only added to making her a cult heroine.
Her father forced her to marry at age 12 and a year later she gave birth to a son. She would go on to have seven children with her first husband, although the first two, premature and malnourished, died when they were young.
Soares, who has admitted to stealing food for her family, was already a widow at 21.
She found love with football legend Garrincha, the king of the dribble nicknamed the “bent-legged angel.”
Their relationship was stormy and at times violent. But Soares described him as “my greatest love.”
Her favorite memory of him? “Watching him play football. For me, he was Brazil’s greatest player. The greatest.”
They were married for 17 years, but Garrincha — who showed such joy on the football field and helped lead Brazil to its triumphs at the 1958 and 1962 World Cups — was an alcoholic who died at age 49 of cirrhosis of the liver.
Then their son, nicknamed Garrinchinha, died at age nine in a road accident as he was heading to his father’s grave. Soares’s mother was also killed in a car crash.
“Yes, life has been hard on me. But I also see other worlds where life is very hard. I think life is hard for everyone,” she said.
– The saxophone in her throat –
When she headed to Chile for the 1962 World Cup, Soares had what she described a “magnificent encounter” with jazz giant Louis Armstrong.
With her voice’s rich, brassy roots, Armstrong said Soares had a “saxophone in her throat.”
“I was a very young girl then and he wanted to take me to the United States to sing. I told him that I couldn’t because I had children and he didn’t believe me because I was so young,” she said.
As she did not understand English at the time, Soares repeatedly misunderstood the American. Armstrong called her “daughter” and she, confused, heard “doctor.”
And when he asked her to call him “my father,” she thought he was uttering a vulgar sexual phrase in Portuguese.
How does Soares want to be remembered? “As a normal person,” she said with modesty.
“I’m going to sing until the end. Singing is what I enjoy most in life.”