Elza Soares, considered one of the best voices in Brazil, says she is 79 – although the jazz diva is touchy on the subject and admits her real age is a closely guarded secret. Her career as a samba jazz star has spanned decades and made her one of the most successful female artists in Brazil. Her latest album, “A Mulher Do Fim Do Mundo,” is her most personal yet. It deals with domestic violence – something Soares experienced herself at the hands of her long-term partner. The album earned Soares her first Latin Grammy, for Best Brazilian Popular Music album in this year’s awards. Its success, she says, has left her humbled.
“I feel gratified with this album. I thought people would like it, but I had no idea the repercussions would be this big,” she says.
Tracks on the album include “Pra fuder” (which means “to f****” in Portuguese) and “Maria da Vila Matilde,” a reference to a Brazilian law enacted in 2006 that punishes perpetrators of domestic violence against women.
The second song has become a kind of anthem for women fighting domestic abuse in Brazil and, says Soares, is often the one that women in the crowd sing back to her at her concerts. It refers to Maria da Penha Maia Fernandes, whose now-ex-husband twice tried to kill her in 1983, first by shooting her while she was asleep and then, when that didn’t work, by electrocuting her in the shower. The case was settled in court almost 20 years later, in 2002. It became a cause celebre for women fighting domestic violence and led to the enactment of the Maria da Penha Law on Domestic and Family Violence.
Hardship and tragedy in Soares’ own life started when she was just 12 years old and her father found her fighting with a boy in the woods. Her father accused her of having sex with the boy, which she has always denied, and made her marry him.
“I was a little girl, I didn’t have clue of what marriage was about, for me it was like I was playing with my dolls. Only after a while I felt the burden of responsibility,” says Soares.
The pair went on to have seven children together – two of whom died as babies – until her husband died suddenly from tuberculosis, aged just 21.
“I didn’t have time to feel what I lacked in my childhood. I only knew what I wanted and what I could do to overcome difficulties,” she says.
Soares and her children were so poor they were at risk of starvation. In a desperate attempt to raise some money she entered an amateur talent contest run by a local Radio station. She borrowed her mother’s clothes for the event but was so skinny they hung off her, making the audience laugh when she walked on stage.
The show host, Ary Barroso, himself a well-known composer, said, “What planet do you come from?” to which Soares famously replied, “Same as yours, Mr. Ary. From Planet Hunger.”
She sang so beautifully that Barroso and the audience were stunned into silence. At the end of the performance he announced, “A star is born.” The success of the event was too late to save one of her sons, who died shortly after from starvation, but it led to her first album, in 1959, and was the start of her singing career.
Within a few years she was singing in Chile on behalf of Brazil’s national soccer team and courted by Louis Armstrong, who wanted her to come to America with him to perform in his concerts.
It was around this time she met and fell in love with soccer legend Garrincha, who was already married. Divorce wasn’t legal in Brazil until 1977 but Garrincha left his wife for Soares and they spent the following 15 years in a tumultuous, alcohol- and tragedy-filled relationship. In 1969 Soares’ mother, Rosaria, was killed in a car accident caused by Garrincha, who had been drinking at the time. Years later the couple’s son, Garrinchinha, was also killed in a car accident, aged just 9.
Garrincha’s drinking led to him beating Soares, who says violence was so frequent at home it almost became normalized. She finally left him in 1977 and he died of cirrhosis a few years later.
“I felt helpless with the situation in which [we] lived,” says Soares. “I didn’t know alcoholism was a disease. It makes you feel so impotent.”
There’s a line in the song “Maria da Vila Matilde,” on Soares’ latest album, in which she sings, “You’ll regret raising your hand for me.” Soares says she wishes she had spoken out about the abuse sooner and urges women now not to stay silent.
“Many women don’t report [abuse] because they are frightened the men will attack them again,” she says. “Women should never fear they will be beaten if they go home.”
Soares says hearing women in the crowd sing the lyrics of the song back to her at her concerts is cathartic for them and her. “Men feel involved too, but women feel it more,” she adds.
These days Soares sits on a stool to perform. She was forced to abandon her trademark heels after a fall from stage that resulted in several rounds of surgery and left her with a damaged back. However, pain – both physical and psychological – seems to be something the singer is used to, and certainly not something she allows to get in her way. She celebrated her Latin Grammy win with a tour around Europe, singing in Germany, the Netherlands, London and Lisbon.
“[Winning] the Grammy was like … when you don’t know if was awake or sleeping,” she says with pride.
The septuagenarian says there’s still more of her career to come. “I’m going to be singing until the end. I don’t know when end will happen, but it’s going to be like this,” she says, referring to her song “A Mulher Do Fim Do Mundo,” in which she sings, “I’m going to sing until the end, I am a woman from the end of the world.”