More than music, samba is a social phenomenon setting the tone of Brazil’s cultural identity for at least 100 years. A syncretic encounter of African and European music experiences, samba has also been influenced by multiple local sonorities from both the countryside and the seaside, in the Northeast and the Southeast. While Bahia is commonly acknowledged as the legitimate samba crib, it was in the cosmopolitan, urban Rio de Janeiro where, in the early 20th century, samba gained shape and echoed across Brazil and overseas.
Today, the world reveres samba and its 100-year-old tradition. Many people, however, still ignore the female legacy for this (predominantly male and often machista) music culture. Whether as entrepreneurs, managers, producers, singers, or composers, women have been actively present in samba since its early days. If it weren’t for women, samba, as we know it, would not exist.
Here are 14 Black female singers and composers who have transformed Rio’s urban samba scene since the beginning of its history.
Clementina de Jesus
Scholars, critics, and fans say that Clementina de Jesus (1901-1987) is the proof that Africa runs through the veins of Música Popular Brasileira (a generic term entangling all sonorities understood as “Brazilian popular music”). There couldn’t be a better metaphor to describe the legacy of Clementina, who rescued a supposedly lost African musical ancestry and incorporated it into Rio’s urban samba. Born in Rio de Janeiro’s countryside, Clementina moved to the capital as a child (1908) and worked as a housemaid for the most part of her life. At 63 years old, she was “discovered” by influential MPB producers and rapidly became an entity of the samba environment, both in Rio and Brazil. There is no contemporary roda de samba (the traditional performative setting through which musicians make a circle to play samba) that does not revere Queen Quelé, as she’s affectionately called, and the African heritage that pulsates in her songs, influenced by jongo and other Afro-Brazilian music cultures from Rio de Janeiro’s countryside.
Known as “The Divine” and “The Magnificent,” Elizeth Cardoso (1920-1990) was the role model for many singers of forthcoming generations, including Clara Nunes, a giant of MPB. No wonder the composer Chico Buarque has considered Cardoso “the mother of all Brazilian singers,” whether for her impressive vocal range or the soulfulness in her singing. Admired by none other than the renowned jazz star Sarah Vaughan, the Divine was also incredibly versatile: in 44 albums, she explored genres like choro, bossa nova, samba-canção, erudite music, and jazz. This ever-lasting radio diva has also recorded landmark songs for the history of MPB, such as “Chega de Saudade” (1958). Elizeth has done plenty of samba throughout her career, and her samba-only album is simply anthological.
Jovelina Pérola Negra
In present-day rodas de samba, Jovelina Pérola Negra is omnipresent. Owner of a Clementina-like, ravishingly low voice that expresses the genuine truth of samba carioca, Pérola Negra (1944-1988) is one of the most important samba composers in Brazil. When it comes to partido-alto (a samba sub-genre marked by improvisation and a singalong chorus line), Pérola Negra (Black Pearl, in English) killed it, combining smart, humored lyrics with the perfect partido-alto flow. A member of Império Serrano (one of Rio de Janeiro’s traditional samba schools) and a former housemaid who started a music career at 40 years old, Jovelina has composed with high-profile names from Rio’s samba scene, such as Zeca Pagodinho, Arlindo Cruz, Beto Sem Braço and Dona Ivone Lara. In her eleven-year-career, Jovelina has recorded nine solo albums. “Luz do Repente”, “Sorriso Aberto“, “Sonho Juvenil Garoto Zona Sul“, “Sorriso de Banjo” and “Bagaço da Laranja” is only a bit from Jovelina’s music pearls.
Dona Ivone Lara
At only 12 years old, young Dona Ivone Lara (1922-2018) composed her very first samba song, “Tiê.” She’s played in samba circles until the present day. A pioneer who has opened doors for other women in the samba universe, Dona Ivone Lara was the first renowned female composer of a Rio samba school, Império Serrano, which she helped found in 1947. The daughter of a guitarist and a singer, with an education in formal music and in cavaquinho (a Portuguese-originated string instrument, one of the most typical in a samba arrangement), Ivone has been surrounded by music throughout her entire life. At 48-years-old, Ivone launched her debut album, Sambão 70″(1970). A Carnival devotee who composed important samba-enredos (songs specially made for the samba school contests during Carnival) such as “Os Cinco Bailes da História do Rio” (1965), Ivone has been recorded by important female singers, such as Maria Bethânia, Clara Nunes, and Gal Costa. “Sonho Meu“, “Alvorecer“, “Sorriso Negro” and “Acreditar” are among her most famous compositions.
Like Dona Ivone, Leci Brandão (1944) was a pioneer in the samba world. A self-taught singer and percussionist, Leci is the first female composer of Mangueira, one of the most traditional and famous samba schools in Rio. The progressive spirit of her lyrics is the most outstanding trait of Brandão’s musical personality: songs like “Deixa, Deixa” or “Zé do Caroço” discuss social inequality in Brazil, while tracks like “Ombro Amigo” reflect on the sexual freedom of women. A Law Bachelor, Leci has also been actively involved with politics. In 2010, she became a left-wing councilor at the Legislative Assembly of São Paulo’s State. While Leci has experimented with other genres throughout her career—samba-jazz, bolero, and samba-reggae – samba has always been her DNA in music. Other famous songs by Leci are “Isso É Fundo de Quintal” and “Só Quero Te Namorar“.
In 1999, she was nominated as the “Singer of the Millennium” by BBC Radio. Superlatives are no exaggeration when it comes to the talent of Elza Soares (1930), a treasure of the Música Popular Brasileira. Combining spontaneous gutturals with a vigorous interpretation, Elza’s voice is one of a kind. As someone who came from a very poor background, Elza has always taken a political stand in art. “I came from Planet Hunger, and still live in Planet Hunger,” she has recently affirmed in a media interview, referring to Brazil’s escalating social inequalities. While the 90-year-old Elza escapes from any label, she is currently partnering with new-gen rap and hip-hop artists. Her work in samba music is particularly extensive. Her 1970 album, Sambas & Mais Sambas, is one of the most iconic of her career.
Alcione (1947) is probably the most awarded female artist in Brazil: she owns 26 Gold Records, a Latin Grammy for “Best Samba Album”, and has already been considered the “Voice of Latin America” by the UN. Indeed, Alcione’s unmeasurable relevance to MPB explains her prestige in Brazil and abroad. Born and raised in the Northeastern State of Maranhão, a trumpet and clarinet player, and a former elementary school teacher, Alcione enriches Rio’s samba with an authentic cultural background. An entrepreneurial samba woman, Alcione founded the Mangueira’s Samba School for Children (a community project educating children in Mangueira’s samba culture), Mangueira’s Centre of Arts, and, more recently, a bar in Rio de Janeiro. While Alcione’s career embraces various music genres—like bolero, reggae, and boi (a typical rhythm from Maranhão)—she is especially famous for her romantic pagode (a samba sub-genre) songs. “Gostoso Veneno“, “Meu Ébano“, “Você Me Vira a Cabeça“, and “Não Deixe o Samba Morrer” are some of her hits.
A singer, composer, guitarist, and percussionist, Mart’nália (1965) personifies the feel-good effect that samba creates in our minds. Few are the voices making life sound brighter and softer than Mart’nália’s—graceful, sensuous, bohemian, and unpretentious, all at once. The daughter of the giant samba composer Martinho da Vila, Mart’nália grew up surrounded by the finest from the samba carioca. An openly gay artist since she started her career in 1987, Mart’nália has been nominated five times for the Latin Grammy Awards for her albums. Two of them have won the prize: +Misturado (2017) and Mart’nália Canta Vinicius de Morais (2019). Though Mart’nália has already done soul, funk, and pop music, her samba songs are the ones with the greatest renown, such as “Cabide,” “Tava Por Aí,” “Pé do Meu Samba,” and “Chega.”
Teresa Cristina (1968) gives samba the elegance and tenderness the genre deserves—no wonder she’s called “the personification of samba’s delicacy” by her music partner and MPB composer, Caetano Veloso. Cristina’s samba career took off in 1988 in Lapa, a Rio neighborhood famous for its bustling cultural life and bohemian atmosphere. She was one of the artists that helped turn Lapa—a synonym of decadence and abandonment in the 1990s—into a bustling samba district. While Cristina has become famous for reinterpreting important male composers such as Candeia and Cartola, she no longer interprets sexist samba songs as an attempt to help fight machismo in the samba universe. This year, the singer-composer stirred Brazil’s attention for having performed on her Instagram page every day since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Acalanto” and “Beijo Sem” are two great songs interpreted by “The Queen of Livestreams,” what people call her now.
Mariene De Castro
The highlight of Mariene de Castro‘s music is its blend of Afro-Bahian ancestry with Rio’s samba tradition. Her albums are a terrific mix of samba-related genres from these regions, intertwining Bahia’s samba-de-roda and ijexá with Rio’s pagode and jongo. A member of the more recent samba generation, the singer (1978) born in Bahia’s Salvador was “baptized” in Rio’s urban samba by Zeca Pagodinho and Beth Carvalho—two of the greatest names from the scene. In her work, Mariene often pays tribute to female samba stars, such as Clara Nunes and Clementina de Jesus. Her latest album, created with musician Almério, was nominated at this year’s Latin Grammys for Best Brazilian Roots Album.
Nize Carvalho‘s musical virtuosity showed up at a very early age. At only six-years-old she played her first chords in cavaquinho. At 11, she participated in an album and at 15 toured across Europe with her music. Carvalho (1969) is not only an exquisite cavaquinho, guitar, and bandolim player, but a role model for women aspiring to become (multi) instrumentalists in the samba terrain. A singer and composer who has an academic background in music, Carvalho gained popularity with Sururu de Roda, a samba group in which she has taken part for 17 years (2000-2017). Carvalho’s work is marked by authentic rereadings of genres such as choro, MPB, and samba. Her 2015 album, Verde Amarelo Negro Anil, was nominated Best Samba Album at that year’s Latin Grammys.
Known as the “Tropical Voice of Brazil,” Odete Amaral (1917-1984) was a big sensation in the Radio Era in Rio de Janeiro. Though Amaral lacks the recognition she deserves, especially among contemporary generations, she lent her voice to remarkable compositions for the history of Música Popular Brasileira. A versatile artist, her repertoire accommodated genres like samba-canção, carnival marchinhas (playful carnival songs), and choro. One of her most notable legacies for the samba culture was the album Fala, Mangueira!, a tribute to the Mangueira Samba School, in which she participated with Clementina de Jesus.
Carmen Costa (Carnaval de 1942)
Although Carmen Costa has also fallen from sight, she was one of the first black women to have made a successful career in music. A former housemaid who started as a radio singer in the 1930s, Costa (1920-2007) was unbeatable in her interpretations of samba-canção songs and Carnival marchinhas. One very popular in Costa’s voice is “Eu Sou A Outra” (1953), a song on how it feels like to be the extramarital lover (quite outrageous for 1953!). Outrageous, indeed, is a good word for Carmen, whose career has also been marked by songs on female prostitution and the bohemian life. Her voice gave life to samba classics like “Pressentimento“, and two of her albums are exclusively dedicated to the genre: Embaixatriz do Samba (1963) and Ziriguidum no Sambão (1971).
Aracy de Almeida
The list would not be complete without Aracy de Almeida (1914-1988), one of the essential singers from the 1930s samba scene. A regular at male-only environments like rodas de samba, samba schools, and bars, Almeida escaped from gender conventions and always did what she wanted. Throughout her career, Almeida has partnered with top-notch, old-school samba makers, such as Noel Rosa, Heitor dos Prazeres, Ary Barroso, Lamartine Babo, Ataufo Alves, Wilson Batista, and also contemporary ones like Caetano Veloso. She was considered by Paulinho da Viola the greatest samba singer of all time. Her album Samba em Pessoa proves that Viola might be right.