Brazilian Heroes #2 – Elis Regina

Elis Regina, known as ‘Pimentinha’ (the little pepper), was a legendary singer whose amazing voice found its true home in the songs of some of Brazil’s most famous composers. She died tragically early, and, such was her popularity, her funeral was held in a stadium.

Elis Regina Carvalho Costa, better known as Elis Regina, was an immensely talented Brazilian singer, who rose to stardom at an early age, and remained at the forefront of Brazilian popular culture until her tragic death on January 19th, 1982, at the age of 36. Although she did not perform her own material, she collaborated with many of the most respected song-writers of the age, endowing her chosen songs with sincerity, lyrical clarity and, when timely, revolutionary spirit. Her following was so large that her funeral took place in a stadium, in front of an estimated 100,000 mourners. Her musical legacy remains an integral part of Brazilian popular culture, and she has sold in excess of 80,000,000 albums worldwide.

Elis’ musical career began at an early age with appearances on ‘O Clube Do Guri’ on Rádio Farroupilha and Maurcio Sobrinho’s programme on the local Rádio Gaúcha, which featured a live studio audience. She quickly became a local celebrity in her native Porto Alegre, and news of her performances spread to Rio, attracting the attention of Continental Records, with whom she recorded her first single, ‘Viva a Brotolândia’ (Long-live Teenage-land) in 1961. In her late-teens, Elis settled in Rio and became a regular performer on the Bossa Nova scene, singing in the famous Beco das Garrafas nightclub.

The early 1960’s in Brazil were dominated by Bossa Nova (`new trend’), which imported elements of jazz from North America, and incorporated them into Latin rhythms. In response to a perceived dilution of native music by Bossa Nova, students in large cities began to play guitar music inspired by more traditional forms of Brazilian music, which was crystallised in the Música Popular Brasilera (MPB) movement. The main battlegrounds for these forms of music were a series of televised music festivals, featuring among others, Elis Regina. However, it was Elis’ emotionally-charged performance of Arrastão (composed by Edu Lobo and Vinicuis de Moraes) which catapulted her into the spotlight, and ignited the MPB movement.

The mid-1960’s in Brazil were a politically tumultuous period, culminating the in 1964 coup d’état,in which the Brazilian military revolted against President João Goulart (also known as ‘Jango’) and hard-liners attempted to turn Brazil into a communist state. In an attempt to purge the left-wing popular movement, the military dictatorship eventually exiled or imprisoned many musicians who refused to conform. Elis was considered too popular to be suppressed entirely, but she was reportedly forced to sing the national anthem at a stadium show, in order to guarantee the safety of her family.

Irrespective of her personal or political backdrop, Elis continued to make outstanding music. Collaborators included Milton Nascimento, João Bosco, Chico Buarque and Jorge Ben. Her album ‘Elis and Tom’, recorded with Antonio Carlos Jobim is now considered a classic in the Bossa Nova genre and includes the legendary ‘Águas de Março’. She also helped to bring several new artists, such as Baden Powell and Gilberto Gil, to national recognition, leading to the development of the avante-garde Tropicalia movement. In 1975 she worked for sixteen months at São Paolo’s Bandeirantes Theatre in the autobiographical show, Falso Brillante. In 1979, she took part in the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Switzerland, and recorded one of her greatest hits, “O Bêbado e a Equilibrista”, by Aldir Blanc and João Bosco.

Little information regarding the personal life of Elis Regina is available, although it is known that she had 2 husbands and 3 children. It is also apparent that drug abuse was a feature of certain periods in her life, and it was one such incidence that led to her death in 1982. The shockwave from this tragedy still reverberates today, and has left behind a deep scar on the heart of Brazilian culture.


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Elis Regina on stage

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The seminal "Elis & Tom", with Tom Jobim writing the songs