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IT'S SAID THAT when Brazilian music icon Caetano Veloso heard the sublime, almost otherworldly contralto of Virginia Rodrigues for the first time, he wept. The powerfully built diva from Bahia was a relative unknown then, singing an a cappella version of the traditional Catholic processional song "Verônica" for the Olodum Theatrical Group two years ago. But Veloso was sufficiently impressed to offer his help in developing her career. He arranged a major coming-out concert for Rodrigues in Rio de Janeiro, secured her a record deal shortly thereafter, and contributed two songs (including the title track) to her stunning 1997 debut Sol Negro ("Black Sun"), available here on Rykodisc.
Before that fateful meeting, Rodrigues sang at weddings, town events, anything. She made her living as a cook and a domestic, she says, speaking through a translator over the phone from Rio. She'd been invited to join the company, which scouts its members from poor neighborhoods, after its director heard her sing with a local choir.
Now 35 years old, Rodrigues has an earth-mother presence, a beatific face, and a voice so striking that even behind her interpreter, in the background over the phone line, her instrument resonates as a distinctive, velvety rumble. Next month, she'll be welcomed into the pantheon of Brazilian greats when she participates in a special collaborative performance with Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and Chico Buarque at London's Royal Albert Hall. In the meantime, she'll be performing Saturday at the Walker Art Center, with a five-piece band of Rio musicians in one of only seven shows on her second U.S. tour.
Rodrigues's disparate influences range from choir music to the Afro-Brazilian folk that permeates the Salvador streets where she once sold vegetables and fruits with her mother. Young Virginia first learned to sing in Catholic church choirs before moving on to Protestant ones. She later became entranced by popular music, especially the rock of Gil and Veloso, co-founders of the Tropicalismo movement. But religion was always her primary influence, she says.
"In Bahia there are a lot of African influences, and candomblé is very important too," she explains. Candomblé, the faith to which she now subscribes, is an Afro-Brazilian, Yoruban-based religion, with numerous deities of African origin. It isn't the only tie Rodrigues maintains with her Bahian roots. Although her sambas are distinguished by an exceptionally refined delivery, Rodrigues insists her music has a street perspective and is for the people. She and her mother still live in those impoverished Salvadoran neighborhoods, she says, and her working-class background is still fresh in her mind.
That said, the singer admits that her newfound fame has changed her life dramatically. She now constantly meets people throughout Brazil who want to talk to her, and she can afford to stock up on albums by the great vocalists she has long admired: Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughn, Jessye Norman, and Bessie Smith.
The most important change, though, is that she can make a living singing for people--a job for which she's abundantly qualified. On Sol Negro, Rodrigues floats over the spare berimbau-and-percussion arrangement of "Noite de Temporal" ("Stormy Night"). And she trades sparkling commiseration with Gil and Djavan on "Terra Seca" ("Dry Land"), Ary Barroso's lament about the lives of poor black men. Already in the works is Rodrigues's next album, due in 2000, which will contrast Sol Negro's sonic austerity with a set of songs taken from the Bahian Carnival. Rodrigues says the idea came from Veloso, who helped her research years of Carnival songs to build a repertoire.
But no matter how much Rodrigues feels at home in the street parade, she says her art remains a spiritual, personal experience. "When I sing," she says, "I talk with God."