Beliefnet
Virginia Rodrigues' second album brings together everything lovable about Brazilian music--its joy, beat, fever, fire, but most of all, its sensual surrender to Spirit. A former manicurist and domestic from the slums of Salvador, in the Brazilian state of Bahia, Rodrigues in the last two years seems to have burst forth fully formed, as both singer and spiritual icon in this region best known as the heart of Brazilian black culture--an area where food, music, religion, and cuisine are still influenced by traditions brought over by African slaves more than 300 years ago.

A woman of enormous girth (a sign of "soul" in Bahia), Rodrigues boasts a contralto voice nearly operatic in depth, yet so pure and unstudied that Brazilian musical star (and fellow Bahian) Caetano Veloso burst into tears when he first heard her--an encounter that culminated in her wildly acclaimed 1998 debut, "Sol Negro."

Here on "Nos" (Us), Rodrigues returns to her roots in the rhythms ofSalvador's Carnival as well as the lyrics of candomble, the Afro-Brazilian version of voodoo that invokes deities known as orixas via drum-induced trance. Far from chaotic frenzy, however, "Nos" raises folkloric tunes to the level of art, on par with the most sensuous repertoire of the country's greatest classicist, Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Backed by exquisite acoustic arrangements, Rodrigues' full-breasted voice moves seamlessly from chant to ballad to romantic cancao--supported sometimes only by a bare drum, an a cappella chorus, a sparse guitar; other times backup strings are so sumptuous, they tug painfully at the heart. Throughout, tamboura, bottles, berimbaus, and chimes delicately accent the music with Bahianspices; on the achingly beautiful "Jeito Faceiro" (Happy Manner), the toy-piano sound of the kalimba perfectly evoke the lapping ocean of Salvador's shores.

Despite the liner notes' excellent English translations, lyrics will remain a bit obscure to those uninitiated in both candomble's panoply of divinities as well as Carnival's back-street jokes, but Rodrigues' underlying message is unmissable--the celebration and elevation of the indomitable black soul. Perhaps the most beautiful song is "Raca Negro" (Black Race), a deceptively simple ballad that returns to the bowels of the earth for power, before soaring to heaven on the wings of angels. Not unintentionally does a poignant chord change on this cut inimitably invoke fellow Brazilian singer-composer Milton Nascimento. Indeed, Rodrigues' falsetto intonations in the coda leaves no question as to her spiritual affinity with Brazil's other force of nature, Nascimento, who has never hesitated to use his stratospheric, often wordless vocals as expression of both spiritual and political liberation--particularly during the painful years of military repression when even whites were not allowed to speak out.

Yet like Nascimento, Rodrigues, by staying true to her roots and yet deifying them, humblybut brilliantly arrives at the universal. Like a great primal mother, she leaves us--nos--her audience, wishing to be part of her family. This classic albumis part prayer, part dance, part communion. It will stay on your turntable forever.

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