The singer established herself in a masculine environment, achieving numerous successes in the 1970s. A Carioca icon and tireless activist, she has passed away at the age of seventy-two.
“The samba scene is both macho and matriarchal. Women have a very important role, and not only in the kitchen. It has always been the singers who choose which samba pieces are performed in schools. Women are fundamental, they are a point of balance, the best proof being men’s respect for their mothers and grandmothers. (…) Throughout my career, I have tried to assert myself as a woman, to conquer my space, without forgetting to be a caring person. It is no coincidence that I have become the godmother of many people in this particular field.” Thus spoke Beth Carvalho (in an interview with UOL). The “godmother of samba” died on April 30, at the age of seventy-two, in a Rio hospital where, according to her agent Afonso Carvalho, she was “surrounded by the love of her family and friends.”
Beth Carvalho was an icon of Rio de Janeiro, the city she was born in, where she lived and whose beauty she praised in her songs. In the 1960s, the young woman began by attending bossa nova groups in Ipanema. A singer, guitarist and composer, she drew inspiration from the genre for her first album, Porque morrer de amor? in 1964. But it was via samba that she became a huge star, firstly through the popular repertoire of Salgueiro and Mangueira composers. Then, on the compositions of Nelson Cavaquinho and Cartola, by this point in the 1970s, through performing hits like “Saco de feijão,” “Vou festejar,” “Acreditar,” “Depois da madureira” and “Coisinha do pai,” which was chosen in 1997 by NASA engineers to “wake up” their robot Sojourner before a day’s work on Mars. Beth was above all one of the first Brazilian women – after Dona Ivone Lara – to be recognized in a very masculine field, as well as one of the first singers (along with Clara Nunes and Alcione) to sell so many records. She showed her talent also in revealing artists such as Zeca Pagodinho and the group Fundo de Quintal.
The force with which Beth Carvalho broke taboos is also the one that she used to animate her political convictions. “Before being a singer, I am a citizen,” she said. She recalled crying for a week when President Getúlio Vargas – nicknamed the “father of the poor” – committed suicide in 1954 (she was 9 years old). She remembered in particular the imprisonment of her left-wing militant father during the 1964 military coup, after which Beth had to become a music teacher to support her family. “Samba is left-wing, it is the people. Nelson Sargento is left-wing, so was Cartola,” she told S. Paulo’s Folha in 2015. While portraits of Che Guevara and Hugo Chávez were hung in the entrance of her house, she gave her unwavering support to Presidents Lula and Dilma Rousseff, and unsurprisingly became involved in the #EleNão movement of women against the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, now President of the country.
Married in 1979 to Brazilian international Édson Cegonha, football was another of her passions. In an interview in Brasil de Fato, she remarked: “We have the best football in the world, and you know why? Thanks to samba. Our players have mischief and footwork like no other player in the world. Not even Messi. They don’t have the hip fluidity that Neymar has, that Brazilian players have. This footwork comes from samba.” She was a staunch supporter of Botafogo – “Esse é o Botafogo que eu gosto” confirms. A few hours after her death, her body was presented at the club’s headquarters, under the Alvinegros flags, and on a table the colours of Mangueira, her favourite samba school. For several years, she had been suffering from a back pain, one that forced her to cancel a New Year’s Eve show on Copacabana beach in 2009. In 2018, she gave an historic show with the group Fundo de Quintal, whilst lying on a bed to perform her greatest hits. On May 5, she was meant to go on stage for her birthday, but a widespread infection refused her the opportunity.
The greatest names in Brazilian music have been quick to pay tribute, from Caetano Veloso celebrating “one of the greatest expressions of our culture” to Marisa Monte: “in the midst of so much cowardice and in a world as male-dominated as samba, Beth Carvalho has always opened paths for women.” Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Paulinho da Viola, Elza Soares, Martinho da Vila, Djavan, Hamilton de Holanda, Daniela Mercury, Marcelo D2, Roberta Sá, Johnny Hooker, Maria Rita, Alcione, Lenine … the messages of sadness kept pouring in. Beth Carvalho will be missed for her music, her generosity and her convictions. We’re still waiting for Jair Bolsonaro’s reaction.