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I was first drawn to the pounding on the grassy slopes outside the Etoile Hotel. Recoleta is an upscale section of Buenos Aires, a line of outdoor cafes flowing from the bottom of ten-story hotels thronged with expensively draped, knee-crossed, tiny-cup sipping residents of this wealthy neighborhood. This is where the Beautiful People come to watch and be watched. Beyond the cafes and across the finely manicured lawns are the white church and high masonry walls of Recoleta Cemetery, wherein lies Argentina's patron saint, Evita Duarte Peron. But it is the staccato percussion that attracts, and across the grassy slopes I strolled to join the less affluent surrounding a black and brown line dressed only in shorts, bare hands wailing on drums big and small before a mass of sweating bodies swaying, flailing, turning in a rare combination of dance and ecstasy to this Brazilian music.
It is a hybrid sound called Axe, a mixture of African and Brazilian music also referred to as samba-reggae. There is something primal in a drum beat, its lure related, I believe, to the rhythm of a beating heart. It is usually background in American popular music; here it is the focus. The particular tune the young men send throbbing across the lawns, the song all are singing, the song permeating every radio station in the lower hemisphere during the spring of 1993, is 'Swing Da Cor' by Daniela Mercury. I remember watching this young, vibrant crowd, beautiful young Spanish women dressed - or more accurately undressed - to kill, their male companions barefoot and smiling, a colorful, absorbing slice of life. These people were poor, profoundly poor by our standards, yet they were young and happy and moving, joyous young men and women luxuriating in the rhythmic pounding of Brazilian drums.
I carried these memories and this particular song home with me. For six years I searched for a CD of this young woman named Mercury. For six years I discussed her with anyone familiar with the Brazilian superstar. We lamented that the woman, even with the current Latin craze rolling over the continent, was restricted not only by the Portuguese she spoke and sang, but also her admirable resistance to music industry pressure to record in a more marketable (read: English/Spanish) language. Unable to locate the CD in the United States, I finally purchased it when I worked in Sao Paolo, Brazil last year. At home, whenever the first haunting words flowed, "Nao, nao me abandone, nao me desespere..." I would close my eyes and smile, recalling all the song had come to represent of a wonderful time and place, to the extent that my wife Terry, arms folded, finally confronted me.
"OK, what's her name?"
"Daniela," I confessed. And promptly explained, of course.
And so I was delighted when I read in the The Boston Globe of the arrival of the Brazilian Diva, to perform on Saturday night, September 16, 2000, at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium. This was too good to be true, her presence in the United States a derivative of the Latin Explosion in popular music. I had to see this singer, to relive in person the pounding heart of wonderful Argentine memories. My wife away in Cleveland at a wedding, I asked my oldest daughter Becky if she cared to go, and she, the most loyal fan of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, answered by announcing, "I haven't been wounded by any Latin Explosion shrapnel." Daughter Sarah, however, was more interested, and accompanied me to Lowell.
And what we witnessed was nothing short of remarkable, a confidence, a swagger, a purpose so artful, so beautiful, so powerful as to overwhelm. The Globe's calling her the Latin Madonna is insulting; the sensuality she exudes is elegant, not cheap. To listen to a concert in which you are unfamiliar with the songs, cannot understand the lyrics, and yet be moved, literally moved, by a stage presence so compelling, so charismatic, is nothing short of exhilarating. The woman is spellbinding; small, a perfect body, perfect hair, a perfect smile, a woman who performs two straight hours of aerobics with a grace and agility equal to the professional dancers accompanying her while singing with a voice so unique, so emotional, so perfected...the show is a knockout performance. There is an attractive nuance; these ten or eleven musicians and dancers exhibit none of the usual boredom and arrogance so typical of our local rock legends, indeed, they exude a wild innocence, a joy in performing, accentuated, no doubt, by the whirling, stomping, churning scene they have created in front of them on the dance floor and in the balcony. At one point amidst a delirious roar I turned and stared at the scene, a wild, moving, jumping, twirling collage of sound and color, Brazilian flags hoisted and waved by proud pairs of hands, arms and hands twisting in a peculiar Latin fashion, an exhibition of joy I had not seen the likes of since Springsteen leveled Boston's small clubs in 1973.
As we drove home, my daughter sat stunned. Sarah is young and ambitious, and not lacking in chutzpah or confidence. Yet when I asked her what she thought of the concert, of Daniela Mercury, she turned to me and said, "Dad, I just saw something I can never, never be."
I don't know if Daniela Mercury will make it in the English speaking world. We Americans are a parochial tribe, self-absorbed and disinterested in much outside our borders. Daniela Mercury is a world-class performer, her joy and talent dwarfing so much of what passes as entertainment here. But I am not optimistic. She may be too good for an American public force-fed their music by corporate interests, an American public used to its stars' arrogance and attitude. A culture more interested in their musical hero's heroin addictions and promiscuity than any relevant, thoughtful wisdom they may exude. This is probably her one shot at American, and hence, worldwide fame. She is thirty-five years old. Time is running out.
As I danced like a white guy amidst the churning brown mass, the magical words began, "Nao, nao me abandone, nao me desespere..." and it all reminded me of Argentina, of walking two blocks from the Etoile to the curb where my taxi awaits, past uniformed waiters with their buckets of water and brooms brushing off the cobblestones, of avoiding delivery bicycles with wicker baskets filled with freshly baked bread...my dancing daydream interrupted by the middle-aged white guy next to me who asked who I had seen the last time I attended this auditorium. I leaned close so that he could hear, and told him.