Portuguese Language Blog

Brazilian Profile: Elza Soares Posted by on Nov 24, 2008 in Brazilian Profile, Music

One of Brazil’s greatest samba singers, Elza Soares is not only a Brazilian cultural icon, but a symbol of endurance and courage. 

Born in 1930 in the Água Santa shantytown in Rio de Janeiro’s Zona Norte, Elza grew up in extreme poverty. Her mother was a washerwoman, and sometimes forced her to nurse from a goat since she could scarely feed the girl herself. As a child, she picked through trash for food to eat and bottles to sell, and ate of tin cans at home since there were no plates or forks.

At age 12, her father forced her to marry a man ten years her senior after he raped her. The husband was emotionally and physically abusive, but she was stuck. She had her first child at age 13, and continued to give birth in the following years, but three of her children died in infancy. The first to survive was born in 1948, and she went on to have three other children. In order to support herself and her family, she worked as a cleaning woman, a waitress, and a factory worker.

But luckily, Elza had her big break in 1948, when she went on Ary Barroso’s radio show to compete in a singing competition. She wore her mother’s dress, even though her mother was twenty pounds heavier than her, which gave her a slightly ridiculous appearance. When the host jokingly asked her what planet she was from, she responded, “From the same planet as you: Planet Hunger.”

After she won, she went on to sing locally, adapting American-style jazz to Brazilian samba. When husband died of tuberculosis, she left her children with her mother and went to Buenos Aires to continue her singing career there. She then returned to Rio, where she gained fame and fortune singing on Radio Tupi and recording her music.

She began dating bossa nova performer Milton Banana in the late 1950s, but in 1962 she met the great love of her life: the infamous Garrincha, one of the best soccer players in Brazilian history. They began an affair that would last twenty years. However, the affair would destroy both of their lives. Since Garrincha was married, the affair turned into a huge scandal, and Elza endured abuse, death threats, harrassment, and even attempts on her life. Eventually, the situation got so bad that the couple moved to São Paulo. They went on to have a son together, Garrinchinha, but the couple split for good in 1973. At age 8, their son was killed in a car accident, and Elza moved to Los Angeles for a time, and also spent two and half years in Italy.

Elza is alive today at age 78, living in Brazil.

For more information, see:

Elza’s discography

Lyrics to Elza’s music

Official site

Videos of her performances

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