Sunday, March 7, 2010
"Between the wall and the sword, I am drawn toward the sword"
- Elis Regina
In a bar located in the centre of a city block in a middle-class suburb of São Paulo, Dona (1) Ercy Carvalho Costa tends to the patrons until eight in the evening. Some like to sit at the counter and eat Dona Ercy's lunch, famous in the neighbourhood. Dona Ercy then walks home, half a block away. At seventy-three years old, she lives alone following the death of her husband, Romeu, in December 84. Whenever she talks about her daughter Elis, she cries. With a combination of love and hate that shifts and swells as quickly as in her daughter she tells me, crying and clenching her teeth: "I don't forgive".
Amazing memory from a woman who seems to find, in an instinct for survival, the strength to keep working in the bar and pay the rent. Maybe she drives herself mad in the house with nothing to do. When Dona Ercy wipes the tears that flow from her large eyes, I feel a paralysis of affection: it seems impossible to caress or comfort her. A gaúcho (2) pride permeates this matriarchal rock, the implacable leader of the childhood and adolescence of Elis Regina.
Dona Ercy is the daughter of portuguese immigrants, born-again christians, owners of a grocery store in the southernmost part of Brazil. She met a Brazilian Romeu, a son of Brazilians with indian features, very quiet, with a secure job in a glass factory. They settled in the Navigantes neighbourhood of Porto Alegre (3), in a wooden house with a packed earth yard. The couple's daughter was born cross-eyed and was named Elis after a friend of Dona Ercy's. The middle name Regina came from a legal requirement: back then, the bureaucracy did not allow children to be baptized with a name that could be used for either boys or girls (as is Elis).
So Dona Ercy added the name Regina.
Elis Regina Carvalho Costa (4) was born on March 17, 1945, of a natural childbirth which was attended by a midwife named Conceicão and a nurse named Marlene, in the Benificencia Portugesa hospital of Porto Alegre. It was a Saturday, at ten past three in the afternoon. She was the first daughter, and the first grand-daughter of a large family. Of two large families. She was very strong and healthy, and her mother cannot recall having lost a single night's sleep. Elis would fall asleep punctually at eight in the evening, always in the dark, with all lights out.
Dona Ercy transformed the firstborn of the Carvalho Costas into a cross-eyed little doll. From early on, one could tell that she would not grow up to be tall. Elis always walked very straight, was always well dressed, bows in her hair and eyeglasses from the age of four. As far as her mother can remember, she was an obedient child. She liked to play by herself, and used to walk in the yard with a straw purse, talking to herself.
Until he lost his job in the stockroom of the South-Brazilian Glass Company, Romeu Costa was a sensible man. He liked to read Hemingway and to listen to Chico Alves (5) and Carlos Gardel (6). Before he got married, he had a second job in a talent show and from time to time, out of the blue, dressed himself in Dona Ercy's long nightshirts and came out singing and dancing in the house. It must have been a strong influence in Elis' little head because for years she thought he was in fact a ballet dancer. She was very disappointed later on.
In the Carvalho Costa household, the radio played the music of Brazil from the station Nacional do Rio, and the music of Argentina from Radio Belgrano. On Sundays, when everyone gathered at the house of Dona Ercy's mother Ana, the family used to make a lot of noise at the table. The would sing loudly and laugh. Little Elis sang 'Adios Pampa Mia' (7) from beginning to end, in tune and not missing a word. It was on one of those Sundays that the grandmother Ana said proudly: "Why don't you bring that girl to Guri's Club?"
Guri's Club (Clube do Guri) was a children's show broadcast by Radio Farroupilha every Sunday. Elis was seven years old when she faced her first microphone. It was a shock to the young girl, who was used to talk to herself, to have to face the unfamiliar studio of the radio
station. The program's director, Ary Rego, begged her to do something. Nothing, Elis remained mute. He begged her to sing. Silence on the air. Dona Ercy, already nervous, joined in to put pressure on Elis: "Sing, my child". Nothing. She limited herself to gnawing her fingernails covered with white gloves. She returned home in complete silence, with Dona Ercy in her ears. "What a shame". It would take five years for Elis Regina to build up the courage to try her luck again. When she entered primary school, she already knew how to read, write and count. Proud of
her daughter, Dona Ercy talked to her as to a young lady, without childish phrases or errors in portuguese. And when Elis would come home with a report card full of high marks, she also heard in good portuguese: "It's nothing more than an obligation". In life we must fight. The family wasn't even close to being pampering. In that gaúcho home, one only placed a child on one's lap when he was asleep, and even then. Elis was raised like this, as well as her only brother Rogério, five years younger than her.
In 1952, the family left the Navegantes neighbourhood. As an industrial worker, Romeu was entitled to occupy an apartment in the IAPI village (Institute of Retirement and Pension of Industrial Workers) - building upon building built horizontally in two stories. It was a blue-collar
village, but occupied prime land in Porto Alegre. A nice green space, many plazas and a football field. The ground-floor apartment where they moved in had a three-tiered backyard, a fig tree in front of the door, and faced the football field. Romeu used to say that he wanted a little corner of earth to walk or plant something on, although he never planted anything.
It was while living in this apartment that the family suffered its first serious blow. The South-Brazilian Glass Company closed and Romeu lost his job. Rogério, already five or six years old at the time, remembers those as difficult times. Dona Ercy had to break into the children's
piggybanks. Romeu reached a decision: he would never again be the employee of anyone. He stuck to it. He spent the rest of his life trying his hand at different occupations - he was a commercial representative, a travelling salesman, the owner of a butcher shop, and a merchant.
As time went on, he became increasingly pessimistic. He used to say: "If I were to open a hat factory, the next day people would start to be born headless".
At the age of nine, Elis started taking piano lessons from a teacher named Waleska, a neighbour in the IAPI village. She studied for two years. She learned very quickly, so quickly that she soon found herself facing a dilemma: either buy a piano or stop her studies. Elis Regina started to sing because they could not afford to buy a piano.
Dialogue between the mother and daughter in Porto Alegre in 1956:
- Mother, can you bring me to Guri's Club?
- What are you going to do there?
- Are you crazy? Do you think I have time to waste?
The following Sunday, Dona Ercy took Elis and two of her friends to Radio Farroupilha. But she couldn't manage to get a singing spot that week. She returned the following week and sang. As much as she tried, Dona Ercy could not remember the song that marked Elis' debut. She knew that it was from the repertory of Angela Maria (8) but could not confirm Elis' version of the story, told years later, that she sang Labios de mel (Lips of Honey). She was a sensation on Guri's Club. As a matter of fact, Elis outclassed the crowd favourite.
Five years after the disaster of her first attempt, Elis paid them back in spades. The first of a series. Of a long series.
Singing at Guri's Club became a habit for Elis. From the age of eleven to thirteen and a half, she sang there almost every Sunday. She also became Ary Rego's secretary (9). On the radio, she didn't gnaw her nails with such fury any more, but she did something worse, much worse. She would get nosebleeds. Because of fright. Dona Ercy remembers: one of Elis' Sunday outfits was white with aqua-marine polka-dots, a round blue collar, and a large tie falling to a round skirt. For those moments of Sunday fun, Dona Ercy would spend entire mornings in front of a sewing machine. Backstage, the nervousness was such that alarming quantities of blood flowed out of her nostrils. Her clothing was stained, and Elis entered the stage veiled, twisting her dress in front of her. This was to happen at numerous other times. Always on radio. Only at the moment preceding the entry on stage. Until the end of her life, she was timid and insecure. Elis was insufferable before going onstage. The same insecurity, the same fear of making mistakes, the same phobia of not being perfect.
At thirteen and a half years old, Elis became the female sensation of Porto Alegre. In Brazil's capital, Rio de Janeiro, João Gilberto (10) and the bossa-nova already existed. Young men and women would get together in apartments to sing and make music. The youth did not want to listen any more to what was currently available. They wanted something different, more sophisticated than the samba songs of that time. They wanted a mixture of the coolness of jazz and the heat of Brazilian samba. Many miles from Rio, in quasi-provincial Porto Alegre, Elis Regina sang, without any accent, foreign hits that she learned from listening to records played on the radio.
A little older, and with the success earned at Guri's Club, Elis left Radio Farroupilha. She signed her first professional contract with Rádio Gaucha. She started to sing for a salary of five hundred cruzeiros a month, on the show Mauricio Sobrinho (Mauricio Sirotsky, today the head of South Brazil Communication Network, which contains newspapers as well as radio and television shows).
She could only sign this contract if she accepted the rules of the game as imposed by Dona Ercy: Elis could only sing if she obtained good marks at high school. Much later, already famous, she told of the drama to her friend, José Eduardo Homem de Mello, also known as Zuza: - It was a drama: I had to study and get exceptional marks in order to keep on singing, understand? I had to study for real, or else mother would not let me sing, and I was already starting to like it.
Today, Dona Ercy admits that Elis could have seen her demand as an imposition, but argues in her own favour with a mother's premonition: "Your singing will come to an end one day, my girl".
Dona Ercy thought that Elis could become a teacher, and who knows, maybe even teach at the college. The money that Elis was bringing home was timely but created a family conflict that only worsened as the years went by and her income increased. Not yet fourteen years old, Elis Regina was already earning more than her father. Her brother Rogério remembers how the family life was changed:
- Elis began to take control because she appeared with the money that solved our problems. She supported the family benevolently, and never charged for it.
At that time, that is, because later she would start to charge, Rogério also recalls. And at that time, Dona Ercy did not only have two children. To help one of her brothers, she had assumed responsibility for raising Rosângela, her niece, who was still a baby. Rosângela remained with the Carvalho Costa family until she was fourteen years old.
With her first paycheck, Elis bought three things for her room. A sofa, a carpet and a hi-fi record player. She bought everything second-hand from a rich aunt of the family, aunt Aida, Rogério's godmother and the first to awake the giant sleeping within Elis. One day, when the aunt wanted to interfere in the arrangement of her room, Elis shot back: "It's mine".
Dona Ercy and Elis agreed that she would attend high school at the Education Institute, the traditional high school in Porto Alegre, a public school. It's an imposing building, of neo-classical style, in front of Farroupilha Park, Porto Alegre's largest green area. Virtuous Education Institute. Clean Porto Alegre. Cursed artist profession. One day, Elis returned home and told her mother:
- The teacher called me a bad element.
Dona Ercy was fuming. She went to the Education Institute and demanded to speak to the director. When she was told that she couldn't see her, she became very angry. "Do you know what she told me? That Elis could not study because she was a singer. She called Elis a cunning fox". And she blurted:
- If you think that my daughter has no one to look after her, you're mistaken. And another thing, I can destroy this school. I have radio, the newspaper, everyone on my side.
"I said: 'Look, my dear lady, I don't come here to discuss my private life. I come here to discuss a school problem. I want to know why she is a bad element'. When I turned my back, she said: 'It's getting late'. I became very angry again."
The result of the uproar: the french teacher was transferred and Elis finished her high school in peace. Now in the classical course, she wasn't able to reconcile schooling and work and suffered a breakdown. She had problems in Latin", remembers Dona Ercy. In the middle of that year, Elis transferred, as were the initial intentions of the whole family, to the regular course, which she abandoned after the second year.
Elis was fifteen years old when Dona Ercy allowed her to wear high heels and to paint her nails. It was around the time when she travelled from Porto Alegre to Rio de Janeiro to record her first LP, "Viva a Brotolândia" (Long-live Teenage-land). The repercussions of this record were barely felt locally. I was ten years old at the time, and remember hearing it at an older cousin's house, in São Paulo. It was only a long time after Elis had encountered success at the music festivals that I associated one with the other. As the bossa-nova was surging, how could I care about a repertoire full of soft rock and samba songs, except for the clean voice of the singer?
The first three LPs were like this, and Porto Alegre didn't have anything else to offer to Elis, who was already working at night as crooner in the group Flamboyant, and was on the verge of taking on the world. Decisively, singing was gaining space in the life of the schoolgirl. She never spoke about her boyfriends to Dona Ercy. The first was a man with strong ties to the music world, as were practically all the men she chose during her life. His name was Marcos Amaral, a radio announcer. Her brother Rogério has vague memories of this disc-jockey. He remembers going with his sister to the radio station to wait for him, and then accompanying them to the boarding house where she lived.
Sebastião Schlininger, the second one, was much older than Elis, at least five or six years. He was of german descent, very blond, brizolista (11), a clerk of the Federal Savings Bank. What resulted of this juvenile love affair was a decisive argument: Elis terminated the relationship and left for Rio de Janeiro, but in one of her first interviews after her success, she spoke of a great love that she had left behind in Porto Alegre. She also said that Sebastião himself and his family were opposed to her career as a singer.
In March 1964, after having completed her eighteenth year, Elis and Romeu left definitely for Rio de Janeiro. They were going to try their luck. Elis was counting on the promise of the record producer Armando Pitigliani to sign her up on the Philips label, as soon as she broke the
contract which then linked her with CBS. Elis arrived in Rio with television programs in mind and an effervescence for the cariocan (12) night. In O Beco das Garaffas (13), bossa-nova was singing a Brazil of love and flowers.
Dona Ercy prepared their suitcases. Romeu was leaving with a letter of recommendation of the old PTB (14) in the hope of finding work in Rio de Janeiro. Sweet illusion, because the revolution of '64 (15) destroyed the PTB.
Dona Ercy stayed in Porto Alegre to look after Rogério and Rosângela. She had hopes. She could not expect that a year from then, everything would change. The dream of success would materialize, but her daughter would never be the same. Neither small nor docile.
Although it is easy to understand that Dona Ercy's universe could not comprehend the height of her daughter's flight, and although it is also clear to see that Elis' strict upbringing brought on her stupid crises of insecurity, it still breaks my heart when I hear Dona Ercy say today:
- I lost my daughter at nineteen years old.
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Copyright Regina Echeverria – Robert St-Louis
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