Rodrigues belts out a cultural slice of Brazil

Boston Globe, November 12, 2005

The Afro-Brazilian diva Virginia Rodrigues is known for investing the music of Salvador de Bahia, her native city, with a poise and poignancy that can evoke gospel or opera. She opened her weekend engagement at Regattabar last night with a charismatic performance that showcased these traits, with the layering and cross-fertilization of influences that make Brazilian music so unique, yet so universally evocative.

Rodrigues’s most recent album, “Mares Profundos,” features material that suits her perfectly: the cycle of “Afro-sambas,” composed in the 1960s by Vinicius de Moraes and Baden Powell, two leading lights of bossa nova, white Brazilians who became fascinated with Afro-Brazilian culture.

As interpreted by Rodrigues, the material takes on a certain added degree of authenticity. Raised in a working-class setting and unknown until the great musician Caetano Veloso spotted her in a local theater performance, Rodrigues carries about her a decided priestess energy. Regrettably, Cambridge fire rules prevented her from lighting incense to establish the right spiritual conditions, as is her habit.

Still, standing stout and sublime in layers of orange and red, it took her little time to fill the room with her resonant, clear contralto and her physical gestures, which began understated but quietly grew more open and rhythmic. She performed each song as if slightly removed, not quite fully communicating with the audience until the song’s final notes, at which point her face would light up in a smile.

The supporting instrumentation included a number of typically Brazilian percussions, played by Ronaldo Silva, but also underscored the Europeanized, classical aspect of the songs with the warm cello of musical director Iura Ranevsky, the acoustic guitar of Pedro Braga, and the flute and saxophone of Jose Canuto. All four men are featured on the album and their easy entente with Rodrigues was apparent.

“Canto de Iemanja” began and ended with percussions evoking the ocean waves. “Come with me to Salvador,” Rodrigues sang, an invitation to a friend or a lover, or perhaps to the music itself.