Spoleto 2015 » Jazz, Blues, & Roots

Brazilian singer Mônica Salmaso talks about journalism, religion, and following her talent

Finding Felicity

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When a writer leaves a newspaper career for PR nowadays, the rest of the staff barely stops typing. Economically it makes perfect sense. Why wouldn't a lowly scribe give up laughable wages, long hours, and never-ending deadlines for a generous income, even if it means copy writing for a thankless brand? It happens every day. But to trade journalism for a career as a singer? Well, that's not nearly as common. Yet that's exactly what Brazilian songstress Mônica Salmaso did.

"I was studying to get into the university for journalism. I decided to have singing classes at that time to relax, and after three months of singing classes, it was obvious to me that I needed to sing and to work with music," Salmosa recalls. Luckily for her, the vocal foray wasn't a folly.

According to writer Bruce Gilman, theater director Gabriel Villela discovered a young Salmosa in 1989. Villela was directing O Concílio do Amor (Congregation of Love) and needed someone to perform Gregorian chant in the role of Verônica. Salmosa was cast, stayed on for a year, and eventually found herself in the São Paulo club scene. Her career took off from there.

By '92 Salmosa had caught the eye of composer Eduardo Gudin and recorded her first two albums: Notícias dum Brazil (News From Brazil) and Canções de Ninar (Lullaby), the latter of which won two Prêmio Sharp awards, Brazil's answer to the Grammys — not bad for a singer only a few years into the business.

But her success makes more sense when you look at descriptions of the mezzo-soprano voice. New York Times critic Jon Pareles called her voice "quietly lustrous and sustained," noting that she "suffuses each liquid note with languid secrets." You see, Salmaso is known for her precise intonation, essentially the art of perfect pitch. Of course, there's a science to such furtive sounds, one that singers and vocal instructors have attempted to explain over the years. On the website musicandpractice.org, intonation is described as "balancing the thickness and tension of the vocal chords." But for Salmaso, her skill came naturally and at a young age. "I've had this facility of listening and singing since I was a child," she says.

A great voice, however, does not a great song make, and it's in her choice of music that Salmaso has truly excelled. The musician is known for her gift of storytelling, selecting Brazilian folklore, afro-sambas, and poetry for her sets.

"Probably the most important characteristic of Brazil is the mixing cultures between the native Indians, the Europeans, and the Africans," she says. "In Brazil these cultures really mixed, not only co-existed. This culture blend interests me a lot."

Another common theme throughout her musical selections is faith. While Salmaso considers herself agnostic, religious songs, such "A Permuta dos Santos" (The Exchange of the Saints), continually find a place her performances.

"I have a profound respect for the faith of the people more than for the religions," she explains. "I think humans need to have faith. And Brazil has a very strong religiosity. It's also a part of the Brazilian culture that can't be denied. And because faith is something important and also beautiful, I like to sing it. It makes me feel like more of a human being."

It's only fitting then that Salmaso's Spoleto performance tackle the work of poet, lyricist, playwright, and composer Vinicius de Moraes, a man who had his own complicated faith.

Raised Catholic and schooled by Jesuits, Moraes was a member of the Catholic Integralista, a 1920s fascist political movement organized to assert Catholic teachings within political actions. By the 1960s, however, Moraes had become more well known for his forays into bossa nova and his songs have endured far beyond his political leanings. The songwriter wrote everything from Afro-Brazilian tune "Meu Pai Oxalá" (My Lord Oxalá) to bossa nova jazz standards like "Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar" for the film Love Me Forever or Never, but he is best known for the lyrics to his 1965 hit "Girl from Ipanima."

With a range that can navigate between Gregorian chants to '60s Brazilian pop, one might think Salmaso would consider recording a samba/bossa nova greatest hits, the likes of which American Boomers snap up at Starbucks, but the singer says she's not interested in that.

"I don't believe in working with music like this," she says. "I sing what I consider good, intelligent, deep, beautiful, religious, for everyone's souls and minds." And opting for those kind of tunes has given Salmaso the life she wants to live. "I have a good life that I like, a good house. I don't think I need more than this. This is 'my size' of felicity," she says. "There's absolutely no reason to change for something that apparently can easily cash me in."

Finding Felicity

Brazilian singer Mônica Salmaso talks about journalism, religion, and following her talent By Kinsey Gidick

When a writer leaves a newspaper career for PR nowadays, the rest of the staff barely stops typing. Economically it makes perfect sense. Why wouldn't a lowly scribe give up laughable wages, long hours, and never-ending deadlines for a generous income, even if it means copy writing for a thankless brand? It happens every day. But to trade journalism for a career as a singer? Well, that's not nearly as common. Yet that's exactly what Brazilian songstress Mônica Salmaso did.

"I was studying to get into the university for journalism. I decided to have singing classes at that time to relax, and after three months of singing classes, it was obvious to me that I needed to sing and to work with music," Salmosa recalls. Luckily for her, the vocal foray wasn't a folly.

According to writer Bruce Gilman, theater director Gabriel Villela discovered a young Salmosa in 1989. Villela was directing O Concílio do Amor (Congregation of Love) and needed someone to perform Gregorian chant in the role of Verônica. Salmosa was cast, stayed on for a year, and eventually found herself in the São Paulo club scene. Her career took off from there.

By '92 Salmosa had caught the eye of composer Eduardo Gudin and recorded her first two albums: Notícias dum Brazil (News From Brazil) and Canções de Ninar (Lullaby), the latter of which won two Prêmio Sharp awards, Brazil's answer to the Grammys — not bad for a singer only a few years into the business.

But her success makes more sense when you look at descriptions of the mezzo-soprano voice. New York Times critic Jon Pareles called her voice "quietly lustrous and sustained," noting that she "suffuses each liquid note with languid secrets." You see, Salmaso is known for her precise intonation, essentially the art of perfect pitch. Of course, there's a science to such furtive sounds, one that singers and vocal instructors have attempted to explain over the years. On the website musicandpractice.org, intonation is described as "balancing the thickness and tension of the vocal chords." But for Salmaso, her skill came naturally and at a young age. "I've had this facility of listening and singing since I was a child," she says.

A great voice, however, does not a great song make, and it's in her choice of music that Salmaso has truly excelled. The musician is known for her gift of storytelling, selecting Brazilian folklore, afro-sambas, and poetry for her sets.

"Probably the most important characteristic of Brazil is the mixing cultures between the native Indians, the Europeans, and the Africans," she says. "In Brazil these cultures really mixed, not only co-existed. This culture blend interests me a lot."

Another common theme throughout her musical selections is faith. While Salmaso considers herself agnostic, religious songs, such "A Permuta dos Santos" (The Exchange of the Saints), continually find a place her performances.

"I have a profound respect for the faith of the people more than for the religions," she explains. "I think humans need to have faith. And Brazil has a very strong religiosity. It's also a part of the Brazilian culture that can't be denied. And because faith is something important and also beautiful, I like to sing it. It makes me feel like more of a human being."

It's only fitting then that Salmaso's Spoleto performance tackle the work of poet, lyricist, playwright, and composer Vinicius de Moraes, a man who had his own complicated faith.

Raised Catholic and schooled by Jesuits, Moraes was a member of the Catholic Integralista, a 1920s fascist political movement organized to assert Catholic teachings within political actions. By the 1960s, however, Moraes had become more well known for his forays into bossa nova and his songs have endured far beyond his political leanings. The songwriter wrote everything from Afro-Brazilian tune "Meu Pai Oxalá" (My Lord Oxalá) to bossa nova jazz standards like "Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar" for the film Love Me Forever or Never, but he is best known for the lyrics to his 1965 hit "Girl from Ipanima."

With a range that can navigate between Gregorian chants to '60s Brazilian pop, one might think Salmaso would consider recording a samba/bossa nova greatest hits, the likes of which American Boomers snap up at Starbucks, but the singer says she's not interested in that.

"I don't believe in working with music like this," she says. "I sing what I consider good, intelligent, deep, beautiful, religious, for everyone's souls and minds." And opting for those kind of tunes has given Salmaso the life she wants to live. "I have a good life that I like, a good house. I don't think I need more than this. This is 'my size' of felicity," she says. "There's absolutely no reason to change for something that apparently can easily cash me in."

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