Despite being one of Brazil's most successful singers, with seven Latin Grammys to her name, it took Maria Rita years to realize that music was her calling. "I just rebelled against that whole idea of doing something that people wanted me to do," Rita tells Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More.
That rebellion stemmed from being the daughter of Brazilian pop legend Elis Regina, who died in 1982. "People would come up to me very emotionally and say 'You have to sing,'" she remembers. "They made such a big deal out of it... and it always made me angry because it felt like they wanted me to fulfill a hole that they felt after my mom's passing."
Rita moved to the United States as a teenager, and ended up attending New York University. In a country where Elis Regina's name isn't quite as known as it is in Brazil, Rita learned to love her mother's music. "It was easier," she says. "There [weren't] people coming up to me and talking about her, and crying because they miss her."
But, as she learned to cope with the past, Rita started to realize that music was her future. "It was my soul and was my truth talking," she says. After graduating, she started singing professionally in Brazil and released her first album, Maria Rita, in 2003.
As she rose to stardom, Rita was determined to become an artist in her own right. Despite numerous requests, she refused to cover her mother's songs for nearly a decade. "I would be so, so upset whenever a TV show would put it as a condition, you know 'You can only come here if you do your mom's music,'" she recalls. "I'd be like 'Well, so I won't be going there, thank you very much.'"
By 2012, Rita was ready to pay tribute. She performed a handful of her mother's songs before an ecstatic audience in Rio de Janeiro. That performance became Rita's 2013 album, Redescobrir ("Rediscover").
"It was such a wonderful thing," Rita said, "to be up on stage as a daughter, and not solely as a singer, and see the reaction in people's faces... It touches me just by talking about it."
On her mother's legacy
I didn't listen to my mom as I was growing up because it was too painful, as it still is somewhat. I mean, you have to understand that this woman was not only the greatest singer ever in Brazil. She was also beautiful, smart, intelligent. She was really involved in all kinds of social and political issues. She was just a pioneer. She was ahead of her time. And, she would read a lot. She was just so mind-boggling.
And people were so in love with her — whoever from, you know, I'm talking about the audience, I'm talking about the people who worked with her. I've met up with a bunch of musicians who played for her, at one point or another, you know, early in the conversation or later in the conversation, they would just look at me and it's like "You know, I have something to tell you." And I was like "Okay, go ahead," and they would say "I was completely in love with her!" I've heard that way too many times, because that's the kind of woman that she was...She would light up the room.
On music as a language
The kind of music that I do, the kind of music that I like to present to people, is one which they can relate to. On a deeper level, you know? Don't just shake your head and snap your fingers every now and again. ... I find that it's very seductive in a way, you know? To have someone listen to your music whether in Portuguese, or English, or in Spanish...and just be like 'Oh, I'm so glad that someone gets me. I'm so glad that someone put that into music and put that into words." Because oftentimes, we feel something. We don't really understand what it is, we don't really have the words to explain it, but it's right there in the song.
On her mother's death
Having lost my mom when I was four years old, I don't really know what it's like to have a mother. So I miss something that I don't have, you see? So it's this constant — I don't search for her, that's not the thing — but like, I feel like there's this little hole in my heart, and it's forever gonna be there. Because there's nothing that I can do.So, I do therapy. I have no issues telling people that I'm in therapy. I've done therapy for the past 10 years. This whole pain, so to speak, I can deal with it now. So now it's easier for me to watch her and to listen to her.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Right now, all eyes are on Russia for the winter Olympics. But soon, very soon, the sports world's attention will turn to Brazil for soccer's World Cup. And that means the country's cultural and musical stars will also be in the spotlight. So we'd like you to meet one of them today. Maria Rita is one of Brazil's best-known and most successful singers.
She's won 7 Latin Grammys and sold more than 2.5 million albums. But her latest album is more than a showcase for her own talent, it is also an homage to her musical heritage because Rita is the daughter of the renowned pianist Cesar Camargo Mariano and the legendary singer Elis Regina. And Rita's latest album covers the songs that her mother made famous. Here is just a taste. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AGUAS DE MARCO")
MARTIN: And that was Maria Rita singing "Aguas de Marco." And she is with us now. We caught up with her in New York. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us. I should say welcome back to New York.
MARIA RITA: Yes. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Because you were a student...
MARTIN: ...In New York for time. Actually, you studied at NYU.
RITA: Exactly. I went to college there for four and a half years.
MARTIN: Did you always know you could sing?
RITA: Well, I always heard that. People would always tell me that and that kind of made me angry 'cause people would come up to me very emotional and say you have to sing, you have to sing. They made such a big deal out of it. And I said no, I don't, I don't have to do anything.
MARTIN: I don't have to do anything, I can be an airline pilot.
RITA: What is it? What's going on? I didn't quite understand what it was and it always made me angry because it felt like they wanted me to fulfill a hole that they felt after my mom's passing. So I didn't deal with it too well.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that because, you know, very often when a parent is high profile in whatever field - you know, whether it's politics...
MARTIN: ...Or whether it's the arts...
MARTIN: You know, people often just have that expectation that a child will go into the same field - especially you, you know, having both parents be such, you know, renowned, you know, artists. And so I was wondering when you were growing up, did you want to follow their musical path or did you want to, say, be an airline pilot, you know, or an aeronautics engineer? Something like that.
RITA: Actually, an airline pilot did cross my mind. But I wear glasses, so somebody told me that I couldn't even try it out. So I left that behind. My father encouraged us, me and my brothers, to do whatever made us feel happy. And for the majority of the time, even though I did love music and singing, it felt very confusing to me.
I didn't understand why were they getting so emotional and so strongly opinionated about it. It didn't leave me room to question whether I wanted it or not. I think from an adolescent point of view, I just rebelled against that whole idea of doing something that people wanted me to do. So, secretly, like deep down inside, I wanted it. So music was always there. It was always intertwined in my life in one way or another.
MARTIN: But, you know, your mother has been called Brazil's greatest female singer. And that feels like a lot of weight to carry for anybody.
RITA: Well, once I realized that I needed to sing - it wasn't something that I would do as a hobby or something that I would do because people expected me to - once I realized that that was me, it was my soul and it was my truth, that whole thing became secondary. Up until the point when I felt ready for the challenge, indeed, it was a pressure. You know, it's hard to not know whether people like you and befriend you because of who you are or because of who your parents or your mother is. And that made me very insecure for a long time. But, as I said, once I realized that that was me speaking and not other people, really, honest - I'm being very honest - like, it became secondary because that was me, that's what I needed to do.
MARTIN: How did you go about finding your own voice? I remember reading an interview with you from Billboard magazine and you were quoted as saying, look, our resemblance is genetic not conscious in matters of music, I hear much more Ella Fitzgerald in me than Elis Regina.
RITA: Right. I grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald. Like, she's my - she's all that. I mean, I can't even start describing - I get goose bumps just by listening to her. She touches me in a way that I, you know, I can only dream of touching people. I didn't listen to my mom as I was growing up because it was too painful, as it still is somewhat. I mean, you have to understand that this woman was not only the greatest singer ever in Brazil, she was also beautiful, smart, intelligent. She was really involved in all kinds of social and political issues. She was just a pioneer. She was ahead of her time. And she would read a lot, and she was just so mind-boggling.
People were so in love with her. Whoever - from, you know, I'm talking about the audience, I'm talking about the people who worked with her. I've met up with a bunch of musicians who played for her at, one point or another - you know, early on in the conversation or later in the conversation - they would just look at me and it's like, you know, I have something to tell. And I was like, OK, go ahead. And they would say, I was completely in love with her. I've heard that way too many times because that's the kind of woman that she was. She was just - she would light up the room.
MARTIN: I mean, you certainly more than proved yourself, if indeed you ever felt that you had to in your own right. I mean, I may want to mention that you won more Latin Grammys than any other Brazilian artist. And that includes two for your album "Segundo." And this song won best Brazilian song. I think it's "Caminho Das Aguas." Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAMINHO DAS AGUAS")
MARTIN: One of my colleagues was walking by my office when I was playing some of your CDs, and she said, wow, that makes me feel like I'm in a warm place.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAMINHO DAS AGUAS")
MARTIN: Have you ever desired to work in English?
RITA: Definitely. I mean, I think that's really important. The kind of music that I do, the kind of music that I like to present to people is one which they can relate to on a deeper level, you know. Don't just go shake your head and, you know, smack your fingers every now and again 'cause I think that music in general does play the role of the soundtrack of one's life. And I find that very - it's very seductive in a way, you know?
To have someone listen to your music, whether in Portuguese or English or Spanish - 'cause I sing in Spanish as well - and just be like, oh, I'm so glad that someone gets me. And I'm so glad that someone put that into music and put that into words 'cause, oftentimes, we feel something, we don't really understand what it is or we don't really have the words to explain it, but it's right there in the song.
MARTIN: Let me play another song if you don't mind. This is from your first album the self-titled "Maria Rita," which you released when you were 24. And this is "Agora so Falta Voca (ph)"?
RITA: So falta voce.
MARTIN: So falta voce. OK, here it is. Let's play a little bit.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AGORA SO FALTA VOCE")
MARTIN: Still popular, if you don't mind my mentioning, still wildly popular. Can you translate a little bit for us?
RITA: This one, yeah. Um belo dia resolvi - oh, that's hard. Translating up on the spot like that. One fine day, I just decided to change - e fazer tudo o que eu queria fazer - and do everything that I wanted to do - (singing to herself) - freed myself from that vulgar kind of like mediocre life - (singing to herself) - that I was living while with you. E em tudo que eu faco - and in everything that I do, there is a why, there is a reason. (Singing to herself) - I know that I was born. And then she repeats it.
MARTIN: You know what I like about this? I think what a lot of other people like about this is it works - it's like both on a personal level and on a bigger level, you know?
MARTIN: Right, right.
MARTIN: I mean...
RITA: I mean, I started a personal level and all of a sudden I'm like, oh, this can work for something else too.
MARTIN: Exactly. This could have a lot of...
RITA: I am very personal in choosing my songs.
MARTIN: Well, what's the message here? What were you thinking then and what are you thinking now?
RITA: You know, I've matured. I've grown. I'm independent. I don't need anything from, you know, this person who was bullying and - 'cause, you know, every now and again you meet somebody who can drag you down. You know, they don't work for you, they work against you. And whether it's a person from an emotional kind of relationship or more personal like family or whatnot - or political - yeah, I like those that are, you know, put your finger right in their face and say, yo, come on now.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speak with one of Brazil's most popular singers, Maria Rita. And she's coming out with a new album in March. And, you know, you mentioned something earlier about how it was too painful to listen to your mom's...
>>MARTIN ...Music for a long time now. And you can certainly see why. I mean, you lost her when you - what - 4 years old, you were just 4 years old.
RITA: Exactly. I was 4, yeah.
MARTIN: Was it the fact of losing her or how you lost her?
RITA: I didn't understand how I lost her until I was 13 years old. I read it in a book because nobody - I think nobody...
MARTIN: That's harsh.
RITA: I'm sorry - yeah - I'm sorry to be so crude, but nobody had the guts to tell me.
MARTIN: She died of an overdose as I recall.
MARTIN: That's hard.
MARTIN: I'm sorry.
RITA: So they say. I mean, she did pass during the military dictatorship. So, yeah - OK.
MARTIN: No, I see your point.
RITA: Yeah. The doctor who signed the postmortem documentation was the same one - it was proved in the justice system that he was working for the dictator. So - eh - I don't want to get into that right now...
MARTIN: No, I hear you.
RITA: But that's what it said. That's what it's known by now. So maybe someday we can investigate it and look into it a little more. But for now, that's what it is. So I found out about it reading in a book. I was about 12 years old. I was alone in the house. My grandmother was watching because my dad had traveled with his wife for work. And I pretty much just threw the book against the wall and I was so shocked. And my grandmother just steps in the room - that's my dad's mom, and we were really close - and I just looked at her and I said, is this true?
And she's like, yes, it is. And then she closes the door. Kind of like telling me deal with it in your own way. We'll talk about it tomorrow 'cause it was a lot to take, you know. This is the thing, like, having lost my mom when I was 4 years old, I don't really know what it's like to have a mother. So I miss something that I don't have, you see?
RITA: So it's this constant - I don't search for her, that's not the thing, but, like, I feel like there's this little hole in my heart and it's forever going to be there 'cause there's nothing that I can do. So I do therapy. I have no issues telling people that I'm in therapy. I've done therapy for the past 10 years. This whole pain, so to speak, I can deal with it now. So now it's easier for me to watch her and to listen to her.
MARTIN: What made it possible for you then with that heaviness - I mean, I could understand it if you never wanted to touch the music that she sang.
MARTIN: I could understand. And, I mean, frankly, you've had a great, and are continuing to have, a great career of your own, doing your own thing. So one could easily understand if you never wanted to put your hands on any of the music that she recorded. But then you did eventually...
RITA: But I did.
MARTIN: ...Do an album of her music. What made it OK for you to do that? Why did you want to? Yeah.
RITA: Well, it was a homage. you know. And I didn't allow anybody to make money out of it. Again, it's the opportunity to do something beautiful with no strings attached. And that - you know, early on in my career, that would just get me. I would be so, so upset whenever a TV show would, you know, put it as a condition - you can only come here if you do your mom's music. And I'd be like, well, I won't be going there, thank you very much.
And - tough decisions tough, tough, tough. But 10 years later, as you said, you know, I got a number - I don't mean to sound obnoxious of course - but that comes into play when you have a number of awards that, you know, show you that you have some sort of recognition and respect from your peers. A number of albums sold and a fan base, and tours that are, you know, successful tours and traveling all over the country and all over the world to do what you want, to do what you love. It put me in a place where I felt more secure. I knew that I had already showed people and the press and whatnot that I've done my thing. So now I can sing for her, and I am able, with everything that I've conquered in my career, I am able to bring her to a generation who never knew her.
MARTIN: How did it feel doing the album? Was it...
MARTIN: It felt good. Oh, good.
RITA: At the very beginning. Well...
MARTIN: Wow, like catharsis?
RITA: Yes, yes. And it was such a wonderful thing to be up on stage as a daughter and not solely as a singer, and see the reaction in people's faces. They would sing. Those songs, those songs are hard. They're hard songs. They're not quite, you know, pop music where you can go do-do-do-da-da-da, you know. These are very complex, melodically and harmonically, and the words - and everybody knows them to this day and she's been gone for 32 years now. It's very touching, and to see that she is alive.
MARTIN: I can see.
RITA: She is alive. She hasn't gone anywhere. And it touches me just by talking about it.
MARTIN: I see that. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bring up something..
RITA: No, no, no, it's quite all right. As I've said, I feel proud.
MARTIN: So you have a new album coming out in March.
RITA: In March, yes.
RITA: Thank you.
MARTIN: Can you give us a hint about what that will be about?
RITA: It's much like "Samba Meu," my third album, which is all Samba music - very upbeat and shiny and happy. I recorded it back in November. April we have the kickoff tour. I'm very excited.
MARTIN: As we mentioned, it's World Cup this year. Brazil will be in the world spotlight.
RITA: Oh, my goodness.
MARTIN: Are you looking forward to it? Or are you dreading it? People have mixed feelings about it.
RITA: I'm dreading it. I'm dreading it. I'm dreading all the scandal and the corruption. I'm embarrassed. And I feel like it's going to be an embarrassment. I'm so upset. I'm dreading it.
MARTIN: So we won't be seeing you sing the national anthem? I mean...
RITA: I mean, I'm proud of my national anthem. I'm just not proud of all the corruption that's going on around right now, you know. We'll see, I don't know. Oh, boy.
MARTIN: Well, maybe it'll be an opportunity to rediscover the music...
MARTIN: And some other things. So fingers crossed.
RITA: Yes, yes. I promise you it's going to be something to watch. And soccer, I mean, whoever likes soccer, definitely that's the place to be. Just know it's not going to be perfect. That's all I'm saying.
MARTIN: All right, we get that message. Maria Rita is a Grammy award-winning artist. She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much for speaking with us. And I hope we'll speak again. Congratulations on everything. Thank you.
RITA: Thank you for having me, and I hope to be back anytime soon.
MARTIN: And what song should we go out on? Pick any one of your four albums - what song would you like us to say goodbye to for now?
RITA: That's tough. Play this "Dos Gardenias."
RITA: From the first album.
MARTIN: All right.
RITA: I guess, yeah.
MARTIN: Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOS GARDENIAS")
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.