Beth Carvalho, Brazil’s ‘Godmother of Samba,’ Is Dead at 72
Beth Carvalho, a singer and songwriter known in Brazil as the “godmother of samba,” died on April 30 in Rio de Janeiro. She was 72.
A statement from Pró-Cardíaco Hospital, where she had been since early January, said the cause was sepsis.
In a career that lasted more than 50 years and regularly brought her gold and platinum albums in Brazil, Ms. Carvalho championed generations of samba songwriters at crucial stages of their careers. Her voice was a smoky, rough-edged alto, and her music was exuberantly upbeat, drawing on various samba styles and modernizing samba without succumbing to pop trends.
In 2009, she became the first female samba singer to receive a Latin Grammy Award for lifetime achievement. The award cited her “integral role in the history of Brazilian music.”
On her albums, Ms. Carvalho’s voice was usually propelled by percussion and the quick strumming of a cavaquinho, the traditional small samba guitar, joined by a frisky backup chorus singing along like friends at a party. She sang love songs and paeans to the samba itself, while maintaining samba’s role as social commentary in songs about poverty and human rights.
“Samba is resistance,” she said in a 2016 interview with Brasil Online. “An artist must be engaged.”
Elizabeth Santos Leal de Carvalho was born on May 5, 1946, in Rio de Janeiro, the daughter of João Francisco Leal de Carvalho, a lawyer, and Maria Nair Santos. She began playing guitar while growing up in the middle-class South Zone of Rio de Janeiro.
Her father took her to the city’s poorer northern neighborhoods to hear practice sessions at samba schools, whose rhythms and spirit would become the heart of her music.
In 1964 her father, a leftist, was arrested by Brazil’s military dictatorship; his politics galvanized her own.
She made her first recordings, on which she sang bossa nova, in the 1960s, and she gained a national audience when she won third prize at Brazil’s International Festival of Song in 1968 with “Andança,” which became the title track of her first solo album, released the next year. But she soon turned from the genteel restraint of bossa nova to the drive of samba.
Her albums in the 1970s drew renewed attention to nearly forgotten older samba songwriters like Nelson Sargento, Cartola and Nelson Cavaquinho. She asked them for new material and turned their unheard songs into hits.
In the late 1970s, Ms. Carvalho was drawn to a new samba style: pagode, which grew out of informal backyard parties in Rio and was often played by musicians sitting around a table, adding instruments like banjo (tuned like a cavaquinho) and a conga-like drum called the tantan to typical samba lineups.
Her albums gave vital exposure to the pagode group Fundo de Quintal, which included the songwriters Jorge Aragão and Almir Guinéto. The group backed her on her 1978 album “De Pé No Chão” (“Standing on the Ground”) and would soon have platinum albums of its own in Brazil.
A song from that album, “Vou a Festejar” (“I’m Going to Party”), became an anthem for soccer fans in Brazil. (A memorial for Ms. Carvalho was held on May 1 at the headquarters of her favorite soccer team, Botafogo.) Another 1978 song, “Coisinha do Pai” (“Daddy’s Little Thing”), was programmed by a NASA engineer into a robot on the Mars Pathfinder mission. In 1983, the songwriter Zeca Pagodinho, who would become a major samba hitmaker, made his recording debut as a guest on Ms. Carvalho’s album “Suor No Rosto” (“Sweat on the Face”).
In 1979 Ms. Carvalho married the Brazilian soccer star Edson de Souza Barbosa. He died in 2015. She is survived by their daughter, Luana Carvalho.
Beth Carvalho recorded prolifically from the 1970s into the 2010s, with a long string of hits in Brazil. She collaborated with many of Brazil’s best-known singers and songwriters and toured worldwide. Although she recorded songs from various samba schools, her enduring connection was with Mangueira, Rio’s oldest and most celebrated.
As devoted as Ms. Carvalho was to the music of Rio de Janeiro, she also released an album of sambas from São Paulo in 1993, and in 2007 she released a CD and DVD from a 2006 concert in Salvador, Bahia, where she was joined by Caetano Veloso, Carlinhos Brown, Gilberto Gil, Daniela Mercury and many other Bahian luminaries.
Mr. Gil, who was also Brazil’s minister of culture from 2003 to 2008, called Ms. Carvalho’s death “an irreparable loss” on Twitter.
Ms. Carvalho began experiencing severe spinal problems in 2009, leading to lengthy hospitalizations. But she continued to record and tour when possible. Her 2011 album, “Nosso Samba Tá na Rua” (“Our Samba Is in the Street”), won a Latin Grammy Award as best samba/pagode album. She used a wheelchair in her final years, and last year she performed a concert in Rio de Janeiro lying down because of her back pain.
“Samba is the true voice of the Brazilian people,” she told Brasil Online in 2016. “Samba is life, it is healing. Without samba there is no life.”