Renewing Carmen Miranda
Over 50 years after her untimely death and decades of drag queens hijacking her image, Carmen Miranda is slowly getting the recognition she deserves, with acclaimed recording artist Daniela Mercury leading the way.
You probably know of Carmen Miranda because of the outrageous fruit hats, but to only cast Miranda in such a flamboyant light is short-sighted and fails to recognize the contribution she has made to Brazilian culture. With the talk of professional singers crossing over into various genres, it should not be forgotten that Miranda was a pioneer for her prowess in samba, jazz, and African percussion rhythm, for which some give her credit for paving the way for Brazil's Tropicalismo movement.
The quick bio on Miranda: she was actually born in Marco de Canaveses, Portugal in 1909. Shortly after her birth, her family emigrated from Portugal and settled in Rio de Janeiro, where her father opened a barber shop. When her family faced financial difficulties, Miranda started working in a tie shop, then moved to hats, and eventually opened her own business. Her coworkers would later remember her passion for singing, and eventually, after being discovered by a local composer, she signed a contract with a Brazilian recording company and became the voice of Brazil during the 1930s. She started acting in films, and after a skyrocketing 10 year career with Brazil, she signed a Hollywood contract. Arriving with gusto in the USA in 1939, the ship carrying Miranda and her band was a huge media event, and Franklin Roosevelt feted her in the White House.
For a nation that had only survived the Great Depression by gearing up for second world war, Miranda and her films were a spectacular surge of color that cinema goers could not resist. She starred in 13 films, and by most accounts, she was the highest paid female entertainer for much of the 1940s. But just as her career peaked, her personal life wreaked a toll on her. She married a film producer, David Sebastian, who was abusive and as a business manager, ramrodded her in to many poor business deals. Meanwhile, Brazilians criticized her during a 1940 visit, accusing her of giving a parodied view of their country--the backlash hurt her to the point that she did not visit Brazil for another 14 years.
Meanwhile, the end of World War II also saw a pronounced shift in American film tastes. Miranda's work slowed down for several years. She had geared up for a comeback, only to suffer a heart attack while filming an episode of the The Jimmy Durante Show. Shot live, the clip is haunting, as at one point she frantically paused, gasping, "I'm all out of breath!" before finishing the number. She suffered a second heart attack that night. Dead at 46, she was buried in her beloved Rio, where over 500,000 lined the streets of her funeral procession and another 60,000 crammed Rio's City Hall for the memorial service.
Cultural critics and Latino entertainers during, and after, Miranda's life have dismissed Miranda's accomplishments as satirical and even a heretical mishmash of samba, tango, and other Latin music genres. I would disagree. Watching Miranda's films and recordings reveal a woman who not only sang beautifully and mastered the artistry of samba, but could more than hold her own across the spectrum of musical styles. She was not someone who just memorized a script and blurted out vapid verse; Miranda had a vicious wit that not only made her sparkle on film, but she deliciously delivered barbed quips during her nightclub acts. She poked fun at plastic surgery long before it became standard tabloid fodder, and I doubt anyone of her peers would have playfully referred to Lana Turner as "she's a baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaag!"
I've seen the 1995 documentary Bananas is my Business and have read other articles claiming that Miranda was tortured by her sad life and haunted by what some say was her perversion of Latin culture. I would say nonsense. She was a woman with raw talent who worked hard in harvesting it, played a crowd like few performers could, and relished the attention foisted on her. Her untimely death was a tragedy; yes, her husband was a jerk; but she was a remarkable global goodwill ambassador who loved her role as a liaison between two very different cultures.
Later artists has referred to her work from time to time, but thankfully Brazil's top female vocalist, Daniela Mercury, has given Miranda the tribute that she finally deserves. The two performers have similar styles in the sense that they are not boxed in by any particular school of music. Mercury's career has taken a similar trajectory: as her career in Brazil soared in the 1990s, she became known as the "Queen of Axe" (ah-SHAY), but she also incorporates many styles of music into her repertoire. As she said in a 2005 interview in the Chicago Sun-Times, "In Brazil, we have so many musical styles . . . I don't fit into any one label. The music that comes from Bahia is more than just axe." And like Miranda, when Mercury travels abroad, it doesn't matter than her new fans often do not know Portuguese: once they her her music, they are smitten with her rhythm and her songs become a hit--even in Turkey!
Mercury's most recent album, Canibalia, has two tributes to Carmen Miranda: "O Que É Que A Baiana Tem," a touching tribute in which portions of Miranda's original recording (far more creative than Natalie Cole's much ballyhooed duet with her father in "Unforgettable," dare I say) . . . and a remake of "Tico Tico No Fubá," a catchy tune that was one of Miranda's first songs that became a hit in the US.
Brazil's star is shining these days: it's hosting two global sports tournaments this decade, has created an enviable energy policy, and boasts a diverse music scene with which more people are enthralled. An celebration of Miranda's career, combined with Mercury's stewardship of the "Bombshell of Brazil's" legacy, provide a rich and strong foundation for the joie de vivre behind Brazilian music and culture. It took too long for Carmen Miranda to come out of her tutti-frutti hat--but the right artist, Daniela Mercury, has given that mid-20th century icon her due.
Speaking of tutti-frutti hats, you must watch this 1941 clip of Carmen Miranda singing the eponymous song in The Gang's All Here. If you do not have the time to watch all 7 minutes, at least watch the last 30 seconds. It's all fantastic--and no CGI!
Special thanks to Daniela Mercury's New York-based North American publicist for great insight.