The singer’s melodic, growling voice was a marvel – and she overcame great hardship in order to put it to astonishing use
Elza Soares stood quietly, a few minutes before being born into music. Engulfed by audience fuss and hullabaloo, another of her competitors had been disqualified from the radio talent show she was attending. It was 1953, and Soares had just one chance to bring home the cash prize – she needed it to help care for her unwell son. She was still a teenager and, once on stage, her oversized, ragged dress would make the audience explode into laughter. “What’s the planet you came from?” asked the host, waiting for the gag’s cue. “I’m from Planet Hunger,” she said. Silence took hold of the venue, and Elza sang for the first time. She never stopped, until her death this week aged 91.
Over the decades, the Brazilian artist became a staple for samba, a mainstay of her nation’s songbook and a singer that shared a global pantheon with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Dubbed the “voice of the millennium” by the BBC in 1999, Elza met the Planet Hunger as few did: a Black woman born in Rio’s favelas, who faced down racism, sexism and classism with brilliant verve.