Elza Soares: Do me a favela!

Brazil: it's hot, it's happening - it's on television, in cinemas, on advertising billboards. And now the land of thong and dance is taking over a department store. You know about the beach football, samba and carnival already. But there's a lot more to Brazilian culture than that - there's the art, the film, the violence. And there's Elza Soares, the very life and soul of shanty town. Phil Johnson flies down to Rio to dismantle a stereotype
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On the stage of a dancehall in downtown Rio de Janeiro, a woman wearing an enormous Afro wig, a white crochet mini-dress and - or so the photographer returns from the stage to tell me - no knickers, is energetically shaking her behind. Elza Soares must be 65 years old, although she looks closer to 30, at least from a distance. She is accompanied by a funk-samba showband, a handsome, chain-wearing rapper, and a troupe of four sexy Afro-Brazilian boy dancers who break and body-pop as if the Eighties never stopped. Elza (who comes to London's Jazz Cafe on 16 May as part of a festival of Brazilian arts) is both a force of nature and a powerful symbol for Rio's vigorous popular culture: raw, ritualistic, glorious, vulgar.

"For my London concert," Elza tells me through a creative translator, "my audience will have a sweet fruit salad of rhythms, where the only thing citric, chilli-hot, will be the cadence of my 60 centimetres of waistline, my enviable legs, my head in heaven and my feet firmly on the ground." She's a feisty black version of Carmen Miranda, the Carioca (as inhabitants of Rio are called) singer and dancer who became a wartime Hollywood star dressed as a peasant from Bahia with a basket of fruit on her head.

Like Miranda, Elza Soares also embodies a kind of argument about Brazilian culture, some of whose manifestations seem set eventually to rival American hip-hop as the most influential subculture in the world. It's a culture already providing the local colour and theme music - electronic samba meets drum 'n' bass - for smart new commercials selling us everything from cars to training shoes and hair volumiser (hey, let's give the product launch party a Brazilian theme!)

Of course, it isn't the first time we've been Brazilianised into consumer submission. And do I really need to mention thongs, waxing and yellow old-school football shirts? But the appeal to stereotypes implicit in the sales-pitch - as when bossa nova was annexed for jazz by Creed Taylor and the Verve label in the mid-Sixties - has always taken place on our terms rather than theirs. In our minds, Rio has been magically transformed into a luxe, calme et volupte version of California, with just a little bit of Africa thrown in to stop it becoming boring, and an economy based entirely on ball games. Now, for the first time, the football boot might be on the other foot: Brazil is starting to take its own notion of the exotic and to run with it.

For these are also exciting times at home as well as abroad. President Lula's new government is attempting a programme of socialist reforms. His Minister for Culture is the singer Gilberto Gil - which is a bit like Sting running the Home Office - while hit films such as City of God have revived a film industry that, following the military dictatorship of the Seventies and Eighties, had almost ceased to exist. Lula has also attended candomble voodoo rites, helping to legitimise marginalised Afro-Brazilian culture.

But Soares isn't anyone's idea of "favela chic", as the vogue for all things Brazilian is called. She's too trashy, and her life too potent a reminder of the reality behind the favela fantasy. Way back in the early Sixties, Elza scandalised Brazil by setting up home with the legendary footballer Garrincha, who left his wife and kids for the young singer from a background poorer than his own. She was forced into marriage at the age of 12. By the time she was 20, three of her four children had died of malnutrition. She became a singer by entering a radio talent contest to pay for medical treatment for her son. When the judge asked her where she came from, she answered: "Hunger." It's a good story and might even be true.

When Elza dumped him because of his alcoholism, Garrincha - the inventor of the "banana shot", the precursor to Beckham's benders - drank himself to death. Their eight-year-old son (the product of love-making so legendary that all of Brazil used to speculate about its frequency and duration) later died in a car crash, yet another of the many tragedies in Elza's life. Now, by some miracle of grace or surgery, she appears younger with every passing year. It turns out that the dreamboat rapper in the band isn't just a sideman; he's her new husband.

The theatre where Soares is playing is more like the concert room of a British working men's club some time in the Seventies, filled with her local fans. The photographer and I are there as an escape from the official itinerary of a trip organised by Selfridges to promote their month-long festival of Brazilian culture, Brasil 40š, which begins this week. They want to show us fashionable bars in the posh suburbs of Ipanema and Leblon; we want to experience the reality of the downtown areas, where it's possible that we might get robbed or killed. Being Rio, this is entirely feasible. Last year, 1,000 people in the city died at the hands of the police alone. Only the day before, our party's other photographer had his five-grand Nikon ripped from his shoulder while taking pictures at the Museum of Modern Art.

The favela shanty-towns depicted in City of God have also been declared out of bounds since the police began another huge operation - part of a continual war of attrition, suspended for the period of the Rio carnival - against the drugs gangs who control them. Photographs of policemen in armoured cars guarding the entrances are in all the morning papers. With cocaine costing the equivalent of £5 a gram, it's unlikely that the drug lords will be driven out of business. Recently, the Kafkaesque solution of building an enormous concrete wall around one of the favelas has been advanced as a serious response to the problem.

And after all, shanty towns are only impromptu breezeblock housing estates, noisy with the barking of three-legged dogs and the put-put-put of scooters and old gas-smelling vans. They're the places where the street vendors, shop workers and domestic servants go back to at night, and are not unlike their equivalents in Spain, Greece or Turkey; only with more death, obviously.

But Cariocas have long since learned to live with their favelas, which nestle picturesquely all over the city. "The slums are nice when you see them at night, like a painting," says the genial Abel Gomes, who has designed the replica of Rio's Christ the Redeemer statue erected above Selfridges Oxford Street entrance for the duration of Brasil 40š . He's not being facetious. Everyone in Rio tells you that the poor - whose hillsides are difficult to convert into affluent real estate because of their hard stone and steep gradients - have the best views. When I go to see the architect Oscar Niemeyer's house, now a museum, on one of the hills above the city, I find it all but abandoned - the nearby favela has grown so close that the other residents have fled.

At Elza's show, we take a seat at a table and a waiter serves us beer which, as with most financial transactions in Brazil, will involve any one of a number of indirect methods of payment in order to stop robbers getting an opportunity to steal the cash. There's more than a touch of the British working men's club in Elza's performance, too, which is as extravagant as Shirley Bassey's but with a very important difference: her trademark is a rasping bark that seems to come from so far back in the throat that it sounds primitive, atavistic; a cave-woman roar. Yes, you think, this is exactly the sound that Nissan or Nike need.

Elza Soares also reflects a dialectic at the heart of Brazilian culture, a contradiction that is expressed in all sorts of oppositions - rich and poor, black and white, north and south - but which finds a particular resonance in the differences between the cities of Rio and São Paulo. Basically, Rio feels more tropical, and has a larger black population; São Paulo is more European in ethnicity and outlook. "Rio is more superficial because of the atmosphere and the beaches," says another Brazilian singer, Patricia Marx, who's a Paulista (as the inhabitants of São Paulo are called). "São Paulo is more closed, harder, a concrete jungle; it's more like London." Marx - who performs at Selfridges on 19-22 May - lived in Kennington, south London, for a year, working with the hip drum 'n' bass producers 4Hero. Her music is a kind of international electronica-soul, more popular in Europe than at home.

"I think my work is too avant-garde for Brazil," she tells me. "People here are conservative and traditional. It's very cheesy, popular music market here. Instead of valuing the new rhythms, they prefer the old ones. There is also a stereotype of the Brazilian woman - very vulgar, a naked woman showing her butt - and it's very restrictive ... It's the record industry's way of keeping control. I think that everyone outside thinks that Brazilian music is this kind of woman mulatto with her butt sticking out and football and beaches..."

People from São Paulo are always telling you this. At the opening of the massive Rediscovery exhibition in São Paulo four years ago - held to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the first Portuguese colonists landing in Brazil - the curator Nelson Aguilar told me: "To change the image of Brazil we need to make people think about various questions. If they think Brazil is the paradise of soccer, mulattos, samba and carnival, then we are trying to problematise that. I think the idea of Brazil abroad is a projection, a psychological idea, not sociological knowledge. You need to go deeper."

While this aim may be laudable, there is also a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. For what makes the culture of Brazil so special is often exactly this sense of generous vulgarity - Elza Soares rather than Patricia Marx - whose genuinely exotic impulse is derived not from Europe but from the descendants of Afro-Brazilian slaves (in Brazil it's hardly more than a century since slavery was abolished); an impulse reflected in the spectacle of carnival and the extraordinary vitality of Brazilian popular music. But in Brazil, European roots run deep and a conflict between indigenous, tropical culture and the values of Europe and North America affects everything.

"We Brazilians are transplanted Europeans," says the singer-songwriter and poet Caetano Veloso, a co-founder (with Gilberto Gil, among others) of the influential Tropicalia movement of the late Sixties and who comes from the province of Bahia, where Brazil's most Afrocentric carnivals are held. "We speak a European language and because we have been created through European colonisation, we carry Europe within us. Although we were born far away, when we go to Europe, we are going back."

In Veloso's case, going back meant exile in London's Notting Hill following the military coup in the Seventies. The repression of the dictatorship, and the subsequent reaction against it, remains the major influence on contemporary Brazilian culture.

Despite the ubiquity of carnival as an image of Brazil projected to the rest of the world, at home it's often regarded by the middle-classes as a kind of annual embarrassment to be endured rather than enjoyed, the business of poor people from the slums. "No one cares about carnival. It was seen as very tacky, although now it's becoming more popular," says Beatriz Milhazes, one of Brazil's leading visual artists, who has designed a superb abstract installation for the windows of Selfridges store in Exchange Square, Manchester. "In my work I've always been interested to make a point of connection with my culture, and to use this somehow. In our art, all the knowledge came from Europe or afterwards from America... That is my first big challenge, as the knowledge and the concepts are not Brazilian. My generation was very influenced by US culture. But I work in a different direction - I went into my own culture."

For Milhazes, who has exhibited at Icon in Birmingham, Tate Liverpool, and Moma in New York, and whose large-format, psychedelic-coloured, paintings are collected by Mario Testino and Caetano Veloso, her big breakthrough came when she decided to accept the tropical as her subject, adopting a new method of collaging brightly painted vinyl cut-outs onto the canvas. "I love the idea of the tropical, of Gauguin. But not of a stereotype," she says. "Now it's a very important time in Brazilian art because we're starting to realise there are serious issues, not only stereotypes, involved. South America [is identified as] a colourful place, but it's not true about the art of South America; there are some manifestations in folk art but not in fine art. I am the only one to use colour."

But if fine art in Brazil has struggled to find a national - as opposed to international - style, the applied arts have flourished, with Brazilian fashion and furniture design among the most adventurous in the world. There's also what the Brazilians call scenography, the art direction of large, spectacular, events - including carnival - for which they have become world leaders. Leading scenographer Bia Lessa designed the incredible installations for Rediscovery in 2000, where artworks were set within deliciously baroque environments featuring thousands of paper flowers, like high-camp stage-sets for a production of Genet.

Like Beatriz Milhazes, Lessa - who comes from São Paulo but lives in Rio, and therefore has a foot in both camps - is trying to reflect a sense of the tropical, while also highlighting the tensions inherent within Brazilian culture. "Most cities in Brazil, in the day, you pray; in the evening, you dance and make sex, a lot, with women, with men, whatever," she says. "It's not a contradiction; it's a kind of celebration. When you're having a celebration of your soul, you're having a celebration of your body, too."

She sees her work for Selfridges - both window and interior displays - as a way of putting the art gallery into the department store. "The museum or gallery and the store are different, but they are also the same," she says. "The big problem is that it's important not to sell Brazil. Instead, you show Brazil, you create it: take two hours of your life and become Brazilian!"

At the Carmen Miranda museum in a disconcertingly modernistic pavilion off the main road from Copacabana to downtown Rio, you can see an odd, ramshackle, but nevertheless inspiring collection of photographs and artefacts of Brazil's greatest international star: her jewellery, her six-inch platform shoes, her headdresses. But the story of Miranda's success conceals an emblematic Brazilian tragedy. Feted abroad - she was the biggest box-office star in Hollywood in 1943 - when she came home to perform in a Rio casino, the Carioca audience rejected her. Carmen returned to Hollywood, but the failure haunted her and she grew increasingly depressed. In 1954, she suffered a nervous breakdown. Her doctors prescribed a return to Rio, where she spent four months sequestered in a suite at the Copacabana Palace hotel, seeing no one. Eventually, she began to regain her health and returned to the USA, dying a few months later. The moral for Brazilian stars is clear: don't neglect your own back yard.

This isn't something that Elza Soares needs to be reminded of. Her audience love her with a devotion that borders on idolatry - which, of course, it is. At one point in the show - which features numerous costume changes, reflecting the Carmen Miranda legacy - Elza takes a stool to a prow of the stage jutting out into the crowd. She starts to sing a ballad, letting the bark in her voice relax into a smooth, condolent croon. The band finish playing, leaving Elza to sing alone, until the audience join in, drowning her out. Elza stops and the crowd completes the song, filling the hall with their voices. At the end, she bows her head, accepting the applause for a good two minutes. Later, a percussionist will dance around her feet, beating a drum and looking up her skirt with a leer on his face. It's like a scene from Goya's caprichos or a frieze on a Greek vase.

I ask her manager, who translates, what Elza considers essentially Brazilian in her art. "Respect to the audience, and ATTITUDE, in capital letters," she reports. "I am part of the voice of the people of Brazil and it is the people who make me sing. The voice of the people is such a strong echo that if I do not match it, I will have no reason to go on singing. For me, singing is not something individualistic. It is something like 'We are the Champions'. I would like the gay communities, who are always under scrutiny and are oppressed, like the black race, to join forces with us. Let us all hold hands!"

Somehow, you can't imagine Shirley Bassey, for all her status as a gay icon, saying quite the same thing. You also understand the strength of Brazilian popular culture, and why Nike and Nissan and the rest of the world - tiring, perhaps, of the Bronx - now wants a piece of it.

Brasil 40° runs on 5-31 May at all Selfridges stores (08708 377 377, or www.selfridges.com). Elza Soares plays the Jazz Cafe, NW1, on Sunday 16 May (020 7344 0044).