Maria Bethania, Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by Sue Steward
Wednesday 21 July 2010
Thousands of rose petals covered the stage, flowed between two low plinths housing seven Brazilian musicians, and climbed up the rear wall. This was unambiguously a diva's stage set. As Maria Bethania appeared, intoning a chant to Santa Barbara, a deity in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion which guides her life, the packed audience hushed. When she sang to her homeland, Bahia, skipping like a child around the stage, barefoot as always, they let rip.
With a five-decade career, scores of award-winning albums and three generations of fans, Bethania is iconic in Brazilian music. Ignoring Tropicalia, which her brother Caetano Veloso co-founded, she forged her own musical route, but keeps his songs in every performance.
Sleek black trousers and white shirt have replaced a familiar, rich-hippy look, but Bethania's mane of grey hair still swished to the music. Her distinctive, colourful contralto voice, inspired by Candomblé, jazz and music from Bahia and Rio, also swooped to bluesy, androgynous depths. It fitted her band, which included the brilliant but rather under-used acoustic guitarist Jaime Alem, a keyboard player-cum-accordionist, and three over-dominant percussionists who luckily didn't overwhelm her. Most songs came from the recent albums Encanteria and Tua, and she danced to them in shuffly samba steps, or standing stationary, mirrored their philosophical reflections in elegant moves. Most exquisite was "Queixa", which she sang unaccompanied.
During a brief costume-change, the drummers indulged in an adrenalised Azymuth-like samba-blast, which the audience loved. On returning in a white outfit, Bethania launched a delicate duet with Alem's guitar, led a Bahian samba with abandoned dancing unimaginable from contemporaries Joan Baez or Nanci Griffith, and closed with a message of happiness before skipping away through the rose petals. A diva absolutely, but also a little girl leaving the best party.
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