Home Music Helena Meirelles: A Rainha da Viola Caipira

Helena Meirelles: A Rainha da Viola Caipira

Brazilian instrumentalist Helena Meirelles (1924-2005) released her debut album when she was 70 years old — and that might be the least interesting part of a backstory that has overwhelmed the music so much that even the press release may not have its facts right. A Rainha da Viola Caipira (The Queen of the Viola Caipira) is a generous sample of her late-blooming career, and it reveals a perfectly wonderful folk musician. But wait till you hear the myth.

Meirelles was born in 1924 in Campo Grande, the capital of Mato Grosso do Sul in southwestern Brazil. Her axe was the viola caipira, a 10-string guitar with five sets of strings set up in pairs like an abbreviated 12-string. The instrument is a staple of musica caipira, essentially Brazilian roots or country music.

This traditional, no-frills genre is what you get for 25 acoustic tracks in 72 minutes, drawn from several albums Meirelles originally released in the ‘90s and ‘00s. Instrumental opener “Guaxo” begins with a brief spoken word intro from Meirelles, and even without being translated, her fantastic voice conveys a weathered wisdom and sardonic attitude. Backed by acoustic bass and a rhythm guitarist, Meirelles takes a lively lead on viola caipira, whose slightly off tuning is based on her own voice. But despite such idiosyncrasy, you can hear her skill and enthusiasm. And on tracks like “Quatro Horas de Madrugada,” you can hear her singing voice: it’s a well-lived-in, gravelly voice, but with a sweetness that suits the timbre of the viola’s upper registers, which she strums at with an attack that’s both loose (thanks to that unusual tuning) and precise, hitting her rhythms and counter rhythms in tune with her steady backup.

There’s an hour-long documentary with clips of Meirelles performing on Brazilian television, and you can see the elder’s deft technique, her left wrist moving easily in wide intervals up and down the fretboard in a high-speed action that would give a lot of younger guitarists a workout, while her right hand picks firmly, her smallest fingers hanging down as if arthritic.

So much for a prosaic account of this artist. Where does one start with the incredible myth? The chronology alone is inspiring, but she had personality to boot. The cover alone should sell records: the black and white portrait depicts a defiant elder, sitting down with her cowboy hat and plucking her instrument while giving the photographer a closed-mouth scowl that conveys how little she cares what anybody thinks. Then again, does that look, however it may have come naturally to Meirelles, have an air of calculation?

According to an interview she gave when she was 79, two years before she died, Meirelles was born in a rural area, and her mother found five-month old Helena nursing on a wild dog’s teat. “They thought that’s why I got mad,” she explained. She started playing music from a young age, picking up the guitar before she was 10; she used melted wax to stick a harmonica on a guitar so she could play both at the same time. When she was 17, Meirelles married a man who wouldn’t let her sing or play music, but then she ran off with a Paraguayan guitarist, and ended up leaving him to play in a brothel. “Prostitutes were the ones who taught me everything about life.”

Meirelles could barely read or write, but she could tell a helluva story. Much of this seems like the kind of thing an elder Bob Dylan would have dreamed up as a mid-life persona. Even Meirelles’ much-delayed performance history is shrouded in conflicting stories. It seems that a demo cassette of her music was sent to Guitar Player magazine, which led to a spotlight on the unknown singer — but according to one curious blogger who was unable to verify the claim, she was not, as most sources including this album’s press release state, listed as one of the top 100 guitarists in the world on the basis of that demo.

So, hype machine to the contrary, Meirelles may not have been the Robert Johnson of Brazil or one of the top 100 guitarists of all time. And A Rainha da Viola Caipira isn’t a flashy showcase of some young hotshot. The material and rhythms could be more varied, and one of her original albums may be a better morsel to chew on. But after reading about her life and listening to her play, how could you deny her royal title?

Summary
The world-weary Brazilian guitarist had great technique, but she built a legend that has overwhelmed her music so much that even her press release might not have its facts straight.
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Myth-making Music

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