Brazil has had many great "late blooming" musicians who didn't receive recognition until late in life. Helena Meirelles (1924–2005), one such example, only attained a small measure of fame after she was 69 years old. Helena was a singer, songwriter, and master of the viola caipira, a Brazilian folk guitar with steel strings (most often with ten); she also played the six-string guitar. She was from the hinterlands of Mato Grosso do Sul, deep in central Brazil, and played rural music on the viola with a brisk, exuberant flair that tugs at your emotions in a broken-hearted-at-the-boteco-or-cantina kind of way. Her songs favor rhythms like chamamé, rasqueado, and polka that are popular in the region. Listening to her, I wondered two things: what was she like on the viola at a spry 49 or 59, and what would a duet with Ry Cooder have sounded like?
Helena Meirelles, "Canta America"
Born on a farm in the Pantanal region of Mato Grosso do Sul, she learned to play at age eight, but had a hard life that kept her from gaining recognition as a musician until her later years. She married three times, had many children, worked as a washerwoman and midwife, and played her viola in bars, at ranch parties, and in bordellos. She began to gain a wee bit of national attention in the 1980s, when the singer Inezita Barroso presented her on a São Paulo radio station and on TV Cultural, an educational channel. Then, in 1992, Meirelles made a small breakthrough when she appeared on stage with Barroso and the renowned música caipira duo Pena Branca e Xavantinho, at the Sesc Theatre in São Paulo. It was probably the first time in her life that she had played on the stage of a theater.
An even bigger break came in 1993, when Guitar Player magazine in the United States featured Helena in its “Spotlight” section in the November issue.* The resulting international attention resulted in the release of her first album (Helena Meirelles) for Eldorado Records the following year when she was seventy years of age. And Meirelles finally gained long overdue recognition in Brazil.
She subsequently released solo albums such as Flor de Guavira (Eldorado, 1996), Raíz Pantaneira (Eldorado, 1997), and Helena Meirelles ao Vivo (Sapucay, 2002). She also appeared with Almir Sater, Haroldo do Monte, Roberto Corrêa and other viola masters on Os Bambas da Viola (Kuarup, 2004). Helena was the subject of two documentary films: Francisco de Paula's Helena Meirelles, a dama da viola, in 2004 and Dainara Toffoli's Dona Helena (2006).
Roberto Corrêa, a viola master and researcher, said this about Helena: "She represented that border region of Paraguay, northern Argentina and Mato Grosso do Sul that culturally is a region by itself, replete with styles like the polkas, the chamamés, the guarânias, and the rasqueados. She brought the sounds of the frontier, of the wilderness, of an unknown place. Her way of playing was simple, but her music was not."**
Here is a YouTube video from the 2006 documentary about her: Trailer from Dona Helena (in Portuguese).Her albums Flor da Guavira and Grande Dama da Viola: Helena Meirelles are currently available on Amazon.com. Kuarup's Os Bambas da Viola is also on sale, although it may not be for long; the Kuarup music company has closed its doors.
*It has been reported in Wikipedia and other websites that Guitar Player named her as one of the top 100 guitar players in the world (or "100 best instrumentalists") in 2004, but I have been unable to verify this and it seems to be an erroneous claim. In an attempt to find out more, I corresponded with two editors from the magazine. One of them, Joe Gore, wrote back, "Unfortunately, I don't have access to a library of back issues, so I can't verify your question with 100% accuracy. But I have no recollection of running anything along the lines of a "100 Best Instrumentalists" story, so I'm a bit skeptical of the claim. (We probably only would have written about guitar players, not "instrumentalists," and a "100 Best" story is one I would have battled NOT to run during my tenure)." What the Guitar Player editors did confirm was that magazine in featured Helena in the “Spotlight” section in its November, 1993 issue.
If anyone has a Guitar Player back issue that in fact places Meirelles in a "100 Best" list, please let me know, either with a comment here at blogspot or a message via twitter (Brazilian Sound at Twitter) or myspace (Brazilian Sound at MySpace).
**from Jornal do Brasil, as quoted in Dicionário Houaiss Illustrado: Música Popular Brasileira (Rio de Janeiro: Paracatu Editora, 2006).