Rio's Samba Queen Builds Commercial Success From Common People's Music

SAMBA queen Beth Carvalho (pronounced Car-VAHL-yo) is an anomaly. Born into a comfortable middle-class white family, the well-loved, well-heeled, and highly respected singer has her feet grounded in the world of samba, the world of Rio's slums, populated mostly by poor blacks. It is from this soil that samba's geniuses have sprung, and this is where Beth Carvalho's heart resides. Ms. Carvalho is a proud member of Rio's most soulful samba school, Mangueira, and the best samba composers not only of Mangueira, but of the other samba schools, have written songs just for her.

Today Beth Carvalho lives in a luxurious oceanside home, tastefully decorated with memorabilia: paintings of samba and carnival, and folkloric knicknacks. An enormous painting of the samba queen herself dominates her living room. In an interview there, she talks about her favorite subject.

``Everybody knows the word `samba,''' Carvalho says. ``Everybody knows what carnival is. But I think that samba itself, its essence, is not known, even in Brazil. Samba isn't just a rhythm; it's a [social and political] resistance. The majority of samba composers are extremely humble people, with little instruction or scholarship. Most of them are black and extremely poor.''

She was quick to correct a misconception many people have about samba. ``They think it's just a happy music, but it's not; it's a lament, too,'' she says.

How did Carvalho get involved with the samba world, a world apart from her upbringing?

``There were no social or racial preconceptions in my home,'' she explains. ``Also, I was born with the ability to hear music, to hear rhythm and harmony.'' She adds that having a black nanny, who introduced her to black culture, didn't hurt, either.

``Carnival is created by the community, by people who are extremely dedicated to it, who sew and embroider costumes all year long, work for minimum wages, and come out on the avenue like kings and queens,'' she says. ``God only knows how they do it.''

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