The site dedicated to Brazilian women of African descent
Note from Black Women of Brazil: Music is another of my all-time passions. Since I was a kid my taste in music has evolved quite a bit. In my household growing up 70s Soul music was the soundtrack of my life. But even as I grew up on so many of the classic artists that everyone in the black community grooved to at one time or another (Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Barry White, EW&F, P-Funk, Jacksons, Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, Prince and so many others) I would always meet people who would introduce me to artists that I had never heard of making me feel as if there were hundreds of thousands of artists out there that I was missing out on.
As I got older, my taste led me to explore the sounds of Jazz, Fusion, Blues, Rock and eventually into the vast category that Americans label as simply ‘World Music’, which was applied to basically anything outside of the US, Canada and England. ‘Visiting’ various countries through music would take me to Nigeria where I was blow away by the Afro Beat sound of Fela Kuti, the Afro-Peruvian sounds of Susana Baca, the son sounds of various members of Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club, Ethiopia’s Mulatu Astatke and Argentina’s Gato Barbieri, who passed away just last year.
Obviously my journey to Brazil would soon introduce to some of the most beautiful, melodic and rhythmic music in the world. And my discovery of Brazilian music nearly two decades ago along with my interest in the racial issue would only hasten my desire to spend time in this vast country. As is typical of music fans outside of Brazil, my introduction to Brazilian music came via the Bossa Nova. Antonio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto are generally two artists who music most readily available in the United States, but as the internet was beginning to really take out just as I was wanting to know more about Brazilian music, I had the opportunity to go far beyond just the few artists I could find at most CD stores.
The funny thing is, as I had already been familiar with Jazz and Jazz Fusion, I was already familiar with some Brazilian artists because of their collaborations with American artists. There was the famous Stan Getz/João Gilberto collaboration, there were the Wayne Shorter/Milton Nascimento sessions, Return to Forever’s albums featuring Airto and Flora Purim, Sarah Vaughn’s Copacabana album, Cannonball Adderly’s Cannonball’s Bossa Nova LP and many others. My education on Brazilian music would eventually led me classic artists such as Gilberto Gil, the aforementioned Milton Nascimento, Chico Buarque, Dorival Caymmi, Marcos Valle, Edu Lobo, Ivan Lins, Djavan, Tim Maia and so many other wonderful artists, my favorite three being Jorge Ben, Clara Nunes and Banda Black Rio.
Today, I still prefer the classics of Brazilian music over the newer artists. But there are still those current artists who know how to maintain of purity of the music without relying too much on modern technology that takes away a certain authenticity of the music. When I find such (female) artists, I like to introduce them to my audience. Today, I present to you a great talent that I discovered back in 2015. I knew then that I would have to create a post about her and I never imagined I would only get around to it in 2017! But oh well, as they say, better late than never!
I first discovered Xênia França through her work with her band Aláfia whose second album mixed elements of Candomblé, Hip Hop, Soul and Funk into a uniquely Brazilian groove. Aláfia followed in the footsteps of other great Brazilian bands that preceded them such as Funk Como Le Gusta, Farofa Carioca and the legendary 1970s Samba-Funk group Banda Black Rio, that set the standard for all groove-laden bands that come in later decades. Usually, a groove catches my ear before the vocal work of a song and Aláfia has a groove but I LOVE Xênia França’s voice! The timbre of her voice could work in a variety of styles and fits Aláfia’s sound perfectly! With the added bonus of her look and views on being a black woman in Brazil and we have a great feature for today’s post! Check out the story plus some great photos and videos of Xênia do her thang!
Xênia França is a force of nature
By Taís Toti
“You didn’t notice, but at that table people looked at me in a (certain) way when we came,” Xênia França says to me in a nice bakery in Vila Madalena, São Paulo. In fact I had noticed that people looked. I just didn’t know if they were looking at her for being beautiful, because of her stylish clothes, her beautiful voluminous hair, or because she is black.
Xênia is the only woman in the band Aláfia band. She shares with Eduardo Brechó and Jairo Pereira the vocals of the 11 member band that combines different genres of música negra (black music) with lyrics about blackness in such a beautiful way that it’s easy to say that Corpura, released in September (2015), is one of the best Brazilian albums of the year. And when it comes to Xênia, it’s not possible to say that she’s a singer. It must be said that she is black. It’s necessary to say that she is beautiful. Because, in 2015, this still matters.
“My color will be dissassociated out front. I’ll stop being a cantora negra (black singer) to be a cantora (singer), I’ll stop being a mulher negra bonita (beautiful black woman) to being a mulher bonita (beautiful woman),” she tells me. Aláfia is one of those bands that are not on the underground, but also doesn’t belong to the mainstream. Still, Xênia is a great reference, especially for black women, which leaves her desperate – “because I am a person,” not a fairy as some children believe she is.
“Diva”, “beautiful” and “muse” are words you hear from the audience when Aláfia performs. But when she was in school, Xênia was not considered beautiful. She wasn’t in the group of popular girls, and she wasn’t the most desired by the boys. She was one of the few black students at a private high school in Camaçari, Bahia, and didn’t always participate in school trips and travel because her mother was very worried. When we talk about the importance of beauty, she brings back a “sad reminder” of her childhood. She was nine or ten years old, it was June and the children were preparing for the São João festival. Her mother had bought a beautiful dress, checkered and flared, and she was hoping to square dance, but she wasn’t chosen.
“When people say that I am beautiful and wonderful I accept it, because I really think I’m beautiful and wonderful. I don’t deny it, I’m not ashamed of it, because it’s important to me, the things I went through in childhood, and because of knowing that today I have a responsibility,” she vents. “Beauty for me is not an ephemeral thing, it is a working tool. As I work practically with militancy, we need to pick up everything that is positive and turn it into advertising for us.”
When Xênia met Eduardo Brechó in 2011 through a mutual friend, the idea was that she would help mount his solo album. She frequented his house (“he as a lot vinyl, is a music researcher, I met him as a DJ”), which was also visited by other people such as Jairo Pereira. One day the harmonica player Luke Cirillo came and they were playing Michael Jackson. People were coming in, the meetings became weekly, and three months later Aláfia did their first show. “When we were rehearsing with Fi, who was the drummer, Gabiru the [bassist] came and said ‘how’s that? He’s my cousin’.’ It was all very synchronistic.”
It was on June 11, 2011, at Bar B in São Paulo, that Aláfia played their first show. Xênia went to a friend’s house to get ready and arrived at the last minute of the show. “When I entered the bar was packed and 80% of people who were there were black, I thought it was great. There were a lot of black people in the place, and I had never seen it in São Paulo. I came from another reality, working with fashion. In these fashion parties there were no blacks, it was me and another, and the other blacks who are there are cooks, janitors.”
Talking about blackness and racism has always been the intention of the band, but Xênia says it took a greater proportion when they realized that people went to concerts to hear what they had to say. “We’re not talking to them, we’re communicating. These people also have a lot of things to say.” Aláfia is an interracial band. “It has black and it has white. White people came to play, only that our experience is very serious and very strong. Whoever hasn’t thought about ended up getting into [militancy]. I can guarantee that 100% of the people in Aláfia are angry with something in society.”
I met Xênia França for the first time in a northeastern, very simple restaurant in (the neighborhood of) Santa Cecília.. Accompanied by five beautiful friends, which made the table where they were sitting stand out, she was slightly drunk after having a caipirinha. On her suggestion, I requested one too. I was nervous and had calculated what questions to ask at the time and in what order, afraid of being too invasive, and hoping she could gain confidence in me to open up. The question “what’s your sign?” was at the end of the list, but it was the first thing she said, so I sat down. “I’m a Pisces with a rising sign in Leo and the moon in Virgo. So I’m boring,” she joked. She said that was why, despite being this expansive person and “proactive in friendship” when you meet people, you need some time alone, just for herself.
The fault of the stars or not, Xênia really does have this duality. She talks a lot, cries from laughing, imitates (TV host) Marília Gabriela, showed herself to be quite at ease and uses a lot of slang from the gay scene when it’s time to talk about ordinary things. But she also speaks softly, is introspective, articulate, and above all intelligent. Xênia thinks a lot about society and the world around her, but also dedicates herself quite a bit to self-knowledge.
She has no religion, but was always connected with the “invisible”. “I always had a lot of curiosity but also a lot of fear, because religion puts fear in people.” As a child, she was baptized in the Igreja Católica (Catholic Church) and made her first communion, but in adolescence she no longer she identified with Catholicism. She comes from a state where Candomblé is strong, but she was getting closer and researching more on the subject with Aláfia. “There are many people in Aláfia that are really filhas de santo, and it’s because of the musical research, that it passes through this place.” She is the daughter of Xangô and Iemanjá, and seeks to know the influence of the orixás in her life. She frequents the Terreiro do Bogum when she goes to Salvador. “It’s part of an identity thing, ancestry, but I haven’t made up my mind and I think I’ll never will.”
The singer frequents the Sukyo Mahikari Dai Dojo Temple, where she received “some energy through the hands” and can connect with the invisible. It’s all part of her quest to find and “be a more comfortable person inside of myself” “Everyone who knows me thinks I’m super funny. I am a very outgoing person, I’m always talking. Speaking of my life, of my things, and yet what’s really important, what strikes me, what hurts me, I don’t say.” It was in the floral therapy that she found the opportunity of opening up and talking about what she kept in.
All this helped to let her know how to deal “fairly well with my life,” but doesn’t impede that she has crises, like all of us. “I feel so accomplished singing, I know that’s what I should be doing, but there are times when a thing like this knocks, in which I think it must be my sign, my ascendant, of the mixture that is my [astral] map, a number of frustrations.”
Xênia didn’t take classes when she started working with music; today she takes singing lessons and speech therapy. “When I heard anything [I sang] I got sad because I thought it wasn’t good. I didn’t like my voice.” In Aláfia, she fulfills the function given to her – “I’m here more as a tool than as a singer, it’s as if I’m a guitarist”- imprinting a vocal recording of black music voice that she likes but not terminating her aesthetic ambitions. “I can’t express myself as much if I were a solo singer, put out who I really am.”
Outside of Aláfia, she participates in shows of friends and is presenting a show in honor of (late singer/songwriter) Gonzaguinha. “It’s very different to sing song, it can be more serene. And singing alone is very different, you show another side artistically. “The idea of a solo album, which appeared in 2011, is only now taking shape. At the time she was afraid to record, and didn’t feel prepared. “I had nothing in mind, I just wanted to sing,” she recalls. After two years thinking about the disc, she began to focus more on the choice of repertoire and the language that she wants to go through.
When Xênia was a teenager, she wanted to be a journalist, inspired by Glória Maria, a Globo TV reporter. “I didn’t think much of the thing of blackness at that time, but I felt a difference there, that there was only one black woman there on the television that we watched.” But her Portuguese teacher, who had been a journalist, recommended a text on the lack of freedom of expression caused by the families that control the major media, and she was discouraged. She studied Social Communication but with a specialization in Advertising. “At school I could’t bear studying, but when I entered college thought the most about studying and reading things that were directly linked to my personality,” she recalls. Even so, she saw that the profession was not for her.
At 17, Xênia enrolled in a contest of the magazine Raça Brasil. She didn’t win, but she finished in the top ten and went to São Paulo in 2004 working as a model in an agency specializing in blacks. The first person he met in São Paulo was Samira Carvalho, the girl who was on the cover of Raça Brasil when she entered the competition. “She was sitting there on the floor, knitting,” says Xênia. Samira is a top model and now sells her beautiful creations in knitting and crochet through the brand that she created, Sambento. She’s also a kind of Xênia style consultant, lending clothes and helping in the styling. It was Samira who made the tailor-made dress used by Xênia in the Corpura album release concert at Ibirapuera Auditorium. “Once Xênia came rolled a good connection formed between us,” says Samira.
The life of a model was not easy. There were few offers for black women, and what she did most was, ironically, works for advertising. A great part of her sustenance came from her mother, and she packed her bags several times, preparing to return to Bahia, until something made her stay. “I arrived here [in São Paulo] wanting to be Gisele Bündchen and fell with thump.” But she made friends, among them members of the rock band Sorriso Vertical, who used to play in Sarajevo, a nightclub on Augusta street that she she used to go to.
In 2007 she moved from the Augusta area to Itaim Bibi, and her frends from Sorriso Vertical always shwed up at meetings at her house. They came together to cook, watch movies, and mostly play guitar in the kitchen when she sang unpretentiously. The band’s guitarist, Caio Echem, praised her voice, but she didn’t pay much attention. But in the middle of that year, Caio invited her to put together a Samba-Rock band (“at that time it was at its height”), and she accepted. One week later, she would make her first appearance as a singer on the anniversary of the drummer’s friend.
She also worked as a model, but important events were happening – fast and gradually – in his musical career. In 2008, she was watching the VMB and nce again met Fred Ouro Preto, also of Sorriso Vertical, who was competing for the direction of the clip “Triunfo”, by rapper Emicida. Fred introduced the two, gave Xênia’s phone number to Emicida, and one day while she was in a casting, the rapper called asking if she could appear in the studio because he needed a female voice. She left the clothing casting, met him and recorded in a studio for the first time.
The life of model/singer was being led, with years of performing in the São Paulo night in her luggage. But only play at night didn’t satisfy her anymore, and she began to put together Aláfia where she would accomplish her artistic desires at the time. And being a model was also was no longer cool. “I felt that I was insisting on something that was not for me,” she says. The transition from model to singer was very difficult, there was little money, and she spent ten months working in a store on Oscar Freire to sustain herself while Aláfia prepared their first disc. “But every time I was in the studio, I felt very satisfied. Very different from when I was a model and I was on a job in which I was already thinking about when the next would be.” Being a singer was not in the plans when Xênia left Camaçari, Bahia (she was raised there, but was born in Candeias), but the music was a channel for her to find the best in herself.
“She is a goddess and will win over the world,” singer Tássia Reis told me when asked if she could talk about Xênia. Tássia recorded with Aláfia, participated in the shows, and ended up “doing an occupation at her house” for a few months, when they came to compose together. “She called me for a song. I wrote a part, I paid attention to see her writing in the room, it was amazing. We still haven’t recorded.” The Xênia had told me that she was “racking her brain learning to play guitar,” and I am surprised to know that she is already composing with the instrument. “She’s very talented and shrewd,” said Tássia.
Xênia has this aura that enchants, attracts attention to her. Really a thing of a goddess; and still this facility to connect with people instantly. “I have the image of that day in which, when I looked at her face and we started talking, it was such general laughter. And I keep this feeling – it even seems like a reunion, understand?,” recalls Pipo Pegoraro, a solo musician and companion of Aláfia on the day he met the singer.
Seeing her speak with ownership about politics, racism, or even quasars reinforces this impression that she’s a perfect woman (yet accessible). And as much as Xênia spends time talking about having evolved in her relationship with the world and with herself, she sometimes likes to remember her humanity. “I have my traumas, but I try to solve them, I don’t keep on suffering. Sometimes I keep on because I am a person.” Getting rid of the drama that accompanies every Piscean is a daily exercise. She explains that the day before, she went to bed at 3, in crisis, thinking she had “behaved in a wrong way with a person.” When she woke up, she read a book (O Poder do Agora or The Power of Now is her Bible), she went to the temple, and escaped from the limbo of suffering. “In order for me to be able to be this here, I have to push myself too, because I’m not so calm.”
Xênia has this particular way of solving her conflicts. Her father died young, “I think he was 51,” and he came to accompany her in a (modeling) parade, but never saw her sing. “My mother is a little cooler with this music thing, and I think my dad would freak out. I keep thinking that he could see, and now there’s no more time.” In that week, she had a dream about her father. I was talking to a friend – that at the time she did not know, but that was also fatherless – on the subject, and she said, “So much that we had to solve, right? How do you resolve them? I think only in a dream.”
Her father sat at the piano and did a song. She could clearly hear the words and melody. “I woke up devastated and sent an audio [message] to my friend at the same time. Then I sang the melody for him. I don’t remember the lyrics, but he said that we’ll do this song.”
Both times we met, Xênia said that if she was there talking to me, it was because of her mother. More specifically, because of a teacher who was enchanted with Dalva Estrela, thinking that she had potential and took her to Salvador (Bahia) to study. Dalva just graduated from her second college course, and plans to study for the third. “The glimpse that the professor [she considers her a type of grandmother] gave my mother, my mother passed on to me. No one else in my family had the fascination of living off of art, just me.” Xênia mentions all the time the admiration he has for her mother, and how she is an example of overcoming.
“I have many memories of her when she was little, our visits to the Club da Fábrica where her father worked, her mischief, climbing the trees, and me running after her so she didn’t get hurt. I was always trying to protect her,” says Dalva. Xênia is the only child of a single mother, and the two have created a strong bond, making the impact of the singer’s move São Paulo even more so, and a suffering for Dalva.
Xênia’s parents met at a party, a “kind of a bazaar.” He was a sound technical, but played the guitar and sang. “He was crazy about (singer) Emilio Santiago, which is one of my musical influences because of him,” confesses the singer. The couple separated, and Xênia grew without much proximity to her father, which made his death even more difficult for her. And he may never have seen his daughter sing, but he certainly influenced her artistic side. Her childhood toys were all instruments, from a mini keyboard to a harpa.
Being a black singer, even with a closed mouth, is already militancy in itself. Xênia makes this observation before telling me that she thinks it’s important to position herself in order to break the stereotypes. “I can’t say that I am a militant; I am a figure that contributes to this lack of representation being less.” And she does this not only through her art but also by the way he lives, giving herself the pleasure and “right” to go wherever she pleases, of walking down the street waving a fan on a hot day. “I don’t see myself as a black person, I see myself as a person.”
She believes that, in 2015, we began to get a glimpse of racial democracy. But there is an institutionalized racism that prevents black people from developing in Brazil, keeping blacks underemployed, besides, of course, the most obvious racism in the form of aggression. “I don’t know if it’s because I print a very strong awareness of who I am, this racism doesn’t affect me,” she says, explaining that she knows very well what to say if someone makes the “mistake of assaulting me with this poverty of spirit” but that this doesn’t even happen. “But I can’t think that because my life is good that the life of everyone is okay.”
A few days after the interview, Xênia sends me a text about the solidão da mulher negra (loneliness of the black woman), so I understand better what she was talking about when she said that “black women don’t date, she’s always ficando (kickin’ it).” The topic of black women being passed over in heterosexual, romantic relationships as much by white men as by black men has recently been approached by activists. It’s is a reflection of the stereotype of the black woman as “quente” (hot), that is the object of sexual fantasies but doesn’t “serve” for a serious relationship.
Xênia is 27 years old and had her first boyfriend at 24. Prior to that, she was just kickin’ it. “At the time of ‘let’s see’, the guys don’t want to date. I kept thinking ‘is it because I’m boring, that I’m ugly, is it because I’m black?’ Today I don’t think anything of it, but at that time I had these conflicts.” She met Luke Cirillo, the harmonica player in Aláfia when band was formed in early 2011. They became great friends, but only got together in October – he was already enchanted by her, but Xênia didn’t pay him much attention. “I was a goofball, so I gave up running after her, the story reversed. It was she who framed it,” says Cirillo. Xênia was the one who asked the harmonica player to start dating, and in March they completed four years together.
“We try to limit the time that we talk about the band and the time that will talk about dating,” said Cirillo. The partnership, of course, extends in music, and they help each other when assessing the compositions or opining about the work. “When he showed me ‘Cala’, in the home kitchen, I said ‘this song is the face of Aláfia because there is a type of composition that is for Aláfia,” Xênia told me when we spoke of Corpura.
They demonstrate immense admiration for the other. “We talk about everything, betrayal, jealousy, me being black, he being white,” says Xênia. She praises the fact of Cirillo not being jealous a lot, especially because of her being an expansive person – one of those that kisses, hugs and is friendly with everyone. “It was me who chose him. And it was a great choice.”
After solving many internal conflicts, Xênia’s emotional life is an aspect of which she “has nothing to complain about.” And the feeling seems mutual: “It’s clear to see how enchanting she is wherever she goes, not only because of her beauty but because of her joyful and contagious spirit. She has a momentum, a tenacity, a warrior spirit that is very beautiful to see,” praises Cirillo.
In Corpura release show at the Auditório Ibirapuera, Xenia was inevitably the center of attention, with her long dress with slits up the legs and huge earrings. But at some point, when Brechó and Jairo took care of the vocals, she went to the corner, as if no one was looking, and chatted for a few moments with the harmonica player. The glow she had in her eyes was something that you can’t fake.
Xênia Eric Estrela França got this inspiring name because of the journalist Xênia Bier. “I thought she was amazing and highly intelligent. I think I was right, because I also think my daughter is amazing and highly intelligent,” laughs Dalva, the singer’s mother. Xênia is a name of Greek origin meaning foreign, hospitable. “I don’t know if the meaning is as impactful as the name, because I think my name is very strong. And I think I’m really Xênia. I wouldn’t have another name. I think this is how I feel in the world also, a little foreign. I’m feeling very much that I’m passing through here. I came here to learn, often I’m quite shocked. I can’t understand the reason for things, injustices.”
She tells me that she likes to give advice. I’ve already noticed: her responses, always long and elaborate, often end with some kind of advice (“I think everyone has to do therapy”). But Xênia also likes to learn, from healthy recipes to how to take wine to the cosmos, the subject of which she is the most dedicated. Music she only hears at home if she’s doing some research.
The chic little bakery in Vila Madalena closes, and Xênia sit with me in parklet. A light rain falls. She talks about her great friends, Indira and Samira, who are like sisters; about the magnitude of the planet; about energy. “These days Mateus Aleluia has discovered that a panther in Africa Calling ‘tchênia’. He was on stage saying ‘tchênia’, and I thought it was great, I was feeling like this,” she recalls, laughing. Her colorful clothes are more stylish in her 1.73m (5’8”) tall body. Her voluminous hair remains flawless. Xênia looks you in your eye, grabs your arm, for seldom does it she seem to calculate her words, and often speaks with a spontaneity of one who is sure of herself. Xênia dominates the environment. Like a panther.
Source: Risca Faca