With the world’s attention focussed on the upcoming summer Olympics in Rio, I thought I’d shine a spotlight on a lesser-known Brazilian singer, Clementina de Jesus (1901-1987). She was an unlikely diva: Born south of Rio in Carambita in 1901, she worked as a maid for decades before being discovered in 1963 by a record producer and composer named Herminio Bello de Carvalho. How many singers begin their recording careers at the age of 63?
I thought about Clementina because I heard a song on the radio the other day and remembered her again after many years. It was a song about Clementina by Zé Kéti and Nadinho da Ilha called “Clementina de Jesus,” associated with the Portela samba school:
I first learned about Clementina years ago while she was still alive and performing. She performed up until her death from a stroke in 1986, after 23 years of concerts (mostly samba) and becoming famous and much loved by other samba greats such as Paulinho da Viola, Alcione, Elizete Cardoso, and João Nogueira. Clementina was also loved by regular Brazilians because she grew up poor and cleaned houses for a living. Regular folk and poor people living in the favelas–the hilltop shanty towns above Rio’s famous beaches–could identify with her.
Here she is in 1976 at 75 years of age, surrounded by Paulinho da Viola and other samba greats performing a classic samba by the great Pixinguinha: