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istening to the album I can hear what sounds like Jamaican ska, vintage calypso, rhythm and blues and soul. Was she aware of these styles, or is this by

chance? “Listening to the radio was one of my biggest influences. Especially in the 1950s and ’60s. I heard all the great Brazil- ian singers of the time such as Angela Maria. I would listen to cha-cha-cha, calyp- so; I’d hear big orchestras. All of this has influenced the way that I write music. There’s a very fine line when I write, that a song could go to an old-style samba or to another rhythm we have called pagode. So I’m always diversifying. But it’s an unconscious thing.”

Dona came to music late in life. “When I was twelve I used to sing a lot. But then I moved to Igarapé-Miri, a small town in the countryside of the Amazon and there I started to think about the path I wanted to take in my life. I decided to become a teach- er of children eleven to seventeen years old. I became a historian as well. Going deep into research about the Amazon culture. This is one of the things that has influenced what I do at the moment.”

She became a union activist, helping to found workers’ associations in her native province and was a part of the CUT, one of the biggest unions in Brazil. “I believe that my political activism helped to shape what I am right now. Because when I was very active in the union, it helped to shape the way I deal with the public. The way to think fast and contest things. This shaped my music, my artistic side. When you have that political side, you are kind of more prepared to be active in the culture as well. And this was very important for me. So, when I talk about the African influ- ences I also talk about how the African people in Brazil were slaves and how they had to fight against this. I always try to bring this political side to what I do. I like to fight against the consensus. I wrote a song for the LGBT community which is one of the things that I’m most proud of. Because I believe that you have to speak out about these things”

It was only when she retired, aged 62, that she decided to focus on her musical career. “At the time, I was the Secretary of Culture in my home town. I’d always been involved in some sort of cultural movement. Before I retired, I was part of a local folk group and started writing songs. I was an amateur on the artistic side.”

Dona was living in Igarapé-Miri, but on her retirement, she moved to Pará’s capital Belém. “I was relaxing there and went to see a group playing the local folk style carimbó. I got up and sang one song with them and they seemed to like it. They had a recording session and invited me into the studio to sing on two songs with them. They became very popular in the city.” At the same time, there was a move to invite local artists from Belém to perform in São Paulo. Which was how Dona got discovered by the wider com- munity outside of the Amazon region.

The bigtime beckoned. Dona got to open for the late Naná Vasconcelos (about as huge as they get on the Brazilian music scene, before his death last year), producer Marco André witnessed this and invited her into the studio to record her own album. “The idea wasn’t to make an album for the

local public in Belém,” Dona explains. “But rather to make something more national. Something to introduce me to a wider, more diverse audience using the local rhythms of Pará, but played by well-known musicians from outside the region and mixed with other influences. Whereas the latest album has got much more of a local feel.”

She’s still very active on the live scene in Brazil. “I play at least nine concerts a month. I play a lot in the countryside of the Amazon, where I can attract an audience of at least 60,000.” A cultural icon within her commu- nity, as well as an ambassador for it then? “I believe that in some way I am. I think that the people trust me to represent them.”

The song No Meio Do Pitiú on the new album, talks about the smell of the Amazon fish which hangs heavy in the air of the street market in Belém. “It’s a very symbolic smell. No-one likes it, people think the smell of the fish is horrible. But when I sang about it and it became popular, people started to think ‘This is good, this is part of our cul- ture’. So, in some ways, I like to point out things that are part of our culture and say that we have to recognise and embrace them. And this helps me to be an Amazoni- an representative.”

Globally, but especially in Latin and South American countries, you find these musical mamas, women singers with big voices and colourful forthright personali- ties. “I don’t know if I have that kind of role. It isn’t something that I’ve ever cho- sen to take on. But I could never give up in speaking out about the political and social wrongs. So, for example I am now a part of the movement that supports indige- nous tribes who are losing their land, especially in the countryside of Pará. I’m helping the communities that are oppos- ing the building of a big hydroelectric dam. I’m organising concerts for their cause. I believe that, because of my politi- cal position and because I am now even more respected by people with power, by the private sponsors, I should use this to defend these people. If I’ve got a chance to help the Amazonian communities, if I can use music to do this, I want to do this! I cannot just sing and close my eyes to the people’s plight.”


hen I was a teach- er, back in the 1990s, I undertook a course on civil defence and this

changed my life. It was where I learnt that, if you have catastrophes in your area how you can help people. How you can organise and fight if someone is treated unjustly or is under threat. The government paid for this course because I was a civil servant. But then I became much more of a political activist. I understood the problems of the politicians and those with power and decid- ed to use what I had learnt to defend the people. I wasn’t the same person after I fin- ished that course. Which wasn’t good for the government, but was good for every- one else. I really believe that if I wasn’t aware of my culture, if I wasn’t prepared to talk about it and campaign for it, the plight of the Amazonian peoples would probably not be as well known in the rest of Brazil.”

At this point, Dona is ushered away to get ready for her performance. A little while later, bang on 8.30, I’m standing on the venue’s wooden dancefloor watching the band hit the cramped stage. Dona’s carried on to centre stage in her chair, surrounded by her five musicians: guitarist and musical director Pio Lobato, Grandpa on drums, per- cussionist JP Cavalcante, Breno Oliveira on bass and saxman Daniel Serrão. Out in the crowd, Portuguese is definitely the first lan- guage and the people are itching to dance.

Good though the album is, it didn’t quite prepare me for the pure joy and fren- zy of Dona’s live show. The band swing and steam like nobody’s business (the sax could bar-walk in a zoot-suit), while Dona growls Amazon jungle soul. Within minutes their folkloric tropical funk has got the dance- floor heaving, mostly with graceful Brazilians (I was, as ever, the token ungainly Anglo). The pace and passion don’t let up for the next hour and three quarters. At the end, her bandmates support Dona out of her chair for a well-earned standing ovation. She may be small, she may be old, but I reck- on Dona Onete could take on all-comers.

With thanks to Vanessa Gabriel- Robinson for interpretation. F

Photo: © Judith Burrows

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