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On Mart'nalia So Deus E Quem Sabe

By Kalamu ya Salaam

There is no accounting for personal taste; what we like and why we like what we like.

Sure we can talk about the music that was happening in our youth, what song was playing when first we fell so deeply in love that we never wanted to climb out.

Perhaps, the first time it squarely hits us that not only are we human but so are the others on the planet and that the task of life is to embrace and improve our humanity; or, even that fateful day when we realized our life was not so much about us per se, but about how we were related to others and how others were entwined not only with us but within us, our beings inextricably not only joined but indeed, at the most profound level, our very being was defined by our proximities, connections and disconnections to others.

Music is like that.

I was in
Rio once, visiting there. Earlier in the week I had been in Salvador, Bahia, now I was in Brazil’s most famous city, in a hotel and running into composer/singer and samba icon Martinho da Vila whom I had first met in Bahia.

He couldn’t speak English and I could barely say thank you (obbrigato) in Portuguese. Marthino got someone to translate his invitation to Vila Isabel for a samba practice late that week night. The translator assured me that Marthino’s daughter would be there and she could speak English and please come, please, brother, come and see us, even though Marthino would not be there, please. Come.

I did and I will never ever forget getting dropped off not at a building or a specific address but in the middle of a street (Vila Isabel was a neighborhood) and the street filling up with people, over a hundred drummers, old, young, the lame and toddlers barely walking, wise old women whom everyone listened to and soft-eyed old men who held their heads high as they led drum choruses.

And the dances, the scissoring of the legs, the fleet-footed steps that were often no more than a blur to my myopic eyes. And finally, the half sheets of mimeographed paper with printed lyrics for the songs everyone was learning to shout. My heart opened so wide a doctor could have performed surgery on me without having to do anymore than move my shirt aside.

What were these lyrics? How could it be that the rump shaking, nearly naked women of Rio’s famed carnival were actually singing about political struggle, about racial pride, about community issues? How could this be? Wasn’t this samba stuff just a South America variation on butt-shaking? How could this be? Mathino’s daughter’s eyes shined as she softly intoned the translation into my ear. Right then and there, I guess, is when I fully feel this certain sound; a woman’s voice, full like a heavy calabash when you thump its bottom, a certain roundness to it.
So what is this sound I am going so gaga over? Mart’nalia has that sound. From the group samba of “Chega” to the intimate memory of “Sao Sebastiao,” Mart’nalia gives us beautifully rendered songs that express the fullness of our humanity in strikingly simple but profoundly deep musical terms. Listen to her blow like a saxophone as she gently explores the contours of "Só Deus É Quem Sabe" from
Menino Do Rio, her most recent release.

Technically, her voice is limited in range and in some spots one might even say a little weak in terms of intonation and pitch, but in terms of expressiveness she is glorious. Mart’nalia has the sound of an open hand offering up everything one has, holding back nothing, all with the intimacy of a lover’s whisper in one’s ear.

I don’t speak Portuguese, so I can’t translate this for you. I know the words are important, are saying something relevant, but it is not the cognitive content I am mostly responding to. No, it is this wonderful sound. I taste it with a smile.

Turns out I met Mart’nalia’s older sister.  Mart’nalia was probably a baby when I was in
Rio back in the mid-Eighties. Now she is a grown woman, singing with that self-assured naturalness that enables one octave to expertly express the widest ranges of feelings. 


Samba on the street of Salvador de Bahia

For this woman samba is religion, a way of life that embraces every nuance of her existence and tells all with a lyrical melancholy that simultaneously laughs and cries.

Mart’nalia has five albums over a nine-year period, the cuts featured here are from her last three albums. From these selections it is obvious how bossa nova emerged out of samba, except instead of light and airy, this is the samba song of down-to-earth people, grounded in a sort of South American blues leavened and buoyed by an enjoyment of life that is endemic to Black folk everywhere and in all eras. Even under slavery we knew happiness, not happiness about our conditions, but happiness that we were alive and struggling to get better.

Mart’nalia also is a percussionist of the first rank and, of course, a samba dancer. She never sounds forced or even like she is trying to display her talents, her techniques. Her singing sounds natural, like breathing.
She is proudly conscious of who she is and what samba is. During a time period when hip-hop is everywhere, this young lady decides to extend the traditional samba.

There is a politics about people enjoying themselves and one another regardless of the circumstances, this politics is the resistance inherent in a (ex)slave’s freely given kiss, this philosophy is best expressed in a soft song. Sing Mart’nalia, my sister. Your song kisses me.


 With thanks to www.kalamu.com/bol where this piece was originally posted.

 Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop. 


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