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Brazil's Maria Rita Rediscovers Her Mother Through Music

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Despite being one of Brazil's most successful singers, with seven Latin Grammys to her name, it took Maria Rita years to realize that music was her calling. "I just rebelled against that whole idea of doing something that people wanted me to do," Rita tells Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More.

That rebellion stemmed from being the daughter of Brazilian pop legend Elis Regina, who died in 1982. "People would come up to me very emotionally and say 'You have to sing,'" she remembers. "They made such a big deal out of it... and it always made me angry because it felt like they wanted me to fulfill a hole that they felt after my mom's passing."

Rita moved to the United States as a teenager, and ended up attending New York University. In a country where Elis Regina's name isn't quite as known as it is in Brazil, Rita learned to love her mother's music. "It was easier," she says. "There [weren't] people coming up to me and talking about her, and crying because they miss her."

But, as she learned to cope with the past, Rita started to realize that music was her future. "It was my soul and was my truth talking," she says. After graduating, she started singing professionally in Brazil and released her first album, Maria Rita, in 2003.

As she rose to stardom, Rita was determined to become an artist in her own right. Despite numerous requests, she refused to cover her mother's songs for nearly a decade. "I would be so, so upset whenever a TV show would put it as a condition, you know 'You can only come here if you do your mom's music,'" she recalls. "I'd be like 'Well, so I won't be going there, thank you very much.'"

By 2012, Rita was ready to pay tribute. She performed a handful of her mother's songs before an ecstatic audience in Rio de Janeiro. That performance became Rita's 2013 album, Redescobrir ("Rediscover").

"It was such a wonderful thing," Rita said, "to be up on stage as a daughter, and not solely as a singer, and see the reaction in people's faces... It touches me just by talking about it."

Interview Highlights

On her mother's legacy

I didn't listen to my mom as I was growing up because it was too painful, as it still is somewhat. I mean, you have to understand that this woman was not only the greatest singer ever in Brazil. She was also beautiful, smart, intelligent. She was really involved in all kinds of social and political issues. She was just a pioneer. She was ahead of her time. And, she would read a lot. She was just so mind-boggling.

And people were so in love with her — whoever from, you know, I'm talking about the audience, I'm talking about the people who worked with her. I've met up with a bunch of musicians who played for her, at one point or another, you know, early in the conversation or later in the conversation, they would just look at me and it's like "You know, I have something to tell you." And I was like "Okay, go ahead," and they would say "I was completely in love with her!" I've heard that way too many times, because that's the kind of woman that she was...She would light up the room.

On music as a language

The kind of music that I do, the kind of music that I like to present to people, is one which they can relate to. On a deeper level, you know? Don't just shake your head and snap your fingers every now and again. ... I find that it's very seductive in a way, you know? To have someone listen to your music whether in Portuguese, or English, or in Spanish...and just be like 'Oh, I'm so glad that someone gets me. I'm so glad that someone put that into music and put that into words." Because oftentimes, we feel something. We don't really understand what it is, we don't really have the words to explain it, but it's right there in the song.

On her mother's death

Having lost my mom when I was four years old, I don't really know what it's like to have a mother. So I miss something that I don't have, you see? So it's this constant — I don't search for her, that's not the thing — but like, I feel like there's this little hole in my heart, and it's forever gonna be there. Because there's nothing that I can do.So, I do therapy. I have no issues telling people that I'm in therapy. I've done therapy for the past 10 years. This whole pain, so to speak, I can deal with it now. So now it's easier for me to watch her and to listen to her.

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