Beyond bossa nova: Tuning into the sound of Bahia with Brazilian artist Xênia França

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It’s undeniable. Brazil is where the music’s at in Latin America right now. President Bolsonaro and his boys are out and the indigenous, LGBTQ+ and Afro-Brazilian cultures he tried to repress have reemerged with a stronger, more vibrant voice. Sure enough, South America’s largest country is undergoing a cultural renaissance. 

You can hear it everywhere, especially in the music. There’s a new positive energy to the country’s countless carnivals and fabulous festas. There’s wonderful live music every night: from the backroom bars of Belém to the samba clubs of Rio, the beaches of Bahia to the concert halls of São Paulo. There are dozens of fabulous new recording artists, too, most of them independent and producing thoughtful, poetic, deeply intelligent music.

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She is elemental: rooted in the spiritual traditions of her native Bahia

No one embodies the spirit of this new Brazilian music scene more than Xênia França. Her name – pronounced Shay-Nee-Ah, sounds like the whisper of wind in the palms. She is elemental: rooted in the soil, the rhythms and the spiritual traditions of her native Bahia – Brazil’s African heart – while also being resolutely modern and globally engaged. 

Her music is as lyrically sharp and sophisticated as Esperanza Spalding, and her image as carefully crafted and coolly intelligent as Erykah Badu’s. But Xênia is as resolutely Afro-Brazilian as sultry samba and beachside capoeira.

“When I was a little girl living in the outskirts of Salvador,” she tells me, “black Brazilian women were the lowest in our society: we were either sexual objects or we simply didn’t exist. I dreamt of changing this. I remember sitting at home and visualizing a future, claiming it as mine. I would be an important artist, travel the world and transform this idea people had of black women like me and show them the true face of Brazil.”

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I met her in 2009 when she was scraping a living singing in clubs

When Xênia was 16, she left her small town of Camaçari with a small bag and small change and traveled 2,000 kilometres south to the mighty metropolis of São Paulo, the largest city in the Americas. 

She followed in the footsteps of tens of thousands of other northeastern Brazilians who make the journey every year in search of the yellow brick road and a better life. I met her in 2009 when she was scraping a living singing in clubs by night and working as a fashion model by day. I photographed her for an advertising campaign for the great Brazilian artist, Nido Campolongo, and was struck by her honesty, intelligence and complete lack of vanity. 

She didn’t want to trade on her looks. Modelling, she told me, was a job to pay the bills. She was an artist, a musician. I saw her play live in the Itaim bairro of São Paulo and we became friends. Then I moved back to the UK. By the time I next saw her, Xênia was famous. And there was still no vanity. Xênia was as open, honest and intellectually engaged as ever.

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She was inspired by the sacred Afro-Brazilian deity, Oxum

“Back then when we met and when my career was beginning, I had this fear of focusing my work on image and distracting the public from my art,” she reflects, “because of the stereotypes of black women that exist in Brazil, because of ideas that beautiful people are not intelligent. I wanted to be seen as I truly am, rather than as an object.”

But modelling had taught Xênia the power of image. She learnt to take control of it and use it alongside her growing musical artistry. Honed in live music venues, like Bar do Julinho (which remains her favourite in São Paulo), she’s created an icon of herself – sensuous rather than sensual, powerful rather than passive, urbane and stylish yet rooted in Brazilian tradition. In this, she was inspired by the sacred Afro-Brazilian deity, Oxum.

“People say that Oxum is the goddess of love,” Xênia laughs, “and she is a divinity, in the African tradition – an orixá. In connecting with Oxum, I found true feminine power. A living symbol that could change the negative projections of women like me to positive, powerful images. A way to manifest an archetype instead of a stereotype.”

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The record brought her nominations at the Latin Grammys

Through her shows and her online profile, Xênia built a loyal following in São Paulo, which led to the release of her first album, Xênia, in 2017. 

Launched independently, it exploded onto the Brazilian music scene – something completely fresh and new. The lyrics were urgent, profound, political and poetic. The music was written entirely by Xênia and her band. 

The record brought her nominations for ‘Best Contemporary Pop Album’ at the 2018 Latin Grammys. The breakout single, Pra Que Me Chamas, was nominated for ‘Best Song’. The accompanying video was extraordinary, a kind of musical manifesto: images of white dolls burn like torches, then Xênia appears from the darkness dressed like an African queen, incanting the names of Afro-Brazilian deities.

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Her second album fused electronica, samba funk and soul

“Who stops the wound from the Third World?” she sings, from a candlelit bath, looking as untouchably regal as Cleopatra. “People open their mouths, without being from a place, to define its standard of beauty…” she sings on.

Her second album, Em Nome da Estrela, was released last summer. Fusing electronica, samba funk and soul, it was also gentler. 

Written over lockdown, it came from a period of deep reflection which saw Xênia working hard on herself during a time when Brazil was suffering from Covid and a deep political divide.

She spent time on one of the islands off Paraty, which she describes as a dream, soaking up the energy from the wild ocean and rainforest-swathed mountains. With Em Nome da Estrela, Xênia was determined not to join the clamour of negative voices which swirled around her and dominated the internet in the run-up to the Brazilian elections. Her new album would be irresistibly positive, joyful, a call to personal growth and compassionate unity.

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She’s an artist reclaiming the image of black Brazilian women

“Over lockdown I resolved to be the best I could as a person, in myself, in my music, in what I say, in how I relate to others. Music has the power of a spell,” she reflects, “I wanted to pass this positive energy through my new songs.”

For Xênia, musicians have a responsibility, not just to their fans, but to the world. “I learnt from Nina Simone,” she tells me, “that every true artist has a duty to reflect the spirit of their time. I am manifesting the spirit of my time. It is a unique time in Brazilian history when an artist of colour has the power to define themselves – really to be seen and heard, really to show who they are.”

Xênia is an artist with a mission. “I am reclaiming the image of black Brazilian women, re-inventing it and re-expressing it, showing the intelligence, dignity and power of ‘woman’ as subject rather than object. This is Oxum”. 

Whoever she’s channeling, there’s no doubt that Xênia is leading the way with her fierce but gentle intelligence. She’s the spirit of our time – and her spell is working. 

Inspired? Follow the sounds of Xênia and experience Brazil for yourself on a group solo adventure with Flash Pack

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveler like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: courtesy of Gleeson Paulino, Joshua Best, Tomas Arthuzzi, Caroline Lima and Filipa Aurelio

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