Brazil is rich with musical heroes, past as well as present, and Daniela Mercury is one of them, for she was the premier axé performer of the 1990s, with a goddess-like standing in Salvador da Bahia. Mercury, more than anyone, popularized axé internationally. Her breakthrough hit, "Swing da Cor," from her self-titled debut album, was one of the most popular songs in Brazil during 1991, and her follow-up effort, O Canto da Cidade (1993), was a national phenomenon. The first Brazilian album to top a million in sales, O Canto da Cidade continues to sell. Following massive hits such as "Swing da Cor," "O Canto da Cidade," and "Musica de Rua," which established her as perhaps the most popular Brazilian performer of the early '90s — and certainly the most popular Bahian, rivaling only Marisa Monte nationally — Mercury eschewed the synthesizers and other such commercial glitz from her early albums, and she proceeded to record what is generally agreed upon as her masterpiece, Feijão com Arroz (1996). The album is a touchstone achievement for axé, featuring hits penned by renowned songwriters such as Carlinhos Brown ("Rapunzel"), Márcio Mello ("Nobre Vagabundo"), and Chico César ("À Primeira Vista"). In subsequent years, Mercury began experimenting with various inflections of axé, drifting for a while deep into electronica, and her fan base dwindled accordingly — except in Bahia, that is, where she remained infallible. After some years in the commercial hinterlands, Mercury staged a grand comeback with Balé Mulato (2005), a remarkable return to form that echoed the greatness of Feijão com Arroz.
Born Daniela Mercuri de Almeida Verçosa on July 28, 1965, in Salvador, Bahia, she grew up in a middle-class family in the Brotas neighborhood. Her father, Antônio Fernando de Abreu Ferreira de Almeida, is of Portuguese descent and immigrated to Brazil as a child, whereas her mother, Liliana Mercuri, is of Italian descent. She has four siblings: Tom, Cristiana, Vania (also a successful singer, billed as Vania Abreu), and Marcos. Daniela began to study dance at age eight. Inspired by Elis Regina, she decided to take up singing, too. Her repertoire consisted of bossa nova as well as the music of Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Chico Buarque. To the unease of her parents, she began singing in local bars, beginning in 1980. She made her trio elétrico debut soon afterward, during Carnaval da Bahia 1981. Mercury's zeal for dance eventually led her to the Federal University of Bahia, where she enrolled in the school's dance program in 1984. A year later she became a mother, giving birth to Gabriel Almeida Póvoas, and a year after that, she welcomed into the world another child, Giovana Almeida Póvoas. Mercury continued to pursue a career in music nevertheless, and at one point during the late '80s, she sang backup vocals for Gilberto Gil. In 1989, she formed a pop band, Companhia Clic. Besides Mercury, the bandmembers included Rudnei Monteiro (guitar), Raul Carlos Gomes (drums), Jonga Cunha (percussion), Marcus Sampaio (bass), and Sérgio Henrique (keyboards). Companhia Clic recorded two self-titled albums for Eldorado Records before Mercury went solo, recording Daniela (1991) for the same label and attaining her first taste of success.
Fusing together primarily samba, reggae, and pop/rock, Daniela is a logical extension of the Companhia Clic recordings. It's a relatively bland album, marred by outdated synthesizers, yet it does boast "Swing da Cor," her first bona fide national hit. Other noteworthy songs on Daniela are "Todo Canto Alegre," written by Carlinhos Brown, himself a future superstar, and also "Geléia Geral," written and originally performed by Gilberto Gil during his formative years. The success of "Swing da Cor," which was among the most popular Brazilian songs of 1991, opened many doors for Mercury, among them those of Sony, which promptly signed her to a major-label recording contract. Her debut for Sony, O Canto da Cidade (1992), produced by Liminha, was an impressive leap forward artistically from her previous album. A celebration of Salvador, O Canto da Cidade became a sensation, propelled by its chart-topping title track. Not only was O Canto da Cidade the first Brazilian album to top a million in sales, but it remains her best-selling album to date, with millions of copies sold — and it continues to sell today.
Amid all of the fanfare surrounding the milestone success of O Canto da Cidade, Mercury kept pushing her career forward. She toured extensively in 1993, playing her first international show, at the Ritz in New York City, that April. She also went about recording a follow-up album, Musica de Rua (1994), again produced by Liminha. A video for the title track, recorded in a Portuguese as well as a Spanish version, was filmed in New York City. Mercury wrote about half of the album's songs herself, and Brown notably shows up again as a songwriter, with "Folia de Rei." One of the songs, "Sempre Te Quis," a ballad written by Herbert Vianna, became a telenovela theme. Overall, Musica de Rua was yet another step forward artistically for Mercury, even if it didn't sell as well as O Canto da Cidade, and with her next album, Feijão com Arroz (1996), she continued her strides of improvement, to the point of masterpiece.
For Feijão com Arroz, her most ambitious album yet, clocking in at 16 songs, she turned to the leading MPB songwriters of the day (as well as some old ones, namely the duo of Antônio Carlos e Jocafi), including not only Brown, who turns in two songs here, but also Chico César, who penned "A Primeira Vista." This song in particular stands out on this album of many highlights. Chosen as the theme of the telenovela O Rei do Gado, "À Primeira Vista" became a towering hit, lodging itself at number one on the singles chart for weeks on end. Brown's "Rapunzel" was another big hit, its popularity extending all the way to Europe. "Vestido de Chita" includes a cute guest vocal from her daughter, and "Minas com Bahia" is notable, too, as it features Samuel Rosa, the lead vocalist of the popular band Skank; the two sing a song of unity, with Rosa representing the state of Minas Gerais while Mercury reps Bahia. Indeed, the album's title, Feijão com Arroz (Beans and Rice), alludes to this theme of unity, particularly racial (i.e., black and white), and this theme is illustrated with the album's stark cover images. Produced by Alfredo Moura, Feijão com Arroz is a clear departure from her previous albums. Above all, there's far less commercial gloss, from the aforementioned cover images, which are serious whereas her past ones had been glitzy, to the absence of synthesizers and other pop/rock flourishes, with an emphasis instead on dense samba rhythms. Sales of Feijão com Arroz were impressive, an improvement over those of Musica de Rua, for sure, and almost on a par with those of O Canto da Cidade; in fact, with the album now considered a masterpiece by most, it sells at such a pace that it will likely become her best-selling album in the long run.
Mercury embarked on an international tour in support of Feijão com Arroz, performing in both Europe and the United States. Thanks in part to the critical acclaim for the album, she was warmly received most everywhere she went, especially in Portugal and France, where her recent singles had charted. Her shows no doubt impressed audiences unfamiliar with axé, as the emphasis of the concerts is as much on the "show" as it is on the music itself. Mercury is known well for her ability to dance almost constantly while singing, not so much as stopping to catch her breath or take a drink of water. Her energy level is incredible and often remarked upon. Moreover, she's classy. Granted, she often dresses scantily and is beautiful as well as sexy; however, she intends no titillation, never flaunting herself, and presents herself as a strong woman thrilled to be on-stage singing and dancing for an audience. Recorded in Salvador in August 1998, Elétrica (1999) showcases one such performance. Beginning with the title track, one of seven new songs on the album, Mercury blazes through her hits, beginning with "Swing da Cor" and "O Canto da Cidade," and as she had on Feijão com Arroz, she does away with the synthesizer gloss of her early albums in favor of heavier percussion (one drummer and three percussionists). A few frenetic medleys show up toward the end of the performance, which closes with fierce renditions of Brown's "Rapunzel" and Gil's "Toda Menina Baiana."
Sol da Liberdade (2000) marked a new direction for Mercury. Helmed by a variety of producers — Andres Levin, Will Mowat, Juan Vincente Zambrano, and most curiously Emilio Estefan, Jr., as well as Mercury herself — Sol da Liberdade is more stylistically experimental than her past albums. The intention seems to be that the album should have a little bit of something for everyone, and indeed, even though the core style is axé, it's inflected in a number of fashions, especially in terms of beat-driven electronic music. Sol da Liberdade is no masterpiece, but it's certainly interesting to contemplate and is a lot of fun to explore. "Ilê Pérola Negra," one of the two Estefan productions, was among Mercury's biggest hits to date. Other highlights include "Groove de la Baiana," a popular song during Carnaval da Bahia 2001, and "Axé Axé," one of two songs written by Caetano Veloso. Sou de Qualquer Lugar (2001) continued Mercury's drift toward electronic music — and thus away from the relative earthiness of Feijão com Arroz. Again, she employs a stable of producers — Ramiro Musotto, Celso Fonseca, Marcelo Sussekind, and Cesário Leony, in addition to herself — and pushes axé into new territory. In doing so, she was graced with songs by Lenine ("De Qualquer Lugar"), Brown ("Baiana Havaneira"), Márcio Mello ("Beat Lamento"), and Gil ("Quem Puder Ser Bom Que Seja"); she covers songs by Chico Science ("A Praieira") and Rita Lee ("Mutante"); and sings a few songs written by herself ("Aeromoça," "Ata-Me," "Nina"). Critics weren't too impressed, and her fan base evidently wasn't either. Consequently, Sou de Qualquer Lugar sold poorly; in fact, it was her least-selling new album to date, not counting her non major-label debut.
Mercury continued to struggle commercially in the years that followed, as her fan base seemed increasingly indifferent to her ever-changing styles. Eletrodoméstico (2003) seems promising enough in concept: stage a high-profile, star-studded concert for MTV, including new songs, old favorites, covers, and guest collaborations. Filmed at Castro Alves Theater in Salvador, the CD/DVD features guest appearances by Italian rapper Jovanotti ("Ive Brussel"), Brown ("To Remember"), flamenco-pop singer Rosario Flores ("Riqueza"), Portuguese singer Dulce Pontes ("Milagre do Povo"), and the band Olodum ("Umbigo do Mundo"). Moreover, Lenine wrote the title track, and some of the covers are well known: Veloso's "Baby" and Lenny Kravitz's "It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over." The sum of all this didn't equate to a successful album, unfortunately. If anything, Eletrodoméstico was a disappointment on all counts. The same could be said of Carnaval Eletrônico (2004), another collaborative album. Comprised of Brazilian electronica, it was overlooked by most non-Bahian consumers. On the other hand, though, the album opener, "Maimbê Dandá," yet another Brown song, was a big hit in Bahia, especially at Carnaval da Bahia 2004. Also overlooked was Clássica (2005), a live CD/DVD recording that features Mercury covering MPB standards.
To the delight of longtime fans, Balé Mulato (2005), marketed in partnership with EMI in Brazil, for Mercury and Sony had previously parted ways, was her grand return to form. An axé album though and through, without any digressions or experimentation whatsoever, the sure-fire Balé Mulato harks backs to Feijão com Arroz. From the packaging, which boasts a photograph of Mercury looking defiant at the Beija Flor de Nilópolis samba school in Rio de Janeiro's Baixada Fluminense district, to the music itself, Balé Mulato is wholeheartedly Bahian and Carnaval-esque. There is no electronica nor any international crossover intentions; rather, it's an album intended to rally the base. "Topo do Mundo" and "Levada Brasileira," the album's opening tracks, were arguably her best work since "Ilê Pérola Negra," from Sol da Liberdade, if not her best since Feijão com Arroz itself. Also impressive, "Olha o Gandhi Aí" enjoyed a rapturous reception at Carnaval da Bahia 2005. "Pensar em Você," a show-stopping ballad by Chico César, seems intended to revisit the majesty of "À Primeira Vista," from Feijão com Arroz, which he'd written a decade earlier. Furthermore, Mercury is graced with a standout song by another renowned songwriter from her past, Márcio Mello, who contributes "Toneladas de Amor," and there are bold reinterpretations of Brazilian favorites by Toquinho e Vinicius ("Meu Pai Oxalá") and Ary Barroso ("Aquarela do Brasil").
The acclaim showered upon Balé Mulato revived interest in Mercury, who had been written off by some as a has-been, and she reveled in the limelight. To kick off the album's release, she presented a gala performance at Carnaval da Bahia 2005 and filmed it. The resulting release, Baile Barroco (2006), was billed as the first DVD recorded exclusively on a trio elétrico. The performance itself was a celebration of 20 years of axé music, including numerous guest appearances, and in a duet with Luiz Caldas, Mercury celebrated this anniversary with "Fricote," the 1985 song of his that is cited by some as the first axé song. In the wake of Carnaval, she put together a traveling stage show and embarked upon a long international tour. A performance from the tour was released on CD and DVD as Balé Mulato ao Vivo (2006). This series of events and releases in support of Balé Mulato constituted a triumphant comeback for Mercury. Granted, she'd remained adored in her native Bahia, even during her rocky stretch that began in 2001 with the commercial disappointment of Sou de Qualquer Lugar, but beyond the nucleus of Salvador, her popularity had dissipated as she abandoned the style of music that had brought her so much success in the 1990s. Hence the rising chorus of critics looking back at Feijão com Arroz as her touchstone accomplishment. And so Balé Mulato revived hopes for further music from Mercury, and the uptick in album and ticket sales reflected this. ~ Jason Birchmeier