When children of famous parents succeed, they’re not infrequently suspected of taking shortcuts or gaining special favors. To Maria Rita, it seemed at times that the opposite was true.
“People got really aggressive when I started to sing professionally,” says Rita, who’ll perform on Valentine’s night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, speaking by phone from a Chicago tour stop. “It wasn’t the majority of the people, but that was the feeling that was there — ‘Who does she think she is?’”
The quick answer is that the Brazilian singer is a multiple Latin Grammy Award-winning artist who caresses songs with playful intelligence and an unhurried, blues-infused soprano. She also happens to be the daughter of pianist-composer César Camargo Mariano and Elis Regina, the beloved chanteuse whose death at age 36 in 1982 deprived Brazil of a pop idol and the then-4-year-old Maria of her mother.
Regarded by many as Brazil’s greatest female singer of the post-World War II era, Regina was part of the hothouse eruption of Brazilian popular music that occurred in the 1960s and ‘70s. During that period, songwriters and musicians such as Antônio “Tom” Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, Vinícius de Moraes and somewhat later Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento, re-imagined and internationalized Brazilian music, fusing it with American jazz and soul, British rock and Afro-pop.
For decades after she’d started performing herself, Rita adamantly resisted recording her own versions of the classic tunes her mother had helped make famous. “I didn’t think I was ready,” she explains. “I didn’t feel like it was the honest thing to do professionally in regard to my mother’s legacy.” Also, if she followed too closely in her mother’s steps, she feared, some critics would slam her as an opportunist.
Over the last dozen years, Rita has charted her own artistic journey, starting with her eponymous debut release that won the 2004 Latin Grammy for MPB (musica popular Brasileira) album and earned her a Latin Grammy as best new artist. The record also won Nascimento a Latin Grammy songwriting award for his contribution, the irresistibly catchy single “A Festa” (The Party), sparklingly sung by Rita.
In developing her own style, Rita drew not only on Brazilian popular music but also on influences from her youth: Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday. She gained further critical respect with her 2008 release “Samba Meu,” an intimate reckoning with the most quintessentially Brazilian of musical genres.
Rita likes to say that although she wasn’t born into samba, because she’s not from the favelas, the giant shantytowns surrounding Brazil’s largest cities, “samba was born in me.”
“People live samba as their lifestyle,” she explains. “I think you could relate that to hip-hop: People have a certain way of living or talking or dressing, and that’s how it is. Above all, samba is pretty much a life savior for people that suffer all the social inequalities and the corruption and all the work we have to put into living just on a daily basis.”
In 2012, three decades after her mother’s passing, Rita, now 36, decided she finally was ready to engage with the songs that her mother helped turn into pop standards, such as "Águas de Março” and “Se Eu Quiser Falar Com Deus,” and imbue them with her own sensibility. That culminated in her 2012 collection “Redescobrir,” Portuguese for “to rediscover.”
The public response was highly positive and, for Rita, highly emotional. When she started performing those songs in concert, to audiences of tens of thousands, the crowds often sang along. “People got it,” she says, “that I was being a daughter just singing for her mom, just trying to do something that could add to that name, to that woman, to that history, to that artist, and nothing else other than that.”
Rita hadn’t necessarily counted on becoming a professional musician. (She has two brothers in the music business.) But starting around age 10 or 11, when she would sing aloud for pleasure, she noticed that some adults would react strongly. “They miss my mom,” Rita would think, “and they’re looking to me to be her.”
“It was a very confusing time,” Rita says, “as any adolescence should be, right?”
Deciding that she needed a Plan B, she moved to the United States to attend New York University. While in school she held numerous side jobs and got her degree. But her money was beginning to run out, and the traumatic events of Sept. 11 further convinced her it was time to return home, where her composer father helped persuade her to pursue music.
Rita is dedicating Friday’s concert to the memory of her friend and sometimes collaborator Oscar Castro-Neves, the virtuosic bossa-nova guitarist, composer and film orchestrator, who died last September in Los Angeles. Originally, she and he were scheduled to appear together on the bill.
Rita describes him as a warm and gentlemanly figure, “like very, very old-school in a good way. Very calm, very serene, very funny.” She’ll perform part of the show with her piano accompanist, Tiago Costa, and be joined on other numbers by Castro-Neves’ regular trio of percussionist Alex Acuña, pianist Don Grusin and bass player Brian Bromberg.
In an industry where marketers buzz about Latin artists’ “crossover” potential, Rita still gets asked whether she’s thinking of doing an English-language recording. Until now, she has resisted.
“Maybe it just wasn’t the right time,” she says. “But I think I’m getting there. I think this may be a good time now.”