It was with tremendous excitement that the Program in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, in collaboration with the University Musical Society, brought Brazilian dancer, singer, composer, producer and performer Daniela Mercury to the International Institute for a master class/interview on April 11.

    Ms. Mercury described how she began her career during Bahian carnival, and discussed her work as UNICEF ambassador for children, working especially in campaigns against sexual abuse. The highlight of the event came toward the end, when Ms. Mercury used her musicians and dancers to help her demonstrate her explanation of the origins and characteristics of the rhythms and choreography that are featured in her performances.

    Like many other Brazilian musicians, Ms. Mercury started her professional career as a teenager, in her case at the age of 15, singing classic Bossa Nova hits in bars around the city of Salvador, Bahia. It is generally recognized that Brazil has far more than its fair share of creative and talented performing artists (and I might add that within Brazil, Ms. Mercury‘s home state of Bahia has produced a sizeable proportion of these artists). Yet even in this milieu, Daniela Mercury can be described as nothing less than an extraordinary musical talent. This becomes clear when one attends her carnival shows.

    When asked about the excitement of singing for millions of revelers atop a trio eletrico, the elaborate floats mounted on flatbed trucks that are characteristic of Bahian carnival, her answer was simple: “it is impossible to describe the feeling. It is a powerful thing. It‘s even a little scary. Now, after so many years, it‘s gotten easier. When I started out, the first time, the fact that I had to memorize more than 100 different songs and sing for nearly six solid hours on top of the trio—and do this in a way that made the enormous crowd continue to like what they were seeing, and to maintain the level of excitement was not easy. And you do everything more or less by intuition, because it depends on how you are feeling the chemistry with the people dancing in the street. So sometimes you have to sing the same song over and over, or you have to change the order of your repertoire, etc. But in the end, it is a festival of joy and positive energy. Carnival is an explosion of joy!”

    Her success in Bahian carnival quickly propelled Daniela Mercury to national fame. Her national career began with the instant success of her first album in 1991, Swing da Cor—Swing of Color, a reference that places her music within the rich Afro-Bahian musical tradition. In fact, she is often credited for having created the enormous boom in Axé Music in the 1990s ( Axé is a kind of good aura; so perhaps we could call it music of the Bahian aura, or spirit).

    Ms. Mercury‘s next three albums established her as a national and international superstar, while the titles confirm her commitment to themes in popular Brazilian culture: Canto da Cidade (song of the city—she means Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia); Música da rua (music of the street); Feijão com arroz (rice and beans); with the next three albums after that she has maintained her title as the queen of Axé.

    Despite the remarkable pace of her recordings and performances over the past 15 years, Ms. Mercury has also dedicated an enormous amount of time campaigning on the behalf of Brazilian children and human rights. Her efforts were recognized in 1995 when she was named the UNICEF Special Ambassador to Brazil. This kind of social activism is common to many Bahian artists and is part of what she gives back to the community that inspires her. “If we don‘t improve the living conditions and promote education for all of our children, we will not be able to improve the world.”

    Toward the end of the interview, Ms. Mercury introduced the musicians and dancers who joined her and then danced and sang with them in order to demonstrate the tones, rhythms and choreography of her performances.

    The interview with Daniela Mercury was the capstone of a yearlong collaboration between LACS and UMS to create educational and cultural events surrounding major performances by renowned Brazilian artists. The interview took place a day before Daniela Mercury‘s appearance with her band at the Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center in Ypsilanti. There, she gave an energetic performance, providing the Michigan public a little taste of what it feels like to participate in the annual carnival celebration in the streets of the city of Salvador, Bahia.