I’ve had few encounters in life that carried a sustaining aura as celestial as meeting Xenia Franca in the green room of Lula Lounge was. I wouldn’t want to interview an artist if their album wasn’t as opulent as the radiance that their presence evoked when they entered any given space, especially if they’re performing at a venue for the first time.
I had no proper recollection of when I first listened to Em Nome da Estrela, but Franca’s first time in Toronto at Mixto Festival was a reinvigorating performance that surpassed all expectations. An evening in late July was what she would be handsomely rewarded for as a result of gold-plating her music, engraving it in a conch shell, and dipping it in floral perfume. In the five years between her 2017 debut and the June 3, 2022 release, Franca has seeked to form new constellations and her sophomore album is nothing short of extravagance. The project is well aware of the beauty within itself, as Franca has grown and embraced opportunities to emanate its most emancipating values at every turn.
Since releasing Em Nome da Estrela, Franca has felt like more and more of a crystal in the process of cutting, or “lapidacao”, as she would describe it. The philosophies this album holds are certainly reflective of this act of chiseling oneself into a diamond that is more appreciative of its ability to live within a creatively present consciousness. Franca has finally given more time to seek ways of thinking in searching for these modes of experimentation that are so deeply ingrained in heavenly orchestration and astral electronica whose spirit bears an equally psychedelic soul. From the moment “Renascer” serenades us with silk-woven synths and a fairytale harp, Franca begins to write her own history to the extent that its beauty and insight lies in her envisioned desire to connect with those around her. Above all things, it’s a statement of confidence; that its strength is essential, and it’s with that strength that we carry faith into an intuitive darkness that reminds us of the necessity of rebirth.
It becomes imperative to reconnect the links that connect us with the key to this journey of our existence, putting forth love as the secret to everything. But what secrets belie the technologies most inherent to us and the surroundings that cause us to transform? And what are the forces that conceive the ebb and flow of Black creative expression? Em Nome da Estrela does not seek to directly answer those questions. Instead, it gives rise to a kind of ancient wisdom in channeling possibilities that blossom against the current of human nature’s penchant for endless concern. That Black identity is in itself an evolving form of pricelessness, whose radiance is one of persistent warmth most invaluable for the life it gives to a universe revolving around a luminescent sun. In exploring the intersection between synthesized nebulae and the architectural freedom of spiritual jazz, Xenia Franca eases into herself, aiming towards her own brightness to recompose the value within. It is an exaltation that could only be constructed atop a mothership of sound; a vehicle most stellar to be traversing celestial bodies with care.
Parts of Em Nome da Estrela would arrive to Franca moments after reconnecting with Orixas, namely “Renascer”, whose constellation of Afro-Brazilian rhythms expand a spiritual vision of candomble, be it embedded in Pipo Pegoraro’s production or stored in an urn brimming inside Franca’s pen. There is also “Dadiva”’s ode to the gift of Oxum and the vigorous presence of self-authority as channeled by Ricardo Braga’s rhythmic axe. Within the album’s fourteen tracks are various alterations of aural consciousness, Franca’s effusively molded mantras shaped into a primordial clay whose earthiness harkens toward a percussive language most emboldened by the legacy of Bahia’s rich musical history. She is the most honest person that she could be with herself, at a time when external validation had placed her in the most dire circumstances and thus, came about a constant need to vindicate the soul.
Even when confronted with societal apprehensions, Xenia Franca has sought to nurture a deep-rooted connection with her personal ancestry by seeking paths to newer futures. Em Nome da Estrela honours this more than anything, on a level that best exemplifies the significance of her stature as one of many Bahian musicians whose work has continued to change a perception of Brazilian music – namely one hampered by regional dichotomies of Rio and Sao Paulo and a musical dichotomy of samba and bossa nova. There’s an eclectic approach to the album’s richness that is undeniably congruous with the creative integrity of so many Bahians alongside and before her. So much so, that this album only seeks to embolden an era of Black Bahians who are writing their stories for the first time, and in an era where Blackness within Brazil’s blackest city continues its uphill battle of being constantly pushed back.
Ancestral contributions have always existed within the fabric of a city that Franca holds most dear, but the culture it has birthed is becoming more of a reality for those who were meant to carry a torch that has been upheld by white faces championed by domestic labels who have shown racial intolerance towards regional acts who openly celebrate Afro-Brazilian religions. Before Margareth Menezes became Brazil’s current Minister of Culture (and only the second Afro-Brazilian since Gilberto Gil), she would experience three decades worth of success as one of axe’s leading ladies. Despite this, many still ponder upon why Menezes hasn’t reached the same level of success of her fellow Bahians in Ivete Sangalo and Daniela Mercury, but it only takes less than a third of the frontal cortex to decipher.
Racism continues to exist in subtle ways to which neither Menezes nor Franca are strangers to. For Brazil’s music industry and society at large, it’s a totally intentional determination that’s nothing short of insidious. While it remains historical that the precursors of Black Brazilian genres are becoming better represented in the country’s musical landscape, it still illustrates Bahia as a place of structural racism, and doesn’t entirely erase the periphery of poor, Black icons being replaced by the codified appearances of their white counterparts authorized by their public to identify themselves with culturally Black genres.
Menezes once asked, why can one sing about Jesus and God, but not talk about Xango?
It’s a question whose prevalence continues to be attributed to a number of social factors, including the upward trajectory of religious fundamentalism within the country’s favelas and the agro-adjacent commercialization of sertanejo – now a bastion of current Brazilian popular culture since its brief implosion on North American airwaves. In the same way that Menezes has turned to an ecumenical way of being, Xenia Franca’s firm beliefs in the spiritual forces of nature have warranted a belief that lives up to its promises of heartfelt and positive support. She seeks the dignity of her origin as a source of personal strength, but also a place from which she believes all Black women can heal, especially fellow Bahians who have shaped her into who she has become today.
Em Nome da Estrela could not have arrived at, nor prepared itself for, a better time in Brazil’s history. As if its music wasn’t already historically rich, its culture has become more expressive than ever of a democracy whose rights are tools for constant transformation. The fundamental truth of Xenia Franca’s sophomore effort could not be any closer to Menezes’ words during her nomination ceremony as Brazil’s Cultural Minister, signaling its own reformation of an entire ministry so vital to the country’s national culture.
Where a figure like Menezes has carved a path for countless Black artists in Brazil, Em Nome da Estrela is equally representative of the shape of Bahian music to come. Xenia Franca is one of many who have reclaimed a stolen torch, igniting it with a simmering passion for achieving spiritual and cultural serenity. She reaches inwards to become the dream she has followed from afar. The glory is within her, and lord willing, God would be far from offended.
Mixto festival returns to Toronto July 15 and 16 2023 with acts including Nidia Gongora & The Bongo Hop, Bejuco, Luedji Luna and The Chmst ft. Kibra and Jasmine Kiara. Visit mixtofestival.com for more information and tickets.