09/04/08: Death of Brazilian Singer and Guitarist Olga Praguer Coelho

09/04/08: Death of Brazilian Singer and Guitarist Olga Praguer Coelho

Guitarist Fabio Zanon writes from Sao Paulo, Brazil

I am sad to report the death of Brazilian singer and guitarist Olga Praguer Coelho on February 25th in Rio de Janeiro. She would have been 99 in August.

Usually labelled as a folk singer, Olga was one of the most important Brazilian artists of the 20th century.  I find it incorrect, however, to confine her art to the realms of folk music as she was actually a fully trained lyric singer and far above the average classical guitarist.  Born in Manaus in 1909 and raised in Salvador, her family moved to Rio in 1923, where she started to learn the guitar and to train her voice. She made her first recordings in 1930 and soon became a radio celebrity; a few years later she started to perform accompanying herself on the guitar with astonishing skill.

After her triumph at a congress of folk music in Berlin, the Brazilian government chose her as an official cultural ambassador and, together with her husband, the poet Gaspar Coelho, she travelled extensively and became an international celebrity. The critic of the New York Times said she was by far the best folk singer he had ever heard. On the top of that she had a charming and extroverted personality, a sense of humour and personal magnetism, and was blessed with a privileged vocal condition and tremendous good looks.

From 1944 she left her husband and started a relationship with Andrés Segovia, which was to last for over a decade. She went to live with him in New York, from where she continued to develop her international career. Segovia wrote several arrangements for her, which gave her opportunity to display serious skills as a guitarist.

Her career lasted until the '70s, when she came back to Brazil to live in an apartment block built on the site of her family residence. As she grew older, she also fell into relative obscurity.

Olga used to perform on a Hauser I guitar believed to be the celebrated instrument of a sister of Segovia. She is frequently mentioned as the very first guitarist to give a concert on nylon strings. She was a larger than life character and met literally every important international artist between 1930 and 1970. Her source of anecdotes was inexhaustible. She flew to the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936 on board a Zeppelin; she performed for Mussolini and was friends with Roosevelt, she was a neighbour of Horowitz and had fun with Salvador Dali; Villa Lobos wrote the arrangement of his own Bachianas No. 5 for her at the request of Segovia, and Bartok sat on the front row to see her in Budapest. She was also a staunch supporter of young artists and one would be surprised to learn of the helping hand she offered to some of the greatest artists of today.

As a personal recollection, she came to one of my most recent concerts in Rio and, despite being almost blind, acted like someone 40 years younger. Very coquettish, she said Andrés would have loved my playing but would have disapproved of the faces I pulled during my performance!

Everybody who attended her concerts will comment on her seductive presentation. Anyone who came close to her will have dozens of anecdotes to tell. If there is a heaven, the angels with have more fun from now on.

Her recordings are very rare now and as far as I can tell they have never been transfered onto CD, but one can hear two tracks on one of my radio programmes, which can be downloaded from this site: http://vcfz.blogspot.com/2006/11/46-mulheres-e-o-violo-ii.html



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