Brazilian Superstar Ivete Sangalo Plays NY Arena

The most Earth-shattering event in Brazil this weekend took place in New York, where singer Ivete Sangalo played a sold out show at Madison Square Garden. Too bad, few Americans even noticed.

A superstar in her native Brazil, where she can pack a 70,000-capacity soccer stadium and commands crowds of millions during Carnaval, Sangalo kept the almost-entirely-Brazilian audience on its feet over the course of three hours and five costume changes.

Photo: AP Photo
Madison Square Garden, New York, NY.

Dancing frenetically, the crowd of 14,500 sang along with every word of her samba-inflected dance pop songs like “Festa” (Party) and “Acelere” (Accelerate).

“I just want you to be proud of me, and I want you to be proud of the show I brought here,” Sangalo said from the top of a massive, thrusting stage pulsing with lights and video – designed by the man responsible for this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, Bruce Rodgers.

In Brazil, Sangalo’s show was touted as her first step toward conquering the U.S., placing her in a pantheon with the likes of Madonna, The Rolling Stones, Beyonce and U2.

But a 100-foot-high banner that hung outside the Garden for weeks advertising the show still required the helpful caption explaining Sangalo is “A Brazilian Star.”

At a pre-concert news conference, the statuesque brunette said the relative anonymity didn’t faze her.

“When I started in Brazil, I was also unknown, and Brazil is a gigantic place with lots of talent,” the husky-voiced singer explained. “I haven’t come here with the pretension of being well known, but what I’ve come do to here, I’ve come to do right.”

As a Portuguese speaker, Sangalo may have had her work cut out for her, but promoters say selling out the Garden is a real accomplishment.

Shows by non-English-speaking acts there tend to top out at around 3,000 to 4,000 people, unless they sing in Spanish, which is spoken by a large and growing percentage of the U.S. population.

The only other Brazilian to headline a show at the Garden, singer Roberto Carlos, did so by reaching out to Latin audiences and singing in Spanish.

The closest comparison might be the Korean pop singer Rain, who sold out two nights at the smaller Madison Square Garden theater, which seats 4,000, in 2006.

Concert promoter John Scher said people have been calling him to ask who Sangalo is.

“I don’t think there’s been anything quite like this. There are Latin (Spanish speaking) artists who can sell out the Garden, but this is a pretty unique situation really,” Scher said. “There’s a lot of interest in the music industry, if not with the public.”

Sangalo, 38, got her start singing as a teenager from the top of the sound trucks that ply their way through the packed streets of Salvador da Bahia during Carnaval time.

When she left the Carnaval group Banda Eva to go solo in 1999 she was already one of the country’s biggest stars.

But her brand of Carnaval-inspired dance-pop, known as axe (pronounced ah-SHAY’), isn’t what U.S. listeners usually think of as Brazilian music, and her audience tends to be concentrated among teenagers and twenty-somethings looking for a chance to hook up.

Her lyrics express the irrepressible optimism of youth, and her sound is a world away from the cool, cerebral bossa nova of Joao Gilberto or the smooth sounds of Caetano Veloso and Marisa Monte, all of whom are better known in the United States, even if Sangalo outsells them all at home.

As many as 5,000 fans had been expected to fly in from Brazil for the show, organizers say.

So despite all the conquering America swagger, Sangalo’s intent is actually something entirely different: The Garden show was mainly intended to serve as a backdrop for her new DVD and a TV special to be broadcast in Brazil in December.

“They want a packed house and want to say ‘we’ve sold out Madison Square Garden’ and they’ve probably achieved that through various other means than from straight ahead ticket sales,'” says Gene de Souza, development director of the nonprofit Rhythm Foundation, who promoted Sangalo’s Miami show.

In Miami, with a larger Brazilian population, Sangalo sold only 6,500 of the 7,000 seats put up for sale, de Souza said, in an arena where Britney Spears was able to pack in 18,500 fans.

On Saturday night Sangalo appeared well aware of her target audience, addressing the crowd as “Brazil” and dedicating the show to Brazilians living abroad.

Her only nods to local audiences were covers of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Lionel Richie’s “Easy” and a duet with Nelly Furtado, in which her English sounded good with only a slight accent.

Photo: AP Photo
New York’s Madison Square Garden

She also reached out to the Spanish-speaking audiences, performing duets with Colombian superstar Juanes and Argentina’s Diego Torres, but the warmest applause was reserved for Brazilian guests like Seu Jorge and fellow axe star Netinho, who appeared, briefly transforming the 25-minute-long encore into a mini-version of Carnaval.

“I didn’t come with the objective to transforming anything or parting the waters for Brazilian music or anything like that,” Sangalo said before the show. “I am a popular singer for the masses, and I will continue to be one, and this is my greatest pleasure.”