0426 GMT May 19, 2019
Coming out of a dark world of depression, Brazilian beach celebrity Vanessa Esplendorosa has made a career out of singing about her açaí, which she said brings ‘good energy’.
“My açaí is the bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb,” Vanessa Esplendorosa sings. “Marvellous, tasty, yummy, delicious, splendorous. My granola you want, my sauce you want, my shine you want.”
Sitting under the baking sun on Rio de Janeiro’s Ipanema Beach, ‘Splendorous’ Vanessa (her real name is Vanessa Cabral dos Santos) continues singing her rhymes in Portuguese as she piles banana, strawberries, mango, kiwi fruit, granola, condensed milk, crumbly peanut candy and chocolate syrup onto my cup of frozen açaí.
It’s a little show that has made her a beloved beach celebrity as she sells the wildly popular Amazonian super-berry puree, which has swept from the Brazilian jungle to health food cafes across the world.
The deep purple, ice cream-like dish made from the açaí pulp is lauded for its anti-ageing and energizing properties, and above all, its distinctive deliciousness, which is like a mix of blackberries and chocolate.
With a cooler slung over her shoulder and a white T-shirt screaming ‘AÇAÍ’, Vanessa walks up and down Ipanema’s fiery hot sand near lifeguard tower Posto 9, brightening up everybody’s already sun-drenched days with her unwavering positivity.
Videos that locals have taken of her rapping and singing have gone viral on YouTube (see 45 seconds in) and Facebook; and after a wave of local media stories this year, Rio de Janeiro music producers DJ Leco JPA and DJ Portuga were so captivated by her charisma that they offered her the opportunity to record a song.
Her ‘Funk do Açaí’ video clip released in July on YouTube quickly racked up millions of views.
“Açaí com paçoca soca soca soca soca,” Vanessa sings in the chorus, a play on words about the salty peanut candy she serves it with called Paçoca, and soca, which is the Portuguese word for punch. Açaí with a peanut candy punch!
Oozing the warmth that Rio’s residents, known as Cariocas, are famous for, and looking every bit the pro as she dances to the camera, I was shocked to learn that just a few short years ago, Vanessa was clinically depressed and shut off from the world.
On a doctor’s advice, Vanessa’s partner Ana started taking her from their suburban home to the beach with açaí that Ana prepared for Vanessa to sell. At first, Vanessa told me, she would just sit and people-watch, not selling a thing. Once she was tired of watching, she walked up and down the sand and started to sell.
Eventually, a spontaneity began reverberating from within as she started coming up with little catchy rhymes to sell her product. One sandy step at a time, she grew in confidence.
“Every time I saw a customer I was singing to them, coming up with something to rejoice that moment, to leave the person shining like a star and feeling cheered up,” she said.
“I always bring good energy to my clients in my care, because as I came from a very dark world of depression and sadness, it helped me improve. And I could not be sad anymore; I was always connected to açaí and the climate of the beach, in the sun, in the sea and in the good energies that it brings.”
She continued, “I had the opportunity to record the Funk do Açaí with two DJs to complete the circle of gratitude for everything that this fruit was doing for me, everything that my work was providing me and the places I was going, so I thought that it deserved a song, a funk.”
Now as she eyes a career in music, Vanessa’s story of how açaí helped bring her a new lease on life echoes the berry’s ancient indigenous mythology. Its name comes from a native Tupi word meaning ‘fruit that cries’.
Those who are less imaginative say that’s because of the juices the fruit seeps, but legend says that — before açaí was featured in more than three million Instagram hashtags and counting — it’s because it is a fruit born in tears.
“Undoubtedly açaí was and is a food that we can describe as democratic in the sense that it has always been on the table, and certainly in the meal (because not everyone used tables) of the native peoples, settlers, and society of the rich, poor, civil, military, religious or non-religious, literate or illiterate,” said Professor Leila Mourão Miranda from the Federal University of Pará who has written a thesis on açaí.
In Rio, juice shops on practically every corner dish out sweet, frozen açaí with other fruits and a world of sweet toppings. But few açaí addicts outside Brazil know that their açaí bowls are about as traditional to the country as a ham and pineapple pizza is to Italy.