The cover of the most recently published biography of Orson Welles (titled Volume Two: Hello Americans by British actor-author Simon Callow) boasts a remarkable black-and-white photograph of the late, great media personality at the height of his fame and notoriety.
Sporting an immaculately tailored white-linen suit, he is seen buttoned to the neck in traditional 1940s man-about-town fashion. In one hand, he carries a drink — most probably cachaça, which Welles developed a deliberate taste for while carousing around the foothills of Rio de Janeiro; in the other, a lighted cigar. His face is bloated, the eyes mere slits, the cheeks puffy and swollen (in Callow’s estimation, he resembles “a fat, mischievous, rather ugly youth”). He looks astonishingly like one of his own later film creations, the corrupt police inspector Hank Quinlan, from his self-directed 1958 flick Touch of Evil — the one where lantern-jawed lead Charlton Heston plays a Mexican, and co-star Janet Leigh his platinum-blonde wife.
There is no date attached to it, but we can reasonably assume that, since the book covers the incidents in his life from the years 1941 through 1947, the portrait must have been taken sometime during Welles’ ill-fated Brazilian campaign of February 1942.
What is most pertinent for us here are the two native starlets pictured with him, both made up to look like baianas and holding on to the American celebrity’s arms for dear life: on his right is singer-comedienne Ademilde Fonseca; and on his left a young and cheery Elizete Cardoso (her first name is sometimes written as “Elizeth,” with various combinations in between). Already a well-known voice on radio and in the glitzy dance palaces of the storied big-band era in Brazil, the powerhouse carioca cantora (“Rio-born singer”) epitomized an older, more impassioned way of singing that would, by the very sound of things, make her an unlikely choice for international pop-music stardom in the youth-oriented culture of the 1960s.
One could be faulted, therefore, for having made such an erroneous connection. For all we know, Orson might well have been handing off the as-yet-to-be-invented title of the future “Muse of Bossa Nova” to Elizete herself. (And why not? Before being branded persona non grata in Hollywood, our honorary Brazilian citizen Welles had the run of the show in Rio and, for a brief period, an entire movie studio as well — “the best electric train set a boy ever had,” he was once quoted as saying.)
How wrong we were to have thought this. Historically speaking, the honor of “Muse of Bossa Nova” belonged to that of a green-eyed belle named Nara Leão, born in the same year as — and a few weeks short of — Welles’ momentous trip to her home country. And who, during the latter part of the fifties and into the early sixties, had welcomed the burgeoning bossa nova community of artists into her parent’s Copacabana apartment, which went on to become a haven for many of the movement’s key players.
Sadly for her fans, A Musa Nara was to pass on into pop legend much too early in life, in June 1989 (the cause of death was attributed to an inoperable brain tumor). Less than a year later, Elizete would likewise follow suit. Most modern-day moviegoers, Brazilian or otherwise, probably have no idea who either performer was; but if they had ever caught Marcel Camus’ 1959 co-production of Black Orpheus during its prime they would undoubtedly have heard Cardoso loud and clear on the soundtrack.
She provided the vocals for novice movie-actress Marpessa Dawn (who did not speak a word of Portuguese, but just happened to have been married to the film’s director) as Eurídice, with another relative newcomer, the singer Agostinho dos Santos, doing the same for Brazilian soccer player Breno Mello as the titular hero. Disappointingly, both her and Agostinho’s film labors went uncredited.
Her biggest claim to fame, such as it was, occurred some time later — around the year 1974, to be precise — with the release of the touching “Carta ao Tom” (“Letter to Tom”), a tender-enough ode penned by O Poetinha (“The Little Poet”), Vinicius de Moraes, with one of his later collaborators, performer-guitarist Toquinho (Antonio Pecci Filho). An evocative dedication — particularly in the superb rendition spotlighting the harmonious sister act, Quarteto Em Cy (The Girls From Bahia) — to Vinicius’ long-running relationship with composer-songwriter Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim, it recalled, most nostalgically, the mutual joy they each shared at Jobim’s old Ipanema hangout on Nascimento Silva Street, where his pedagogical skills were put to the test in teaching the veteran Elizete the words to the first of the pair’s many breakthrough bossa-nova hits:
Rua Nascimento Silva 107
Você ensinando pra Elizete
As canções de canção do amor demais
Lembra que tempo feliz
Ai, que saudade…
Ipanema era só felicidade
Nascimento Silva Street, No. 107,
You, teaching to Elizete
The songs to the song of excessive love
Remember those happy times?
Ah, what memories…
Ipanema was happiness incarnate
For a fleeting instant, it looked, for all the world, as if The Little Poet had transformed an over-the-hill Brazilian pop diva into that proverbial “Muse” her followers had been hoping for all along. Of course, it was all wishful thinking on their part. What was to Elizete’s benefit, it turned out, was the long-delayed credit given her for having recorded Canção do Amor Demais, or “Song of Excessive Love,” in early 1958. The album featured thirteen lucky tracks of seminal Jobim-Moraes compositions, including the now classic “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”).
Accompanying her on this and on one other number, “Outra vez” (“Once Again”), and injecting a syncopated breath of fresh air into the proceedings, was the most pugnacious fussbudget of a performer ever to grace a stage platform (and walk off of one, too): the twenty-six-year-old, Bahian-born João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira, known in the music business as João Gilberto, from the sleepy provincial town of Juazeiro.
Right off the bat, the peeves and peculiarities that the perpetually off-putting Joãozinho (“Little Johnny”) became famous for later on were on ample display in this, his maiden studio outing with the more practiced Elizete, who continuously balked at his bold entreaties to pare down her pear-shaped tones while staying behind that radical guitar beat of his.
No More Blues? Man, You Got That Wrong!
Elizete Cardoso’s flagrant disregard for his unsolicited advice did not deter Joãozinho from putting his own spin to “Chega de Saudade,” laid down by him as a 78-rpm single in July of that year and subsequently issued on Odeon Records — with the unseen hand of its arranger, O Mestre Tom Jobim, having moved heaven and earth to accommodate the incredibly demanding singer-guitarist. What normally would have been a straightforward, two-to-three-hour recording session dragged on interminably beyond all practical limitations.
In spite of his well-earned reputation as an obsessive, nitpicking perfectionist, the fastidious and reclusive Joãozinho took full charge of the infant bossa-nova idiom from the start with his unrivaled ability to pull the vocal line every which way. “Bossa nova overwhelmed us,” offered fellow Bahian and devout apologist, Caetano Veloso, by way of elaboration. “What João Gilberto proposed was a deeply penetrating and highly personal interpretation of the spirit of samba.”
Picking up on this thread, writer Jeff Kaliss, in “Bossa Nova: Music of Modern Love,” a contemplative piece he submitted for the architectural-design magazine CA-Modern, made the argument that Joãozinho had sought “an inner vision” for himself, “a percussive, plangent style that would become the envy of all guitarists… this style bore the swing of samba, but made samba’s elements sound sweetly from a single instrument, with ‘altered’ chords that evoked both African folk music and the sophistication of [American] jazz.” Added columnist and music critic Daniella Thompson, the voice went “in one direction, the beat in another.”
Jobim expressed it best, however, when he reached the self-evident conclusion that “It was the rhythm, the swing. It was João Gilberto with his guitar, the beat of bossa nova.” There are some noteworthy examples of his quirky style in existence. In a comparison of two versions of “Chega de Saudade,” recorded more than forty years apart — the first, from his aforementioned 1958 single, which surrounds him with a swirl of syrupy strings; the second, from a Grammy-winning 2000 release João, Voz e Violão (“John, Voice and Guitar”), on an imported Verve CD and produced by Caetano himself — the voice has noticeably aged, but, like the finest wines, it has settled into a mellow companion-piece to his vintage guitar-work.
Still recognizable despite the passage of time, Joãozinho has lost much of his former sweetness and bloom. Miraculously, what he’s managed to preserve is that singularly individual timbre and precise enunciation of the Portuguese text — his charming Northeastern accent still mercifully intact — along with perfect pitch and a complete oneness with the composer’s musical ideas, all of them absolute prerequisites for putting the song’s tongue-twisting imagery across to succeeding generations of listeners.
This is what set an artist of João Gilberto’s exalted caliber apart from the majority of his contemporaries: that offbeat, off-kilter vocal style All Music Guide contributor Terri Hinte reverently referred to as his “fine muttering form” — an intense, vibrato-less delivery that made him sound as if he were intimately engaged in a one-sided conversation “with somebody in his breast pocket.” That’s the most convincing summation of his art as any I’ve ever read.
It’s no small wonder Elizete lost patience with the man, as did so many others that came after her. As for the tune that thrust Joãozinho into the probing eye of the microscope, it was just the beginning of a mass awakening, what Caetano Veloso ultimately attributed to Verdade Tropical (“Tropical Truth”): a lyrical introduction to the potentially revolutionary force that popular music was to exert on South America’s largest song market; and during a transitional period the Dylanesque singer-songwriter had devoted a good deal of thought to in his writing of the tell-all book of the same name, aptly subtitled A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil:
“I saw in ‘Chega de Saudade’ the manifesto and the masterpiece of a movement: the mother ship. A samba with some traces of choro, immensely rich in melodic motifs, with a flavor so Brazilian it could be a recording…from the thirties, ‘Chega de Saudade’ managed to be a modern song while having enough harmonic and rhythmic daring to attract any bop or cool-jazz musician. On the other hand, the title and lyrics suggested a rejection/reinvention of saudade, that word so prevalent in and emblematic of our experience and our language. A lush composition full of uncommon commonplaces… this song was a generous example of everything Tom, João, Vinicius, and others wanted to offer, containing all the elements that were elsewhere scattered. It was the prime mover of bossa nova, the map, the itinerary, the constitution.”
On that basis, and on the magic he was able to capture on the stage and recreate in the recording studio, João Gilberto was promoted forthwith into the swelling ranks of self-appointed music ambassadors, as the third and final ingredient in the formula that popularized bossa nova in their native land — and to a waiting world.
Their defining moment came, interestingly enough, not in Rio de Janeiro but during a nondescript Manhattan recital — the brainchild of record owner and producer Sidney Frey — held in the island borough’s famed Carnegie Hall auditorium. Hosted by jazz critic and political activist Leonard Feather and billed as an evening of “New Brazilian Jazz,” it took the unsuspecting nation by storm on a wet and subfreezing late-November night in 1962.
Not all the next day’s reviews were kind to them, however; in fact, most were positively frigid, much like the wintry weather itself. That did not impede the performers from warming up to the expectant crowd that had gathered there to hear real music-history in the making. Among the legendary participants were the then-unknown trio of João, Jobim, and Bonfá — all three of who stayed on in the city to eventually record, with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, the groundbreaking Jazz Samba Encore! and Getz/Gilberto albums for Verve — in addition to Agostinho dos Santos, Oscar Castro-Neves, Sérgio Mendes, Milton Banana, Carlos Lyra, Roberto Menescal, and Chico Feitosa.
Prominent by his absence was our friendly neighborhood songwriter, the reluctant Little Poet and vice-consul Vinicius de Moraes. Invited to attend but still miffed at the U.S. for its handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis of the previous October, the avowed Communist sympathizer made the startlingly controversial move to sit the event out. For a ranking member of Brazil’s diplomatic corps, he was anything but that when it came to his private impulses and pet idiosyncrasies. Once again, politics and poor personal choices — however explosive the combination may have seemed — easily trumped fortune and recognition in the jazz-pop field for the increasingly independent-minded, “left-wing hedonist.”
Knowing the poet as we do, he could not have cared a whit for what others had to say about his far-flung ideals. The likelihood, then, that his liberated lifestyle had interfered with his becoming a household name in America (in the slightly more tolerable Jobim mold, perhaps) is unusually high. Besides, the time for him to have profited from his previous stay there had long since outlived its usefulness.
In 1969, after years of putting up with his errant ways, Vinicius was ignominiously dropped from the Brazilian Foreign Service. Paradoxically, after the surprise success of the historic Carnegie Hall concert — and after the musical genre was well on its way to conquering audiences in the United States and abroad — the 1964 military takeover in Brazil put a halt to the optimism and exhilaration that had propelled bossa nova’s inexorable upward climb in the charts after nearly a decade of steady growth and expansion on its home soil.
Protest songs operating under the guise of pop-rock anthems, in addition to the ubiquitous Música Popular Brasileira and the even shorter-lived Tropicália movements, were becoming all the rage vide the eyebrow-raising endeavors of the young and restless Edu Lobo (“Arrastão” – “A Huge Drag,” introduced on national television by the future queen of pop, Elis Regina, with lyrics by O Poetinha himself), Jair Rodrigues (“Disparada” – “Stampede”), Chico Buarque (“A banda”), Caetano Veloso (“Alegria, alegria” and “É Proibido Proibir” – “Prohibiting is Prohibited”), Gilberto Gil (“Domingo no Parque” – “Sunday in the Park”), Geraldo Vandré (“Caminhando” – “Walking”), and a host of influential others.
Even the former “Muse” herself, Nara Leão, got into the thick of things by tossing out — at least, in theory — bossa nova’s pervasively romantic appeal in favor of themes with more relevant social content. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life singing ‘The Girl from Ipanema,’ ” she dissented, “much less sing it in English. I want to be understood, I want to be a singer of the people.”
It was just as well, since many of the stellar attractions previously associated with the seductive easy-listening format had, by then, left sunshine-happy Rio for points due north and west — in short, a bit further north (as in the Big Apple) and a lot farther west (as in the City of Angels) than any of them had ever dreamed of or imagined.
The resultant “brain drain” of entertainers was felt across the board in fun-loving, music-making Brazil. But unlike many seemingly insurmountable obstacles found there, the gap was soon filled by the above-named avalanche of talent, to most everyone’s favor and delight — everyone, that is, except the newly-installed ruling military body, which did not take kindly to the barely-concealed bashing it was receiving in the electronic media and elsewhere.
Calling to mind Newton’s Third Law of Motion (from which I quote: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”), the changes to the country’s musical landscape were a direct result of the disruptions caused along its political and economic frontier, which were scarcely to anyone’s favor or delight. As we soon learned, this was an exceptionally dangerous game Brazilian artists had been playing at, one that was sure to backfire on them in the days and months to come.
By that measure, saudade, an ever-present “longing” or “regret” for the good times that had come before; for idling by a sandy strip of Ipanema shoreline, with a beer in one hand and a “tall and tan and young and lovely” girl on the other; for those feelings of nostalgia that bossa nova once engendered in the trouble-free youth of the period, was manifestly all that was left once the crackdown of dissidents (the so-called “revolution within a revolution” of 1968) had begun, with a rebellious Caetano, Gil & Company placed at the head of the troublesome class.
Brazil, that exotic Amazon outpost overflowing with musical milk and honey, was still a long way off from steering a middle course between the rigid, hard-line of repression (which, regretfully, only got worse over time) and a more flexible form of self-governance. Φ
(End of Part Two)
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes