Brazil’s Musical Polyglots, Part One: ‘Pardon Me, But What Was That You Were Singing?’

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Caetano Veloso A Foreign Sound (tomamusica.com)

I read a review a few years back by a friend of mine, Scottish journalist John Fitzpatrick. It was of Caetano Veloso’s latest album of English-language covers called, appropriately enough, A Foreign Sound (Nonesuch, 2004).

I was sufficiently motivated by that review to put together a piece about other recorded efforts by some of Brazil’s, and the entertainment world’s, past musical polyglots.

It’s interesting to note that John’s lambasting of Caetano’s solo effort dwelt on his poor diction, which was regretfully right on the money. All right, I’ll say it out front: Veloso tries a bit too hard to bridge the obvious cultural divide between current Brazilian and American pop-music tastes. The album clearly looks backward in time, not forward (more on this aspect later).

Even the Bob Dylan cover, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” makes one long for those halcyon days when the young and intellectually stimulated Mr. Veloso had once been boldly touted as Bahia’s answer to the elliptical Mr. Dylan.

Also mentioned in the same breath with Caetano were such popular native-born performers as Ed Motta, Marisa Monte, and Roberto Carlos, whose late-sixties sojourn as the winning contestant in an Italian popular song contest steered him in a whole other direction. Roberto went on to conquer the rest of Latin America, before finally being dethroned by the fluttery tones of romantic Spanish vocalist Julio Iglesias.

Although he’s definitely got the retro African American, bluesman-style down pat, Ed Motta is still no linguist, despite an exceptionally impressive musical lineage worthy of the talented nephew of Brazilian soul-funk artist Tim Maia.

Nor, for that matter, is Marisa Monte, who, in 1996, performed her own, rather odd musical experiment (with a simultaneous video tie-in, photographed in artsy-fartsy black and white) on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s wonderfully poetic ditty, “Águas de março” (“The Waters of March”), from the Red Hot & Rio album for PolyGram.

Scottish-American musician and producer David Byrne, formerly of the group Talking Heads, is no stranger to Brazilian influences (see his 1989 album, Rei Momo, on Warner Records). He joined forces with the youthful Marisa for this unusual vocal romp. Their version of the frequently covered classic pop tune turned out to be an unintended yet striking homage to the 1974 recording, made in Los Angeles for the Verve label, starring beloved MPB icon Elis Regina singing alongside the composer, Tom Jobim.

At least, the musically astute Mr. Byrne was wise enough not to try the song in Portuguese, preferring instead to alternate his English verses (written by Jobim himself, by the way) with the original lyrics, sung beautifully, of course, by Ms. Monte.

In all, it was a brave showing, and considered by many as stylistically acceptable, if not authentically accurate, bossa nova.

Nascimento’s Sin

Milton Nascimento Crooner amazon.com)

My own vote for the most absurd-sounding covers album ever committed to compact disc — and by an established Brazilian artist almost as well-thought of in musical circles as Caetano — has got to go to Crooner by the estimable Milton Nascimento.

Recorded in 1998 and released the following year by Warner Music Brazil Ltd., this spurious effort predates Caetano’s own work by a good half a decade.

In it are egregiously sung examples of such pop-style favorites as the latino “Aquellos Ojos Verdes” by Nilo Menendez and Adolfo Utrera (in Portuguese), “Certas coisas” by Lulu Santos and Nelson Motta, Jorge Ben’s early hit “Mas que nada,” made famous by Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ‘66, and other Brazilian compositions.

But the real clunkers are the American numbers, delivered by the mineiro singer in absolutely execrable English, particularly the fifties torch ballad, “Only You” (Buck Ram-Ande Rand), and the Michael Jackson bad-boy anthem, “Beat It” — you really haven’t lived until you’ve heard the usually soft-spoken Mr. Nascimento, the owner of one of world music’s most ethereal voices, spit out the words, “You wanna be tough, better do what you can so beat it.”

What ultimately sinks this offbeat production, though, is the schmaltzy and anachronistic string accompaniment arranged by the disc’s musical director, noted composer-guitarist Wagner Tiso, an old band-mate and ex-musical partner of Milton’s on many of his earlier seventies successes. It’s all of a piece, and a most curious one at that.

Despite the lushness of the stereo ambience, listeners and critics alike greeted the whole mawkish affair with noticeable shrugs and frigid reviews.

In its defense, the work came at a particularly patchy period for Milton, who had just gotten over a bout of serious illness. He had also finished taping a highly publicized (and emaciated) guest appearance on the popular weekend comedy show, Sai de Baixo (“Get Out From Under It”), on the Globo TV network. The album was to have been his musical “comeback” of sorts — so be it.

Whose-ever bright idea it was to pose the avant-garde Milton Nascimento in a tuxedo with black tie, and dish out those timeless tunes in by-the-numbers fashion à la Perry Como, definitely needed to be sacked on the spot. It must have been the same clueless individual who gave the green light to Rod Stewart’s misdirected Cole Porter and pop standards tribute, another idea that looked better on paper than in the actual execution — then again, it probably looked just as bad on paper, too (“So in Love,” indeed).

This is surprising because, like Caetano and others, Milton has often rubbed shoulders with talented American musicians for the better part of 30 years, as witness his encounters with former Weather Report member Wayne Shorter, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, pop singer Paul Simon, and guitarist Pat Metheny.

Portuguese Pitfalls

Even stranger than this was his duet, “Only a Dream in Rio,” written and performed by American singer-songwriter James Taylor, with Portuguese lyrics by Fernando Brant, to be found on Milton’s 1994 album Angelus and later as a solo on Taylor’s 1998 DVD/Video release, James Taylor: Live at the Beacon Theatre.

James Taylor (article.wn.com)

Who could forget the soulful sound of the man who gave us such stadium standards as “Fire and Rain,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Handy Man,” and “How Sweet It Is,” driving full-speed-ahead into the song’s spirited chorus, “O lugar de onde eu vim brota no coração” (“The place where I came from springs from the heart”), his mildly nasal twang earnestly struggling with the unfathomable pitfalls of Brazilian Portuguese.

But, as in the case of Milton Nascimento and Caetano Veloso before him, James Taylor is an old hand at musical eclecticism: no matter how laughable (or naïve) his attempts at enunciating the Portuguese text may have seemed, his complete and total sincerity in putting this piece across more than made up for any lapses in his linguistic abilities.

Milton and Taylor’s haunting vocals miraculously coalesced, overall, while the song and Nascimento’s album as a whole owed as much of its success to Gregorian chant as to the percussive effects of world-beat.

On the same, unforgettable Angelus CD, however, is a remarkable cover of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “Hello Goodbye,” sung this time in fairly presentable English and amazingly done in Milton’s inimitable, three-octave high-tenor range. A classic!

Denver and Domingo

Speaking of which, it’s no secret that, for the most part — and with good reason — opera singers have generally been considered to be the one true musical polyglots of the entertainment industry, often singing in a wide variety of languages in any number of foreign works.

Indeed, any lyric soprano worth her salt would be wise to make it a point to familiarize herself with the songs of Hernani Braga (“A Casinha Pequenina,” or “The Little House,” for example), Francisco Mignone, Camargo Guarnieri, and Heitor Villa-Lobos, placing added emphasis on the latter’s lovely Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5.

One of the few examples around of poetic Portuguese entering the standard classical repertoire, this thoroughly captivating air has been done to death by a whole host of supposed female “superstars,” many of who had no business tackling its linguistic and vocal rigors without at least a working knowledge of how to pronounce the difficult Romance language.

The most fluent modern interpreter of them all, for that matter, is tenor Plácido Domingo. The Spanish-born opera star, conductor, theater administrator, and all-around overachiever, has been performing professionally going on 60 years. He has literally mastered, at last count, no less than seven different languages, including such stylistic anomalies as Liturgical Latin, German, Russian, and Modern Hebrew. Now that’s what I call versatility!

Placido Domingo & John Denver (last.fm)

But even Plácido was not immune to the occasional side-trips outside his chosen field, as his 1980s partnership with the folksy John Denver, resulting in the lilting pop ballad, “Perhaps Love” (Denver), resolutely showed. Domingo’s charming Iberian accent lent a wistful touch of nostalgia to the proceedings, as did his softy-modulated tone.

The song was no classic, but it surely wasn’t the career killer it had been predicted to become by nearly every other music critic. For that, we must turn to The Three Tenors — or, more precisely, to two of them: divo Domingo and fellow Spaniard, José Carreras, bawling at the top of their lungs the unintelligible lyrics (were they singing in English, Italian, or Portuguese?) to the Ary Barroso anthem, “Aquarela do Brasil,” at the 1998 World Cup Soccer tournament in Paris.

Astrud’s Contribution

Which brings me back to bossa nova: if ever any singer lacked the goods to make it in the pop music field, that person was undoubtedly a young singer named Astrud Gilberto.

In hindsight, though, most Brazilians owe a profound debt of gratitude to her ingenuous language skills: she built up a solid career-footing on the flimsy foundations of one fortuitous recording session — a session that eventually gave rise to a whole generation of pop idols.

As luck would have it, Astrud, a housewife and non-professional at the time – although a fairly practiced vocalist – was asked by Verve Records (hotly contested, one might add, by none other than composer Jobim) to perform the English verses of the songs, “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (“Corcovado),” in her patently awful Brazilian accent.

With her then-husband João Gilberto on acoustic guitar, starting things off in Portuguese in his typical rambling style; the legendary Stan Getz, as winsome as ever, on tenor saxophone; and Antonio Carlos Jobim in the background, gently stroking the keys of his piano, the album instantly caught the imagination of a hit-starved worldwide audience — and catapulted every one of its principal participants, including Brazilian drummer Milton Banana, to the front ranks of jazz-pop artists way back in 1964.

It would do well for us friends of Música Popular Brasileira to remember, then, that if it had not been for Astrud Gilberto’s allegedly “bad” American English, many of the songs and composers we now take for granted would never have been recognized at all, let alone been recorded, by such towering greats as Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Nat “King” Cole, Nina Simone, and Ella Fitzgerald, to name a random few.

Therefore, Mr. Veloso, my own sincerest and humblest apologies are in order for your adventurous Foreign Sound. In view of the foregoing, it’s really not so “foreign-sounding” after all. ☼

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

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