Are you ready for your next musical-theater challenge? Are you willing to hear about the artistic and personal life of the Brazilian Bombshell, Carmen Miranda? I don’t know why this subject hasn’t occurred to you before, but it would be a natural fit for your background and musical-theater abilities. And considering your surname, the (ahem) obvious choice!
Speaking of which, my name is Josmar Lopes, but everyone calls me Joe. You see, I am a former immigrant myself. I came to the United States in 1959 from São Paulo, Brazil. I was five years old at the time. I grew up in the inner city, i.e. the South Bronx, near Fort Apache. You were born in Washington Heights and grew up in the Linwood area. My family and I lived for eight years at the Bronx River Houses — on the 14th floor to be exact — so we were intimately familiar with adversity and difficult times, much like the characters in your first hit play, In the Heights. In that, we share a commonality.
I recently watched a clip from the CBS Sunday Morning program in which both you and author Ron Chernow admitted that Alexander Hamilton’s life story was the ultimate immigrant take on the theme of making it in America.
In view of this, I can say with absolute authority that Carmen Miranda’s story is Hamilton’s twice over: she wasn’t born in Brazil, as many people mistakenly believe, but in Portugal. Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha was brought to Rio de Janeiro (the country’s capital at the time) in 1909 by her mother when she was less than a year old.
Incredibly, Carmen never became a Brazilian citizen, for which she was severely criticized. And despite a successful ten-year stage and recording career in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, Carmen longed for fame in the U.S., especially in Hollywood. Fate would eventually come to tap her on the shoulder.
In 1939, famed theater producer and impresario Lee Shubert was told of this sizzling new attraction by various individuals who had caught her act at the Urca Casino in Rio. He sent advance men to report back and keep an eye on the Brazilian’s progress. Upon his arrival there — and after watching Carmen perform live on stage — Shubert decided to invite Carmen to come to Boston and New York, and eventually make her Broadway debut in the musical revue, The Streets of Paris, in which she sang the number, “South American Way.” From there, it was a motion-picture contract with Darryl Zanuck’s Twentieth Century-Fox Studios.
Carmen stayed in America for a solid year, returning to Brazil in 1940, where she was “greeted” with a cold shoulder by the elite of Brazilian society for having made her fame away from her home country. One could add that her story from this point on was a “rags to riches to more riches” tale. Carmen decided to make America her home, which in return made her the highest paid woman entertainer in the business, only to end up in a miserable, loveless marriage to a minor American producer, an addiction to alcohol and barbiturates, electro-shock therapy, and a premature death at age 46. Whew!
How does all this connect to your personal style of writing and composition? Well, to put it plainly: Carmen was a uniquely gifted talent, in that she carved out her own individual performance style. She was more than just a singer and an entertainer: she was Brazil’s most famous international export. Her rapid-fire delivery and natural flair for language and self-expression came across not only on screen in those colorful Fox musicals of the 1940s, but in her many Brazilian recordings from the period 1929 to 1939, the decade before she immigrated (for the second time in her life) to America.
As evidence of her uniqueness, check out her classic appearance in Greenwich Village, a Fox musical from 1944, in particular two numbers: Nobel Sissle and Eubie Blake’s “I’m Just Wild about Harry”; and “Give Me a Band and a Bandana” by Leo Robin and Nacio Herb Brown. In both, Carmen interpolates some lines in her native Portuguese that, believe it not, could have been harbingers of rap and hip-hop (Brazilian style, of course!). It’s the kind of thing that Carmen did naturally.
If all this intrigues you, Lin-Manuel, then please let me know. I have had wide-ranging experience with Broadway and theater people, for example, Stephen C. Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey of Front Row Productions. I worked closely with them in our efforts to bring the 1959 cult film Black Orpheus to the New York stage. They can vouch for my proficiency in the area of cultural consultant. Not only was I successful in helping to obtain the rights to the original Brazilian play Orfeu da Conceição, but I also introduced Stephen and Alia to the team of Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho, the most successful producer-director duo in Brazilian musical theater today. In addition, I helped to translate (from the original Portuguese to American English) the team’s version of Black Orpheus, as well as Möeller-Botelho’s original theater piece, 7 – The Musical, a modern interpretation of the Sleeping Beauty-Cinderella fairy tales.
The most fascinating aspect of my association with Claudio Botelho was his challenge to me to write an original stage treatment based on Carmen Miranda’s life. I did so — willingly — and called it Bye-Bye, My Samba (or, in Portuguese, Adeus, batucada, after one of her hit songs). Much as you were inspired by Chernow’s biography to write Hamilton: An American Musical, I too have met the challenge head on of doing justice to my fellow Brazilian compatriot. It took a great deal of research and study, and long hours at home contemplating the best way to present this subject to audiences unfamiliar with Carmen’s history. I can tell you that I learned quite a lot about the real Carmen Miranda.
In spite of his poverty and illegitimacy and lowly station in life, Hamilton developed supreme self-confidence and a built-in reliance on his intelligence and work ethic. As for myself, I can only boast of my dedication and thoroughness to whatever project I work on. With that said, I am confident you will give this pitch of mine the dedication and thoroughness of thought it requires. As I stated at the outset, it’s a natural!
Thank you so much for your time!
P.S. We LOVED your play In the Heights, along with your Spanish translation of West Side Story. As a matter of fact, Stephen Byrd wanted to develop the Black Orpheus project along similar lines — that is, intersperse some Brazilian-Portuguese dialogue into the English translation. If that isn’t a compliment to the fine job you did with In the Heights, I don’t know what is!
Copyright (c) 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Of Concerts and Symposiums
What’s old is new. And what’s new gets old fast.
This was the takeaway from my visit in June 2014 to the Strathmore Music and Arts Center in North Bethesda, Maryland. As part of their week-long celebration, “Bringing Bossa Nova to the United States,” and in honor of the 50th anniversary of the landmark Verve album Jazz Samba recorded by Stan Getz and the Charlie Byrd Trio, I was invited to take part in the Jazz Samba Legacy Symposium on Saturday, June 7, 2014.
Among the featured events that week was the world premiere rough-cut screening of the documentary Bossa Nova — the Brazilian Music that Charmed the World, directed and produced by videographer Bret Primack and co-produced by music journalist, educator, guitarist, and bandleader Ken Avis, along with a Q & A session with Buddy Deppenschmidt, who played on the classic Jazz Samba. I had the immense pleasure of meeting and interviewing the famed jazz drummer, performer, and teacher on Sunday, June 8, 2014, at the Strathmore Music Center’s Education Room 309, which I have previously written about and posted (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/its-jazz-samba-time-celebrating-the-50th-anniversary-of-the-landmark-bossa-nova-album/)
Prior to our interview, my wife Regina and I took an extensive tour of the Jazz Samba Project Exhibit, co-curated by Georgina Javor, the Strathmore’s former Director of Programming, and the aforementioned Mr. Avis. The exhibit showed only a small fraction of the extensive Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives, at the University of the District of Columbia, which was itself curated by Dr. Judith A. Korey, Professor of Music, whom I also met and spoke to.
Felix E. Grant was a local Washington, D.C. radio broadcaster who took a personal interest in bringing jazz and Brazil’s music and culture to American shores. It was a fabulous exhibit! We were extremely pleased with its breadth and scope, in particular the “walls of sound” (my term) wherein album covers of well known and obscure recordings from the late 1950s up through the mid-60s were displayed up-and-down and across the room’s walls. We had some truly memorable moments re-visiting and re-connecting with bossa nova greats (and not-so-greats) from years past. The entire display reflected a high degree of professionalism and respect for Brazilian music — a most satisfying experience for us.
One of the highlights was a prominently showcased, generously proportioned coffee-table tome (a copy of which I subsequently ordered online) entitled Bossa Nova and the Rise of Brazilian Music in the 1960s, and from which the above exhibition was drawn.
Published in 2010 by Soul Jazz Books, a division of Soul Jazz Records, this hardcover volume is a collection of bossa nova record album cover art work from the Odeon, Elenco, Philips, and other labels from the period in question. It was compiled by Gilles Peterson, a British-based DJ, record collector, and record label owner, and Stuart Baker, the founder and proprietor of the Soul Jazz label.
Between its covers were featured breathtakingly beautiful modernist and revolutionary designs (some hinting at the coming “psychedelic” era) that reflected “the radical and exciting idealism of Brazil at the start of the 1960s,” an idealism that was quickly squashed with the advent of the military dictatorship post-1964 and the subsequent crackdown of 1968.
The fading memory of those bitter times and my fellow Brazilians’ nearly two-decade long struggle to free themselves from the generals’ iron grip have left some young people — and a growing number of old-timers with faulty recollections — with an alarming nostalgia for “the way things were.” This self-deluded yearning for the purported “good old days,” where Ordem e Progresso (“Order and Progress”) — curiously, the country’s motto stamped on the Brazilian flag — remains an unrealized promise, will serve as an excellent example of our penchant for hankering after a non-existent past.
My observation above of things that are old being new and those that are new getting old stems as well from a Friday evening concert of June 6, 2014, by Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias and the Grammy Award-winning Niteroi-born singer-musician Sérgio Mendes and his band. Both Sérgio and Eliane have long pedigrees in the pop-music business going back many decades.
In Eliane’s case, her piano playing craft on the night of the concert was anything but old. Quite the contrary, she displayed finger-snapping pep and vigor to burn on the old 88s. Her treatment of material by Jobim, Ary Barroso, and Ronaldo Bôscoli, in addition to some of her own compositions, was well-nigh perfect, with just the right amount of zing and pizzazz in all the right places. Eliane was helped by a crack band of first-rate players, consisting of husband Marc Johnson on upright bass and the carioca-born Rafael Barata on drums. Barata made a particularly spectacular impression with his lightning-fast solos and fancy stick-work — why, the man was a veritable human octopus!
The second half of the program, which starred Mendes on keyboards and vocals, and his wife Gracinha Leporace as soloist providing backup support, included toward the end a re-imagined “rap” version of Jorge Ben Jor’s signature “Mas Que Nada” tune — fine and dandy in execution, but hardly an audience favorite with the over-50 crowd that predominated — and a final encore of Mendes, John Powell, Carlinhos Brown, Mikael Mutti, and Siedah Garrett’s “Real in Rio” from their 2011 animated collaboration Rio (produced by Blue Sky Studios) that fell flat and virtually sucked the air out of the good vibes left over from “Mas Que Nada.”
Mixing the old with the new, then, turned out to not only to be a mixed bag but one that left a big, fat hole in an otherwise excellent program shared by two established Brazilian artists.
The Offer I Couldn’t Refuse
Before I get into the particulars of the Jazz Samba Legacy Symposium, let me recount what led up to my participation in that weekend invitational. It was Buddy Deppenschmidt himself who informed me about this event in Bethesda. He sent me the link back in mid-March 2014, which I swiftly checked out. As I did so, my wife called me to say that somebody from the Jazz Samba Fest had phoned my home asking for additional information. Now that was quick! My wife tried to get the name of the lady who called, but was unable to understand the semi-garbled message.
My initial thought, if indeed I’d ever get the rare opportunity to be up there with the Giants of Jazz Samba and Bossa Nova, was to discuss Black Orpheus (that is, the original play and musical), how it all came about, how the Vinicius de Moraes and Antonio Carlos Jobim partnership came together, and all that jazz. Might as well put my knowledge to good use, at least that was my impression, since I had been involved in trying to bring the project to Broadway for the last, what, six or more years!
Finally, I received an e-mail from Ms. Georgina Javor, the young lady who had called my home. She would love to have me attend some of the festivities and asked if I had ever moderated any discussions before? I told her that yes, I had moderated a few as well as interviewed several personalities in the recent past, and that I would love to moderate the Q & A session with Buddy.
Georgina spelled out the terms of my participation, to which I accepted. In addition, she kindly provided tickets to the Elias-Mendes Friday night concert, which for us turned out to be the spicy topping on this all-Brazilian pastry.
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
Born nearly a century ago, the man known as “The Little Poet” lived la vie de Bohème and wrote the play Orfeu da Conceição, while bringing the sumptuous sounds of bossa nova to the musical forefront
Saturday, October 19, 2013 marked the centenary of the birth of one of Brazil’s most recognizable and controversial personalities. A talented man of letters, as well as a poet, a composer, musician, performer, and lyricist, Marcus Vinitius [sic] Cruz de Moraes — more widely known as Vinicius de Moraes — was born in Gávea, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. He earned a law degree in his native city without having to give up his all-consuming interests in music, philosophy, dance, theater, and cinema (in particular, the silent cinema), along with his love for English literature and language, which he studied at Oxford University (1938-41).
Upon his return to Brazil, Vinicius began writing film criticism for a Rio daily, in addition to answering letters in an “advice to the lovelorn” column. In line with the above, he also worked as a civil servant, had close encounters with maverick filmmaker Orson Welles and social critic Waldo Frank (1942), both of whom made extended visits to Brazil and were instrumental in increasing his awareness of social causes; published several books of verse; spent quality time in Hollywood (1946-50); and participated in film festivals throughout Europe — all while serving in the Brazilian Foreign Ministry.
Vinicius had a weakness for the opposite sex, and was rumored to have married a total of nine times. While in Hollywood, he, along with his first wife Beatriz (nicknamed Tati) and their young daughter Susana, practically resided in Carmen Miranda’s Beverly Hills household. They were close friends until Carmen’s unforeseen demise.
In 1954, on the advice of another poet, Vinicius entered a draft of his play in verse, Orfeu da Conceição, in a writing contest. It won one of the top prizes. On leave from his post with the Foreign Service, Vinicius united with a fledgling composer named Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim. Together, the Little Poet and the publicity shy Tom brought Orfeu to the stage of the Teatro Municipal, in Rio, on September 25, 1956. It was the beginning of a beautiful songwriting relationship that resulted in a flurry of classic tunes, among them “Chega de saudade” (“No More Blues”), “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Once I Loved,” “How Insensitive,” “One Note Samba,” “Se todos fossem iguais a você” (“Someone to Light Up My Life”), and many more.
In 1962, Vinicius, with the presence of Jobim and the young João Gilberto, made his singing debut at the Au Bon Gourmet nightclub in Rio. From there on, the Little Poet followed the performing path, later teaming up with a new partner, Toquinho, from the 1970s up until his death in July 1980.
The release and popularization of the film Black Orpheus (1959), produced by Sacha Gordine and directed by Marcel Camus, and the subsequent worldwide acclaim it garnered (including the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and the Oscar™ for Best Foreign Film) brought renewed focus on Brazil — especially on Vinicius’ subsequent work, which numbered some 400 songs, many of them with the top talents of the day: Jobim, Pixinguinha, Baden Powell, Carlos Lyra, Ary Barroso, Chico Buarque, and Toquinho.
Orpheus, the Myth and the Man
Notwithstanding these myriad activities, Vinicius’ serious side was reflected in Orfeu da Conceição, in which he expressed outright concern for the poor and disadvantaged. But why did he choose this particular subject to dramatize?
To put it simply, the Orpheus legend happened to be one of those recurring motifs that have managed, in both theory and practice, to adapt themselves rather easily to other media — most opportunely to the operatic, cinematic, and theatrical art forms.
For starters, such foreign-born dramatists as Oskar Kokoschka, Jean Anouilh, and Jean Cocteau, along with their American counterpart, playwright Tennessee Williams, all drew inspiration from his mythological fable, with varying degrees of success. Until Black Orpheus made its initial worldwide impact in 1959-60, French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau‘s pairing of Orphée (1949) with his later The Testament of Orpheus (1960) had previously blazed the cinematic trail, while Sidney Lumet‘s The Fugitive Kind (1959), starring Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani, in turn took up the slack from the American side; it was supposed to have been the film adaptation of Williams‘ talkie stage play Orpheus Descending (and a not very good one, at that). Next to Cocteau’s classics, it bombed badly.
As one might have guessed, there were scores of lyric versions lying about the opera house, too, beginning with those of early Baroque masters Jacopo Peri, Claudio Monteverdi, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Christoph Willibald von Gluck. In the mid-19th century, the wildly popular Jacques Offenbach, a German-Jewish émigré to Gay Paree, composed the comic operetta Orpheus in the Underworld. And in the early 1920s, Kokoschka‘s Expressionistic play Orpheus und Eurydice was transformed into a modern opera by the Austrian Ernst Krenek, creator of the Jazz-Age hit Jonny spielf auf (“Johnny Strikes Up”); while in our own time, an offbeat addition to the standard repertoire (by American minimalist Philip Glass) caught moviegoers by surprise with an ingenious musical rewrite of Cocteau‘s art film as an operatic tour de force.
There was even a modern dance version, titled simply Orpheus (1948), commissioned by the Ballet Society of New York, with music by the always-acerbic Igor Stravinsky and choreography by Russian ballet master George Balanchine. These tantalizing tidbits of the Orpheus legend were but the tips of the musical iceberg.
This was all well and good, but what attributes did the Little Poet find in the myth that would eventually lead him to produce such an influential hit? Vinicius expressed interest in the tale as far back as the early forties. His own words will suffice as to where and how his inspiration might have been derived:
“It was around 1942 that one night [at the home of my uncle, the architect Carlos Leão], after reading once again about the [Orpheus] myth in an old book on Greek mythology, I suddenly realized that it contained the framework for a tragedy set among the black population of Rio. The legend of the artist who, thanks to the fascination of his music, was able to descend into Hades to search for his beloved Eurydice… might very well take place in one of Rio’s shantytowns…
“I started to jot my vision down into a few verses, which then became a full act, finalizing it just as the sun rose over Guanabara, now visible through the window. It was another six years after that, while living in Los Angeles, that I was able to add the last two acts, and even later in 1953, after misplacing the third act and having to rewrite it, in Paris, before it was completed.”
On September 19, 1956, one week before the musical play’s official opening of September 25, at the imposing Teatro Municipal in downtown Rio de Janeiro — and three months after the commencement of stage rehearsals, which were constantly interrupted by his consular activities — playwright and poet Vinicius de Moraes dashed off this poignant dedication:
“This play is an homage to the Brazilian black man, to whom I owe so much; and not just for his organic contribution to the culture of this country — but more for his impassioned lifestyle that has allowed me, with little to no effort, by a simple spark of the imagination, to feel in the [inspiration] of the divine Thracian musician, that same inspiration [born of] the divine musicians from our own native carioca hills.”
The all-black, all-Brazilian cast — by and large, a fairly radical undertaking for its time — starred Haroldo Costa as Orfeu, Daisy Paiva as Eurídice, Léa Garcia (who played Serafina in the French film version) as Mira, singer Ciro Monteiro as Apolo, and Zeny Pereira as Clio. Other members of the troupe included Adalberto Silva (Plutão), Pérola Negra (Proserpina), Waldir Maia (Corifeu), Francisca de Queiroz (Dama Negra), Clementino Luiz (Cérbero), Abdias do Nascimento, one of the founders of Brazil’s Experimental Black Theatre, as Aristeu the beekeeper, and Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump, Adhemar Ferreira da Silva, as one of the choristers as well as the skeletal Black Death figure in the movie.
Orfeu da Conceição packed them in at the Municipal for a solid week, up through September 30; after which it moved to the Teatro República (no longer in existence) for a month-long stay. A last-ditch effort to switch venues to São Paulo, however, collapsed due to a lack of available funding and space.
Truth be told, Vinicius saw himself as Orfeu. He certainly put much of his own tastes, passion, and outlook into this noble creation. Notwithstanding the fact that Orfeu was black (or what we might describe as Afro-Brazilian) and the playwright was white (of Portuguese descent, with traces of German, Italian, Hungarian, and Argentine blood in his veins), Vinicius commonly referred to himself as “O branco mais preto do Brasil” (“The blackest white man in Brazil”).
Always a heavy drinker, he rarely performed on stage without his trusty bottle of whiskey close at hand. A forerunner and follower of the liberated lifestyle of the swinging 1960s, as the decade began Vinicius had given himself over to the life of a sensualist. Consequently, some things had to go by the wayside. For neglecting his diplomatic duties, he was expelled from the Foreign Service in 1969. After a series of health crises (stroke, heart problems), brought on by his continuing alcoholism, Vinicius finally expired in his bath on July 9, 1980. It is said that he died in the arms of his last song partner, Toquinho.
Despite the controversies that surrounded him in life, Vinicius de Moraes was officially reinstated into the Brazilian diplomatic corps in 2006, in recognition of his many contributions to the cultural and literary life of his beloved Brazil. Finally, in February 2011, with President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva present and the surviving members of the Moraes family in attendance, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies elevated him to the posthumous post of Ambassador, with all the requisite honors intact.
Vinicius lived, Vinicius loved — wildly, passionately, without restraints. He went through Hell, much like his forlorn Orfeu. And like Orfeu, he came back from purgatory — cleansed, triumphant, renewed, and absolved of his sins… while searching for his drink.
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes
“Playing” for Time
The most striking thing about the episodes in Orfeu da Conceição is how little they have in common with Marcel Camus’ rosy-eyed vistas of Rio: no streetcar-conducting lead; no enchanting ferryboat ride; no colorful costume pageant, as such; no return and parting of Orfeu’s lost love; and no voodoo mumbo-jumbo, either, although Dama Negra does get to perform a bit of macumba during portions of the play’s opening act. Oh, and Cerberus, the guardian canine of the realm, puts in a guest howl at the second act dance-club sequence.
Otherwise, in Camus’ grandiose treatment of Carnival, Orfeu is not torn to shreds by an angry mob of whores but instead falls off a steep cliff holding on to his expired love after being conked on the head with a rock. If Vinicius de Moraes hadn’t left the theater by that point, he most assuredly would have done so here, so dissimilar was his play from the movie — the undeniable irony of which never fails to impress, in that there would be no staged play at all without the insistence of the French for a screen treatment. Vinicius himself admitted as much: “And it was in Paris… that I met the producer Sacha Gordine, who was interested in the story and wanted to make a movie of it. So it was really the movie that made possible the staging of the play…”
On the face of it, though, Diegues’ 1999 re-filming does come closest to actually carrying out, to a limited extent, the poet’s intentions, more than adequately preserving the systemic violence of the hills that was markedly absent from Camus’ freshly scrubbed reading. He even threw in Orfeu’s parents as a good-will gesture to the original.*
That said, neither picture even remotely approaches Orfeu da Conceição’s lyrical foundation, its soul-stirring poetic imagery, or its classical refinement and construct. That the piece intermittently betrays melodramatic overtones, seriously over-playing its hand when it comes to the emotional and physical state of the title character’s suffering and distress (think Milton’s Samson Agonistes) makes it a major liability.
Only Jobim’s perfectly-limned musical responses keep it from wallowing in its own excess. About the worst that could be said of his score was that it was too tasteful and refined for such violent displays of passion.
Factor in a whopping Fat Tuesday celebration and a healthy dollop of Afro-Brazilian dance sequences, choreographed by the debuting Lina de Luca, and voilá: you have the makings of a total work of art, a stunning stage realization (albeit in primitive form) encompassing a veritable periodic table of theatrical elements — drama, music, poetry, dance, setting, and scenic and lighting design — with all the pomp and majesty, as well as the flaws, inherent in that much-bandied-about term “opera,” or, in this case, “drama with music,” which is a more accurate description.
Does everything that has been written about Orfeu da Conceição make it the Brazilian musical to end all musicals? No, not necessarily. Should we continue to hold out hope, then, that Orfeu might one day be restored to his proper place on the world stage? Anything is possible, if the opportunity were ever to arise. (Broadway producers, take note.) But, as we have tirelessly strived to point out to readers, Vinicius de Moraes was incontrovertibly put in the awkward position of having to bear witness to the cinematic “decimation” of his most-prized work.
The record clearly shows that Vinicius walked out on the Brazilian premiere of Camus’ Black Orpheus, the first of two film adaptations. Doesn’t it seem odd, though, that the world-weary poet would have survived such a profound jolt to his system by the palantir-like glimpse he was afforded of the future misdirection of his country — where it was headed and how those in the public trust conspired to keep it off course — only to lash out in the one way an artist of his standing could lash out: by taking the “law” (or his feet) into his own hands, as the situation demanded?
That’s an awfully big “maybe,” when you come right down to it. In support of his own modern view of the ancient Greek fable, director Diegues took care not to disturb the playwright’s easily offended fans (get thee behind me, Dama Negra!). “In the original play,” he argued, “there’s a poem in which Vinicius says that everything in the world dies except for Orpheus’ art, which is forever — and I tried to visualize that.”
The actual lines, which are given to the members of the chorus and form the basis for the play’s ontological outlook and conclusion, vary somewhat from his recollection but are no less inspiring:
Para matar Orfeu não basta a Morte.
Tudo morre que nasce e que viveu
Só não morre no mundo a voz de Orfeu.
To kill Orfeu, Death is not enough.
Everything that is born and lives must die
In the world only Orfeu’s voice survives.
It is incumbent upon us to insist that, even if the country itself were to fall off a cliff — which, in as much as it pained The Little Poet to learn, it very nearly did at key moments in its recent past — Orfeu’s voice (and, by suggestion, Brazil’s music) would live on in the world as well.
* * *
One of Vinicius’ closest contemporaries, writer and poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, offered this discerning opinion of his friend: he was “the only Brazilian poet,” Drummond decreed, “who dared to live under the sign of passion. That is, of poetry in its natural state.” Orfeu da Conceição, Moraes’ most ambitious literary and musical creation, was the complete fulfillment of this sign of passion, his poetic and unvarnished imitation of slum life in its natural state. God help the person who came between him and that passion!
Author Lúcia Nagib’s Brazil on Screen: Cinema Novo, New Cinema, Utopia goes into excruciating detail on the “natural state” of writer-director Carlos Diegues’ passion for Orfeu. One scene, in particular, has a special poignancy for her:
“As the film draws to a close, the favela hill returns to its everyday violence after the ‘great illusion of carnival’ [sic] is over, as sung in ‘Felicidade,’ a song by Jobim and Vinicius, delivered with innocent simplicity by Jobim’s adolescent daughter, Maria Luiza Jobim, who plays a minor role in the film.”
The opening line of that number, which happens to fit in perfectly with this post’s main heading — and which is also the first one to be heard in the French-made Black Orpheus — is simplicity itself, yet speaks volumes of the illusory effect the annual ritual of Carnival has had on the lives of the poor:
Tristeza não tem fim
A felicidade do pobre parece
A grande ilusão do carnaval
A gente trabalha o ano inteiro
Por um momento de sonho
Pra fazer a fantasia
De rei ou de pirata ou jardineira
Pra tudo se acabar na quarta-feira
Sadness has no end
But happiness does
A poor man’s happiness is like
The great illusion of Carnival
You work all year long
For a brief fulfillment of a dream
To play the part of
A gardener, a pirate or a king
Only to have it all end on Wednesday morn
What cannot be deemed a “great illusion” is Carnival’s restorative power; how its raw, incessant energy seems to electrify every one of the parade participants gathered, in spite of four solid days of nonstop action and fun. After a highly favored samba school falls to a lesser rival; after the drums go silent and the crowds begin to disperse, you’re awakened from “a brief fulfillment of a dream” to the reality at hand.
It’s the same instinctive feeling Vinicius must have sensed when he first realized what had been wrought upon his carioca tragedy. It is not a pretty sight, what with all those drained and disappointed faces. But hey, there’s always next year, which is another way of saying that “happiness” will return to them — in some way, shape or form — se Deus quiser, or “God willing,” an everyday Brazilian expression; along with the other assorted rituals of one’s existence: births, deaths, anniversaries, baptisms, weddings, funerals, and what have you.
Life has a continuous ebb and flow — a beginning and an ending — and “sadness,” as our title implies, is just an orderly part of that flow. In that respect, the melancholy air, “A Felicidade,” could never have been able to bookend Black Orpheus and the much-later Orfeu, much less come to the fore, had it not been for the sublime music of bossa nova. What is more, bossa nova could never have achieved the worldwide fame and recognition it doubtless deserved without the fortuitous teaming of Jobim with Moraes, the irrepressible partnership that started it all.
In Barack Obama’s autobiographical Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, he specifically mentions Black Orpheus by name as “the most beautiful thing” his mother had ever seen. “The film, a groundbreaker of sorts due to its mostly black, Brazilian cast, had been made in the fifties. The story line was simple: the myth of the ill-fated Orpheus and Eurydice set in the favelas of Rio during Carnival. In Technicolor splendor, set against scenic green hills, the black and brown Brazilians sang and danced and strummed guitars like carefree birds in colorful plumage.
“About halfway through the movie,” he continued, at almost the exact spot that Vinicius had gotten up and left the screening, Obama decided that he had “seen enough, and turned to my mother to see if she might be ready to go. But her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment, I felt as if I were being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.”
Here’s one simple fantasy we might consider setting by the wayside: if there is anyone out there who winds up in the same, awkward position a temperamental Brazilian poet — or a future U.S. president — once found himself in, let him declare, here and now, he will not slip out of the movie theater… no matter what happens inside. ☼
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes
* The role of Orfeu’s mother — in this version, called simply Conceição — was played by veteran actress Zezé Motta, who in her earliest days as an ingénue played the lead in director Diegues’ first big international screen success, the feature Xica da Silva from 1976.
It’s Not Easy Being Green
Aware of the transitory nature of fame in the artistic universe, “The Master” Tom Jobim gave a shout in his later years to the damage being done to the environment. “They want to destroy the thing they can’t create,” he warned, in Carlos Lacerda’s wide-ranging magazine exposé. But it wasn’t all gloom and doom from his part, not by a long shot.
“When a tree is cut down here on Earth,” Jobim pondered wistfully, “it will grow again somewhere else. When I die, it is to this place that I want to go, where trees live in peace.” Tom was thinking and acting “green” long before it became fashionable for celebrities in the spotlight to do so.
He expressed some of those same concerns to writer-lyricist Gene Lees, the person credited with the English-language versions of “Corcovado” (“Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars”), “Desafinado” (“Out of Tune”), “Chovendo na roseira” (“Double Rainbow”), and other Jobim favorites. “We are building a desert, my friend,” Tom told him. Lees never forgot that ecological message, which he repeated verbatim in his liner notes to Jazz Masters 13: Antonio Carlos Jobim, a no-frills edition of excerpts compiled by Verve Records and released in 1994, the year of the composer’s passing.
In 1995, Sony International issued Antonio Brasileiro, Jobim’s commercial swan song. It presented a “killer” lineup of greats, among them Ron Carter and Tião Neto on bass, Marcio Montarroyos on trumpet and flugelhorn, living legend Dorival Caymmi on guest vocals, and Sting, the original Mr. Greenpeace, joining the bashful Brazilian in a breathy rendition of “How Insensitive.” Norman Gimbel, who re-worked “The Girl from Ipanema” for the North American market, provided the idiomatic English text for that one as well.
The track also turned up on Antilles/Verve’s Red, Hot & Rio anthology from 1996. Sinatra he wasn’t, but the front-line rock star-cum-Amnesty International advocate, the Stinger, gave Ol’ Blue Eyes a respectable run for his Vegas buck; it was light years ahead of Frank’s deadly dull reading with Jobim (whose portion was taped in Rio by producer Phil Ramone) of the Bart Howard standard, “Fly Me to the Moon,” on Duets II from Capitol.
Tom’s youngest daughter, Maria Luiza Jobim, contributed her own (at the time) slim vocal line to the languidly-paced “Forever Green,” the moving lyrics of which say all that needed to be said about dad’s desire to rescue the planet from man’s self-destructive impulses:
Let there be flowers
Let there be spring
We have few hours
To save our dream
Let there be light
Let the bird sing
Let the forest be forever green
Little blue planet
In great need of care
Crystal clear streams
Lots of clean air
Let’s save the Earth
What a wonderful thing
Let it be forever green
Her famously subdued parent even dedicated a fitting ode to his little girl. He dubbed it “Samba de Maria Luiza.” Likewise, Vinicius, who himself had concocted over 400 songs in toto, was not above tossing a few melodic treats to kit and kin. During the period that he was living in France, and before clinching the deal with his future working partner Tom, the poet composed a lilting waltz tune, “Valsa de Susana,” for his progeny to remember him by.
He later considered placing it into the proposed Orfeu da Conceição project, especially after playing the song for an enthusiastic Jobim. Naturally, the name was changed to protect the innocent. And so it went: from a ravishingly simple melody to a full-fledged orchestral passage with solo-guitar accompaniment, the rechristened “Valsa de Eurídice” (the title by which it is known to this day) can be heard, on an old Odeon recording, as part of the Overture to the poet’s stage hit.
Most of the numbers on the ten-inch long-play were given to a single vocalist — Roberto Paiva, in fact; not what one would expect from an original-cast album, but good enough for the play’s purposes. Because of Orfeu’s obvious musical and lyrical inclinations, the songs were deliberately designed to emanate from his poetic lips only. (For the most part, both movie versions respected and/or maintained the tradition.)
The lone exception was the magical “Monólogo de Orfeu,” beautifully intoned by the Brazilian bard himself, with Luiz Bonfá soloing on acoustic guitar and Tom Jobim leading the studio orchestra. It is the sole, surviving sonic record — an ancient relic from a long-forgotten musical past — of that legendary Rio stage production.
Stop the World, I Want to Get Off
As the eighties and nineties wore on, Tom was anything but worn out. He took up touring again and, for good measure, brought along his Banda Nova (“New Band”), a crack ensemble of veteran players mixed with current Jobim-Caymmi-Morelenbaum family members (as well as the young Maúcha Adnet), to such estimable locales as Brazil, Europe, and the United States. These concerts were particularly well received by a newer generation of listeners, many of who had grown up without samba and bossa nova to kick around but were willing to give the composer’s “romantically tinged” output a second spin.
It was in the summer of 1992 that Jobim finally settled his accounts with his fellow countryman (or maybe it was the other way around) by serving as the “theme” of a parade staged, in his honor, by the Mangueira Samba School of Rio.
We don’t want to belabor the point that everything under the carioca sun ends in Carnival. Rather, let’s look at it as a delayed reaction to all that “the most beautiful man in Brazil” had done for the land that once tried to tune his music out; only two years more, and he was gone from their midst.
Author Ruy Castro accurately pegged the national mood of the time as conciliatory toward Tom: “Brazil, sick and tired of so many mediocrities, saw in his work (and in him, as a man) a reflection of how it needed to have seen itself.”
Jobim’s classic number, “Se todos fossem iguais a você,” translated word-for-word as “If Everyone Were Like You,” helped push this sentiment along, with celebrants singing and playing the tune over and over again in the streets of his hometown. Posthumously adding Tom Jobim’s name to Marvelous City’s Galeão International Airport was another, far less musical means of addressing the issue. It may have been too little, but it was never too late.
In the end a mighty oak had been cut down on Earth, only to grow again somewhere else: Antonio Carlos Jobim found his eternal peace among the trees of Cemitério São João Batista (Cemetery of St. John the Baptist) in Rio de Janeiro, not far from the Botanical Garden of his youth, and near to the tomb of his good friend, Vinicius de Moraes. They were born fourteen years apart.
At his death, Jobim followed the path that Vinicius had earlier laid out for him by the same fourteen-year spread. Let it never be said of either artist that he who had come before — or after — wasn’t fit to tie the other’s bootstraps. (We could be wrong about this, but it’s believed they preferred slippers and loafers to boots.)
For the poet, all was forgiven at last via his posthumous reinstatement, in September 2006, to his former post with the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Those relations were never cordial to begin with, but whatever animosity once existed between him and the Brazilian State Department was cast aside in lieu of services rendered, reinforced by the 2004 publication of the Vinicius de Moraes Songbook – Orfeu, followed in 2007 by part two of his Songbook – Biography and Selected Works.
(End of Part Ten)
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes
The Hits Keep on Coming
There are no existing records (at least, none that we are aware of) of Carnival taking over the lives of two of the most naturally gifted songwriting talents Brazil has ever had the good fortune to produce: composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes. Both hit the ground running with their very first collaboration, and hardly paused to draw breath thereafter.
With the conclusion in November 1956 of their Orfeu da Conceição, both took on further challenges by throwing themselves into new work, the result of which led to an enviable (and nearly unbroken) string of song hits. “Between the years 1958 and 1965,” by writer Ruy Castro’s reckoning, “Vinicius produced close to 50 titles with Tom [alone], 40 with Baden Powell, and 30 with Ary Barroso, Moacyr Santos and others,” to include such promising newcomers as Carlos Lyra, Edu Lobo, Francis Hime, and Toquinho.
Researcher Sérgio Ximenes put the total for Tom at “over 250 works, with 29 albums recorded under his own name,” and as a guest artist or participant in approximately 37 more.
Even more impressive, musicologist Jairo Severiano, in his Uma História da Música Popular Brasileira, records that, “In the period 1963-1994, Jobim composed a hundred some-odd pieces of music that, taking into account those he had completed earlier, reached 230 recorded compositions. Besides sambas, sambas-canções, and other characteristic constructions…there were songs dedicated to ecological themes, expressed in his usual good-natured style and tinged with a degree of romanticism.”
Severiano cites such supreme examples of his art as “Águas de março” (“The Waters of March”), “Chovendo na roseira” (“Double Rainbow”), “Matita perê” (“Song of the Thrush”), “Passarim,” Borzeguim,” “Chansong” — a play on chanson, the French word for “song” — “Anos dourados” (“Looks Like December”), “Sabià,” “Retrato em branco e preto” (“Portrait in Black and White”), and those pretty little ditties with ladies in their titles (“Ana Luiza,” “Bebel,” “Lígia,” and “Luiza”).
The more songs the tunesmith turned out, it would seem, the more accomplished he became at it. The only thing that Jobim had failed at evolving was an appropriately thick skin to go with his compositional flair, something not even his most frequent working partner Vinicius had bothered to grow over a lifetime of living large in the public eye.
According to the composer’s self-analysis, timidity is the word that best described his reticent comportment around others. But be not deceived: Tom was no pushover when it came to defending his artistic turf; neither did he find it necessary to berate the opposition in the same demonstrative mien The Little Poet loved to exhibit. Audacity, intuition, curiosity, duality, obstinacy, unconventionality, and universality were the other key attributes of Jobim’s personal makeup, and they undoubtedly showed.
Still lionized as “the most beautiful man in Brazil” (which he was), he had grown increasingly discomfited over reports in the national press of his becoming too Americanized — journalistic shorthand for “going native” — for his introduction of jazz and bebop elements into the corpus of his work. (Actually, jazz owed more to bossa nova than bossa nova owed to jazz, but that made little difference to the naysayers of his day.)
These were the same baseless accusations that had dogged the footsteps of the late Carmen Miranda in her prime, the kind that forced the popular entertainer to pull up stakes in her home country and go seek her fortune elsewhere (in the United States, to be exact). Now they were winding their insidious way into Jobim’s world as well. He was even accused at one point of adopting the American form of “Tom,” a nickname younger sister Helena had tagged him with as a boy, as proof of his outside aspirations.
For a man whose middle name also happened to be Brasileiro (Portuguese for “Brazilian”), this was a savage blow indeed to his integrity and self-worth. Overcoming his own well-documented reserve, Jobim seriously contemplated putting out some sort of riposte while maintaining his vaunted coolness under fire, even in the face of mounting critical concerns.
His much-publicized 1970 interview with left-wing journalist and ex-politician Carlos Lacerda, for the Brazilian magazine Manchete (“the only serious piece that explains who I am,” Jobim announced to all), is a fair indication of how he conducted himself in hand-to-hand combat with the press. In it, Tom simply took on the same E daí? (“What of it?”) attitude the equally good natured Heitor Villa-Lobos once opted for when confronted with a similar situation in his past:
“I am Brazilian, and I write Brazilian music not because of nationalism, but because I don’t know how to do any other kind. If I were to do jazz, I’d be an idiot, since any black musician from their Lapa [the poor bohemian district of Rio] could play better than I.”
That’s telling them, Tom! Lacerda gave the composer free rein to air his pent-up feelings and frustrations to a nationwide audience. Before the dust had time to settle, though, the wily reporter and would-be shrink made the following annotations about them:
“It seems to me that [Jobim’s] worries were not about criticism of his music. His songs get better over time. His critics only get worse. He’s accused of being Americanized? Nonsense! The Americans speak of French influences. The French know, after Black Orpheus, that he’s very much Brazilian. The most Brazilian there is, since Heitor Vila-Lôbos [sic]. What he’s incapable of hiding is his musical education.”
In the decades that passed since this piece first saw the light, many a “black musician from their Lapa” would unhesitatingly step up to the stage and pay tribute to Tom’s “musical education.” In Antonio Carlos Jobim: Um Homem Illuminado (“An Enlightened Man”), an unusually intimate portrait of her dearly departed older sibling, novelist and poet Helena Jobim remembers what one of them, the reclusive pianist Thelonius Monk, had to say about Brazil’s lasting contribution to his particular style of music making: “Bossa nova gave to New York’s intellectual jazz community what it lacked, that is, rhythm, balance, and a Latin heat.”
Tom was quite beside himself to hear how Americans had taken to the harmonically advanced chord progressions he and Vinicius hammered out for their chart-busting single, “The Girl from Ipanema” from 1963,* thanks ever so much to saxophone great Stan Getz and the sensuous come-hither sounds (speaking of Latin heat) of Astrud Gilberto. Their recording came in at Number Five on the Billboard Top Pop of 1964, while reaching Number One on the Adult Contemporary scene. It was kept under wraps for a solid year before being released into a market dominated by The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, The Rolling Stones, and other formidable folk.
And the World Goes ‘Round
For now, there was no jumping off the bossa-nova bandwagon. On the contrary, Jobim was more anxious than ever to hold on for dear life and keep the mutual admiration society going. “More and more,” his little sister acknowledged, “Tom respected the U.S. as a country that received, with open arms and without prejudices, artists from all over. He felt himself a citizen of the world there,” and with good reason.
From 1963 until his death, in December 1994, of heart failure following surgery for bladder cancer — another uncanny reference to his hero, Villa-Lobos — Jobim divided his time between the American East and West Coasts, and the southeastern tip of Brazil. While in the States, he recorded many of his most fondly remembered works (including two classic sessions with Sinatra) for Warner-Reprise, as well as for the strictly jazz label Verve and the R & B-based A&M Records. His two pet projects, the albums Matita perê (1973) and Urubu (“Vulture,” 1976), were roundly rejected in Rio but eventually picked up here by MCA and Warner, in that order.
Having gone their own way since the middle of the 1960s onward — the motive behind the amicable split being Moraes’ need to share his poetic insights with other, lesser-known adherents — the once inseparable duo reunited as a quartet in September 1977 for a now-historic series of concerts. Backed by Toquinho, Vinicius’ then-current touring partner, and Chico Buarque’s sister, Miúcha (recently wed to the equally hermetic João Gilberto), the group played Rio’s Canecão nightclub for seven straight months, then took their show on the road to such places as São Paulo, London, and Paris.
Ruy Castro recounts, in his fact-filled tome Ela é Carioca: Uma Enciclopédia de Ipanema (“She’s a Carioca: An Encyclopedia of Ipanema”), one of the high points of their encounter: the nostalgic “Carta ao Tom,” followed immediately by its parody, “Carta do Tom” (“Letter from Tom”), in which the composer and his lyricist Chico bemoaned the loss of innocence once associated with Ipanema’s tranquil, middle-class neighborhood.
“Their music,” Castro informs us, “woke audiences up” to the shocking realization that “a marvelous world was about to pass on,” to be replaced by “another, more somber and alarming one.” He concluded his musings with a painful reminder of what was to come: “At the end of 1978, when the show finally closed due to the members’ complete exhaustion, no one could imagine that Vinicius had less than two years to live.”
(End of Part Nine)
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes
* From F-sharp major at the words “Oh, but I watch her so sadly” and on “How can I tell her I love her?” to G minor at “Yes, I would give my heart gladly,” back down to A major with “But each day when she walks to the sea,” ending on D major, then G major for “She looks straight ahead,” and finally returning to F-sharp major on “not at me,” in Norman Gimbel’s sultry English-language verses.
Welcome to Munchkin Land
Where the most recent re-working of Orfeu really came into its own — and where the earlier foreign-made film product left much to be desired — was in its authentic depiction of Rio de Janeiro at Carnival time.
In his striving to overcome Black Orpheus’ most glaring cinematic deficiency, i.e., its failure to “communicate the real organizational complexities and extended preparations of a samba school [on the march]… Diegues, aware of the problems with setting in Camus’ original film, made a conscious effort to bring his film production and the participating [Viradouro] samba school together ‘so that everything would happen where the story really exists’” — quite literally, in the teeming byways of Sin City itself.
The color, pageantry, and sweep of the traditional pre-Lenten festivities at their hallucinatory height can be attributed, in large part, to the ingenuity and inventiveness of the intriguingly christened Joãozinho Trinta (“Johnny Thirty”), the remake’s Carnival art director and unofficial traffic manager. In the high-stakes game of Rio Carnival competitions, he can be classified as the show’s program coordinator, or carnavalesco in the country’s native parlance — the most watched person in one of the most hotly contested aspects of Brazilian cultural life.
Despite the increased demands Orfeu placed on his energy and time, the contentious Munchkin-like figure was nonetheless keen to praise the veteran filmmaker for the care and devotion he showed to the cause: “[Diegues] has managed to capture in the Carnaval [sic] parade all the luxury of a samba school, with all of the poetry and poverty of the hills and their characters. It’s a perfect marriage: a parade deserving to score a perfect 10.”
Like Cacá and Caetano before him, João Clemente Jorge Trinta was another of those “unfortunates” from the impoverished Northeast that, through spunk and sheer grit if nothing else, miraculously beat the odds in transitioning to the more economically advantaged Southeast. He set his sights high and, as a result, became a member early on of the Teatro Municipal’s ballet corps, where after years of toiling away in the field he exulted in having learned “everything about staging an opera” that he could, which also happened to include “the scenery, costumes, stage management, lighting and special effects.”
With cheery alacrity, which he enthusiastically brought to such a seemingly elitist endeavor, he was able to put that working knowledge to substantive use throughout his extensive Carnival career. Consequently, Trinta has compared the art and artifice of those lavishly produced, samba-school creations of his to (of all things) the incredibly refulgent realm of grand opera. In an essay entitled “The Magic of Brazilian Carnival,” Joãozinho remarked that his varied background in the performing arts helped broker a novel approach to Rio’s fabled costume display: his then-revolutionary conception of Carnival “as an authentic street opera.”
As he went on to explain it, “There is the libretto that corresponds to the enredo [or script]… The libretto is set to classical music, while the enredo receives the melody of a samba… Scenery is built in the theater, while in the street enormous carros alegóricos [allegoric floats] are constructed to transport the components that correspond to the corps de ballet and opera chorus… on these carros alegóricos parade the main characters of the enredo, dressed in the story’s most sumptuous and significant costumes. The characters are called Destaques (notables). Then, there is the Bateria (rhythm section), corresponding to the symphony or philharmonic orchestra.”
This is all a bit of a stretch, quite frankly. However, no one can deny that Joãozinho Trinta’s heart wasn’t in the right place. If anything, his refusal to turn his nose up at opera was as much to Carnival’s benefit as it was to his own. Indeed, his well-cogitated views on the status of the celebration’s quo were a lot closer to the meat of the matter than he could possibly have imagined, in arranging this “perfect marriage” of stylistic opposites: opera, Carnival, and film — in this instance, the newest iteration of Orfeu, as conferred by The Cincinnati Enquirer’s resident film critic, Margaret A. McGurk.
“The movie has its good moments and bad,” she related, “a mythic tale, talented cast and vivid look. But all of it — settings, story structure, character development, emotional trajectory — is purely and powerfully operatic.”
That same observation was shared by Brazilian writer Sérgio Augusto, who first coined the term ópera popular greco-carioca as a way of sizing up Vinicius’ stage play on which Diegues based his re-working. “Only the music,” McGurk stressed, referring back to the 1999 movie version, “a rich mélange of the traditional samba and modern rap-influenced pop, is far removed from what we think about when we think about opera.”
Fair enough, but only a showman of Joãozinho’s reputed ilk and, let’s face it, unquestioned acumen and skill — Carnival’s incorporation of that old American movie icon, Cecil B. DeMille — could have conceived of and executed such a feat of daring do that, year after nerve-wracking year, has succeeded in bringing the whole excessive, four-day affair to brilliant, prize-winning life:
“Add to this melodic beauty and poetic words and our result is a gorgeous samba-enredo, neatly wrapping up this audio-visual spectacle called Rio de Janeiro’s Escola de Samba parade, [which today] is considered the greatest show on Earth.”
Party Hearty Celebration
No doubt Carnival was “king” in Rio, as it has been throughout much of Brazil’s cultural history. And nowhere is it pursued with more intensity than in the remotest regions of the North and Northeast, if in more modified forms than its notorious southern “exposure” would have us believe.
The joke among fellow Brazilians is that celebrants in the northern corridors like to party it up early and often — a full month ahead of time, according to sources — and continue on for another month thereafter; well beyond Ash Wednesday, the traditional close of festivities and the beginning of the solemn period of reflection known as Lent.
That many nordestinos, baianos, and paraibanos (or whatever regional slur tickles your fancy) unapologetically march to the beat of a different samba drum — without regard to what the rest of Brazil thinks, says or does — is basically a done deal. Still, they no more enjoy a night out on the town than people in other parts of the country do, only more so.
Reflecting, if you will, on the relevance of the annual affair in the everyday lives of its citizenry, the extravagant costume pageant has been at the forefront of opinions about Brazil, both good and bad, for as long as it has been practiced there.*
It’s well worth remembering, then, that it was Carnival that drove an American filmmaker named Orson Welles — full of sound and fury, and itching to make cinematic history — to dizzying heights of distraction. At the same time, it provided the impetus for a carioca-born poet, Vinicius de Moraes, to breathe new life into a dusty old fable he found on his uncle’s bookshelf; which, in turn, inspired a minor New-Wave director, Marcel Camus, to devote a major portion of his talents to a modern film adaptation of Vinicius’ classic theater piece.
Not to be left out on a limb, moviemaker Carlos Diegues, along with superstar Caetano Veloso — both native Northeasterners of some renown — went a step further in their mutual respect for the celebration with an updated re-filming of the Orpheus saga at Carnival time. To be certain, it was Diegues’ desire for setting the record straight that led him to retool the story to his personal taste and satisfaction.
Nevertheless, in the chapter “In the Land of Carnival,” author Joseph A. Page, whose work The Brazilians is a fascinating compilation of what it means to be Brazilian, effectively put into words what many of us have long felt about the earlier movie version and its elevation of the festival to near-Elysian status:
“The film Black Orpheus might have done more than anything else to bring the event to the attention of people everywhere and to assure its immortality… Camus demonstrates with powerful sensitivity how the illusion of Carnival takes over the lives of samba-school members.”
But there is more to Rio’s elaborate costume display than meets the foreign eye. According to Professor Steven Wright, “The modern celebration of Carnival certainly has much in common with the ancient festivals of Dionysus in classical times… [or] Bacchus in the Roman period. Even if the lineage is not clear, the motives and outcomes of the festivals are the same: to celebrate life without the trappings of social norms.”
As an adjunct to this theory, he supports the position that Vinicius’ preference for the Greek myth of Orpheus was “well chosen, in that it had symbolic significance in the personification of various aspects of Brazilian culture… such as the emphasis on music, eroticism, public intoxication, and irrational behavior.”
“Those who have experienced Carnival in Brazil,” Wright added, “are very aware of these characteristics as the ancient Greeks would have been as well.”
It makes little difference to us how one personally feels about the supposed “classical implications” of Rio Carnival, but there are times when we’re forced to accept the obvious at face value, this being one of those times.
Considering what it has done overall for the country’s reputation over time, no expense has been spared and no bauble overlooked, on the part of the multiple organizations and individuals involved in its planning, execution, and outcome, to make this yearly round of music and mirth the unforgettable experience it has become for viewers of all ages.
(End of Part Eight)
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes
* Although present during colonial times, the celebration of Carnival was only sanctioned as an official event in 1932.