A Brazilian on Broadway: Bibi Ferreira, the Grande Dame of the Brazilian Stage, Takes a Slice Out of the Big Apple
Birth of the Rio Blues
On June 1, 1922, when Bibi Ferreira let out her first wail as the newborn infant of theater actor Procópio Ferreira and his Spanish-born spouse, the ballerina Aida Izquierdo, neither Rio de Janeiro, the city of her birth, nor the country of Brazil looked anything like they appear today.
Looking back on that period, in February of that same year the Semana de Arte Moderna (Week of Modern Art) in São Paulo had finally brought the Modernist movement into the front line of Brazil’s literary, artistic, and musical establishment; Bidu Sayão was at or near the beginning of her vocal studies in France with the legendary Jean de Reszke; Carmen Miranda was a precocious 13-year-old whose only ambition in life was to enter a convent; Heitor Villa-Lobos, who made his bow at the Semana de Arte Moderna, had his first series of piano pieces, A Prole do Bebê (“The Baby’s Family”), played in Rio by Polish virtuoso Artur Rubenstein.
Contemporaneous with the above, American jazz, which musicologists confirm grew out of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, was about to secure a beachhead on Brazilian shores; on that note, one of the acknowledged icons of the Jazz Age, dancer and entertainer Josephine Baker, was poised to leave an indelible mark on the Great White Way during the Harlem Renaissance; and the music/dance form known as samba, as well as Rio’s colorful Carnival parade, would soon emerge from their mutual confinement.
For me, a Brazilian-born naturalized citizen who grew up in parts of the Bronx and mid-Manhattan, seeing a personality of the magnitude of Bibi Ferreira, the “Grande Dame of the Brazilian Stage,” as she is so often billed, in a lightning-fast tour of North America enlivened my own visit to the Big Apple in ways I never expected.
It was on the afternoon of September 20. I had finally settled into my hotel room, a short walking distance from the Empire State Building. After unpacking my bag and hanging my belongings in a smallish but conveniently spaced closet, I leafed through the usual tourist pamphlets left there by the hotel’s concierge. Opening up to an advertisement in Time Out magazine, I noticed a full-page spread by the Ministry of Culture and a talent agency labeled Montenegro e Raman announcing the presence of Brazilian Musical Icon, Bibi Ferreira, on the evening of September 20 and 23, at 8 p.m., at Symphony Space on Broadway and 95th Street.
I could hardly believe what the ad was telling me: Did this mean that Bibi Ferreira was going to appear on September 20, the same date as my arrival? No, that couldn’t be right. I must have misread the notice. Yeah, that’s it. How silly of me! Still, the thought of being in New York on the first day of Bibi’s concert continued to nag at me. Trying to get some clarification, with care I re-read the magazine ad. Sure enough, the concert was going to be held that very evening.
Holy cow! What was I waiting for? This was the opportunity of a lifetime. Never, in my wildest dreams, could I have imagined seeing and hearing Bibi Ferreira, live and in the flesh, in a New York City concert hall. It was too good to be true. On a hunch, I quickly rang the Symphony Space’s box office and managed to secure a ticket for that night’s performance. Mercy me! How lucky could a guy be?
A Worthy Pedigree
The show was titled “4X Bibi” (“Quatro Vezes Bibi”), that is “Bibi Times Four.” This indicated that the former Abigail Izquierdo Ferreira, or “Bibi” for short, who, as the story goes, was introduced to the stage at barely a month old, would be performing a program of songs associated with her previous one-woman shows by four of the world’s most unique talents (none of whom were Brazilian): Portuguese fadista Amalia Rodrigues, Argentine tango singer Carlos Gardel, French chanteuse Édith Piaf, and Hoboken-born pop idol Frank Sinatra. Not only was this show in celebration of Ole Blue Eyes’ one hundredth birthday, which took place last December 2015, but also Bibi’s 75 years as an artist and entertainer.
An acclaimed stage and screen icon; a memorable interpreter of classic Broadway musicals, and of popular songs and romantic ballads; a dancer, director, and theater manager, with numerous productions to her credit; a raconteur and television personality — though never as flamboyant as her contemporary, the bawdy Dercy Gonçalves — 94-year-old Bibi has long been associated with the cream of Brazil’s performing talents in virtually every artistic category.
Among the more familiar names are those of her father Procópio; the actors Paulo Autran and Cacilda Becker; playwright Paulo Pontes (her former husband) who died tragically of stomach cancer at age 36; singer-songwriter Chico Buarque; Walmor Chagas, Marilia Pêra, and Marco Nanini. She has also appeared in or directed works by Pontes, Flavio Rangel, Ferreira Gullar, Lillian Hellman, and Sergio Viotti, in addition to producing shows for Maria Bethânia, Clara Nunes, and dozens more.
In other words, we are talking about theatrical royalty, an enviable title to set alongside such accomplished personalities as Fernanda Montenegro, Gloria Menezes, Nicette Bruno, Eva Wilma, and Laura Cardoso, among others. On the Broadway side, we have Fanny Brice, Gertrude Lawrence, Ethel Merman, Constance Bennett, Mary Martin, Judy Garland, Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, Carol Channing, Barbara Cook, Patti LuPone, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, and Audra McDonald. Indeed, Bibi Ferreira’s name is as worthy of inclusion in the company of all these great artists as any performer I know.
While waiting on the ticketholder’s line, I spoke to several Brazilians, including a fellow named Patrick, the owner of a Brazilian churrascaria (barbecue steakhouse) in midtown. He introduced me to his mother, a lady of about 70, who told me that she had first seen Bibi in concert when she was a little girl. Once inside the theater, I took my seat in the upper balcony, it being a relatively small, shoe-box shaped auditorium with decent sight lines and more than acceptable acoustics.
Before the show started, I was engaged in an informative conversation with the couple in front of me, Seu Roberto and his wife, who came from the northeastern state of Bahia and were spending their vacation in the city. They, too, had seen Bibi perform on previous occasions, and were eager to see her again.
Brazilians are a gregarious and outgoing lot by nature, and will often open up to strangers with little to no effort. With that in mind, Seu Roberto clued me in on what one of Bibi’s shows would be like: her band leader, maestro Flávio Mendes, would lead Ms. Ferreira to the center of the stage. During the course of her presentation, Mendes or one of the other gentlemen would stop to offer refreshment or ask if she needed any assistance.
One of the members of her group, Nilson Raman, a former model, actor, producer, and Bibi’s manager, as well as the head of the Montenegro e Raman agency that brought her to the Big Apple, would provide a running commentary, taking turns with another participant (whose name escaped me) about her life as a performer.
Even though the concert was scheduled to begin at 8 p.m., the theater was far from full. I caught maestro Mendes peering out from behind a curtain. He was checking to see how much longer they could wait before Bibi made her entrance. The crowd, made up of the elite of New York’s Brazilian expatriate community (the average age must have been well over 50), along with some obvious initiates, took its time to fill the theater. No one seemed to mind, however, that the show was delayed by half an hour. In fact, it gave the populace additional time to chat among themselves.
One by one, the band of twelve musicians ventured forth and took their positions on stage. Finally, the star herself came out, slowly and cautiously at first, befitting her advanced age. Bibi was led to the front of the stage platform with Raman to her right and Mendes to her left. The other gentleman, many decades younger than Bibi, took over for Mendes as the two narrators assumed their spots at stage right.
There stood Bibi Ferreira, in fabulous form. Wearing a stunning white gown with diamond earrings dangling from her ears, Bibi was glamour personified. Her hair was a burnished red-brown color. Her eyebrows were thin reddish wisps of straight lines. Her face was taut, her skin pulled back tightly. Settling down in a chair before the microphone, Bibi blew kisses to the waiting audience who answered them with whoops, shrieks, and squeals of delight at the presence of such a beloved figure.
A standing ovation greeted Bibi as she entered. This was before she even had a chance to open her mouth. In all my years of theater-going (if I had to calculate, I’d say there were 40+ in total), I have never witnessed a case where the audience stood up to honor an artist before her or she performed. Only with someone of the unquestioned acumen of a Judy Garland, a Liza Minnelli, or a Barbra Streisand, or quite possibly Sinatra himself, might such a thing have occurred. There were rounds and rounds of applause for Bibi, so much so that it was hard to get the show going. Truly, this was a moment to be savored, a loving tribute to a living legend.
Just as Seu Roberto had predicted, the concert opened with each of the commentators intoning a brief narrative about the star and her past exploits. They spoke in Portuguese-inflected English, which could have used the tighter editorial hand of an experienced translator (such as me perhaps?). Despite some lapses in pronunciation — for example, “try-byoot” instead of “tribute” — the narration tended to flow smoothly.
Bibi began her show with fado, most of them associated with Amalia Rodrigues, to include a brief bit from “Uma casa portuguesa” (“A Little Portuguese House”) by Vasco Matos Sequiera and Artur Fonseca. I missed the bell-like plucking of the twelve-string Portuguese guitar, and the participation of a cellist and accordionist onstage were certainly no substitute for the real thing.
In between numbers, there was some fascinating history imparted about Os Mouros, the Moors who inhabited Portugal nearly 400 centuries ago. They practically invented the genre, we were told, specifically in the Mouraria section of Lisbon where fado was most strongly ingrained. Bibi, whose paternal grandparents were natives of the island of Madeira, eased into her set by lavishing these wonderful solos with her impeccable Lusitanian Portuguese. She stirred the soul of her listeners (this writer included), and would do so for any Brazilian whose ancestors were descended from the mother country. Audience members were heard humming along with Bibi. Consequently, this first section was greeted with a rousing ovation.
Tangos by Carlos Gardel followed soon after, which began with “Esta Noche Me Emborracho” (“I Think I’ll Get Drunk Tonight”). We learned from Bibi’s own lips that her mother, Aida Izquierdo, insisted she only speak Spanish to her as a child. So for the first seven years of her life, Bibi’s primary language was, in fact, Spanish. By the merest coincidence, it happened that my father’s siblings (and dad himself, so he informed me) also learned to converse in that tongue, thanks to my Spanish-born grandparents.
Bibi went on to reveal that Argentine tangos are loaded with slang, which made some of the words and their meaning difficult to comprehend by non-natives such as herself. Repeating a line she had sung only minutes before, Bibi insisted she had no idea what it meant. The puzzled look on her face alone was worth the price of admission, more so for the candor with which she expressed this tantalizing bit of trivia.
After several years of touring with her mother, Bibi returned to Rio where she met up with her estranged father (her parents had separated soon after Bibi was born). Because she was refused entry to a local school, Procópio sent his daughter to London where she was enrolled in an English academy. This meant she became equally fluent in that language as well. “I only spoke perfect English,” Bibi joked in her British-accent, as she stood up for a bow. More laughter and applause rang out at this charming little gesture.
Taking frequent sips of water and softly dabbing her nose with tissue paper, Bibi occasionally sought the need of a strong arm to steady her stage deportment. There was a moment when her manager, Nilson Raman, bent down to repeat a question Bibi hadn’t heard. The only other concession to age was her use of a TV monitor which scrolled the lyrics to each of the songs in case her memory faltered. There was little chance of that! Bibi was a true professional throughout, right down to her bones.
Start Spreading the News
Songs celebrating the extraordinary career of Francis Albert Sinatra were next on the agenda: “Night and Day” and “I Got You under My Skin,” by Cole Porter; “Old Man River” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II; “That’s Life” (Grammer, Beam, and Rose) and “The Lady is a Tramp” (Rodgers and Hart).
Of course, no concert by a Brazilian of Bibi’s generation, especially one born in Rio, would be complete without classic bossa nova from the Antonio Carlos Jobim songbook. This penultimate section featured a rousing “Água de beber” (“Water to Drink”) with lyrics by Carmen Miranda’s ex-bandleader Aloysio de Oliveira; “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (“Corcovado”) in Norman Gimbel’s poetic English translation; and a dreamy trance-like rendition of Jobim and Newton Mendonça’s “Meditation,” in both the original and English versions (also by Gimbel).
In this portion of her program, it felt obvious to me, and probably to the viewers in attendance, that bossa nova came more naturally to Bibi than the other Sinatra specialties. Once you’ve heard Sinatra sing these numbers, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else doing them justice. Still, Bibi gave it her best shot. It’s not her fault she was born a contralto and not a basso profundo, as she struggled with the low tessitura of “Old Man River.”
And finally, we had the impassioned repertoire of the incomparable Édith Piaf, to include the ever-popular “Non, je ne regrette rien” (Dumont and Vaucaire) and “La Vie en Rose,” written and composed by Piaf herself. As an added attraction, there was an infectious duet with Nilson Raman, delivered by both star and manager in exceedingly colloquial French. Raman sounded like a cross between Charles Aznavour and Yves Montand, whom Piaf discovered and who became one of the Little Sparrow’s lovers.
In recreating one of the pivotal roles from early in her career, Bibi saved her best for last: she performed the number, “Gota d’água” (“Drop of Water”) from the play of the same name. Although the title translates to the American expression “The Last Straw,” the narrators gave the literal meaning instead. In this extract, a modern adaptation of the Euripides tragedy from Greek mythology, Bibi played Joana (aka Medea), the wronged wife of Jason. It was a gut-wrenching aria, as close to an operatic scena as one could get. The audience was given a glimpse into plain old-fashioned stage acting: her facial expressions, her body language, the cultivated way in which she enunciated the text, indeed every part of Bibi’s anatomy and being was utilized in conveying Joana’s regret. This was a priceless master class in raw theatricality.
In her introduction to the piece, Bibi, in a side note, remarked that the play was written by dramaturgist Paulo Pontes, her husband at the time. “He died much too early,” she added brusquely. Bibi took a moment to compose herself before continuing on. I was moved by this confession of feeling, seemingly buried deep down in her bosom, and brought out for the occasion. You could say it was part of the program, or call it “stage acting” if you so choose. To those of us who were watching, it was an intimate look inside an artist’s psyche — one she shared willingly with her public.
Bibi ended her program with a stirring encore of “New York, New York,” by Kander and Ebb, which brought the predominantly native audience to its feet. I couldn’t help wondering that when Bibi goes, whole generations of actor-singers will be deprived of this generational link to a lost performance art. Despite the passage of time, and the infirmities a person her age must no doubt endure, Bibi carried herself with a pride and elegance few performers would dare to mimic, and many younger ones would envy. Her good cheer, her honesty, her ability to laugh at herself, and especially her joie de vivre, were as simple and straightforward at the start as they were towards the end.
This icon of an incontrovertible Golden Age, where Nelson Rodrigues, Chico Buarque, Oduvaldo Vianna Filho, and Paulo Pontes once ruled the roost; of Amalia Rodrigues, of Carlos Gardel, of Édith Piaf, and, most notably, Sinatra and Jobim, seemed ageless and free from care. Who can take her place? One might as well ask, Who could ever replace the irreplaceable? These are rhetorical questions, of course, with the answer more than self-evident.
At the conclusion of her show, Bibi was handed two beautiful bouquets. Slowly but securely, she was escorted off the stage by the maestro and her manager. Her voice was surprisingly strong and full; the emotions, for the most part, firmly in control. Bibi never faltered, even when her microphone malfunctioned. Refitted with a livelier mike, she delivered the kind of performance rarely seen in our day.
We know that popular music is not what it was when Bibi came of age. Of the hundreds of copycat artists out there, of the thousands of faux aspirants to be heard on such TV shows as The Voice and America’s Got Talent, not a single one has demonstrated a tenth of the charisma, the drive, the tenacity, or the staying power that Bibi Ferreira still possesses.
The thing that impressed me the most, however, was how perceptive Bibi has grown about her past relationships. Her clear-eyed appraisal of her mother, although wrapped in warm and fuzzy tones, was nonetheless tinged with a hint of mild resentment. Her fond recollection of her marriage to Paulo Pontes — her last of five previous unions — was as clipped and to the point as a trained clinician. How like an actor’s daughter she was! I trust my assessments of her virtues and defects, at this late stage in her career, are equally pointed.
With all that, I can categorically confirm that Bibi Ferreira is four times the artist of anyone I have ever encountered. Her concert proved, once and for all, that age is no impediment to great art. True, she doesn’t look anything like she did when she first appeared on the scene some 60 or 70 years ago. Of one thing I am certain: not in another 94 years will we see her like again.
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
Pretend you are about to take an essay exam and are getting ready to answer the following question: what do Portuguese fado, Italian opera, and Música Popular Brasileira have in common? Give up? Many people would too. But think about it for a moment. Outside of the fact they’re all separate and distinct music styles, each with its own specific method of interpretation and delivery, what have these various genres given the world if not a wealth of extremely talented and versatile performers?
In this piece, the focus will be on the successful careers of three of the most talented and versatile of these performers (only one of whom, by the way, is Brazilian by birth). They have dedicated their lives to incorporating aspects of the above entertainment areas. All share an unbounded admiration for Brazil’s music and culture, which they have wisely chosen to express in their own distinguishing manner.
Neither Fish nor Fado
Her arms were extended outward, as if in gentle supplication to restless audience members to lend an attentive ear toward her wistful song. The look was both haughty and proud, the attitude one of openness and warmth, with a touch of simpatia tossed in. Her bearing was unwaveringly regal yet becoming of one whose build is so lean and slender. There was also the unmistakable air of the diva about her.
It must have been the classic profile, the protruding chin, the dark complexion, and the magnificent blonde coiffure, its many endless and fascinating curls, like those of a face on an ancient Aegean vase, all intricately woven into unbroken lines across her faultlessly-formed features.
Suddenly, the hallowed name of Maria Callas sprang to mind. While remembering the faded kinescopes of the once celebrated star of La Scala and other international opera houses, I was reminded of Portuguese singer Mariza’s striking resemblance to the immortal La Divina — and to the Divine One’s searing intensity and command of the operatic stage.
In interviews granted throughout 2003, given concurrently with the release of her second album Fado Curvo (Times Square Records), the Lusitanian songstress, born Mariza dos Reis Nunes in Mozambique but raised in the Mouraria section of Lisbon, cited the revered Greek-American soprano Callas and her illustrious countrywoman, Amália Rodrigues, as pervasive influences on her own individualized take on contemporary fado.
Having seen Mariza perform live and in concert on the campus of North Carolina State University’s Stewart Theatre, I can wholeheartedly agree. Though not strictly a Brazilian entertainment form, nor remotely related to traditional Western ideals of the operatic, this freely emotive and soulful style of singing has been with us for nearly two and a half centuries — much longer, in fact, than any of the standard repertory items of masters Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini combined.
Most of all, there’s something grandly theatrical about the art itself — the hand gestures, the facial expressions, the song structures, the lyric flights of poetic fancy — that has lately transformed fado into a worthy successor to the almost-absent stage presentations of opera in Brazil’s own artistic firmament.
Mariza’s devout following knows, too, that years before her recent world-music conquests, the rebellious future stage figure had visited Rio de Janeiro, the “holy shrine” of Carnival, where, as inevitable as the Copacabana tide, she became infatuated with the soothing sounds of samba and bossa nova, only to return to her adopted land as an invaluable dispenser of its native song collection.
“I was looking for something when I went to Brazil. I had to do that to come back to my first love. But what I was looking for was in front of my nose all the time and I was the only one who couldn’t see it.”
The search for one’s true calling in the entertainment field can be an excruciatingly nerve-wracking venture for any performing artist, let alone one of Mariza’s standing and repute. Relief came in the satisfaction she gleaned from having to face up to the style’s built-in challenges.
“Fado is an emotional kind of music,” she proclaimed, “full of passion, sorrow, jealousy, grief, and often satire… I just want to sing.” And that she does well enough – particularly, on the darkly sentimental opening numbers, “O silêncio da guitarra” (“The Silence of the Guitar”) and “Cavaleiro monge” (“Monk Rider”), and the exuberantly festive “Feira de Castro” (“The Fair at Castro”).
While leaning more towards tradition for her first album, Fado em Mim (“Fado in Me”), Mariza took a much freer approach to Fado Curvo, finding both refinement and nuance in the piano-and-cello accompaniment of “Retrato” (“Portrait”) and a softer pop side for “O Deserto,” before ending on a passionate note with “Os anéis do meu cabelo” (“Curls of My Hair”), a semi-autobiographical piece.
Having gone about as far as a modern fadista could go in her profession, she decided to stretch herself even further by joining forces with acclaimed carioca-born arranger, musician, and producer Jaques Morelenbaum, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, for her third go-around with the musical genre: the 2005 release of Transparente, also for Times Square Records.
Mariza flew all the way down to Morelenbaum’s hometown of Rio, “Because,” she pointed out later, Jaques’ “entire working environment is in Brazil.” With that, the exotic-looking entertainer confirmed to the UK’s FLY magazine that she “didn’t do anything [for two months] but thinking, working, and singing on this new album. I woke up every morning and waited for the hour to start working. I was able to achieve a greater intimacy, not only with music but with poetry as well… It was very good for me. Besides having the chance to meet and work with new musicians, it helped me to concentrate completely on my new album.”
A veteran of several-hundred studio sessions, Jaques Morelenbaum has concentrated his own efforts on assisting quite a number of professionals with their recording projects — and with some of their live performances as well. Among the most notable are Antonio Carlos Jobim, Egberto Gismonti, Gal Costa, Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento, David Byrne, Marisa Monte, and Carlinhos Brown, not to mention his work with directors Walter Salles Jr. and Gerald Thomas. This was exactly the kind of Brazilian connection Mariza was hoping for in her next musical venture.
“I’m very fond of Brazilian rhythms, such as bossa nova, Vinicius de Moraes, Elis Regina [and] Caetano Veloso,” she told interviewer Petr Dorůžka of the Website Free Music. “I already knew Jaques had worked with Caetano and [Japanese composer] Ryuichi Sakamoto. We met in music festivals in Portugal and abroad. I’ve always wanted to work with him. I spoke to my record company and they liked the idea. I suggested it to Mr. Morelenbaum and he returned to my suggestion with all possible dates. I’ve always thought that doing it would help me to reach the sonority I was looking for.”
For the BBC, Mariza delved further into her nation’s musical distinctiveness: “I am looking for fado from a different perspective, because I now travel a lot… I am starting to find that this music that belongs to Lisbon, to Portuguese people, is starting to feel more and more universal. It speaks about universal feelings. Each country interprets it in its own way. We are crossing cultural lines now. And I feel so proud about it.”
Taking into account the end result, she divulged to Free Music that, “When I listen to this album I feel my fado, my sound. Jaques Morelenbaum uses all musical instruments in a magical way, with lots of care. He was the producer for this record; he understood me.”
We, too, understand what Mariza was striving for, and where her aspirations currently lie: right now, they’re with her dynamic vision of fado. Fortunately for her fans, she’s left one foot dangling in the doorstep of the pop-music world, which is as it should be.
“I listen to all kind of music, as long as it’s good. But I have to confess, I have my preferences: Maria Callas, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone, Sting. Like everywhere we do have international pop artists in the charts, but there’s good music being done in Portugal, like Rui Veloso, Carlos do Carmo, Jorge Palma. To name a few.”
That’s too few to please the masses. But on her own, Mariza has had no problem doing just that.
Lisbon Story and Well Beyond
It seems the fado standard has been placed in exceptionally capable hands with Mariza. Other contemporary practitioners of the form, such as Cristina Branco, Aldina Duarte, Kátia Guerreiro, Mísia, and Dulce Pontes, continue to hold up their end by keeping the flame of fado’s essence alive.
While popular within their own country’s confines, they have yet to command the attention of outside audiences the way Mariza has, or to reach out beyond the borders of Lisbon’s famed Alfama district, the scene of numerous triumphs from Portugal’s past.
One Portuguese artist who did reach out beyond Lisboa, and whose face and voice outside audiences have clearly grown accustomed to over the years, is the lovely Teresa Salgueiro, the former lead singer for the group Madredeus.
Their music, which some critics have labeled as cloying and pretentious, comprises elements of traditional fado with touches of folk, tango, New Age, world-beat, Middle Eastern, flamenco, and other sources factored in. True to his family’s surname (which, in English, is rendered as Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who first circumnavigated the globe), guitarist, musician, and producer Pedro Ayres Magalhães, one of the group’s founding members, is the individual most responsible for its wide-ranging repertoire.
“Fado is sung in the first person… telling sentimental stories,” Magalhães explained in a 1995 interview with New York Times writer Alan Riding. “Our themes are as universal as possible, talking about feelings, life and death,” a statement that convincingly supports the conclusion Mariza eventually came to reach.
When you listen to one of Madredeus’ carefully-concocted creations — O Espírito da Paz (“The Spirit of Peace,” EMI, 1994), for instance, or their 2000 compilation Antologia (Metro Blue) — you experience an atmosphere of calmness blanketed against a soundscape of six-string Spanish guitars; mixed with harmonically absorbing accordion flourishes grounded firmly by the cello’s deep-bass fullness; punctuated intermittently by synthesized keyboards, originally programmed by Rodrigo Leão, the other founding member, and later by Carlos Maria Trindade, the producer and piano player on Mariza’s Fado Curvo.
The real standout, however, is Teresa’s elegant soprano tone, the vocals of which well up from the center position. In Portuguese, the name Salgueiro means “willow” (as in “weeping willow”). It’s a sound that, in reviewer Imre Szeman’s poetic construct, “combines earthly desire and cosmic awe, material longing and transcendental hope, and which settles over you like a state of grace.”
The urge to hold back one’s tears, then, is diminished amid the gentle sweep of her voice — delicate, supple, and ethereal — as it passes over you in soft, undulating currents. There are but a handful of performers that can do this to a person. Teresa Salgueiro happens to be one of them.
In the late 1980s, while still a teenager, Salgueiro was discovered working as a singer in a Lisbon bar by Magalhães and Leão, who asked her to join their newly formed band of five. Impressed by their sound, she agreed to increase the number to six by becoming the group’s only female member. “A gift of nature,” Magalhães conceded. “It was strange to find someone who is 17 who sings with [such] joy and with the same timbre and vigor as the voices people remember hearing in Portugal.” Not for nothing was she billed as the number one “pretender” to the great Amália Rodrgues’ fado throne.
Resultantly, Madredeus was lifted to local prominence during an especially fertile period for world music, where the ethnic diversity of such artists as The Chieftains, Enya, The Gipsy Kings, Youssou N’Dour, and Yanni was much celebrated and highly in vogue. The presence of someone as young as Salgueiro only added to the formula. Even so, the group remained stubbornly peninsular-bound.
It was German filmmaker Wim Wenders who eventually rescued Teresa and her band-mates from anonymity. Wenders was so taken with their work that he used several of Madredeus’ songs to accompany Salgueiro’s soft-spoken screen persona in his 1994 movie Lisbon Story (Viagem a Lisboa). “I wanted to film them as they performed,” the director asserted to Alan Riding. “They were playing with such pleasure, such intensity, and integrity; and Teresa’s voice filled the small space with so much emotion that I felt a shiver running down my spine.”
Their compelling soundtrack (entitled Ainda, or “Still”) was rushed into production in order to fill the skyrocketing demand for the group’s music. By then, Teresa’s disarming and totally un-self-conscious portrayal of herself, pitted against Wenders’ cinematic alter ego, actor Rudiger Vogler, became a winning combination with viewers. The film went on to do for present-day Lisbon what Black Orpheus had done for Rio in its sixties heyday.
From there Madredeus toured all over Europe, as well as Africa, Asia, the United States, and South America. During a yearlong 2006 sabbatical, Salgueiro resolved to strike out on her own, eventually reemerging as a well-regarded soloist in São Paulo for a January 2007 series of performances at the Golden Cross Jazz Club (formerly Tom Jazz) in the high-profile neighborhood of Higienópolis.
The concerts were held to commemorate her recently concluded EMI project, Você e Eu (“You and Me”). As ambitious a recorded undertaking as any in recent years, the CD showcased the entire spectrum of Brazilian popular song, beginning with the thirties and forties, the so-called “golden age” of samba and choro; moving up to the prime bossa nova period of the 1950s and 1960s; right down to the chart toppers of the mid-1970s.
Included were such classics as “Marambaia,” a lively number often associated with Elis Regina; “Na Baixa do Sapateiro” (“Bahia”) and “Pra machucar meu coração” (“To Wound My Heart”) by the ever-popular Ary Barroso; “O samba da minha terra” (“My Country’s Samba”) and “Saudade de Bahia,” both by the late Dorival Caymmi; Luiz Bonfá’s lilting “Samba de Orfeu” from the movie Black Orpheus; the beautiful “Se todos fossem iguais a você” (“Someone to Light Up My Life”) from Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes’ inaugural Orfeu da Conceição collaboration; a smattering of Jobim’s best work with other wordsmiths (“Estrada do sol,” “Inútil passagem,” “Triste,” and “Meditation”); and concluding with Chico Buarque’s prize-winning “A banda” from 1966.
The best that could be said about Salgueiro’s attempts at this more pop-driven burst of song is that she excelled brilliantly in the fast numbers. A side-by-side comparison with the late singer-actress Carmen Miranda, who was herself of Portuguese extraction, left little doubt as to her rhythmic capabilities and care for note values. Teresa covered herself in glory on the lightning-quick “Marambaia” and on Jobim’s gossamer work, “Chovendo na roseira” (“Double Rainbow”).
But she may have wandered too far from her fado roots — a codfish out of salt water, most likely — in the slower-paced bossa nova items. Here, her thick native-born accent became more of an actual hindrance than an obvious advantage. The dissimilar vowel sounds of her Lusitanian ancestry clashed with the more-rounded demands of the title tune, written by Vinicius with Carlos Lyra; or the highly literate “Insensatez” (“How Insensitive”), one of master Jobim’s loveliest incantations, done to flawless perfection by him and Frank Sinatra nearly four decades prior.
What was the motivating force behind this amalgam of musical styles? “Você e Eu symbolizes the encounter of a Portuguese singer with the music and musicians of Brazil,” Salgueiro explained to the Mundo Lusiada Website, “a partnership and a communication built through music; above all, [it is] the acknowledgement of our collective individuality before the individuality of the other, the joy of having a dialogue and the willingness to make this encounter possible.”
There has always been some degree of hesitation among fellow Brazilians as to whether or not they will admit to a fondness for their mother country’s music. In this case, however, there can be no question of a certain singer’s unrestrained ardor for Brazil’s melodic inventions.
“Ever since I was a child,” she remembered fondly, “I loved to hear the sound of the Portuguese language in Brazilian music, and early on I admired and followed their interpreters, their authors, and their composers.”
Nonplussed by her detractors, Salgueiro insisted these songs were “[m]elodies that have always captivated me with their beauty and sophistication, words that have enchanted me by the power of their images and their ability to evoke so much simplicity, always close to the popular vernacular, the poetry of longing and of love.”
The album’s final tally, a formidable 22 tracks in all, posed a monumental challenge for any pop stylist, then and now. But for Teresa Salgueiro it was an especially noteworthy endeavor, one she greeted with her habitual graciousness and aplomb. “Finally, we can live this experience for the first time directly with the public… I am grateful to [pianist, arranger, and musical director] João Cristal for teaching me to sing these songs and sincerely hope to share this happiness with many more people.”
On the heals of her successful live solo work — held over for several nights by popular demand — can there be any chance that Teresa will get back together with her old fado crowd? The answer appears in the credits for Você e Eu: listed as executive producer of the album, in addition to its head of mastering and art direction, is the leader and co-founder of Madredeus, composer-lyricist Pedro Ayres Magalhães. Burning her artistic bridges is definitely not a part of Salgueiro’s lounge act.
“A Great Little Noise”
For all their novelty and fame, Teresa Salgueiro and Mariza both represent, in their own specialized manner, the modern views of an already established, older order. Between them, however, they’ve developed certain undeniable traits. Some of the more familiar include a finely honed (if somewhat flamboyant, in Mariza’s case) fashion sense, an appealing voice, an attractive and outsized stage presence, an artist’s innate sense of what the public wants, business and financial smarts, and the big theatrical gesture.
As a yardstick for superior vocal ability, big theatrical gestures (in the form of graceful arm and hand movements) are the stock-in-trade as well of another, better-known Marisa: MPB singer, producer, arranger, songwriter, and Tribalista, the Rio-born Marisa Monte.
In an October 2002 interview for Brazzil magazine’s music editor Bruce Gilman, Marisa revealed, quite offhandedly, the real reason behind the spontaneous use of her upper extremities in many of the artist’s live presentations.
“They’re the kind of gestures that I make when I’m talking. Really, I talk a lot with my hands. It’s funny because… in some songs my hands are attached to the guitar, and I really miss moving them. It’s like a suspension of my expression. Moving my arms and hands is something that really helps me to sing and to communicate a song’s meaning.”
Whatever it took, for the past 20 years Marisa Monte has been communicating many a song’s meaning not only through sweeping hand gestures but also via her superb singing voice and stunning good looks on stage. Today she stands as one of Brazil’s most dependable musical exponents, a full-blown example of the heterogeneous nature of talent.
“I’ve never started from the premise that my music is this or that,” she made known in a 2006 New York Times article. “Even for me, it’s difficult to pick a label. People don’t know if I’m pop or something else. The labels never last long anyway, because at any moment it becomes easy for me to destroy all the theories.”
Guitarist and musician Arto Lindsay, who has presided over several of Marisa’s recorded entrees, referred to her as a person of wide taste, “but also very mainstream. One of the secrets of her success is that she has really popular taste, and so is very honest about doing what she does and looking for the best from every genre.”
The possessor of an obviously open and gifted mind-set as well, the carioca native let Gilman in on some of her “secrets” with a purposely winding back-story involving her own artistic coming of age: “When I was eighteen, I went to Italy to study opera, which gave me the opportunity to study the repertoire and to live outside Brazil awhile. But after living in Italy for a year, I began to see Brazil with different eyes.
“For the first time, I could see how rich, original, and unique Brazilian music is in relation to the rest of the world. I saw myself a long way from home and realized how hard it was going to be to put aside all the cultural weight, the density of my background. Never before had I felt so Brazilian.
“To escape my background, to forget all the culture that had been implanted since birth, I would have had to live outside of Brazil for the rest of my life. I also knew it was going to be very difficult for me to put aside modern production techniques.
“And since opera is something that is turned more toward the past, I could see clearly how, for me, it was more important to be in Brazil than to be singing opera in Italy. So I came back when I was nineteen. I had been receiving invitations to record pop music in Brazil since I was sixteen, but studying in Europe was just a way of taking enough time to find my way, to decide what I really wanted.”
By her own calculation, Marisa has recounted this thrice-familiar tale “millions” of times, including at least once to her colleague and friend, producer Arto Lindsay. “And I am sure I’ll keep telling it forever,” she chuckled. “Even if I write it down, it’s not the same as hearing it in my unique voice.”
Ah, yes, that “unique voice.” Gilman has praised its “extraordinary dexterity,” “a mezzo-soprano, warm in timbre and unbelievably flexible,” blessed with “a wider sweep of coloration on all ranges than most voices in contemporary Brazilian pop.”
“Silvery and liquid,” raved Times reporter Larry Rohter, “it glides, flutters and skips above her songs with a delicacy that invites listeners to relax and enjoy the ride.” Mr. Lindsay alluded to Marisa’s “work ethic” and “beauty that matches her voice,” along with applauding her interest in Brazilian and Portuguese literature and her “understanding of the way pop art works.”
“For me, it’s all art,” she responded. “I’m interested in what’s going on in other artistic expressions as a reference for what I’m doing. And I like to talk to people from other cultural areas because I think it’s interesting to compare the process of creation, the concepts in the works, and to exchange these kinds of feelings and ways of production.”
By way of example, she has surrounded herself with an impressive lineup of individuals with “other artistic expressions”: Carlinhos Brown and Arnaldo Antunes, Nando Reis and David Byrne, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Laurie Anderson, Bernie Worrell and Philip Glass. But the first to unlock the possibilities may have been her longtime supporter, journalist, songwriter, and television and music producer Nelson Motta — not quite the haute voix of the avant-garde, but an astute judge of latent talent nonetheless.
Here, in an extract from his Noites Tropicais: Solos, Improvisos e Memórias Musicais (“Tropical Nights: Solos, Improvisations, and Musical Memories”), are Motta’s earliest recollections of the fast-rising nineteen-year-old sensation:
“What I saw and heard gave me the vivid impression of being before a real talent. And more: of a strong scenic personality, of a youngster with an optimal musical culture and superb taste in repertoire… And an obsessive desire to learn, to better herself, and to grow. It wasn’t just her ambition to cut a record, to play on the radio, or to become a pop star. She wanted to be a stage singer, much like the lyric singers of old; and the recordings, if they materialized, would be a secondary natural consequence of all that; because she believed that great music happened live – with all of its risk-taking, lack of a safety net, and short-lived moments – just like in the theater and the opera world.”
Her adolescent idol was the soprano Maria Callas — one of those “lyric singers of old” that, by sheer coincidence, was the same role model that inspired her namesake, fadista Mariza, to take the artistic plunge. Her link to Velha Guarda (“The Old Guard”) da Portela Samba School of Rio, from where her knowledge of Carnival and samba must have derived, proved invaluable to her development as a performer. (It helped that her father Carlos had once been cultural director for the group.)
What about all those recordings that were expected to have materialized from her stage success? Not to worry. Unlike many artists who issue album after album of mindless filler, Marisa has spent much of her free time in thoughtful contemplation as to what exactly to leave behind for posterity.
To date she’s recorded a grand total of eight solo albums and one group effort — not very impressive numbers in themselves, but hardly second-rate studio fodder either. Her first, MM (World Pacific) from 1989, was a live performance based on an early TV special. If anything, it set the tone for what was to become her signature eclecticism.
The songs were drawn from all quarters, and highlighted the work of a contemporary rock band, an Italian pop-rock artist, a purveyor of Brazilian soul, and a psychedelic group from the seventies, along with a few standard-issue set pieces from different time periods, the most memorable of which was a version of the Motown classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (Strong and Whitfield), as well as tracks that paid tribute to Carmen Miranda, George and Ira Gershwin, and Kurt Weill.
Despite its one-word title, her second album Mais (World Pacific, 1991) did not feature “more” of the same, but took a different turn in that she co-wrote many of the numbers with ex-Titãs partners Reis and Antunes. A cover of Caetano Veloso’s “De noite na cama” (“At Night In Bed”) and selections from sambistas Cartola and Pixinguinha, in addition to an item by a gentleman identified only as Nordestino, rounded out the program.
She continued along this line for her next major outing, the improbably christened Verde, Anil, Amarelo, Cor de Rosa e Carvão (Blue Note, 1994), marketed in the U.S. under the banner Green, Blue, Yellow, Rose and Charcoal. The guest list for this super-production read like a name-dropper’s guide to the musical galaxy, i.e., Gilberto Gil, Carlinhos Brown, Celso Fonseca, Paulinho da Viola, Velha Guarda da Portela, Messrs. Glass and Worrell, Romero Lubambo, Fred Hammond, and so forth. It was perhaps Marisa’s biggest seller abroad.
Her subsequent work, Barulhinho Bom (“A Great Little Noise,” EMI, 1996), a double-compact disc combination of live performances and studio proficiency, solidified her pop-music credentials; in fact, it went above and beyond anything she had done before. From that point, extensive touring, the presenting of more and elaborate stage shows, playing on and producing albums by other artists — even the creation of the record label Phonomotor for the purpose of preserving her own projects — took precedence over domestic bliss.
Nevertheless, two more releases followed. Memórias, Crônicas e Declarações de Amor – “Memories, Chronicles and Declarations of Love” (Blue Note, 2000), was a title that seemed lifted from Mr. Motta’s recently published reminiscences. It won a Latin Grammy Award for Best Pop Album in 2001. Topping even that envious honor, the 2002 launch of Tribalistas on Phonomotor, with fellow participants Carlinhos Brown and Arnaldo Antunes, hit Number Twelve on the Billboard charts, earning generous Grammy notices and winning one for Best Brazilian Contemporary Pop Album.
Not until she became pregnant with her son did Marisa take some needed time off. Following a three-year hiatus, she came back, fully charged, in 2006 with two back-to-back albums of mostly new material by her and Tribalista band members Brown and Antunes, Universo ao Meu Redor (“Universe All Around Me”) and Infinito Particular, both for EMI. With a little help from some old friends (Adriana Calcanhotto, Caetano Veloso, Jaques Morelenbaum, Eumir Deodato, João Donato, Paulinho da Viola, Philip Glass, and Daniel Jobim), these works turned out to be winners as well.
Marisa herself took a more proactive role in their production, exemplified by her mastering of some rather exotic instrumentation. Many of those she used, such as the auto-harp, melodica, kalimba, metaphone, cajon, vocoder, baixo, cowbells, and reco-reco, sounded suspiciously like leftovers from a discarded Uakti session. Even computerized electronics were no barrier to her experimentation.
“I love manipulating the sound of everything. You can create new instruments that don’t exist or new tonalities for traditional instruments. Plus, the mixture of the pure sound with the processed sound is really cool.”
Nelson Motta was right about a lot of things. Mostly, he was spot-on concerning his former protégée’s having the patience and self-discipline to take her musical ambitions to Valhalla-like heights. Of course, Marisa has never been content to stay within predictable parameters — and, as far as we can tell, no safety net was ever extended for this peerless risk-taker, either.
Turning once more toward the past, if she had lived during the early part of the twentieth century Marisa would surely have raised the bar for the likes of Rosa Ponselle, Geraldine Farrar, Maria Jeritza, Claudia Muzio, Lina Cavalieri, and other prima donnas of their ilk. And that’s no small feat, since they were all true operatic superstars of the very first order, renowned as much for the beauty of their voices as for their fabulous looks on stage.
In the breadth and scope of their knowledge, however, they would be no match for our modern-day diva. Why, back in the day she might even have forced them into some type of early retirement, or taken over at a moment’s notice. That’s soooo like the theater and opera world, isn’t it? A world and a culture Marisa Monte has yet to completely escape from. ◊
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes