Human Interest Stories

Michael Richards ‘Winged’ Takes Flight: A Voice Once Silenced Cries Out Anew (Part Two)

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Truth to Power

Yours truly beside sculpture of Tar Baby vs, St. Sebastian (Photo courtesy of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Sep. 2016)
Yours truly beside sculpture of Tar Baby vs, St. Sebastian (Photo courtesy of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Sep. 2016)

These are the photographs and/or descriptions of the remaining works left behind by the late Michael Richards, an artist and sculptor who perished in the 9/11 attacks that brought him and thousands of others down with the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

img_0973Let Me Entertain You, 1993, Mixed media installation with video, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Michael Richards Estate

“The installation takes the form of a historical dressing room of famous performer Bert Williams … A video of the artist applying blackface is projected unto the mirror. On the left wall of the room are four mirrors, printed with photographs of the artist, on which text is silk-screened questioning the degree of blackness reflected: ‘Black, ‘Blacken,’ ‘Black Enough For You.’”

img_0977Climbing Jacob’s Ladder (He Lost His Head), 1994, Resin, mirrors, lights, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park and the Michael Richards Estate

img_0979Escape Plan 76 (Brer Plane in the Brier Patch), 1996, Wax, resin, paper, metal, rubber, lights, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem

img_0981Swing Lo’, 1996, Steel, neon, wood, speakers with musical soundtrack, audio tape, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park

img_0984“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” an old spiritual, the voice of reason — preaching tolerance and understanding. But at the same time, holding a “mirror” up to life’s inequities and how we have been treated by those who have exploited race and economic equality for their own purposes.

img_0985The Great Black Airmen (Tuskegee), 1996, Wood, resin, plexiglass, tar, feathers, paper, bonded bronze, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem

Untitled (Air Lift), 1997, Super hold hair gel, plastic, wax, pigment, and plexiglass, Installation image courtesy of the Bronx Museum of the Arts

img_0989Free F’All, 1997, Resin, steel, mirror, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum of Harlem

[Untitled] (Free F’All), 1997, fiberglass and resin with iron oxide, Brooklyn Museum, Anonymous gift in honor of Michael Richards, 2007 © Estate of Michael Richards, Installation image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum

img_0991Map Head, 1999, Urethane, resin, transfer, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem

N’Kisi Nigga, 1999, Urethane, metal, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem

img_0993Tar and Feather, 1999, Bonded bronze, tar, metal, Installation images courtesy of Franconia Sculpture Park

img_0995Are You Down?, 2000, fiberglass, bonded bronze, resin, concrete, black beauty sand, Installation images courtesy of Franconia Sculpture Park

img_0998Fly Away O’ Glory, 1995, Resin bronze, feathers, motors, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

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Air Fall 1 (His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watching Me), 1998, Hair, latex, and glass, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

Planes plummeting from the ceiling above into a mirrored abyss — again, Michael’s prescience was captured by his ultimate realization of the existing 9/11 Memorial, built on the exact spot where the North and South Towers once stood: two rectangular-shaped pools of water, open spaces, with middle squares of water pouring into a hole.

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A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo, 1994, Resin, marble dust, wood, motor, photo transfer, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

img_1014Travel Kit, 1999, Bonded bronze, hair, and wood, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

img_0957Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian

Say It Loud!

And these are the voices of those who knew and worked with Michael, along with Michael’s own special words:

Sam Seawright, Artist: “For Michael making art and getting his message to a diverse audience was essential to his being, and a vital component of his core beliefs. One beautiful lesson I learned from Michael was the importance of overcoming prejudices, lack of funds, false perceptions and misguided criticisms and to make art at all costs, in the end the art speaks for itself. He was able to practice in the studio the lessons he learned from the hardships persevered in his personal life. He preached compassion and understanding with his art and practiced generosity of spirit in his life.”

John Hock, Artistic Director/CEO and Co-founder, Franconia Sculpture Park: “Of the many blameless people annihilated that day in 2001, few can have meditated quite as much as this man did upon the quick rise and quicker fall of hope: a Jamaican, an immigrant, a black man, Richards knew something about the loneliness of exile, and the feeling of exclusion from others’ realities. It is no presumption to imagine Michael, at times, had nothing to go on but his rage against an identity projected on him by apartheid.”

img_1016Carolyn Swiszcz, Artist: “I would describe Michael as soft-spoke (but not shy), confident (but not overbearing), and sophisticated (but not pretentious). He had a knack for charming pretty much everybody he met. It seemed to me that he didn’t suffer from the kind of prickly bad moods I struggled with, or maybe he was just much better at managing them. What stays with me most, almost twenty years later, is his smile. He shared ut often. I can easily envision it spreading across his face in response to a joke or in an attempt to express a sympathy.”

Wendell Walker, Deputy Director for Operations, Exhibitions, and Design, Museum of the Moving Image: “The fantasy of flight was a frequent topic between us during our early days together at the Grey [Art Gallery]. We shared dreams of flying — both beautiful and frightening ones — that we both had as children, and I cherish those conversations even though they now haunt me. I feel those dreams represent such a critical part of Michael’s work and life, and I feel strangely reassured that, on that horrible day, he decided to fly.”

img_1017Marysol Nieves, Vice President, Specialist, Latin American Art, Christie’s Former Senior Curator, The Bronx Museum of the Arts: “The impressive body of work Michael Richards produced during his brief, yet prolific career reflects the discourse on identity, racial and gender politics that was so pervasive in the landscape of contemporary art during [the] 1990s. yet his work eschewed many of the tropes often associated with identity based art by tackling the complexities of, and at times painful histories implicit in the investigation of such notion as blackness, masculinity, and power.”

Dread Scott, Artist: “As much as I will remember Michael as an incredible brilliant artist and some of his unrealized projects, I really remember him as a fried and the simple things that make up friendship. What I remember most is him frequently greeting me in intentionally thick patois saying: ‘Whayousay Dread?’”

img_1023Jorge Daniel Veneciano, Executive Director, El Museo del Barrio, former Curator of Exhibitions, The Studio Museum in Harlem: “Michael was a poetic soul. Somewhat quiet, with a bemused, all-knowing smile. He had a keen sense of irony. It suffused his work, sharpened his artistic wit. A poetic sensibility for human contradictions deepened the aesthetic value of his work… His interest in metaphors of flight adds a confounding layer of irony to his life and passing. Like Icarus, perhaps he flew too close to the sun — too close to the truth. And the dark poetry of the universe answered in an unforgiving way. Yet Michael’s work prevails as a living, lasting retort to the unmoved universe.”

Genaro Ambrosino-D’Amico, former owner, Ambrosino Gallery: “You know when sometimes you meet someone and you think, ‘Wow, he’s so cool! I want to be his friend’? That’s how Michael was. He was handsome, he dressed well, had a killer smile. He was loving and warm and made sure that you knew that you could count on him. He was smart, street and book smart. He could talk politics, art, music, history and popular culture with the same ease and knowledge, and always with a consistency that made you agree with him, even when you really didn’t! But one thing above all I loved of Michael, and makes me miss him most. He was fair, he was just. And you can’t say that of many people. That’s why he was so ‘cool.’”

Michael Richards, Artist Statement:

“— Does the glass ceiling which excludes also reflect the desire to belong?

“My current body of work investigates the tension between assimilation and exclusion. By focusing on issues of identity and identification, I attempt to examine the feelings of doubt and discomfort which face blacks who wish to succeed in a system which is structured to deny them access.

“How do systems of representation, and the portrayal of success both seduce and repel? I wish primarily to give voice to the psychic spaces in which exist both hope and frustration, faith and failure, and the compromises which must be negotiated in order to survive.

“Though the issues which inform the work may be seen as primarily political, I use language of metaphor to express them. The use of feathers and tar, mirrors and ladders, the concept of flight both as freedom and surrender, all attempt to open a metaphorical space into which the viewer can be seduced.

“This space allows for an examination of the psychic conflict which results from the desire to both belong to and resist a society which denies blackness even as it affirms.

“In attempting to make this pain and alienation concrete, I use my body, the primary locus of experience, as a die from which to make casts. These function as surrogates, and as an entry into the work.”

img_1021The End Game

We look in vain for clarity to horrific events, and for meaning to our lives. Michael Richards discovered both fairly early in his career. I cannot help but think of the Winged exhibition, a spare memento of the artist’s state of mind, as an austere expression of his Spartan lifestyle.

Here, one may presume that Michael found closure in enclosed surroundings. His surviving works, as few in number as they were, have been arranged in predetermined patterns. We are left with a mere handful of artifacts, objects conceived and sculpted in cogent thought, in the hope of achieving a higher purpose and in demonstrating to the observer the many injustices that Michael witnessed around him.

What would Michael have said about the Black Lives Matter movement? About the murders that’s gripped the city of Chicago? About the NFL protests by quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers? How would he have reacted to the treatment of young black men — which he, too, happened to be one — to the violence around them?

These are the true tragedies of Michael Richards’ death; the art and political world were deprived of his powerful, reasoned voice. The exhibition of his remaining work, at the Art Center at Governor’s Island, sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, offers, if nothing else, a singular vision of what it was like to live as a talented black artist in a racially and economically divided America.

Unlike the noise and strife that surrounded him, amid the tumult of world affairs — the so-called “body politic,” and the use of his own body to portray that very politic, spiraling out of control — Michael’s voice was one of calm and reason. To paraphrase a line from the poem “Invictus,” he was the master of his fate; he was the captain of his soul. He commandeered a measured, more pensive response to the world’s problems. He gave thought to his actions, yet put action into his thoughts.

I see a severed head (his own, if such as thing were possible) encased in a football helmet, the American flag draped around the lifeless body of a football player, kneeling before us. In my mind’s eye, I see the artist’s statement — it is Michael himself.

With gratitude to Alex Fialho, co-curator with Melissa Levin, for the use of photographs and literature from the Michael Richards: Winged exhibition, and to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for their help, support and cooperation in the writing of this article.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Michael Richards ‘Winged’ Takes Flight: A Voice Once Silenced Cries Out Anew (Part One)

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img_0951The City Never Sleeps

Having grown up and lived in New York for almost four decades, you would think that I had visited most of its myriad attractions. Not so! There are many such unfrequented hotspots in and around town, one of them being the little known Governors Island.

To get to this nearly inaccessible site, one must travel by subway to the tip of Lower Manhattan, where the East River meets the Hudson. From there, you wander aimlessly about until some kind soul leads you in the right direction.

“I’m going there,” said the young girl wearing a New York Harbor School T-shirt. “Follow me.” After a short stroll, my volunteer guide piped up again. “The ferry to Governors Island is right over there,” she pointed out to me, “in the building to your left.” That would be the Battery Maritime Building, right? I thanked the young girl, who disappeared inside a local coffee shop.

I waited at the terminal until the appointed 8 a.m. hour when the next ferry would be ready to launch. The boat ride itself lasted under a quarter of an hour, a pleasant enough trip with little if any turbulence — just the thing for this landlubber.

Disembarking from the ferry at Governor’s Island, the first view I had was of the bay and the newly rebuilt World Trade Center buildings. Looming silently in the distance behind me, they stood as a bulwark against a clear, cloudless sky — coincidentally, the same September sky that shone brightly over Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. Noisy helicopters, simultaneously taking off and landing from the busy heliport near the East River, broke through the stillness.

img_0958I approached the Arts Center entrance on foot, where I was greeted by an apportioned wall with the name of the exhibition, Michael Richards: Winged, in emboldened lettering. A variant of Matura MT Script Capitals, the title was displayed prominently to my left, with the figure of the artist’s Winged sculpture suspended directly ahead. Cast from Michael’s own forearms, it was “conjoined at the elbow,” and, as the written description indicated, “pierced with feathers, bringing together human anatomy and bird-like features to evocative effect.”

I stared intently at the bronze and metal object floating before me. With its outstretched arms, the work gave the appearance of bidding me to come forward and inspect the contents within. If I had stood underneath that welcoming embrace, the hands would have brushed lightly against my shoulders — reassuringly, I would imagine, in preparation for what I was about to see.

Though some of what I witnessed would cause me (and others like me) great pain, those extended hand figures — and ergo, Michael’s spirit — would still be there, guiding and comforting me along the way.

Winged, 1999, Bonded bronze and metal, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate
Winged, 1999, Bonded bronze and metal, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

Roughly a year ago this past September, I wrote an article in memory of the late World Views artist Michael Richards. Michael had been working on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center’s Tower One (aka the North Tower) on the morning of September 11. He perished, along with thousands of other victims, when one of the hijacked planes crashed into the floors above his studio. Accordingly, whatever Michael had been working on had vanished along with him.

The manner in which he died was brought to poignant light when a work thought lost resurfaced in a cousin’s garage. This was the harrowing Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, displayed at North Carolina Museum of Art, from November 2003 to March 2004 and beyond, as part of their Defying Gravity: Contemporary Art and Flight exhibit (see the following link to my original article: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/09/12/lost-navigator-michael-richards-a-story-of-redemption-through-art/).

Since viewing that same Defying Gravity exhibit, where the extraordinary figure of Michael dressed in a Tuskegee airman flight suit was being pierced by dozens of model airplanes, I had determined to learn the details of this remarkable artist’s life and his controversial art.

In one of those unforeseen circumstances, just prior to the start of Memorial Day Weekend I received an e-mail from Melissa Levin, Director of Cultural Programs for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which sponsored the World Views artists-in-residence program, inviting me to a reception for their Michael Richards: Winged exhibition on the afternoon of June 25.

The exhibition, to be held at the Arts Center (a former army warehouse) on Governors Island, for which Ms. Levin served as co-curator with her colleague Alex Fialho, was planned as a combination retrospective and commemoration. It was slated to include “a range of Richards’ work in sculpture and drawing, most of which has not been on public view for over 15 years, as well as documentation and ephemera of his art and life.”

While I was unable to attend the reception at that time, I made my desire known to both Melissa and Alex that I would like to pay a visit to their exhibition. This I managed to do towards the end of September 2016.

Obscure Objects of Desire

Michael Richards: Winged exhibition hall, Sptember 2016 (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)
Michael Richards: Winged exhibition hall, September 2016 (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

The term “ephemera,” as noted above, is normally associated with transitory matters — namely, objects of a short-lived, impermanent nature. In this instance, the so-called ephemera of Michael Richards’ life and art, gathered together in this impressive collection, transcended the dictionary meaning of the word. I realized, to my astonishment, that these works were not so much ephemera as they were the enduring artifacts of a socially-minded individual far ahead of his time.

More so than most artists, Michael spoke wholly and exclusively through his art. As such, he gave voice and substance to millions of unheard voices that have rung out through much of our nation’s history. Sadly, his own voice was silenced on September 11, 2001. Today, it speaks louder than ever, crying out anew from the remnants of Tower One, in the exhibition Michael Richards: Winged named in his honor.

The Arts Center in which Michael Richards’ remaining works were housed was large and spacious, albeit underutilized. It struck me as more empty than full; a hallowed dwelling providing safe haven for what was left of his Estate. The walls were lined with rows upon rows of photos and artist statements, along with epigrammatic descriptions of his work — some written by Michael himself — as well as reminiscences from those who knew and worked with him.

Amid the hall’s open spaces and echoey ambience, the exhibition as a whole expressed to me what was both moving and lacking in the display. For instance, why were there not more pieces physically present as part of the exhibition’s central theme, i.e., the celebration of the artist’s purpose in life? Why was there an uneasy sense of “incompleteness” about the whole affair, an unshakably deaden feeling of works still in progress?

True, many of Michael’s art pieces had found permanent residency in such places as the Brooklyn Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Socrates Sculpture Park, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, in addition to Franconia Sculpture Park outside of Minneapolis, the Michael Richards Estate, and those of private collectors.

But instead of closure and acceptance; of moving away from the sins of the past so as to get on with one’s present and future existence, the majority of Michael’s surviving output, represented in whole or in part by photographic depictions, seemed dwarfed by comparison to the monumentally tragic events that surrounded them.

Once I left the exhibition hall, however, I had ample time to reflect on what I had seen. I must confess that, over the course of these past several months, my initial reaction has changed drastically from mild disappointment to sincere admiration for the thought and consideration that went into this pioneering effort.

How else could the terrible emptiness I felt inside when regarding Michael’s work, and the horrifying circumstances of his demise, have been accurately depicted? The sense of shock and outrage at what was done to him and to those around him has been tempered by the knowledge that Michael Richards’ life was dedicated to documenting the abuses of power and authority.

A potent, early expression (from 1990) of racial injustice can be found in a series of photographs of an installation entitled History: Meditating on the Middle Passage. Quoting from Michael’s artist statement, the installation consisted of “three life-sized boats built to resemble coffins.” These coffins were “positioned in a row evoking both funeral processions (and the political functions such gatherings serve in many black communities) and ship convoys used in the Middle Passage,” [to wit, the slave trade in which millions of blacks were forcibly shipped from Africa to the New World].

History: Meditating on the Middle Passage (1990) (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Counvil)
History: Meditating on the Middle Passage (1990), left (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

“In each vessel are 100 glass slides silk-screened with the faces of black men. Each face,” the statement went on to explain, was “repeated in its own vessel to both reinstate and drain its identity. The slides are illuminated from within the boats/coffins, and 4 phrases are projected unto the walls corresponding to the cardinal points in the room.

“These phrases, ‘No Name,’ ‘No Face,’ ‘No Place,’ and ‘No Tongue,’ speak not only to a lost history and culture but to a process of transformation by which African-Americans were formed.” A chill ran down my spine as I moved in for a closer look. Yes, I pondered, this was how the ancestors of today’s African American communities were brought to these shores — if they survived the perilous ocean voyage, that is, with “survival” a dubious term, at best, considering the subsequent nature of their lives as slaves.

The next exhibit (via another photographic display), a mixed media installation entitled Al Jolson Dances Forever: Birth of a Nation, came from 1991. It consisted of (and I quote) a “large ornate frame into which an 8mm movie loop of Al Jolson performing in blackface is projected.”

The son of a Jewish rabbi and cantor, Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson in present-day Lithuania) was a popular entertainer who starred in The Jazz Singer, the first “all talking, all singing” motion picture. The frame leads up to and is flanked by two rows of tarnished and damaged trophies “with their arms raised in a gesture of either victory or surrender. The pedestals on which the trophies stand are silk-screened [similar to those in the previous display, History: Mediating on the Middle Passage] with the legends, ‘Who Wins,’ and Who Loses.’

“On the wall opposite the frame projection, a mirror reflects the installation and the audience that enters the room. On the mirror are silk-screened three questions: ‘In Whose Name,’ ‘With Whose Face,’ and ‘In Whose Image.’ An audio loop of Al Jolson singing ‘Mammy’ plays continuously in the room.”

Al Jolson Dances Forever: Birth of a Nation, 1991 (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)
Al Jolson Dances Forever: Birth of a Nation, 1991 (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

Juxtaposed alongside History: Meditating on the Middle Passage, the exhibit paid belated tribute to the hundreds of unsung African American performers who came before and after Jolson. While taking nothing away from Jolson’s work, the installation questions the rationale for our having neglected the incredible range of talent that helped shape the American entertainment landscape, and (by implication), the sports industry as well.

In a similar vein, another unspeakably vile image came a year later, in 1992, with Same Old Song and Dance. Again, quoting from Michael Richards’ boldly assertive statement, “The piece was installed in two large windows which faced the street. Both windows were arranged as a theatrical tableaux united by a half-raised red velvet curtain, across the top of which ran the title in large white letters. In the left window, partially concealed by the curtain, four pairs of suspended legs dressed in tuxedo pants and patent shoes slowly rotated. In the right window, 12 disembodied black heads rotated slowly in the opposite direction. Audible from the sidewalk, the pop song ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’ played continuously.

“The piece sought to examine the pervasive nature of racial violence in our society and the empty apologies offered in response. The theatrical setting addresses questions of the perception of racial violence in a society of spectacle, while the minstrel costumes evoke the historical battle of representation and the violence implicit in this struggle.”

The dangling feet of the dancers were a stark reminder of the horrors of Jim Crow and the illegal lynching of poor blacks during those God-awful times. How anyone could extract meaning from such hateful associations proves the truism that “The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.” This was about as intense a lesson as anyone was capable of absorbing.

Same Old Song and Dance, 1992, Mixed media installation with motors and audio loop, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park, Video documentation by Wendell Walker, Grey Art Gallery, 1992
Same Old Song and Dance, 1992, Mixed media installation with motors and audio loop, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park, Video documentation by Wendell Walker, Grey Art Gallery (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

End of Part One

(To be continued…)

With thanks to Alex Fialho, co-curator with Melissa Levin, for the use of photographs and literature from the Michael Richards: Winged exhibition, and to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for their help, support and cooperation in the writing of this article.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Her Eyes Were Fixed on Bette Davis (Part Three): The Dating Game, ‘Paulistano’ Style

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Life is What You Make of It

Bette Davis & Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager (1942), with Sugar Loaf in the background
Bette Davis & Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager (1942), with Sugar Loaf in the background

Telling my parents’ life stories, and, at the same time, getting the facts of their courtship straight, haven’t been easy. The main problem is that they have long since departed: my mother died on December 16, 1985, at age sixty-one, from kidney disease; dad left us on October 23, 1993, of congestive heart failure at seventy-one — a mere eight years between deaths.

Even when residing and working in São Paulo as a teacher of English, I was barely able to communicate with relatives from either side of the family during the time I had spent there (September 1996 to January 2001). Hence, you will forgive me if the details of my account must depend primarily on anecdotal evidence.

It’s not enough to claim that Annibal Peres Lopes (or Lopes Peres, as recorded on the marriage certificate) and the former Lourdes Ferreira eventually wound up in each other’s arms. True, it wasn’t anywhere near the way Charlotte Vale and Jerry Durance’s romance blossomed in Now, Voyager.

If you recall, the enamored pair were stranded for days on end after their motorcar crashed near the foot of Sugar Loaf Mountain. Still, I have to admit: in their unique way, mom and dad did have what, in Hollywood parlance, would come to be called a “meet cute.”

In the numerous documents my father left behind, he gave his São Paulo street address as Rua Rio Bonito No. 1293. This was close enough to, if not in the general vicinity of, where my mother had worked and lived (i.e., Rua Dr. Vergilio do Nascimento). Based on who did the actual telling, this is where their stories diverge.

In dad’s version, he had seen my mother several times before they actually met, but had no idea she was related to one his helpers, her adolescent brother Rubens. Dad would see her walking with a group of young women, one of whom, her sister Iracema, happened to be engaged to Agostinho Pires, another of my father’s partners. One day, dad playfully asked Rubens if he had a spare sister for him to date. Just then, mom rounded the corner with her siblings.

“There she is!” shouted Rubens.

“But, I know this lady!” dad answered back. And from that moment on, they hit it off.

As my mother would relate it, she and her sisters were on their way to a church social or similar get-together. They had come upon some friends who, quite by chance, happened to know so-and-so, and/or so-and-so’s brother or sister. That’s how young people in the neighborhood got to meet and greet one another, through mutual acquaintances.

All the same, mom was waiting with her sisters at the local bus stop, called o ponto de onibus — a literal wooden stake, or “point,” shaped like a giant pencil planted in the middle of the block or street corner.

Old-fashioned "ponto de onibus") ("bus stop") in Sao Paulo
Old-fashioned ponto de onibus (“bus stop”) in Sao Paulo, Brazil

In a reversal of mom’s narrative, it was dad who suddenly put in an appearance with his buddies. They were dressed to the nines in their immaculately pressed suits and silk ties. By force of habit, dad would never, ever venture forth from his mother’s residence in anything but a white long-sleeved shirt, starched to the hilt by one of his sisters. With him was his ever-present cigarette in hand.

Having admired my mother from afar and taken a liking to her calm, reticent manner (quite unlike that of most girls he’d been dating), dad started a conversation with her. When he learned she was going to church with her sisters, he asked if he could tag along. Mom nodded in agreement, and they all boarded the bus together as it approached. Dad accompanied my mother inside and waited for her to find a suitable spot. Once she sat down, he dutifully planted himself on the seat next to hers.

In the meantime, his buddies had followed the couple on board the bus, all the while snickering behind their back and cracking loud jokes at my father’s expense: “Hey, Annibal, you bum! Watch those hands! We can see your every move! Oh, will you look at that! He’s making goo-goo eyes at her! Behave yourself, you dog, or we’re calling her parents!”

Dad ignored their crude remarks. He was too busy focusing his gaze on the shy, young woman to his side. For her part, mom was enraptured. In what seemed like no time at all, the chubby, bespectacled second-oldest daughter of Francisco and Ana Ferreira (an early portrait of my mother struck me as a carbon copy of Jerry Durrance’s daughter Tina) was engaged to the handsomest, most charming bachelor of Alto do Pari. “Um pão de homem” (“A hunk of a man”) was how the locals described him, with dark, wavy hair, olive complexion, and chestnut-brown eyes. Not only was he fastidious about his looks and dress, but dad boasted a muscular build, a slender face, and a strong chin, topped with a neatly trimmed mustache.

Oh, he was quite the catch, all right — with one hell of a Latin temper to match. Notwithstanding mom’s Protestant fervor, as a concession to her future mother-in-law the religious ceremony took place in a Catholic parish ministered by the local priest. Mom also agreed to have her firstborn child baptized in the same parish, that of Igreja São João Batista. Wedding pictures from that period bore witness to her miraculous change from a self-professed ugly duckling to that of a gorgeous September bride. Mom looked smashing in her lace bridal gown with matching flower bouquet and crown. She and dad were beaming with delight.

My parents' wedding photograph (September 1953)
My parents’ wedding photograph (September 1953)

And to think their storybook marriage almost failed to come off! About a week before the big day, dad’s partner “Noca,” who was known to take a nip (or more) between trips, crashed their truck into a ditch. There went dad’s sole means of livelihood. Before desperation began to sink in, our relatives came to my father’s aid: they were able to recover the vehicle and bring it back to its former working condition in time for the wedding ceremony.

Immediately after the reception, the couple honeymooned in nearby Santos, which for paulistanos was the seaside equivalent of Rio. When they returned from their trip, the newlyweds moved in with my father’s family. His father, Alfredo, had died years earlier when dad was only nineteen. Since then, his mother had taken up the challenge of running the Lopes household as she saw fit. Grandma Encarnación — La Abuela, as dad pejoratively referred to her — ruled with an iron rod. Charlotte Vale’s bully of a parent was child’s play compared to this formidable grande dame. Dressed all in black, my foreign-born grandmother would don the mantilla, which enveloped her long, gray-streaked hair, held tightly in a bun and comb. Her face was heavily lined, and her speech was spiced with a thick Spanish accent.

Mom suffered at the hands of her in-laws. Because of her total dedication to being a model wife and mother, with one or two exceptions (my aunts Marina and Herminia, for example) the others were uniformly resentful of her presence. Mom’s gentleness and timidity, along with the quiet, nondescript way she went about her business —and in particular, her good nature — were frowned upon in a home where clamor and name-calling were a common way of life.

They were jealous as well of mom’s daily visits to her mother, who lived only a few blocks away. Since Vovó Encarnación had been treated harshly by her alcoholic husband, she regarded everyone around her as worthy of being treated in like manner. In turn, Grandma was callously treated by her own children (including my dad). Now grown up, the harshest of the sisters felt it only fair to take their frustrations out on my mom.

On one of these visits, she expressed to her mother Ana the deep sorrow and profound distress she experienced while staying at her in-laws. Vovó Ana, who was well-schooled on the theme of rude relations, counseled her to carry on in the face of her difficulties; that the good Lord would provide an answer to her seemingly inescapable dilemma.

Shortly thereafter, mom became pregnant with her first child (yours truly). Because of this, my father resolved that mom should have a home of her own. For which he arranged a move to a new apartment above a local real estate office on Rua Pedroso da Silveira, a mere stone’s throw from her mother’s dwelling. Mom was overjoyed at the prospect. Since dad traveled so frequently, she would be better-off living close to her own kin than to her in-laws. They could care for her, too, in the event he was unable to be present for my birth.

It took years for Vovó Encarnación to recognize the precious jewel she had in her daughter-in-law: that hard-working, dedicated, and utterly selfless individual I grew to love and admire was forced to overcome her natural reserve in order to endure almost unrelieved anguish. During the time she spent with her in-laws, mom refused to argue back, but neither did she buckle under from dread. Moreover, she maintained her composure throughout the year-long ordeal, never once offending those who took it upon themselves to offend. Through her example, mom went on to earn their respect, if not their ardor. In time, dad’s relatives came around and softened their approach. There would always be someone that continued to harbor unmerited animosity towards her, but overall mom triumphed through kindness and resilience, and by never giving in to despair.

As for La Abuela, she continued to regard my mother warily, but with a noticeable degree of deference. After all, she was a full-blooded Spaniard. If anything, Vovó Encarnación applauded mom’s ability to care for her children (my brother, Anibal Jr., was born a year and three months after me) and, in all honesty, Grandma treated us kindly. Mom’s diligence in that department would serve her well in the biggest and farthest move of her life: to a home in the South Bronx, in the northeastern part of the United States, far from the familiar surroundings of Alto do Pari.

Mom & Dad as they looked around the time of their marriage
Mom & Dad as they looked around the time of their marriage

Dad paved the way for us in May 1959. With his inherent independent streak, he had wanted to get away from his relatives for some time, to live his own life free from their constant prying and whining. After securing employment at a lamp factory as well as putting a down payment on a three-story house at 942 Stebbens Avenue near Fort Apache in the Bronx, dad sent for his wife and two sons.

Mom had never left the State of São Paulo, nor had she set foot outside her native land, until the day she boarded a six-engine TWA transcontinental airline. It took twenty-four nonstop hours to reach Idlewild Airport in Queens. Mom traveled alone with her two boys, aged five and three-and-a-half. She spoke not a word of English. What courage she must have displayed! What strength and single-minded purpose! One can only imagine the thoughts that had gone through her head, or the hardships that would lie before her.

She once told me that leaving her mother behind was the hardest thing she ever had to do. She would have stayed in Brazil — willingly, at that — if only her mom had asked. The story goes that the wrinkled old woman took mom’s “little hands of gold” in hers. Staring gently but gravely into her searching eyes, Grandma Ana gave my mother this piece of advice: “Filha, seu lugar é com seu marido” (“Daughter, your place is with your husband”). And that settled that.

Mom learned to speak and understand a reasonable amount of English in the twenty-five years she lived and worked in New York. She braved the freezing cold winters and the blisteringly hot and humid summers as best she could. She even managed to get around with facility, taking the subway and the bus to wherever she needed to go. When neither was available, she made it under her own power.

She continued the daily grind almost up until the week she passed away. I had only seen my father cry twice beforehand, once at his mother-in-law Ana Joaquina’s demise, and again when my Aunt Marina’s husband, Uncle Frederico, died suddenly a week after New Year’s. When news reached him that his own mother had passed, I remember him sitting alone in the living room with the lights turned off. No tears were shed that night for Encarnación Peres Leimones, but they poured forth like a tropical rainstorm when our mother breathed her last, much as he had done for his mother-in-law when she had gone.

Dad lived another eight winters. He had suffered three heart attacks up to that point, the second of which, in the summer of ‘79, forced him into early retirement. His years were filled with frequent hospital visits — among them, for a triple bypass graft and carotid-artery endarterectomy — amid various nursing home stays. After experiencing multiple transcient ischemic attacks and strokes, aggravated by anxiety neurosis, a type-A personality, high blood pressure, an elevated cholesterol count, and hardening of the arteries, dad expired in the early morning hours of October 23, 1993.

Lourdes and Annibal Lopes were both cremated, their ashes preserved in solid brass urns that resided side-by-side, for a time, at the famed Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. They were finally buried together, along with their urns, in 1996, at the Cemitério do Tremembé, in the North Zone of São Paulo, Brazil, the city and country of their birth.

Their life together was never an easy one. They might have looked at it as the story of two dissimilar spirits, wandering the earth with a shared purpose: to survive by any means at their disposal, and at any cost — even to their own lives.

They never asked for the Moon. And they never quite got hold of the stars. But for thirty-two consecutive years they were content to have each other, and that’s all that mattered. ☼

Copyright (c) 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Flames Over Rio 2016: Brazil’s President ‘Burns’ as the World Watches the Summer Olympic Games (Part One)

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Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics
Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics, held in August 5, 2016

Celebrate Bad Times, Come On!

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. And it most certainly wasn’t part of anyone’s game plan, either.

This was going to be the twin jewels in the crown of Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose personal efforts on behalf of his country’s pitch to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) resulted in a dual victory of sorts.

The first prize was awarded on October 30, 2007, in Zurich, Switzerland, with Brazil being chosen as the site for the 2014 World Cup Soccer Tournament, its first since the contest took place there in 1950 (and we know how that venture turned out). Next up, the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, which were formally announced in Copenhagen, Denmark, on October 2, 2009.

That was seven seasons ago, when Lula was at the height of his fame and esteem, with an astounding 75 percent (or more) approval rating among his fellow Brazilians. Lula wept visibly, and uncontrollably, as then-IOC president Jacques Rogge called out the name of “Rio de Janeiro” as the first South American host city in the history of the modern Olympic Games. Time to party!

Brimming with pride and self-confidence, Brazil sauntered forth in preparation for two of the world’s most prestigious sporting events. If anything, Lula and his Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party), or PT for short, had every right to believe that Rio would make itself ready to receive close to half a million visitors, without undue controversy or delays.

If only …. !

When I was a boy, I remember hearing my dad reminisce about the countless times his foolhardy compatriots would brag that Brazil was on its way at last. “Dessa vez vai!”  they would shout at him, in defiant assurance. “This time for sure!”

Over the course of the last two years, however — ever since Brazil suffered a humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany in the World Cup semi-final match — the country has had nothing but uphill battles in its attempts to overcome the odds of mounting a crowd-pleasing, if not financially rewarding, 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

Throughout Brazil’s summer and into the fall there was plenty of “trash talk” from news outlets the world over, calling for cancellation of the quadrennial event. At the very least, the games must be postponed, journalists hinted at loudly. If not, they would dissolve into an unqualified catastrophe.

Athletes from around the globe, including those of the host nation, would become infected with the dreaded Zika virus, spreading its harmful effects (i.e., infants born with shrunken heads and severely impaired brain function to women of childbearing age) in a full-blown pandemic. They conveniently overlooked the fact that winter had settled upon the region, which meant the mosquito population carrying the virus would be at its lowest point.

Needless to say, dire warnings of the end of civilization as we know it were foisted upon anyone willing to listen to these modern-day Cassandras, as if Italian explorer Christopher Columbus’ introduction of venereal disease to the New World had left a less damaging legacy.

Astonishingly, the organizers of the Rio games, as well as the unruffled IOC members, didn’t see it that way at all. As a matter of fact, they maintained an unwavering Pollyanna-ish outlook on the situation. “Everything is awesome,” they seemed to be spouting. “No Trojan horses here, of that we are certain. So it’s on with the show!”

And what a show it would turn out to be. But before dealing with the main event, South America’s most populous nation would have to wade through a lightning round of preliminaries. With forecasts of a calamity worse than the plagues of Egypt, commentators openly implied that those self-same “preliminaries” would be better by far than the games themselves.

Was it possible they could be right?

Light That Torch

Torch lighting ceremony - Rio 2016
Torch lighting ceremony, with torch bearer Vanderlai Cordeiro de Lima, Rio 2016

On May 3, 2016, the Olympic torch finally arrived in northern Brazil. It made the long, arduous journey through the country’s five major regions, eventually winding up in Rio’s mammoth Maracanã Stadium in time for the opening ceremony.

In many instances, Brazilian runners carrying the renowned sports symbol were met with a bizarre combination of cheers and jeers, and unbounded exuberance mixed in with outright antagonism.

On more than one occasion the torch relay was interrupted by masses of noisy protesters lining the route. Among the demonstrators were striking teachers from Angra dos Reis, in the state of Rio, who were dispersed later on by military forces when tear gas and rubber pellets were haphazardly fired into the crowd.

One such torch bearer, a woman, collapsed on the pavement from sheer exhaustion. Another bearer, surrounded by police jogging alongside and in unison, was sprayed with the contents of an extinguisher. (What part of “light my fire” did they not get?) The police quickly rushed in to tackle the offender.

These and similar incidents continued unabated, up until show time. However, to be fair most foreign viewers and participants were left speechless by the boundless good will and easy camaraderie shown by their Brazilian hosts during the actual games.

All the drama and tension of a two-act theatrical production, with lengthy intermission features and triumphant medal winners, were spaced strategically apart from incidents that took place before and after competition began.

Politics Rule the Day

Brazil's ex-President Dilma Rousseff speaking in Brasilia
Brazil’s ex-President Dilma Rousseff speaking in the capital of Brasilia

To start with, Brazil’s political system had been in virtual freefall. President Dilma Rousseff’s suspension, on May 12, 2016, from the nation’s highest office — nine days after the Olympic torch had landed — along with the Brazilian Senate’s historic vote for her impeachment on August 31 — exactly nine days after the Olympic closing ceremonies on August 22 — had thrown the ruling Workers’ Party into a tailspin.

Dilma had been tried for the crime, such as it was, of falsely propping up the economy in order to cover up the “true” state of the federal government’s deficit-ridden coffers during her 2014 re-election bid — a technical accounting maneuver that past presidents had taken full advantage of.

Only in her case, the implications were indicative of what some critics had foreseen as a personal grudge against an unpopular, uncompromising, and totally unbending head of state, a convenient scapegoat for the country’s economic woes.

Having won a narrow victory in the November 2014 runoff election, Rousseff implemented an array of measures that did little to prevent the country from slipping further into recession. Despite having been Lula’s handpicked successor, and by dint of her carrying on with his policies of lifting the living standards of Brazil’s impoverished under-classes via the enormously effective Bolsa Família (Family Aid) program, Dilma’s mishandling of the coming fiscal crisis had riled the nation’s elites into action.

“I may have committed errors,” Rousseff admitted to her accusers, “but I never committed crimes. It’s the most brutal of things that can happen to a human being — to be condemned for a crime you didn’t commit. There is no more devastating justice.”

After more than a decade of social uplift and federal handouts initiated under Lula and the Workers’ Party, Brazil’s “traditional ruling class,” consisting of influential oligarchs with vast monetary holdings (an eerie nod to the U.S.’s own circumstances re: Citizens United), saw an opportunity to take back the reins of power.

There were those within this select group of career politicians who were more corrupt than the person they were pursuing. Let him who is without sin cast the first impeachment vote.

Some even insisted on going forward with proceedings against Brazil’s first woman president on the grounds of her poor command of the Portuguese language. This wasn’t so much a crime as it was a clear-cut expression of the deplorable state of the Brazilian educational system.

Be that as it may, Dilma’s vice president and sidekick, Michel Temer, from the opposition Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), or PMDB, while temporarily in charge of the government in her absence, has himself been implicated in corruption activities.

Interim President Michel Temer (AFP Photo - Evaristo Sa)
Interim President Michel Temer (AFP Photo – Evaristo Sa)

The charges stem from his alleged solicitation of illegal campaign contributions from the then-head of the transportation unit of the state-owned Petrobras oil conglomerate. The accusations were part of a much larger investigation commonly known as Operação Lava-Jato (Operation Car Wash), in which an ever-widening circle of Brazil’s politicians were caught with unclean hands, including possibly ex-President Lula himself.

In addition to which, Temer’s brand of right-wing politics, his handpicked all-male (and all-white) cabinet members — in a country where 60 or more percent of the population has some kind of black African roots — and austerity measures that plan to cut back the very programs that helped poor Brazilians out of their misery, have infuriated those who deem his efforts as geared primarily towards saving his own party’s skin and the monied interests of the ruling elite. He remains almost as unpopular as Dilma had been.

As of this writing, Temer has been confined to serving out the remainder of Dilma’s term of office through 2018. With all that has transpired in the political arena, the Brazilian people as a whole have been left with little credibility in their leaders to shake the weary nation out of its torpor.

“This time for sure” remains as unfulfilled a slogan as it ever was.

Oh, We’ve Got Trouble, Right Here in Rio City

The escalating violence — over 60,000 or more unsolved murders in the past few years alone — has continued to upend efforts by both government and paramilitary groups to control drug traffickers and their constant turf wars for dominance in Rio’s squalid slum areas, known universally as favelas.

The city’s own fiscal crisis, wherein it spent over $11.9 billion on Olympic facilities as well as expansion of the existing infrastructure — much more than was taken in to make the 2016 Summer Games a profitable endeavor — has only contributed to the once nascent BRIC nation’s problems, leading to a 4 percent drop in average wages and a staggering 11.6 percent increase in the unemployment rate. (Note: The estimated “unofficial” figure has been pegged at nearer the 37 percent mark, which takes into consideration the number of undocumented workers, the so-termed clandestinos, who make their living the unofficial way.)

Brazil’s gross domestic product, or GDP, also fell 3.8 percent in the second quarter of this year. According to the Website Focus Economics, this was considered an “improvement” over the first quarter’s tumbling of nearly 5.4 percent. Didn’t they say there were no Trojan horses?

This unfortunate reversal of fortune, in a country once touted as the most likely to break through to the level of a First World state (the letter “B” in BRIC stands for Brazil), has brought about a massive recession the likes of which has not been seen since Brazil’s military leaders staged a nonviolent coup back in 1964. You would have to go back to the Depression and war years to find a comparable situation.

As if all that weren’t enough, the raw sewage dumped into Rio’s picturesque Guanabara Bay was rumored to have been detrimental to swimmers and rowers’ health. Despite assurances by the IOC and the city’s planners, who continued to claim progress in “cleaning up” the filth and muck, the situation will continue to rankle long after the games have ended. Problems in Rio’s sewage treatment plants were to blame, allowing for a paltry 20 to 30 percent success rate in eliminating the contamination.

Clean up of Rio's Guanabara Bay - Rio 2016
Clean up of Rio’s Guanabara Bay – Rio 2016

Along the same lines, reports of incomplete or faulty construction, involving the accidental deaths of workers on one of the newly built bike paths in the upper-class neighborhood of São Conrado, as well as the use of cheap labor and shoddy materials, renewed concerns over the slipshod working methods employed in building the Olympic Village and other select venues.

Poor or nonexistent accommodations, faulty wiring, intermittent power outages, cost overruns, and related structural issues were an unavoidable nuisance, a constant reminder that problems continued to plague the seaside paradise of Rio de Janeiro.

Added to which the colossal upheaval to the city’s mass transit system has led to constant disruptions in service to a public entirely dependent on its functionality for getting around town. Detours, work stoppages, and miles upon miles of snarled traffic have contributed in many cases to bringing Marvelous City to a marvelous standstill.

All this gloom and doom was projected to bring about a correspondingly Olympic pool-sized fiasco. The opening ceremonies would be a joke. The lighting of the Olympic flame would be doused by Brazil’s inability to meet expectations, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth.

On the other hand, the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” to coin a phrase once used by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew (and attributed to writer William Safire), would rue the day they badmouthed Rio to a skeptical sports world.

Goodness, gracious me! Has there ever been a more negative view, in anyone’s experience, of a host city’s ills? And we thought the situation with Athens 2004 was bad! If “Greece” is the word, what would Rio 2016 spell in the wake of these impending disasters?

(End of Part One – To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

A Jazzman Supreme — Miles Davis, Dark Prince

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Miles Davis (1936-1991), playing in France 1967
Miles Davis (1926-1991), playing in France, ca. 1967

It was that voice. Harsh, gruff, low, and gravely, like crumbled shreds of sandpaper. And that sullen personality. Surly, brooding, moody, a chip strategically perched on his shoulder. That’s what got my attention.

The first time I heard the Miles Davis sound was almost 30 years ago. The same co-worker, Mike, who had introduced me to smooth jazz and the Brazilian artists who played it also sold me on Miles.

“Got a great album for you, Joe” Mike claimed. “You’re gonna like this.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Miles,” he answered.

“Miles? You mean Miles Davis? The jazz trumpeter?

“The same.”

“Didn’t he pass away the other day?”

“Yeah. I’m gonna record him for you. Give it to you tomorrow.”

And he did. Mike gave me a cassette version, which I still own, of Miles’ late 1980s album You’re Under Arrest. I heard it later that same evening. Smooth, rich, the musical equivalent of chocolate ice cream. Miles in mellow form, both haunting and elegiac at the same time, on trumpet and flugelhorn. I loved it, couldn’t stop listening to it. Especially his take on Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.”

The album started off with street sounds. Manhattan street sounds. Noise, crosstalk. The crosstalk turned into indecipherable chatter, rising in volume and pitch until it ended with shouting. Chaos, traffic. Police sirens, pedestrians, confrontation. The sounds of summer in New York, the city that never slumbers. Yeah…

That was Miles.

Miles and Beyond

I knew very little about the jazzman named Miles. Miles was just a name to me, like so many others. But the more I listened, the more I needed to know. His full name was Miles Dewey Davis III, christened after his father, a ranch owner and successful dentist. Miles came from East St. Louis, Illinois, of solid middle-class stock. Even then, pre-war, it was as tough a place as any for a shy kid like Miles to be raised in. I should know, having grown up in the South Bronx.

Back then, I knew next to nothing about Miles’ music. I knew he played jazz. Traditional jazz. Jazz with a capital “J.” He also played bop and cool jazz. From cool jazz came bossa nova, so claimed my friend Mike. And from bossa nova, back to jazz again — or smooth jazz, as it was now called. Terrific stuff.

His albums were classics. Bitches Brew served up innovative jazz fusion mixed with rock. It featured Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette — notables all, who went on to make names for themselves. And there were more names, all of them associated with Miles in one form or another. Jazz people, key figures in his life and art. Billy Eckstine, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, et al. Giants who once walked this Earth.

Bitches Brew (1969) album cover
Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) album cover

There were other music styles as well. Funk, R&B, disco, pop. There were combos, big bands, quartets, octets, nonets, and such. And there were gigs, hundreds of them. Record dates, too, and club dates, and all-night jam sessions. All the things that jazzmen were known for. And, of course, the drugs. Lots of drugs. Drugs to stay awake, drugs to go to sleep. Drugs to keep on moving, drugs to slow the jazzman down.

Jam all night, jam all day, play hard, play rough, play again through the night. Get some sleep. Sleep? What’s that? Go get me a shot of whatever you’re having. And the women, there were lots and lots of women. Black, tan, white, brown. It didn’t matter. Frances Taylor, Betty Mabry (later Davis), Cicely Tyson, so many others. The names came, and they went.

When Miles traveled to Paris, he met and fell hard for Juliette Greco, a dark-haired beauty, a French singer-actress. Their affair was unlike any other in the City of Light, but they were on opposite ends of the jazz thermometer: she was hot, he was cool. Miles was treated with respect while he was in France. Almost like a king, but more like a prince. A dark prince. Not like in America, where he was beaten up and bloodied. He dreaded going back home.

He married and divorced often, as did his contemporary, the poet, musician, and performer Vinicius de Moraes, in Rio. Miles put his women on a pedestal, or on his album covers which were the next best thing. The albums became noteworthy because of them: Some Day My Prince Will Come, E.S.P., Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Filles de Kilimanjaro, and lastly Bitches Brew. The beauty of black women, for all to see, graceful and sleek, up front and personal — in your face and in your home, lovely to look at as well as to listen to. The music, that is.

He had a violent streak, what we call “anger management” issues, which he took out on the women. Battered and bruised, what he had taken from his own brutish treatment he doled out in like form.

Yeah, that was Miles.

Miles Mannered   

Miles was neat and trim, strong and hearty, cut from the finest cloth. His frame was angular and small; eyes large, white background and bulbous, black fire in his pupils. His skin was black as well, dark and glistening, it gleamed brilliantly in the light as sweat poured down over his finely sculpted features.

In the early days Miles kept his hair short, neatly cropped and trimmed and even all around. Later, he sported a Black Power “’fro,” de rigueur for African-Americans of the late 60s and 70s, and later still it came down in tresses to his shoulders, then not so broad as in his youth. He refused to wear a beard or a goatee. That was for sissies! Dizzy had a little fuzz between his lip and chin, and was fond of his beret. Miles preferred the lean and hungry look. No sense covering up that face. He was stylish to a fault, flaunting his taste for the finer things in life.

Late Miles Davis, 1987 (Photo: Luciano Vitti / Getty Images)
Late Miles Davis, 1987 (Photo: Luciano Vitti / Getty Images)

He was a snazzy dresser, too, with shirts that were always starched and neatly pressed, and immaculately tailored suits. Slacks long and trim, covering his spindly legs. Shoes polished to a high buff shine. When psychedelia became all the rage, Miles chose carefully coordinated, colorfully flowing garments, wide-sleeved vestments made of the purest silk. Radical chic, I would think.

That was Miles.

Then there was the music: spare, lean, no bullshit; all killer, no filler. Ballads and mid-tempo numbers were his specialty. Cut to the chase, that was his maxim. The arch romantic in sound. Unlike his contemporaries, Miles lacked a virtuoso’s command of his instrument. That’s all right. We loved him anyway. Many didn’t. More fools them!

Herbie Hancock told a story once about an early recording session with the great man himself. Fumbling for guidance, Herbie was told to sit down at an electric piano, a Fender-Rhodes, something he had never seen before.

Herbie turned to Miles and queried: “Miles, what do you want me to play?”

Miles, hoarse, pointed at the instrument and growled back a reply. “Play that, motherfucker.”

Just another one of his quirks. His language was salty, mean. It cut to the bone, as sharp as a serpent’s tooth, so said Shakespeare. Like his music, it went to the meat of the matter. It signaled to all comers, “Don’t mess with me, motherfucker.” It was all just a cover, though, Miles’ way of overcoming his ever-present shyness, add to it the loneliness, the hurt, the despair that all jazzmen carry with them.

He called people an infinite variety of the “F” bomb. On anyone else’s lips, it might have sounded gross or revolting. Coming from Miles, it felt like poetry. How many ways could he say “fuck,” “shit,” or “motherfucker,” and still make them sound fresh and true, joyous and endearing, sad and tragic? To him, they were more than just verbs or epithets, more than just adjectives or nouns; they were every permutation in between. Like bop, hard-bop and modal, they were as much a part of his repertoire and makeup as everything else.

If he liked you, he would call you a “motherfucker.” No offense intended, none taken. If he hated you, or you angered him, he’d say the same thing: “That guy was a motherfucker.” The words may have been similar, but the context was something else entirely. You’d have to be smart enough to discern the difference. He demanded it. No apologies necessary, none given.

That, too, was Miles.

I Can See for Miles

Then, there were the records. Tons and tons of them. Thank God for that! We have him preserved for us, and for all time: first on vinyl, then in CD format; an Egyptian treasure trove of solid gold. A bountiful harvest, one might add. The early hits: Birth of the Cool, Miles Ahead, Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, and Quiet Nights.

Gil Evans, a Canadian by birth, arranged them. Miles Davis played his heart out for him on them. Black man, white man, making music together as musician and friend, close friends to be exact. Miles loved Gil, and Gil loved him back. “Gil and I hit it off right away,” Miles recalled in his autobiography. “I could relate to his musical ideas and he could relate to mine. With Gil, the question of race never entered; it was always about music … He was a beautiful person who just loved to be around musicians.”

Giles Evans & Miles Davis at the Kind of Blue recording sessions, 1957
Gil Evans & Miles Davis at the Kind of Blue recording sessions, 1957

Then came the later fusion stuff, the jazz-pop albums, and the Quincy Jones-produced pop-art pieces. And, of course, the final concert, Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux — a latter-day classic. This was Miles reliving the past — the glory years, if you must — rediscovering a lost love for the dearly departed, his pal Gil Evans, and those groundbreaking arrangements. The artist came alive again, through his music and his artistry, taking center stage.

The last years were difficult ones. He looked weather beaten. Illness of body and mind had taken their toll; the formerly ironclad frame had turned thin and frail from too much of, well, pretty much everything. The face was spared but the rest ached and screamed in pain. Sex, drugs, hard living, hard knocks, the harshness of the jazzman’s life. Then death.

Finally, the accolades. Basie was Count, Ellington was Duke, but Miles … he was Prince. The Dark Prince — always was, always would be. The darkness never left him. First in line to the jazzman’s crown. Writer, jazz buff, entrepreneur and videographer Bret Primack dubbed him the Picasso of Jazz. Hmm, some truth in that. But that’s not quite it. Sure, Miles changed with the times, transforming himself, reinventing himself every few years. His clothes and hair changed along with him. But his manners stayed the same. Picasso lived longer, well into his 90s. Miles died relatively young. He was 65, a lot older than most jazzmen of his day. But a Picasso? Well, maybe….

Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux (Warner, 1991)
Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux (Warner, 1991)

He was more Paganini, the greatest concert violinist of his day. Paganini made a pact with the Devil, to play the Devil’s music as only the Devil could play it. Miles, too, must’ve bargained with Old Beelzebub, or some higher authority. I can hear him now: “Come on, man, gimme one more chance. One more shot at immortality. Lemme play my old stuff again. Huh? Sheeyut! Whatta ya say, Bub?”

Heh! That Devil never knew what hit him. If anything, Miles got the best of that deal. He got one more gig to play, and several thereafter. He lived and he loved, and he played and played and played, almost to his last breath. They couldn’t wait for him in Heaven.

As Miles Davis approached the Pearly Gates, he saw that St. Peter, the gatekeeper, wasn’t around. Carrying his trumpet under his arm, Miles walked up to the Gates in a leisurely stroll, to the fellow who was there and asked, “Hey, man, where’s St. Peter? And who the hell are you?”

The figure looked up and responded. “I’m the Archangel Gabriel. Peter sent me ahead to greet you.”

Miles answered. “He did, huh?” Fidgeting with his trumpet to hide his restlessness, Miles inquired, “So, Gabriel, what do you want me to play?”

Grabbing hold of Miles’ trumpet, Gabriel pointed to a harp nearby. He smiled wickedly at Miles and replied, “Play that, motherfucker!”

THAT’S Miles Davis.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Four) — Foreign Travels Without His Aunt

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Johnny Depp & Vanessa Paradis (thesun.co.uk)
Johnny Depp & Vanessa Paradis (thesun.co.uk)

Adventures in Paradis

Having befriended the trippy gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in real life — and whose funeral expenses he would pay for upon the drug-addled author’s untimely 2005 passing — Johnny Depp continued to push the outside of the envelope as far as it could go with respect to his choice of film roles.

The excitement and anticipation of a new millennium — more specifically, what those expectations might bring in the way of a possible course-change in his career ambitions — were telegraphed in the hugely popular star’s next round of cinematic forays.

Similarly, Johnny’s personal associations also began to normalize. Exuding a somewhat calming effect on his high-flying lifestyle, in 1998 the actor met and started a live-in relationship with French-born singer-actress and model Vanessa Chantal Paradis. The by-product of their 14-year partnership would result in two new additions to the Depp household: a daughter, Lily-Rose Melody Depp (born in May 1999), and son John “Jack” Christopher Depp III, who was born in April 2002.

Fatherhood and all the customary encumbrances that went with it appeared to suit Depp’s newfound outlook on life quite well, thank you. “Johnny is the perfect father,” Vanessa Paradis would claim in a 2002 Elle magazine article. “He dresses the children, he makes them laugh… [But] he does give Lily-Rose too many potato chips.”

Too many potato chips? She should be so lucky if that’s all there was to complain about, given his past notoriety. There’s an unwritten rule that as an actor’s domestic life improves (sometimes, by leaps and bounds) one’s craft tends to suffer along with it. Well, then, like anything else that concerns the acting profession, we believe there exists some level of “truth” to this parable.

In Johnny’s case, while it may have influenced his performance to a noticeable degree in such family-oriented features as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and particularly the emotionally draining Finding Neverland, the pictures he participated in before and after he set up shop in the Plan de la Tour region of southeastern France were basically all over the map in terms of story line and character development.

Depp & Theron in The Astronaut's Wife (and matching hairdos)
Depp & Theron in The Astronaut’s Wife (and matching hairdos)

For starters, take the big-budget sci-fi thriller The Astronaut’s Wife from August 1999, written and directed by Rand Ravich and co-starring South African-born actress Charlize Theron. In the picture, Johnny had his hair bleached blond (to transform himself into an all-American boy?), while Ms. Theron cut hers to resemble Mia Farrow’s crew cut. Talk about a lack of family values, this obviously derivative combination of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) crossed with Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate (1997) — to include several ripped-off segments from the Alien saga — was a certifiable bomb at its initial release.

It’s creepy and it’s kooky, and altogether loopy, with both stars giving substandard performances of a slow-moving screenplay hardly worth bothering about. To top it off, the “shock” ending was as lame as they come, something writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (with all due respect) might have thought up had he been consulted on the matter.

As Depp’s first in a series of FX-laden, budget-heavy productions, The Astronaut’s Wife took in nowhere near the amount it was expected to make, nor did it earn back what was expended in its making. Did that bit of disappointing box-office news stop Johnny from seeking further challenges along the psychological horror-film front? Not on your life!

A Devil of a Time

As a matter of fact, his next entry would be directed by that old schlockmeister Polanski himself. How’s that for “good” timing? The Ninth Gate (1999), billed as a supernatural mystery thriller, was shot on several European locations in and around France, Spain, and Portugal. Real castles (or châteaux) were used as backdrops for many of the outdoor scenes.

Johnny as Dean Corso in The Ninth Gate (1999)
Johnny as Dean Corso in The Ninth Gate (1999)

Despite the exotic locales Johnny played it safe, remaining calm, cool and collected, and properly subdued much to producer-director Polanski’s annoyance. Depp’s character, Dean Corso, was supposed to be a New York rare-book dealer and part-time con artist. So how would it look if the guy went off the deep end every time a wealthy client approached him about retrieving some long-lost copy of an ancient manuscript, including one purportedly written by Beelzebub?

Along with Depp, former leading man-turned-character actor Frank Langella was hired for the part of the myopic Boris Balkan, that wealthy client mentioned above who harbors an all-too-visible penchant for dusty-old books. Lena Olin played a rich widow named Liana Telfer, with James Russo as Bernie Rothstein and Barbara Jefford in strong support as the Baroness Kessler. The director’s main squeeze and current wife, Emmanuelle Seigner (Frantic, Bitter Moon), was mysteriously billed as “The Girl” Johnny has sex with outside one of those spooky-looking castles. Hmm …

The movie starts off well, with a convincing atmosphere of dread and gloom pervading the action, sets, and color palette, ideally provided by cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en, City of Lost Children). Polish composer Wojciech Kilar’s groaning, eerie-sounding film score, suggestive of the excellent one he did for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, helps to maintain the unsettling mood.

Soon, however, we are introduced to what Village Voice critic J. Hoberman termed “barely releasable hokum, stuffed with cheesy blah-blah” via satanic devil-worship and all sorts of occult-like razzle-dazzle. This is where things start to unravel, especially towards the end. The late Chicago Tribune movie critic Roger Ebert’s crack about the “fade-to-white” finish holds especially true.

Still, this was also the spot where Johnny got to meet and greet Ms. Paradis, so it wasn’t a total loss (if you get my drift). In the future, he could work closer to home as well as be near his growing brood and sprawling two-million-dollar estate.

Career-wise, most reviewers agreed that Depp had performed well under Mr. Polanski’s direction, despite so-called “creative differences.” He even sported patches of graying hair on both sides of his temples to portray the 40-something Corso. Now THAT’S acting, folks, or at the least total role immersion.

Way to go, Jack!

This is Halloween

Or maybe we should change that to Jack-o’-Lantern in deference to his next project, Sleepy Hollow, also from 1999. Directed by Tim Burton, with a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and a powerful organ-based score by frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman (who also did the music for Burton and Depp’s Edward Scissorhands), this screen adaptation of Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, was a direct homage to Britain’s Hammer Studios and their blood-soaked horror output of the late 1950s to 1960s.

Hammer Studios, you may recall, was renowned for their bloody-good recreations of those time-honored Universal monster classics Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy, in addition to side trips involving Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The difference, however, lay in their full-color splatter effects, oozing guck from open wounds, and Victorian ladies’ tight bustiers bursting to overflowing. Sex, blood and gore: that’s the ticket!

A thorough re-imagining of Irving’s tale, this newest edition of the Sleepy Hollow yarn (a place this writer once visited as a boy, and which cartoonist Walt Disney felt the utmost pleasure in animating) was filmed in Merry Olde England, naturally. Production values and craftsmanship there, along with small-town village ambiance, were said to recapture the spirit and essence if not the literal letter of the story better than in the real Tarrytown, in spite of numerous deviations in the script.

Depp was signed on to play the sniveling, snipe-nosed pedagogue Ichabod Crane. Proving far too handsome to embody Ichabod as the original author had conceived him, Depp and Burton hit upon the novel idea of reshaping the character into a New York City police inspector who employs the most “modern” of scientific techniques to track down and capture the killer who’s been lopping off the heads of the helpless citizens of the titular town.

Depp as Constable Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow
As “Constable” Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow

Deemed too “prim and proper” by some reviewers, Depp nevertheless excelled as a colonial Sherlock Homes-type who wades far too deeply into Sleepy Hollow’s tawdry familial ties for his own good. It’s been rumored that Johnny modeled his finicky, nerve-wracked portrayal of Constable Crane on the shakiness of former child actor Roddy McDowall, to include some of his vocal ticks and inflections. There might even have been a bit of Norman Bates, but I do digress.

“I always thought of Ichabod as a very delicate, fragile person,” Johnny confided to the supermarket tabloid Entertainment Weekly, “who was maybe a little too in touch with his feminine side, like a frightened little girl.” This would account for Ichabod’s frequent fainting spells at the slightest provocation. Johnny’s particular gift was in making this cowardly lion into a sympathetic, albeit clownish adversary to the hellish Hessian known as the Headless Horseman.

The washed-out, monochromatic color scheme and hazy look of the picture was credited to Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who was feted in February 2016 with a third Academy Award for his back-to-back efforts (i.e., Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant) for directors Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The visual FX by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and the Headless Horseman green-screen effects by Kevin Yagher (story credit), complemented by Rick Heinrichs and Peter Young’s Oscar®-winning production designs and Colleen Atwood’s superb period costumes, came together to make this a meaningful endeavor.

Although Johnny was the obvious star of the proceedings, the cast assembled for the outing read like a laundry list of Hollywood’s finest supporting players, or Central Casting gone amok: from Michael Gambon as Van Tassel, Miranda Richardson as Lady Van Tassel, the always dependable Jeffrey Jones (along with Heinrichs, a Burton regular) as the periwig-wearing Reverend Steenwyck, Richard Griffiths as Magistrate Philipse, and a slimy Ian McDiarmid as Dr. Lancaster, to the dyspeptic Michael Gough as Notary Hardenbrook. Odd that for a town predominantly settled by Dutch descendants, there wasn’t a native Dutchman or woman in sight.

There were, however, brief but memorable turns by octogenarian Christopher Lee (a Hammer Studios alumnus), Alun Armstrong, Martin Landau (unbilled), Lisa Marie, and Christopher Walken as a pointy-toothed Headless Horseman (doubled by stuntman Ray Park). Among such lofty company, only a far too low-key Christina Ricci failed to impress as Katrina Van Tassel.

Bloody fingertip: Depp with Marc Pickering & Christina Ricci in background
Bloody fingertip: Depp with Marc Pickering & Christina Ricci in background

With deft ensemble work, credit must also go to casting directors Susie Figgis and Ilene Starger for assembling such a uniformly excellent company of players. And let us pay homage to the more junior members of the group, including the adorably dimpled, dark-haired Sam Fior as Young Ichabod, Marc Pickering as Young Masbath, Tessa Allen-Ridge as Young Lady Van Tassel, and Cassandra Farndale as the Young Crone.

Burton upped the ante on the blood and gore quotient to rival the best horror that Hammer had to offer, including a fairly gruesome gnarled tree that serves as the entranceway to Hell itself. What that studio once lacked and that he and Johnny introduced into Sleepy Hollow was a good deal of black humor that made the horrendous portions more (gulp!) … digestible???

There were even gentle reminders of Edward Scissorhands in Crane and Katrina’s blossoming romantic relationship (on and off the set, so we are told). The ghoulish Grand Guignol aspects would reassert themselves a few years later in Burton and Depp’s 2007 interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘What is Bossa Nova?’ — Variations on a Theme by One of the Genre’s Cultural Icons

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Bossa Nova legend Carlos Lyra (Photo: New York Times)
Bossa Nova legend Carlos Lyra (Photo: New York Times)

It’s not often that one gets to communicate with a living legend.

Carlos Lyra — known also by the diminutive “Carlinhos” — is anything but diminutive in his talent and in his abilities. A marvelous singer, songwriter, performer and recording artist, as well as a raconteur par excellence, Lyra, whose name is synonymous with his favorite instrument, the “lyre” (or rather, our modern-day guitar), was present at the dawn of Bossa Nova. His collaborations with such giants of the genre as Vinicius de Moraes, Tom Jobim, Stan Getz, Marcos Valle, Ronaldo Bôscoli, Nara Leão and others is well known to fans of the period.

Now in his early 80’s, Carlos continues to explore the essence of the music he first heard and loved as a boy growing up in the middle-class neighborhood of Botafogo, in Rio de Janeiro.  

Fresh from a live show at the Vivo Rio nightclub with longtime friend and associate, Roberto Menescal, and singer-guitarist Toquinho, the ageless icon has kindly consented to the use of his original blog entry entitled (in Portuguese) “O Que é Bossa Nova?” (“What is Bossa Nova?”). In this highly cultivated piece, Carlos shares with readers the myriad factors that helped shape Brazil’s music and culture.

It’s a view shared strongly by this author as well.   

WHAT IS BOSSA NOVA?

Recently I gave an interview about Bossa Nova for the BBC in London. Knowing that I faced a well-informed audience, I expanded upon my usual responses in a way that was almost cathartic. It became apparent to me that Bossa Nova is a most misunderstood phenomenon that deserves some additional considerations.

To begin with, Bossa Nova shares a strong affinity with the thirteenth century Provençal School, also known as Fin Amors [or “courtly love”]. It was there that Eleanor of Aquitaine, the mother of Richard the Lion Heart, became acknowledged as the poet who surrounded herself with troubadours and minstrels that, through the sound of the lute (the ancestor of the guitar) composed ballads that were whispered in ladies’ ears.

Similarly, Bossa Nova is also whispered and never yelled. Romantic and elegant, yet never vulgarized, it conforms to the description set forth by filmmaker Luis Buñuel in the movie, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Indeed, for Bossa Nova is nothing more than a product of Rio de Janeiro’s middle class that addresses itself to the world’s middle class. A middle class in Rio that, besides our Cariocas, took in a Bahian by the name of João Gilberto, the capixabas [people from Espirito Santo] Roberto Menescal and Nara Leão, paraibanos [people from the Northeast] such as Geraldo Vandré, João Donato from the state of Acre, and from São Paulo, Sergio Ricardo and Wanda Sá, as well as future songwriter Toquinho.

Carlos Lyra (left) with Aloysio de Oliveira, Nara Leao & Vinicius (1963)
Carlos Lyra (left) with Aloysio de Oliveira (above him), Nara Leao & Vinicius (1963)

It should be noted that during my lifetime as a performer, I came across something curious: that artistic talent is completely independent of intelligence, culture, good character and mental or physical stability. I have met or heard about artists endowed with undeniable excellence, but who were devoid of one or another of the qualities or gifts mentioned above.

A composer of Bossa Nova who cherishes his art suffers a series of influences that begin with the impressionism of Ravel and Debussy, along with [the music of] Bach, Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky, Brahms and Schumann. He suffers the influence of bolero from Mexico by [the likes of] Agustín Lara, Gonzalo Curiel and Maria Grever — the same bolero that in Brazil took the form of samba-canção; of the French songwriters Charles Trenet and Henri Salvador.

In quick succession, by the influence of the five major American composers: Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers; and by the following artists, i.e., Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Shorty Rogers, Barney Kessel, Stan Kenton and the Modern Jazz Quartet who, much as we ourselves were, are identified with West Coast Jazz.

Finally, Bossa Nova owes its existence to an effervescent cultural outbreak (not a movement, as many have wrongly stated) that took place in Brazil during the 1950s and which manifested itself on the stage with the Arena Theater of São Paulo, the Brazilian Comedy Theater [or “TBC”], Teatro dos Quatro and Teatro Oficina. In the visual arts with Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Hélio Oiticica and Wesley Duke Lee, among others. In architecture with Oscar Niemeyer, Lúcio Costa and Burle Marx.

In the automotive industry and in the sports world with Pelé and Garrincha at the Soccer World Cup; with Éder Jofre in boxing, Maria Esther Bueno in tennis, Ademar Ferreira da Silva in the triple jump, and with the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant where Iêda Maria Vargas was crowned.

Bossa Nova was, nothing more, nothing less, than the musical background to it all.

Roberto Menescal (left) & Carlos Lyra at Vivo Rio, February 2016
Roberto Menescal (left) & Carlos Lyra at Vivo Rio, February 2016

As to the name “Bossa Nova,” that came about during a presentation we gave, in 1958, at the University Hebrew Group in Flamengo: myself, Silvinha Telles, Menescal, Ronaldo Bôscoli and Nara. There was a sign on the club’s door with our names on it, followed by the words “… and the Bossa Nova.” I asked the producer and director of the social club what that meant. His response was: “That’s the name I invented for you.” So we adopted it. We learned later that this creative little Jew had moved to Israel.

After that, we never heard from him again.

CARLOS LYRA — Guest Contributor

SUNDAY, JANUARY 31, 2016

(English translation by Josmar Lopes, and printed with the gracious permission of Carlos Lyra and Magda Botafogo)

Link to the original entry on Carlos Lyra’s blog, ALÉM DA BOSSA NOVA: http://carlos-lyra.blogspot.com/2016/01/o-que-e-bossa-nova.html