‘Let It All Go to Hell’: The Brazilian Stars That Brought Sunshine to My Cloudy Days (Part Three)

Time to Name That Tune!

Elis Regina and her Mia Farrow look (Photo: last.fm)

There are billions of stars in the evening sky

But only one can be viewed with the naked eye

— The Author

The month was mid-July, the year 1971. I had just turned seventeen, still thirteen months away from my high school graduation. Unsure of what to do, unclear as to what path I might lead, I struggled with the thought of what the next four years would be like. 

Another trip to Brazil was planned. I would once again meet and greet our relatives, most of whom I had not seen or heard from since 1965.

Over on the distaff side, Elis Regina Carvalho Costa, at age twenty-six, was already Brazil’s most popular recording and concert artist. She was born on March 17, 1945, in the southern city of Porto Alegre, State of Rio Grande do Sul. Yet, wherever I traveled around the vicinity of São Paulo, and whoever I discoursed with — especially in the households of cousins, friends, and family members my age or older — the topic would unavoidably come around to the singer’s powerful vocals.

That’s where I stumbled.

“Elis … Elis … What’s her name again?” I would inquire.

“Elis Regina,” came the response. “Why do you ask? Don’t you like her?”

I must confess that, at the time, I felt embarrassed, confused, and completely out of my element at being placed in the delicate position of having to defend my ignorance of this subject.

My excuse for having been put in such a tortured, tongue-tied state was that I had no idea who Elis Regina (her stage name) was or what she had sung that made her so popular. Although I kept hearing one of her songs on countless occasions, once our Brazil trip was over and we returned to busy New York City, for the life of me I could not recall the title of that piece, nor could I tuck away the melody into any conceivable corner of my memory for future reference. I knew the number to be extremely catchy, though, and oh-so-heavily pop driven. But beyond that, I was left adrift.

Psychologically, I must have blocked the song from my subconscious. Indeed, there could be no other explanation for my apparent brain freeze. Not that I disliked the number — to be honest, I reveled in its light and airy feel, coupled with the loose approach that Elis took in the Philips album that introduced it. It reminded me of something Sinatra might have taken a “nice and easy” approach to in his day. But no matter how hard I struggled, no matter how many Google searches I launched throughout the coming years (and then some!) in a last-ditch effort at naming this enigmatic tune, I was unable to pin the title down.   

And then, out of nowhere, the mystery was solved.

One weekend in mid-August 2020, I happened to have been on the cellphone with my brother Anibal, explaining to him that I had just about finished the Fat Lady’s story; that the last thing I needed to get straight was this missing chapter about the pop star, Elis Regina. Our discussion then turned to that unnamed number and my lingering frustration with it.

“Oh, yeah, I know it,” he stated calmly.

“What? You know it? After all this time?”

“Sure,” he confirmed. Instantly, my brother began to hum the mysterious tune, the one that had been wracking my middle-aged intellect for so long.

“My God, you remembered! That’s it!” I shouted. “That’s the song!”

Exhilarated at the prospect of having finally unraveled this decades-long conundrum, I rushed to the living room and handed the cellphone to my wife, Maria Regina, our resident expert on matters Brazilian and — another stroke of luck — the one person who considered her namesake to be among her favorites.

“Dear, quick! What’s the name of this tune? My brother’s going to hum it for you.”

Thank goodness my wife remembered the song, but, like me, the title had completely escaped her. My hopes seemed to have been dashed in the moment of claiming victory. Still, both she and my brother continued to hum the number together. Well, if they didn’t know the title, at least they were familiar with the melody (and to my surprise, my wife even mouthed some of the words). There was hope after all!

After a quick look-up on YouTube, it finally came to her: the title, that seemingly unattainable object of my desire; the one that had so eluded detection for nearly half a century.

“Here it is,” she announced triumphantly. “ ‘Vou deitar e rolar.’ ”

Ah, so that’s it! “Vou deitar e rolar,” (loosely translated as “I’ll make my bed and lie in it”), written in 1970 for the album … Em Pleno Verão (“… At the Peak of Summer”). The authors were songwriter-guitarist Baden Powell and poet-composer Paulo Cesar Pinheiro, both natives of Rio de Janeiro and known quantities in the pop-music field. Produced by the ubiquitous Nelson Motta, with arrangements by Erlon Chaves, Elis Regina’s bandmates included José Roberto Beltrami on piano, Luiz Claudio Ramos on guitar, Luizão Maia on bass, Wilson das Neves on drums, and Hermes Contesini on percussion.

As bouncy as a Copacabana beach ball, as refreshing as the carioca dew at sunrise, this irresistible number was delivered by a performer at the absolute “peak” of her profession. The song makes reference to a young girl who, aware of having been two-timed by her lover, shoves the betrayal to his face by vowing to “do her own thing” no matter what. He’s shown the door with a hearty “Hah-hah-hah-hah-hah,” a hilarious sendoff that indicates to her former paramour that she who laughs last, laughs best.

I thanked my brother for his timely assistance. His response told me all I needed to know about what he thought of this little mini-project of mine: “You can take the boy out of Brazil, but you can’t take Brazil out of the boy.” Amen, brother, amen.

The song illustrated both the highs and the lows of a remarkable singing career that began at age fifteen and ended prematurely at thirty-six.

A young Elis Regina from the 1960s

 A Flickering Light that Burned Too Bright

Ambitious, audacious, extroverted, and charismatic on the stage and on live television, the highly-charged personality known as Elis Regina was also capable of turning shy in private, even reserved to the point of inhibition. Decidedly pugnacious when the mood suited her, she was fearless and confrontational. At times, Elis experienced a devastating stage fright before performing — astonishing for one so gifted with such a natural-born propensity for picking the right style for every occasion.

For example, in 1965 she debuted on national television, in the First Festival of Popular Music, with “Arrastão” (“Fish Net”), a song about a poor Northeastern fisherman written by singer-composer Edu Lobo with the poet Vinicius de Moraes. Sporting a beehive hairdo (which made her look like one of The B-52’s) and extending her arms high above her head, Elis swung her limbs in a backwards swimming motion (very 1960’s, we might add). To most viewers, she appeared to mimic the rotating blades of an airplane, movements that baptized her with the first of several nicknames: “Hélice” Regina, or “Propellor” Regina. It also won her nationwide acclaim.  

At other times, Elis would turn destructive — what today might be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, earning her the sobriquet pimentinha (“little pepper,” which also described American cartoonist Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace). She took no prisoners. And by taking a virtual wrecking ball to her associations with both men and women, Elis damaged their personal property as well: The well-worn story of her flinging ex-husband Ronaldo Bôscoli’s entire Sinatra collection into the sea is, unfortunately, all too true (the discs were last “spotted” somewhere off the coast of West Africa).

I can hear it now: “Let it all go to hell!”

That sounds like something Furacão (“Hurricane”) Elis would have said. With few exceptions, her choice of repertoire was also frequently eclectic as well. Despite kicking off her recording career with the 1961 album, Viva a Brotolândia (“Long Live Teenybopperdom”), devoted to adolescent drivel, Elis displayed a seasoned professional’s knack for capturing exactly the sound the pubic was yearning for.

The essence of Elis Regina – Expressed in this beautiful mosaic

And contrary to what most pop-music mavens might have believed, she did not possess a natural “voice” for bossa nova but rather developed her skills through trial and error. Elis eventually came to grasp what the bossa nova idiom had begun to imply: that is, as a window into other Brazilian song forms and influences. In her mind, samba and pop blazed a much wider (and richer) trail, and were a lot more diverse and meaningful than,say, bossa nova’s basic “love, flower, ocean” themes would have you believe. In that, she shared the sentiments (on and out of the spotlight) of her nearest rival, Nara Leão, only less overtly. 

Yet, of all the aspiring female talents at or below her level of excellence (and there was quite a hefty assortment to choose from), Elis Regina is the only one, in my mind, to have been considered worthy of comparison to her illustrious predecessor, the equally volatile Carmen Miranda.

It came as no surprise that both Carmen and Elis were of Portuguese descent, as were a sizeable proportion of Brazilians. Both artists were short of stature (five-feet-two-inches tall), both came from poor working-class backgrounds, and both had extraordinarily productive careers inside and outside Brazil, despite some negative reaction from the public and press. With respect to financial compensation, they were the highest paid female entertainers of their generation. Accordingly, both died from substance abuse: in Carmen’s case, from alcohol mixed with barbiturates and amphetamines; in Elis Regina’s, from cocaine and Campari.

What surprised me the most, in researching this topic, was that few if any authors have pointed the above coincidences out to readers. How strange. One can only conclude that Carmen and Elis had artificially extended their lives beyond all reasonable limitations because of their early demise. As iconic symbols of their respective fields, they had outlived the normal passage of time to become goddesses of popular song.

At first, Elis, to her good fortune, managed to survive the so-called “curse of twenty-seven,” the age at which many of her contemporaries (Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison) had succumbed to personal demons with their premature passing. That Elis’ cocaine use came near the end of her short life is doubly unfortunate.

Still, in spite of their professional accomplishments, Carmen and Elis’ private lives were anything but tranquil. Carmen’s sole marriage to a non-Brazilian was, if anything, loveless and abusive, while Elis’ two marital relationships ended in separation and divorce. The difference between them being that Elis left three young children for posterity (a boy, João Marcelo, from Bôscoli; and a boy and a girl, Pedro and Maria Rita, from second husband, pianist Cesar Camargo Mariano), whereas Carmen left no progeny behind.

 That ‘Sinatra’ Moment

A pair of Aces: Sinatra & Jobim, together on American television

If the Brazilian Bombshell’s latter-day notoriety as an emblem of gay culture has brought renewed interest in her artistry, then Elis Regina’s elevated status as Brazil’s most complete singer-performer can be reasonably assured.

As far as her fans were concerned, Elis’ time had finally come. Between February 22 and March 9, 1974, at MGM Studios in Los Angeles, the recording of the album Elis & Tom took place. An acknowledged “greatest hits” package of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s most accessible song works, involving three of his favorite songwriting partners (Vinicius, Chico Buarque, Aloysio de Oliveira), a number of items on eponymously titled Elis & Tom were arranged by the singer’s soon-to-be-husband Cesar Camargo Mariano.   

Listening to the album after so many years, the first thing one notices is that Elis had modulated her famously potent delivery to this more-intimate lounge setting. Compare her rendition of “Corcovado” (sung in Portuguese) with Frank Sinatra’s “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (in Gene Lees’ English translation) from Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim on Reprise (1967). Seven years — a lifetime in the recording industry — separate these two accounts; yet, how strikingly similar they sound: mellow, low-key, and softly executed, with a lighter than average orchestration (flute, clarinet, piano, violins, guitar, drums, percussion) on Elis’ version, and a jazzy interval taking up the middle portion, ending with Jobim’s participation (on voice and piano) at the fadeout.      

Oddly enough, “Corcovado” and “Triste” are the only two numbers found on Elis and Frankie’s respective forays (originally, “Triste” was not a part of either Francis Albert & Antonio Carlos or on Sinatra & Company, his 1969 follow up). Still, one can draw some basic conclusions, and a viable contrast, regarding these two settings, as performed by two incredibly gifted artists: first, to Sinatra and Jobim on “How Insensitive” — see the following link to my original article: (https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/brazils-musical-polyglots-part-two-the-american-side/); and, second, to Elis Regina on Tom and Vinicius’ sorrowful “Modinha.” Her voice, curt and trembling with barely restrained emotion, sets the norm for expressivity in this thoroughly committed, let-it-all-hang-out interpretation. 

The common denominator on both albums, of course, is Jobim. You would be shocked to learn that Jobim was hardly, if at all, impressed with Elis upon their initial encounter back in Rio in 1964. “Who’s this hick from the sticks?” he wondered upon catching sight of her at a recording studio. “She still reeks of burned charcoal,” hinting at her “down home” country roots and lack of refinement.

Hah-hah-hah-hah-hah, who’s laughing now, Tom?

The composer was forced to eat his words (mercifully, Elis never caught on) when the two of them appeared together to record, at that later session, what became the standard of all standards, the classic “Águas de março” (“The Waters of March”). After years of subpar translations, Jobim decided to convert the Portuguese lyrics himself into plausible English: “A stick, a stone, it’s the end of the road / It’s the rest of a stump, it’s a little alone.” Sung, here, in the original Portuguese, Tom and Elis play off one another beautifully in a joyfully brash battle of words, an “I say this, you say that” game of give and take — each egging the other on for as long as they possibly can. One could almost see them in your mind’s eye, smiling and giggling at the end result.       

You can also take the Sinatra connection a step further in that, during the latter part of the sixties and seventies, Elis Regina sported a stylish Mia Farrow-like haircut (courtesy of Rosemary’s Baby). Farrow, you may recall, was at one time briefly married to Sinatra. If one were to exercise some amateur analysis, I’d say the Brazilian singer conveyed a strong stylistic and unconventionally intimate connection to Ole Blue Eyes that went beyond international boundaries.

Tom Jobim meets Elis Regina. Object: Sublime music

Another, more moving performance in a similar vein, considered by many to be one of her finest, is Elis’ superb interpretation (on several YouTube videos) of the 1973 Chico Buarque-Francis Hime number, “Atrás da porta” (“Behind the Door”). The poetic lyrics by Chico, heavily laden with dramatic irony, sadness and pathos, and Hime’s simple, minimalistic theme express all the hurt, hate, love, and longing of a submissive woman left to beg and claw her way back from humiliation by a man who treats her no better than his pet dog.

Incredibly, a devastated Elis, sobbing real tears, allows us a glimpse into the immense tragedy that has engulfed this scorned lover. Is it over the top? Possibly. But If you want to call it “operatic,” then who am I to argue. In my observation, there’s a close affinity (and unstated pertinence) to Judy Garland and her sad ending, as envisioned in Peter Quilter’s hit Broadway play, End of the Rainbow. As with most artists of this caliber (Sinatra being at the very top), Elis Regina’s ability to turn a heartbreaking experience into a transcendent personal statement eclipses all other contemporary efforts.

Besides the obvious sincerity she brought to everything she did, our only concern is this: Were her reactions based on real-life circumstances or were they carefully rehearsed performance art? A little bit of both, one would think. Certainly, no singer of her generation has had as much awareness of and insight into the human condition as expressed in Brazilian popular song; and no subsequent artist has had as better a claim to the title of Brazil’s greatest interpreter of her music as Elis had. Her personal magnetism drew more people into her art than nearly any other performer, male or female.

Now, after all these years, I can finally respond to the question that was posed at the beginning of this essay: “Do I like Elis Regina? Yes, I do. I like her very much.” And there you have it: that guy Jairzinho, O Rei Roberto, the clown Chacrinha, and the pop star Elis Regina. Three singers, one host, all Brazilian. This began as a story of my youth. It ends with a plea for absolution. “Let it all go to hell?” I don’t think so. Better to preserve whatever memories we can still hold on to, the raison d’être for any discussion around Brazil’s Fat Lady. They may be all she has left.

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Let It All Go to Hell’: Brazilian Stars That Brought Sunshine to My Cloudy Days (Part Two)

The clownish TV host, Chacrinha (Abelardo Barbosa)

Days of ‘Whine’ and Roses

The interval between our first visit to Brazil and the one our family made in July 1971 was, indeed, an historically turbulent one. Censorship, in the form of suppression of the news and print media, had expanded to alarming proportions; the free-flow of ideas and the exchange of divergent opinions — and with them, the freedom to express those ideas and opinions — were vastly curtailed.

The critical year of 1968, for example, was one marked by violent demonstrations and brutal crackdowns throughout Continental Europe and the United States. Brazil was no different. But how much could a seventeen-year-old youth from the South Bronx have known of these events? Having lived and grown up in a New York City Public Housing Project, could he have been cognizant of the harsh realities facing the country of his birth? Was he attuned to the problems encountered by native-born artists, singers, songwriters, journalists, politicians, and the like, or did he remain blissfully unaware; just going about his business with nary a care in the world for what others thought or what they were going through?

“Let it all go to hell!” he would say.

No, that couldn’t have been the attitude. That’s not how Brazilians, especially the ones I got to know and love and respect, reacted to the troubles afflicting their beleaguered homeland. A large portion of the population, including most of my family members, were working-class stiffs who took what was occurring with their country in measured strides, not in resignation. If they also took their solace in song and other forms of entertainment, where expressions of hurt, loss, and frustration could be collectively shared via these means, who could blame them.

Chacrinha with songbird Robert Carlos

The Popular Song Festivals continued to be nationally televised, of course, but their glory days were over and coming to a swift and ignoble end. Tropicália had already been banned if not prohibited outright from public performance. It happened that the music and stagecraft that helped shape the tropicalismo movement were labeled as subversive and beyond the mainstream for the ruling classes to stomach. It would be many years before I, too, discovered how forward-thinking and “out there” this specific music genre had been.

And what of the others, the so-called “Jairzinhos” of their time? They had also come and gone: Having rightfully served their purpose, they were now being escorted off the platform. No longer did the former main attraction, Brazil’s Jair Rodrigues, who continued to hold sway as a human prancing pony, mow his audiences down with silly grins and pointless gestures. True to his tranquil nature, “that guy Jairzinho” continued on his merry way while remaining oblivious to the situation at hand.

An Uncommon Man

Most, if not all, of the television programs in São Paulo that I witnessed back in 1971 were preceded by the distinctive Censura Livre (“Cleared by the Censors”) logo before they began. And that included the ever-popular, late Saturday-afternoon show A Buzina do Chacrinha (“Chacrinha’s Horn”) on TV Globo. The clownish emcee Chacrinha, portrayed by comedian and Pernambuco-born actor José Abelardo Barbosa de Medeiros (1917-1988), was an eccentric and jovial radio and TV host from popular culture who personified (in attitude, if not in looks) not only the carefree and quick-witted prankster and folkloric disrupter of legend Macunaíma, but more appropriately the Common Brazilian Man.

Chacrinha wearing an outrageous “horn hat”

Resembling a potbellied, bespectacled, and top-hatted Harpo Marx, especially with that noisy contraption he carried by his side, the mildly pompous Chacrinha was the hardworking maidservant’s dream, a domestic’s ticket to possible fame and good fortune; and the one person in all of Brazil who could command the respect of the masses in a program tailored to their tastes.

Amateur contestants, rookie aspirants, and veteran competitors alike were corralled into shockingly simplistic (and occasionally embarrassing) skits, games, talent contests, and anarchic diversions (for example, the host’s tossing of live codfish into audience members’ laps), backed by an ever-present chorus line of leggy showgirls. All were at the mercy of Chacrinha’s earsplitting hooter and his fawning fan base, which consisted of everyday citizens: young and old, male and female.

Chacrinha, who never took himself too seriously, had about him an air of nonconformity. “I’m here to confuse you, not to explain things” was one of countless aphorisms designed to both distract and bemuse the wary visitor into submission. Faced with an avalanche of contradictory statements, it became increasingly difficult for anyone to pin Chacrinha down about anything. You might compare him to a resurrected anarchist, a person of his time but born at the brink of Modernism. The best one could say about this peculiar fellow was that he looked and acted outside the box.

Although I hadn’t known about it at the time, Chacrinha had been responsible for furnishing Caetano Veloso with the unambiguous title to one of the singer-songwriter’s most requested numbers, the song “Alegria, alegria!” According to Caetano’s account in Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, Chacrinha had appropriated the lyrics from a similarly-titled song by samba artist Wilson Simonal. And it didn’t take long for Caetano to do likewise, thus a classic was born out of the chaos.

Chacrinha (top) with the young Caetano Veloso, circa 1971

Another expression he employed with abandon, and that I recollect with mild amusement, was the recurrent phrase, “É hora! É hora!” (“It’s time! It’s time!”). Time? Time for what, I wondered. With finger raised and placed in the space between his nose and upper lip, the host would shout to the crowd: “É hora da Buzina! É hora da Buzina do Chacrinha!” I took this to mean, “It’s time for Chacrinha’s horn to blow!” And with the antics of funnyman Jack Benny’s The Horn Blows at Midnight reverberating in my head, the blast from the pernambucano‘s honker signaled the end of a contestant’s “dream” before it had begun.

From the above descriptions, one might have inferred that Chacrinha was a most congenial and approachable individual. Quite the opposite, his guile-driven nature was coarse and aggressive and anything but warm and fuzzy; and he certainly wasn’t ingratiating. You might also have picked up familiar elements from American TV-game shows such as Let’s Make a Deal, Truth or Consequences, and The Price is Right. And you’d be right on the money! Commercialism and mass marketing had begun to pervade the average Brazilian household as much as it had the American variety.

Seu Abelardo, as he was familiarly termed, knew his public well. For unlike many others, Chacrinha had kept in touch with reality by dexterously placing his pudgy hand on the nation’s pulse. In relation to Brazil’s economy and politics, the garrulous presenter sensed how the situation in the country had deteriorated over time and which had negatively affected his lower-class adherents. His outlandish mode of dress and outspoken demeanor were but covers for what lay beneath: an instinct for survival, shrewdly applied and projected, and utilized not to make fun of his guests but to throw the censors off his trail.

As a form of social criticism and a message to those who took undue advantage of their constituents, that wise-old clown Chacrinha and his popular television program represented a method of masking the people’s contempt for their government in ways they would better understand and appreciate.

What a way to spend a Saturday afternoon!

(End of Part Part)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Let It All Go to Hell’: Brazilians Who Brought Sunshine to My Cloudy Days (Part One)

The ‘Jovem Guarda’ crowd: Erasmo Carlos (l.), Wanderlea, Roberto Carlos

Remembrances of Memories Past

This is a story of my youth. More precisely, a story about what I remember of my youth from the limited times I visited Brazil — and how a song (no, several songs) transformed my opinions about the family and country I left behind.

My earliest recollections are, by curiosity and contradiction, both clear and vague: of seeing myself as a toddler, running wildly about our home in São Paulo; of bumping my eyebrow onto the sharp edge of a dining-room table and going to the doctor immediately afterwards to get my supercilium stitched up; of badly scraping my knee and wrist outside a street in the South Bronx, along with comparable mishaps. Depending on who was recounting the story, the accidents were either my fault entirely or the fault of someone else. Blame for their occurrences, I soon surmised, was swiftly assigned but not always fairly distributed.

Some of these memories get tangled up with the rare times my family returned to São Paulo and its surroundings. Over the years, it has become practically impossible for me to differentiate between one event I experienced at age five and similar incidents that took place a few years later. Anyone forced to recall their youthful wanderings, either in the writing of one’s memoirs or through therapy and analysis, will have faced a comparable predicament: invariably, specific episodes and personalities are remembered with clarity and intent; while others (dates, times, and places), not so much, and vice versa.

With the above caveats in mind, my first exposure to Brazilian popular culture occurred on or about the year 1965, a pivotal point for music in Brazil and for my growing awareness of a Brazilian identity growing inside this ten-year-old brain. It was the same year that bossa nova became a worldwide sensation. But in the country itself, a onda (that is, “the wave”) had receded. You could say it was paying a fond adieu to all that had come before. Yet, I remained oblivious.

By the time that our family had set foot again in “Sampa” (in the winter of 1965), the heat that bossa nova had produced around the pop-music world had substantially abated. New styles began to emerge by dint of the latest advances. The prevalence of television, for example, and, along with it, the phenomenon of mass viewership took hold of Brazilian audiences like nothing else before. Not inconsequentially, the military had staged a government takeover the year prior, in April 1964, which forever altered Brazil’s musical landscape — for better or for worse.

Tanks invade the streets of Rio de Janeiro during the military takeover of April 1964 (Photo: Agencia O Globo)

Strangely enough, bossa nova had completely bypassed my Brazilian-born parents, who, by their having moved to the South Central Bronx, remained remarkably uninformed as to the artistry and output that had circumnavigated the globe. In the interval between the year they left their homeland (1959) and the time that we, as a family of four, made our first return trip to the big city (1965), bossa nova had been replaced by popular song contests, possibly as a distraction from the bitter reality of military rule.

To get right down to it, bossa nova espoused a greater degree of sophistication, subtlety, and nuance than what had come before (choro, samba, and samba-canção). The artists who composed the music and wrote the lyrics, and then performed those same numbers, which abounded in poetic imagery and reflective ruminations, came out of an entirely separate reality, distinct and apart from that of the majority of Brazilians. The sparseness of the orchestration (for guitar, voice, drums, and percussion) belied the complexity of its arrangements. Too, the imaginative use of language and jazz-influenced instrumentation raised the intellectual level of both performers and listeners to undreamed-of heights.

Despite some awareness on my part, my limited knowledge of Portuguese prevented me from fully absorbing and appreciating the genre. Naturally, I was much too young, therefore deficient in the cognitive skills necessary to wrap my arms around bossa nova’s form. Despite this disparity and my lack of cultural refinement, a treasure trove of memorabilia laid before me: everything from MPB, bubble-gum music, iê-iê-iê, and Brazilian rock-‘n’-roll to classically derived constructs. These were much easier to absorb, due to their utter simplicity and absence of erudition. But bossa nova? Not a chance, at least not yet. Creatively speaking, the country had taken two steps forward, one step back.

Still, one couldn’t fault my parents for not having “kept up” with the latest trends. They had more pressing matters to concern themselves with — namely, making a life for us in New York City, and raising and caring for two small boys in a strange, bewildering land with its own distinct and immensely diversified culture.

As I mentioned, we immigrated to the U.S. in September 1959. Although my mother and her boys remained at home in the Bronx, my father had gone back to Brazil every other year up through 1965, and then some. Those excursions had something to do with his attending the annual Carnival pageant (in Portuguese, pular Carnaval). At the time, I had no comprehension of what that actually meant or entailed. Yet despite his weeks-long absences, dad always managed to bring back plenty of trinkets, souvenirs, and assorted keepsakes, provided, for the most part, by his and my mother’s respective families.

Family. A word, a term, a concept this soon-to-be-eleven year old was but vaguely familiar with. The only “family” I knew, to be exact, was my younger brother Anibal, my father Annibal Sr., my mother Lourdes, her younger sister Aunt Deolinda, her husband Uncle Daniel, and my two older cousins Dario and Daniel Jr. A year or more before we made our trip, another of my mom’s charming sisters, Aunt Iracema, had spent a year in the Bronx living with us. In fact, she had immigrated to the U.S. in 1963, but returned to São Paulo in order to care for her ailing father Francisco, or “Grampa Chico” as we called him. He had been struck at age sixty-five with throat cancer.

Gather ‘Round the Television Set, Boys

“Quero Que Va Tudo Pro Inferno” – Original Single by Roberto & Erasmo Carlos (Discos CBS)

Much of the bounty dad had brought back from his trips was comprised of phonograph records, usually of the compacto duplo type. These dandy little items, known in the U.S. as EP’s (or “Extended Plays”), had the capacity for two songs per side, for a total of four numbers in all. A healthy smattering of long-playing records, Brazilian magazines (Manchete, Veja, Marie Claire, etc.), O Guia da Televisão (“TV Guide”), tasty and highly edible sweets, and a half-dozen or so children’s books comprised what remained of the lucre.

To me, the unfamiliar names of these Brazilian artists and entertainers, to be found among this random assortment of knick-knacks, were foreign-sounding and nearly unpronounceable. These were difficult enough for adults, but you can imagine how challenging they were for us kids. To compensate, I used what nascent abilities I possessed of the Portuguese language to try my hand at reading the Brazilian versions of Walt Disney comics: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto, and Scrooge McDuck, anything I could get my little hands on.

To pass the time, I took it upon myself to draw these and other cartoon characters (Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw, The Flintstones) on makeshift writing pads; when those were unavailable, my mother would tear open brown-paper shopping bags for me to scribble on. I even tried jotting down my impressions of these characters in feeble-sounding Portuguese. Little did I know that my childish efforts at words and images would come in handy decades after the fact. On the days when I didn’t feel like drawing, I would listen attentively to the music.

One good thing did come out from all of these activities: the more songs I heard, the more I liked and learned from them. It never occurred to me that Brazil harbored such a wealth of music programs to accompany what I encountered in our makeshift record collection. Since I had grown up outside the country, I wasn’t privy to what the native population had been exposed to on an ongoing basis. To have noticed these melodies at the time this form of music was becoming more widely accepted and circulated proved a timely fluke.

One program that I heard mentioned was the weekly Festival de Música Popular. My boyish earbuds were primed for absorbing these fantastic new sounds. Consequently, earing the likes of Jair Rodrigues, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Roberto Carlos, Erasmo Carlos, Wanderléa, Agnaldo Rayol, Dalva de Oliveira, Nana Caymmi, Gilberto Gil, Agnaldo Timóteo, Elis Regina, and so many others shaped my appreciation for Brazilian music and song. The weird thing about all this was that I had never seen this music program while staying in Brazil, nor had I laid my eyes on these artists in any capacity, that is to say, until much later in life. I only learned about them from hearing my relatives discuss the merits of this or that singer who appeared on this or that showcase.

Speaking of which, the show Jovem Guarda on the newly christened TV Record had one of the highest national ratings (known as IBOPE) of any of these programs. Another was O Fino da Bossa (“The Best of Bossa”) and on the same network. Not knowing anything about ratings or programming, I became frustrated with my relatives’ efforts to initiate me into the electronic medium.

For instance, I heard so much talk about a fellow named Jair Rodrigues and his smash hit, the nonsense number “Deixe isso pra lá” (Alberto Paz/Edson Menezes), that in my infantile carnium I honestly believed that I had seen Jairzinho on Brazilian television.

‘O Fino da Bossa,” with Elis Regina & Jair Rodrigues

What typically transpired was that every time I found myself in someone else’s house or apartment, I would question the occupants about “that guy Jairzinho.” Their response would be, “Oh, you should’ve been here last night when he was on TV,” or “Come by our house next weekend, you are sure to see him then.” Seeing my disappointment, they would compensate by describing, in minute detail, Jairizinho’s over-and-under handsaw movements, which became his signature gesture; topped off with that broad, toothy grin, a smile that all-but enveloped the beaming audience but that, to me, seemed to emulate a dark-skinned version of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. What Chubby Checker and the Twist did for people’s hips, Jair Rodrigues did for Brazilians with his bare hand. Despite their kind offers to come over (usually, on the weekends), our time with the relatives was limited. Alas, I never got to see Jairzinho perform, no matter how many people I talked to or visited.

That same, frustrating response followed another popular singer of the period, the song idol Roberto Carlos Braga. Although he hadn’t yet become brega, a variant on his official surname (and what, in Portuguese, meant “tacky”), Roberto Carlos was the nearest thing to a world-renowned celebrity that Brazil had at its disposal, outside of soccer star Pelé. Still, there was one song of Roberto’s that, for me, stuck out from the rest of the mawkish round of ballads and teenybopper tedium. And that was the song, “Quero que vá tudo pro inferno” (“Let It All Go to Hell”).

I first heard this number in New York, possibly a year or more after we returned from our trip. Oddly (well, maybe not so oddly), I became fixated on the title — especially the “hell” part, which, if you were fortunate enough to have grown up in polite society, or in a somewhat religious environment, was strictly verboten. (You would REALLY burn in hell if you dared to speak the “F ”bomb in public!) Mesmerized by that word inferno — especially the way Roberto lingered over the “r” (“in-ferrrrr-huh-no”) in his capixaba accent — I listened carefully to the lyrics over and over again, not understanding the words or sentiments being expressed, yet all the while wondering to myself how the hell Roberto got away with saying this forbidden term:

De que vale o céu azul e o sol sempre a brilhar
Se você não vem e eu estou a lhe esperar
Só tenho você, no meu pensamento
E a sua ausência, é todo meu tormento
Quero que você, me aqueça neste inverno
E que tudo mais vá pro inferno

De que vale a minha boa vida de playboy
Se entro no meu carro e a solidão me dói
Onde quer que eu ande, tudo é tão triste
Não me interessa, o que de mais existe
Quero que você, me aqueça neste inverno
E que tudo mais vá pro inferno

Não suporto mais, você longe de mim
Quero até morrer, do que viver assim
Só quero que você me aqueça neste inverno
E que tudo mais vá pro inferno

(Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)

Roberto Carlos “Compacto Duplo” from CBS Records

What is the blue sky worth or the ever-shining sun

If I’m left pining for you to be here by my side?

All I have is you, you are always in my thoughts

But your absence is a constant torment

All I want is you, to warm me through this winter

And that it all goes to hell

What good is this playboy life of mine

If I get in my car and this loneliness persists

Wherever I go, this sadness always follows

I don’t care about anything, and what’s more

I want you to warm me this winter

And let everything else go to hell

I can’t take it anymore, you away from me

All I want is to die, than to go on like this

I want you to warm me this winter

And let everything else go to hell

(English translation by the author)

Now, I ask you, what did I expect? Something insightful along the lines of a Shakespearean sonnet? Witty poeticisms analogous to Baudelaire? This was nothing more than easy-listening music, a love poem pure and simple. Years later, I read that Roberto had written these verses to Magda Fonseca, his girlfriend at the time, who had gone abroad to study English in the U.S. His songwriting partner, Erasmo Carlos (né Erasmo Esteves), helped him to hammer out the lyrics. The orchestration was of its time: a bombastic Hammond organ solo, spiked with a “Roy Orbison meets the Beach Boys” aesthetic, surrounded by a surf-rock beat. The end result: Twenty-four-year-old Roberto’s honest expression of longing (caused by Magda’s absence) and his frustration with conditions in military-run Brazil spilled over into youthful rebelliousness.

Hell, I was all of eleven years old. What did I know of youthful rebelliousness? I knew nothing of the military’s overthrow of the Brazilian government, or that the CIA had orchestrated the bold power grab, or that barely three years later (in 1968) the suppression of dissidents would only add to the country’s ills by making things worse for the populace, leading to the expulsion of songwriters and others associated with the genre of Tropicália and such. Roberto Carlos’ “pure and simple” love poem, a monster triumph upon its release, signaled both the beginning of public outcry and the end of rebellion.

What I, myself, took away from our visit was not rebellion but a sense of togetherness. For the first time in my young life, I experienced a closeness to my Brazilian family members I never knew existed: from aunts and uncles I had not grown up with, from grandparents and cousins I had hardly known, and from newfound friends and acquaintances I had never met. I came away with the impression they all enjoyed each other’s company; that they exuded a spirit of fun just by being together and, you’ll pardon the expression, “in the moment.” Their openness to me and to my brother was warmly received and, to be honest, completely unanticipated.

Having spent several extremely cold winters and blisteringly hot summers in the Big Apple, and having my first and last names constantly misspelled and mispronounced by people unfamiliar with our language, the balmy sun-filled skies of São Paulo seemed to reflect back at me in the sunniness of the dispositions I encountered during our month-long stay. I felt accepted, understood, loved, and listened to, for once, by those inside and outside the family circle — feelings that were roughly alien to me for the first six years of our residence in the Bronx.

It would take another six years before I was able to recapture those feelings.

(End of Part One)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Epilogue: What’s in Store for Brazil’s Fat Lady? (Part Two)

Orpheus playing his lyre, with thoughts of his lost love, Eurydice

A Dog’s Life

Despite the surfeit of first-rate material, written and performed by artists of the front ranks, in this author’s view Brazilians still need to face up to an unpleasant trait that continues to haunt their midst.

This trait, known, at the time, as complexo de vira-lata, or “mongrel complex” (decades before Sting’s use of the word “mongrel”), was introduced by sports columnist, author, and playwright Nelson Rodrigues (the self-professed “pornographic angel”) after Brazil’s loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup. The phrase suggests that what Brazil has produced is less refined, less “pure” if you will and, for that reason, less genuinely Brazilian than what Europeans and North Americans have provided the world. Ever the dramatist, Nelson went so far as to accuse his fellow Brazilians (and, by implication, himself as well) of being “Narcissuses in reverse who spit on [their] own image.”

What an extraordinary admission! When you consider that eight years later Brazil enjoyed nearly back-to-back triumphs in the 1958, 1962, and 1970 World Cup Soccer tournaments, you realize that Nelson’s remark failed to hold up (as least as far as soccer was concerned). You would think that Brazil’s Fat Lady would have taken pride in these accomplishments rather than go the self-critical route.

Writer, sports columnist, playwright, and dramatist Nelson Rodrigues (1912-1980)

How could Brazilians, who, as an example, took the sport of soccer (introduced into the country by a Brazilian-born, British descendant named Charles Miller), injected that sport with so much joy and spontaneity, and after that, went about making soccer essentially their own, have possibly subjected themselves to such levels of self-deprecation? The image of a mangy mutt overturning cans in a darkened alleyway, fighting for scraps with others of its kind, and rearing a brood of “less than pure” offspring, runs counter to everything we know and love about Brazilians. “If you lay down with dogs, you’ll get fleas,” goes the corresponding English connotation. Was this a warning to Brazilians to steer clear of foreign influences, lest they become infected with a permanent stain on their national identity? It positively reeks of post-Modernism gone awry.

However, the reality of the situation is far more complicated, and not as easily dismissible as it might appear. It goes to the core of the argument that Brazilians, as in the days of medieval flagellants, reserve the harshest punishments for themselves. An excerpt from a popular poem known to every Brazilian household, and ascribed to politician, writer, and fanatical Fluminense follower Henrique Maximiano Coelho Neto (1864-1934), both praises and bemoans the insurmountable obstacles of motherhood. The last lines are quoted below:

 Ser mãe é andar chorando num sorriso!
Ser mãe é ter um mundo e não ter nada!
Ser mãe é padecer num paraíso!  

To be a mother is to cry when you are smiling!

To be a mother is having the world when there’s nothing to have!

To be a mother is to suffer even in Paradise!

If you were to substitute “Brazilian” for the word “mother” (“To be a Brazilian is to cry when you are smiling! To be a Brazilian is to have the world when there’s nothing to have! To be a Brazilian is to suffer even in Paradise”), you would begin to appreciate the lengths the Brazilian people have gone to, and the degree of suffering they’ve had to endure, in forging a purposeful life for their families and loved ones in the midst of turmoil and defeat.

Be that as it may, I happen to disagree with Nelson’s viewpoint. I believe, as many of my family members do, that diversity brings us strength and unity of purpose. In my own case, and in the case of my wife, we are the product of multi-ethnicities, of cultures foreign (for the most part) to the Brazilian ethos, yet inextricably bound to it.

My background, as revealed to me recently, was surprising and unforeseen in that it overturned all previous expectations — something many Brazilians have grown accustomed to experiencing. I learned that I am predominantly of Iberian descent (i.e., Portuguese and Spanish), and, in descending order of importance, part Southern European (Italian and/or Greek), part British Isles, part Middle Eastern, part Scots-Irish-Welsh, part North African, and part European Jewish. Similarly, my wife is overwhelmingly Portuguese, over a third Spanish, and a good part French, with a significantly smaller percentage of Native North, South, and/or Central American heritage, along with minor Sardinian ancestry. Do these statistics make us “mongrels”? I suppose they do, but without the complexes, I assure you. If you asked me, I’d say the preferred description would be “citizens of the world.”

In a way, the discovery of our roots has helped me to reconcile a longstanding issue I once had to face as a youngster growing up in the South Bronx. So many individuals I encountered had expressed surprise and, indeed, outright astonishment at my having been born in Brazil.

“Oh, really?” they responded quizzically. “Funny, you don’t look Brazilian,” as if they had advance knowledge of what Brazilians looked like.

It happened that I hailed from the city of São Paulo, a region populated by immigrants with Western European, Middle Eastern, and Japanese affiliation. Judging by such iconic images as those of superstar Pelé and soccer player-turned-actor Breno Mello (Orfeu in the movie Black Orpheus), most folks took it for granted that Brazilians were all people of color, an understandable albeit misguided association. I grew up realizing that such misapprehensions about a person’s “looks” were commonplace in the sixties and seventies, although I had a hard time accepting them. Still, I struggled to overcome people’s ignorance of Brazilian culture and their seeming unawareness of Brazil as a place almost as large, and equally as diverse, as the continental United States, with events in both countries’ past that often paralleled one another’s history.

Orpheus Rising

The favelas, as represented at the Rio 2016 Olympics

In the meantime, Orpheus, the perfect surrogate for a battered Brazil (and a citizen of the ancient world), continues to ply his trade by singing his songs through the mouths of present-day Narcissuses. “The show must go on,” he cries, even if it doesn’t. The irreconcilable dichotomy between the passions of Orpheus with the rancor of a reverse Narcissus is troubling, to say the least, but closer to the truth of who Brazilians are and what Brazil has become. There is one thing we can all agree on: even in the face of the direst distress, Brazilians remain resilient.   

In spite of Brazil’s bittersweet trajectory and its perpetual tumbling toward the abyss, we must admit that the country has continued to evolve, though not in the way one would have expected. It is more apparent to me now that Brazil has been, and will forever be, the land of Carnival and samba. Orson Welles knew this. Vinicius and Jobim knew this, as well as Marcel Camus. Cacá Diegues and Caetano Veloso both knew this, as did Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, and many others. But the world has always known it.

In the make-believe cinema universe and in real life, the Brazilian favelas have forever been depicted as crime-ridden, drug-plagued infernos (unfairly, I might add). Carnival was similarly looked down upon when Welles tried to capture the event in his unfinished documentary It’s All True. His attempts at foisting the festivities down the throats of RKO executives were met with resistance and defeat. Inconceivably, at the time not even those Brazilians in power wanted anything to do with Carnival, especially if it focused on black people. With the 1959 release of Black Orpheus, the elevation of the slums and the film’s inauthentic depiction of Carnival were again rejected by Brazilians, but embraced by everyone else.

Poster for “Orfeu Negro” (“Black Orpheus”)

Yet, by some miracle of modern thought transference, and a combination of déjà vu with wish fulfillment, the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics brought Carnival and the favelas back into the national conversation. In defiance of the odds Orpheus rose once again to strike up his lyre, this time over a setting Brazilian sun. Kept front and center throughout the games, it appeared to television viewers, and to millions of Brazilians, that the country had accepted the image that had long been imposed on them so many decades before. Too, the ceremony’s creative directors had begun to embrace this once-reviled picture of Brazil (the country’s “true face,” come to pass). And appreciably, the music of the ceremony — the same music that issued forth from the slums of Rio de Janeiro — has become suggestive of the forgotten inhabitants who happen to live, work, and die there.

With the exception of the commotion that swirled around the Ryan Lochte episode, a meddlesome sideshow to the main event, Marvelous City Rio put on a model Olympics. And despite the staggering costs involved in the project, and the adverse publicity generated with the city’s concurrent (and mutually exclusive) relocation and pacification efforts, most observers, including a majority of its citizens, gave Rio 2016 an enthusiastic “thumbs up,” a traditional sign of approbation.

About a decade ago, in September 2010, in conjunction with a planned Broadway mounting of a new musical version of Black Orpheus, I had the esteemed privilege of speaking to Susana Moraes, Vinicius’ eldest daughter. We talked, among other things, about her father’s play, Orfeu da Conceição, and how it differed substantially from the movie, Black Orpheus. She told me in model English (she also spoke fluent French) how much the movie had perturbed Vinicius when he saw it at the Presidential Palace in Rio. She sat alongside him at the time, and described to me the tears of hurt and anger that welled up in his eyes and down his cheeks at the stereotypical images of black Brazilians cavorting on the screen.

Susana Moraes (1940-2015), eldest daughter of Vinicius de Moraes (at right)

Over the years, Susana came to soften her outlook on the picture. For one, she regarded it as mostly nostalgic, part of that longing for a time that may never have existed in fact, but that still had a place in her memory and heart; for another, she acknowledged the huge influence Black Orpheus exuded on the world scene in bringing something of Brazil’s culture to the fore.

Looking back on that experience, Susana Moraes, an actress, filmmaker, and producer in her day, had finally come to grips with the movie’s power to enchant through sound, images, and song. Susana had accepted the notion that Black Orpheus had been idyllic in nature, if not grounded in reality. But more importantly, she had grown more mindful today of how the Brazil of 1959 (coincidentally, the year my family and I came to America) had been represented — i.e., as a country on the verge of greatness — than when the movie had first come out.

Coincidence or not, this author has reached a similar conclusion: that Brazilians, too, must accept the notion of what a twenty-first-century Brazil has always been — i.e., an “Orphean country,” in the perceptive, frequently quoted, and still applicable terms of poet-musician Caetano Veloso, “one that expresses its soul’s sweetly tragic aspects through music” — with moments of revulsion and regret whenever that vision ran counter to those terms. To these, and more, we plead nolo contendere.

In a paradoxical twist of fate, Brazil, in the past, has been touted as the country of the future. For today’s Brazilians, that future never seems to arrive. Prosperity appears to be just around the corner; you can almost touch it, squeeze it, even taste the riches that are within your grasp, yet it remains stubbornly out of reach, as it was for many artists and those “just plain folks.” One gets the impression the populace rather enjoys harking after a nostalgic past, with misgivings for the present mixed with unbounded expectations for the future — Tropicália turned inside out and on its head. If diversity in all matters can lead those inured to the country’s problems into the light of reason, may it be so.

What does the future hold for Brazil’s Fat Lady? My parting advice for her is this: Take heart, girl. The performance is over. It’s time to take stock of your accomplishments. Learn from your mistakes, especially from your glorious past. Revamp your repertoire, learn new roles; take on new challenges, then show them what you’ve got. Do something to address the problems of the present, and the future will take care of itself. But do make it a future worth striving for — a grateful nation will be at your feet. Ω

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Epilogue: What’s in Store for Brazil’s Fat Lady? (Part One)

Bidu Sayao (c.), with conductor Jean Morel to her left, and composer Heitor Villa-Lobos at far right, 1946

“I Got the Music in Me”

When I began the writing of my book Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova, my enthusiasm for opera and, if I may be all inclusive, for soccer, cinema, bossa nova, pop music, musical theater, and most matters related to Brazil was at its unassailable peak. With the passage of time (by my count, almost a decade and a half), the glow of that enthusiasm has dimmed in proportion to events as they continue to spiral out of control — both in Brazil and elsewhere.

If that is the case, well, then, so be it. To the extent these subjects have revealed themselves to be somewhat flawed, I remain convinced of their efficacy. I am not so naïve as to believe the institutions that have existed in Brazil, or that have endured throughout the world, have continued to function at top speed and full tilt. That these institutions have been influential in bolstering the production of opera and film, in maintaining the support of men’s and women’s soccer, in driving the investment in and promotion of new musical-theater material, and in contributing to the vitality of the popular song format cannot be denied.

On the other hand, there is no question that music, not soccer, is Brazil’s lifeblood. Yes, you read that right. Author, musicologist, and accomplished vocalist Vasco Mariz, in the Introduction to his book História da Música no Brasil (“The History of Music in Brazil”), made note of the fact that “the Brazilian people have always been musically inclined.” I have yet to encounter anyone who disputes that claim. Considered a participatory event, music is an expression of the public’s taste (or mood) at any given moment. It can manifest itself in any number of ways, most commonly in communal gatherings, rock concerts, soccer stadiums, church functions, birthday parties, after-school programs, wedding celebrations, and fêtes in the park; in street demonstrations and political rallies, in local and national news coverage, indeed wherever music may be found and heard.

Vasco Mariz, ‘Historia da Musica no Brasil” (“The History of Music in Brazil”)

Along similar lines, the genealogy of Brazil’s musical styles can serve as a blueprint for the country’s vaunted diversity: In the beginning, there was choro, and choro begat samba, which begat samba-canção; the combination of samba and samba-canção with cool-jazz begat bossa nova; and bossa nova begat Música Popular Brasileira (MPB). With Música Popular Brasileira and the influx of British Merseybeat, as well as American rock-n-roll, one can chart the next stage of development in the shorter-lived Tropicália movement — itself a compendium of the musical, artistic, literary, and audiovisual ideas re-imagined as a form of protest.

While bossa nova hit the world’s shores with the force of a typhoon, by comparison Tropicália was a mild ripple — except in its place of origin. But which genre has proven to be more resilient, both musically and artistically, or more challenging and inventive? For the Young Guard and the older generation of that era, Tropicália was everything and it was nothing; it came from everywhere and nowhere at once; it created and destroyed, constructed and deconstructed the country’s musical foundations. Transformative is another term used in connection to the genre’s impact.

In the same instant that Tropicália was commenting on the present, it paid homage to the past while hurtling toward an uncertain future. A typical aesthetic of Tropicália was its drawing from a rich variety of sources. Another was its use of “opposites” to disguise one’s true feelings from authorities who were forever policing what performers could or could not say or do in public.

To illustrate this point, when the tropicalistas sang “Alô, alô,” what they meant was “Goodbye, goodbye,” one of several methods employed for avoiding confrontation with the censors. Unfortunately, it didn’t always work to their advantage. For their efforts, they, along with like-minded individuals, were treated with either suppression, imprisonment, torture or exile — and often all four, even to their death.

Tropicalistas (Top row – from left to right: Jorge Ben, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Rita Lee, Gal Costa; bottom row – Os Mutantes Arnaldo Baptista and Sergio Dias Baptista)

All told, the most significant and intellectually stimulating of Brazil’s musical-poetic creations registered as a giant blip on the country’s radar, so radically disturbing it proved to the status quo.

Others have tried to define this typically Brazilian methodology of taking from multiple references to suit their artistic purposes. For instance, British rocker and former Police front-man, Sting, once proposed that “pop music should be a great mongrel,” wherein the ability to glean “from any source” and from any country’s musical traditions would result in a cornucopia of stylistic forms and elements — all of them perfectly suitable for public consumption.

This same thought process originated in Brazil decades before with Modernist poet, polemicist, playwright, and novelist José Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 “Cannibalist Manifesto,” where the term antropofagia, or anthropophagy (known by the more familiar expression “cannibalism”) was initially coined. Oswald de Andrade was speaking figuratively, of course, about the phenomenon of ingesting foreign cultures through their music, art, literature, poetry, philosophy, and so forth. What came out in the end evolved into something fresh and exhilarating, as well as distinctly and, to his eyes, unapologetically Brazilian.

Jose Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954), author of the “Cannibalist Manifesto”

There are multiple examples of cultural cannibalism throughout Brazil’s history, about which I have touched upon in my work. There is the case of Carlos Gomes, a Brazilian opera composer who (first) went about in search of a theme, and (second) in search of an individual style to fit that theme. Another artist who flourished in the wake of Oswald de Andrade’s cannibalist theory was Carmen Miranda. What Carmen was forced to accept — or, rather, what Hollywood imposed upon her to admit — was what today is called “cultural appropriation,” defined as “the inappropriate use by a dominant culture of borrowing,” as it were, “from a subordinate culture.”

Significantly, for the first decade of her career — that is, prior to her coming to North America — Carmen achieved recognition in her field for performing sambas, marchas, marchinhas, samba-choro, samba-batuque, and similar styles. As in Sting’s example above, Carmen drew from a variety of sources to expand the range and content of her repertoire. She did not write her own songs, but rather had songwriters compose them for her. In Brazil, these songwriters offered their services willingly, knowing that Carmen would interpret their work to the best of her ability and talent.

Carmen Miranda in ‘The Gang’s All Here’ (1943)

By comparison, Carmen’s compatriot, soprano Bidu Sayão, took the opposite position in that she exuded a typically Westernized approach to such operatic staples as Manon, Susanna, Zerlina, Violetta, Mimì, Mélisande, Micaëla, and others, as befit the requirements of the time. As always, Bidu’s innate Brazilianness shone through in the way she carried herself on and off the stage, and the manner in which she led her later life away from it.

Separately from Carmen but contemporaneous with her and Bidu’s chief period of activity, composer Heitor Villa-Lobos thrived for a time as Brazil’s most voracious musical artist and nationalist educator, a “cannibal” in all but name only. His insatiable appetite for folk, street-wise, native Brazilian and non-native sources, in addition to the variety of styles he applied those sources to, was unequaled among his peers.

After Carmen, Villa, and Bidu, cultural cannibalism continued unabated and, we make note, unabashedly Brazilian, which supports Oswald de Andrade’s theory in action as well as in fact. It was carried over into the classic song output of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, which came about through the power of classical and jazz compositions, Greek mythology, Brazilian folklore, and various other sources, expanded upon at length in the preceding pages of my book.

And let’s not discount the contributions of Brazil’s musical and/or dramatic theater to the country’s artistic diversity. It has impressed me, to no end, how rich and fertile this overlooked facet of Brazilian culture has been; one that has witnessed a substantial growth pattern over the past five or more decades, thanks to the creativity and vision of Villa-Lobos, Chico Buarque, Paulo Pontes, Augusto Bial, Carlos Lyra, Gerald Thomas, Charles Möeller, Claudio Botelho, and that ageless national treasure Bibi Ferreira.*

  • Just as this portion of the text was completed, the disheartening news was received that Bibi had passed away at age 96 on February 13, 2019, after suffering cardiac arrest. Much of her obituary in the Brazilian media was taken up with her 77 years as a performer, singer, actress, writer, director, and producer. One article described her having sat on Carmen Miranda’s knee, which must have taken place sometime in the 1930s. She also studied theater in London (thankfully, not during one of those infamous blitzkrieg bombings) during the early 1940s.

(End of Part One)

To be continued …..

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Four): The Changing of the Avant-Garde

Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games: Opening Ceremony

We Love a Parade

Brazil came out last. Not last in the competition, mind you, but as the last nation to present its eager group of athletes.

In all, the city of Rio had put on a spectacular showcase, an opening ceremony to end all opening ceremonies. Impressive and exhilarating, nationalistic and fervent, the coordinators did it the Brazilian way: in the biggest Carnival pageant on Earth, as they had envisioned. The mood was joyous, the celebration spontaneous. Brazil, perpetually on the cusp of greatness but never actually achieving it — to repeat an old dictum, always the bridesmaid but never the bride — had reached the summit of its abilities. Would that joyous mood last?

After the parade of athletes, there followed dull, interminable speeches by the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee President Carlos Arthur Nuzman, by the International Olympic Committee’s President Thomas Bach, and by two-time Olympic marathon champion, Kenya’s Kipchoge Keino. Although he was neither acknowledged nor introduced, Brazil’s Acting President Michel Temer rose from his spot in the stands and curtly declared the Rio 2016 games to be officially open. It was an astonishing lapse in Olympic protocol. A moment to remember, one to relish for what remained of one’s active life, had whizzed by in a twinkling of an eye. For his effort, Temer was greeted with a round of boos.

Brazil’s Acting President Michel Temer announces the official opening of the games

Next, the solemn procession and physical raising of the Olympic flag took place, followed immediately by the singing of that banal Olympic Anthem and the taking of the Olympic Oath.

The ceremony closed with a tribute to Brazilian composer Ary Barroso, a prolific purveyor of Carnival dance tunes and sambas from the first half of the twentieth century. His song, “Sandália de Prata” (“Silver Sandal”) from 1942, was introduced by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. The two old-timers were joined atop another of those circular platforms by carioca singer-songwriter Anitta.

Amid the goings-on, viewers caught a glimpse of Rio’s twelve samba schools (the lost tribes of native Brazil?) decked out, in their “official” regalia, in costumes of red, yellow, gold, blue, violet, and black. Their rhythmic back-and-forth beating of pandeiros and cuícas, the tireless blowing of ear-shattering whistles, and the ceaseless smacking of snare and bass drums culminated in a shower of colorful confetti, a parade of scantily-clad dancers, and a brilliant burst of fireworks.

Parade of Rio’s Twelve Samba Schools at Rio 2016

At the conclusion of the number, Caetano and Gil ceremoniously kissed Anitta on the cheek. The two male artists then gingerly departed the stage with their arms wrapped around each other’s wastes. I imagined that audiences around the world let out collective sighs of nostalgia and relief. I know I did, but more for how Caetano and Gil have aged, especially Gil. Whether knowingly or not, we were witnesses to the changing of the avant-garde: old song warriors, near the end of their respective careers, giving it their all, that final “hurrah” for old times’ sake. They have been close companions and musical partners for well over half a century, and for most of their adult lives.

With a degree of wistfulness for a lifetime of creative and personal achievement, and with the words as valid today as when he first wrote them, Caetano called to mind, in his autobiographical Tropical Truth (first published, in Portuguese, in 1997), his initial encounter with the Bahian-born Gil between the years 1962 and 1963:

“Gil seemed as happy to meet me as I was to meet him. One could have said that he had been seeing me on some transcendental television and was expecting that meeting as much as I was …. At times, through the years, I have heard Gil say, and been deeply moved by it, that when he met me he felt as though he were leaving behind a great loneliness: when he saw me he was sure that he had found a true companion. I think that to prize in me a vision of the world that encompassed music, in which he was so gifted, […] a vision that seemed like an enlargement of his own, he created an image of me as the master and, much as the great see greatness in those they admire, he dismissed my shortcomings. Better yet: he interpreted them in such a way as to give them a finer meaning. He therefore saw qualities in my music then that no other musician of equal talent would have seen, and in this way he not only encouraged me, he also taught me everything that I could possibly learn, becoming himself truly my master.” [i]

Caetano Veloso, Anitta & Gilberto Gil at the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics

What a pleasant surprise it was to have seen two such old friends — the master and the pupil — back together on the world stage, performing and sharing the stadium lights with younger aspirants, in recognition of their past accomplishments. The promise of youth fulfilled at last, their careers have spanned two generations. Gil and Caetano have jointly shared the good and bad times, as colleagues and performers, and as respective cellmates. Their ups and downs, both politically and artistically, have risen and fallen, and have risen again, with the times — so much like the country itself.

Obviously, they are more weather-beaten today than they were in their glorious youth. Who wouldn’t be, given what they went through? But, to paraphrase a line from that old stadium rocker, Elton John, “They’re still standin’.” A might shakily, if “tropical truth” be told, with a puffy-eyed Gil tottering a bit on the edge of the stage platform, his voice frail and thin, his gait slow and measured, yet still game and willing; and still capturing the imagination of that younger generation of performers, as he and Caetano had done in their earlier excursions.

Not bad for two septuagenarians!

(End of Part Four)

To be continued…..

Copyright (c) 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

[I]  Veloso, Caetano. “Tropical Truth,” Companhia das Letras, Sao Paulo, 1997, p. 178

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Three): Cry, the Beloved Mother Country

Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony: Grass Huts by Native Performers, August 5, 2016

Honor Thy National Anthem

Discerning viewers should bear in mind that London’s 2012 Summer Olympics Games closed with the same “Aquele abraço” theme song. While retaining the original’s lyrics, the vastly pared-down number, as it was presented at Rio 2016, lacked the stridency and gruffness of songwriter Gilberto Gil’s 1969 extended play recording (which this author once owned and can safely vouch for).

Produced by Manoel Barenbein for the Philips label and arranged by Rogério Duprat and Chiquinho de Moraes, the number’s rasping power and jarring orchestration contrasted with Luiz Melodia’s more contemplative, down-to-Google-earth interpretation — Gil Unplugged!

At that same London 2012 closing ceremony, one of Brazil’s top-rated performers was carried aloft by giant pale-blue flower petals. With arms outstretched and dressed in a flowing white gown, the raven-haired vocalist regaled London’s Olympic Stadium audience with her haunting delivery of the opening melody to Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5.

The tune was one of many such efforts by the inexhaustible carioca composer to blur the lines between classical and popular compositions. But who was this ravishing starlet, this improvised Brazilian Fat Lady?  It was none other than Marisa Monte, and Villa-Lobos’ melody played perfectly into her hands (or, should I say, her voice). Little did viewers suspect that the teenaged Marisa had once spent a year studying opera in Italy before returning to her home in Rio.

Adding to the list of headliners, top model Alessandra Ambrósio also participated in the closing ceremony, as did singer-turned-actor Seu Jorge and rapper B-Negão. Former soccer great and ex-minister of sport Pelé was on hand, too, in a surprise visit, as “Aquele abraço” reached its peak. Amid a stream of dancers in typical Oba-Oba formation, the plan was to build anticipation for an Olympic-style Carnival to come, an all-out celebration to include drum-corps pounding, samba dancing, colorful outfits, and that ebulliently festive atmosphere.

Returning to Rio 2016, I made note of some shockingly slipshod attempts by English-speaking announcers to pronounce the many indigenous names that abound in Brazilian Portuguese. I realize, as most native speakers do, that the language is not the easiest one to enunciate. However, when reporting on events from the actual physical sites newscasters should have at least tried to master the correct manner of articulation before airtime.

For instance, the name Maracanã (pronounced Mah-rah-cah-NÃ), a word with a nasally-produced final syllable that resonates in back of the throat, became Mara-CAHN-a in the mouths of reporters. And instead of futebol, the Brazilian-Portuguese literation of “soccer,” the word futbol (in the Spanish-language spelling) scrolled across viewers’ screens. In the same league as the spelling and pronunciation issues, the redundant phrase “Carnival capital of the world,” used to describe Brazil’s party-hearty host city, quickly became an overworked cliché.

Just the same, the Maracanã stadium’s field resembled a visual map of Brazil. Onto this digitally-enhanced encampment, carioca native Paulinho da Viola (né Paulo César Batista de Faria) materialized, strumming a solo guitar and seconded by an eight-piece string orchestra. This is where the creative directors’ plans for the Rio 2016 opening ceremony came into their own.

Brazilian national anthem performed by Paulinho da Viola and orchestra during Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony, August 5, 2016. (Photo: Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

After all the pomp and majesty of military bands and symphony orchestras; after so many pretentious arrangements for grand piano and choirs of fifty thousand or more voices; and after the circumstance surrounding the pointless chest-beating at the 2014 World Cup, listeners were held spellbound by the hushed elegance of Paulinho’s intimate take on the country’s Hino Nacional.

This was no time for posturing or empty-headed braggadocio on the soccer field of shattered dreams. Instead, Brazil laid bare her musical soul. With reverence and retrospection, the coordinators of the opening program opted to look inward, to go back to the country’s pop-music beginnings: to samba and bossa nova.

It was as if João Gilberto himself, who slowed down samba’s rhythmic impulses to barely whispered cadences, were physically present that August evening. We know that wasn’t the case. Still, Joãozinho’s essence was carried forward in Paulinho da Viola’s gorgeously understated, two-minute-and-twenty-two-second presentation that set the tone for the sixteen-day event.

Forcing viewers to lean forward in their seats, it commanded their attention by urging them to follow along with the words. This was a multi-part conversation that brought people nearer to today’s Brazilian reality, as well as an invitation to take part in a national ritual. The producers exceeded expectations by toning down the bombast to a mild trickle. The mood was surprisingly stirring. And there was no question of defamation or lack of respect. This was hallowed ground.

As Paulinho continued to enthrall listeners, a group of young people, wrapped in the country’s colors, mounted a circular platform where the flag-raising ceremony would be observed. The platform was inspired by the spherical discs flanking the modernistic structures of the capital Brasília’s National Congress. The group gathered at the flagpole’s base to pay homage to the Brazilian flag. A jet of air, pumped through the flagpole’s core from its base below ground, gave the impression of a banner waving in the night.

Brazilian flag-raising ceremony, Rio 2016 Olympics

Brazil sang, and the world sang with her. A sense of pride swelled up in the audience and in our household; a pride that, frankly, hasn’t always been felt considering what the country has been going through these past few years.

In all probability, the idea for this smaller-scaled treatment may have begun with London 2012’s closing ceremony. During the handing over of the Olympic flag portion, the tradition of playing the new host-country’s national anthem was followed. It was carried out by a recording of a military band intoning Brazil’s Hino Nacional over the Olympic Stadium’s loudspeaker system, in a controversial “shortened edition” that eliminated an entire verse.

Now imagine if you will a scenario of patriotic American baseball or football fans, hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a stadium in the U.S. After the section, “Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight / o’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?” they realize that the bridge, “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,” had been edited out. This glaring omission would be taken as an insult to the host nation, and would no doubt have sparked an international incident. Summon the secretary of state! On the double, pronto!

Mercifully, when Brazilians in Brazil hear their Hino Nacional played, it is given complete. At least, the first stanza is complete. As we know, there are several other stanzas to confront, as there are with America’s “Star Spangled Banner” and numerous other hymns of the nations. These are normally omitted in order to save time.

Besides all that, how many people memorize all of the stanzas to their country’s national anthem? Not many, I’d be willing to bet.

Birth of the Brazilian Nation

The next section introduced the story of the founding of the land we call Brazil (named after the Brazilwood, or Paubrasilia that once thrived there), of the indigenous native population that abounded, of the birds and beasts that inhabited the densely forested continent: Terra Brasilis. Land ho!

In an intricately choreographed segment, performers in native costume (actual descendants, in fact) danced around the arena creating images of grass huts with gigantic ribbon strands. Then, the first Europeans, the Portuguese, arrived in their fast-moving caravels. The bouncing prows of the highly maneuverable ships carrying the bearded and longhaired Portuguese inspired awe and curiosity among the natives. The Portuguese carved a trail through the Brazilian landscape, leaving their mark behind.

Arrival of the Portuguese – Opening Ceremony of Rio 2016 Olympics (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

This was followed by the African slaves, towing their plows, laden down by their shackles and chains, tearing up the land with massive paddlewheels, and working the sugar plantations. The analogy to the Hebrew slaves of Egypt was inescapable. This marked the exploitation of the races in the Portuguese conquest of Brazil.

Little by little, subtly at first, the landscape began to change (through the modern technology of projection mapping). The African slaves were followed in turn by the Arabic contingent, then the Orientals, and still more arrivals from other nations. Japanese immigrants settled in the region of São Paulo. After five generations, the Japanese are completely assimilated into Brazilian life, as were other nationalities, including the Italians, the Poles, the Germans, Czechs, Spanish, Syrian-Lebanese, and various subordinate groups.

A patchwork quilt design emerged, representing the varied and assorted nature of the population as the country approached the modern era — the early twentieth century. The building of contemporary Brazil incorporated rising platforms from under the stadium so as to visualize the growth of buildings, apartment complexes, businesses, and living quarters.

The concrete jungles that dot the horizon led to the burgeoning of major cities. Alongside these, the rise of the slums, or favelas, that cropped up simultaneously along the peripheries. Modern edifices and high-rise dwellings compete for space, with tenants scaling the dizzying heights. Like monkeys swinging from the jungle canopy, individuals try to get a leg up, jumping and climbing from rooftop to rooftop, inching ever higher, and swaying from the parapets in a mad scramble to see who would be first in line to achieve their goals.

From the white Plexiglas squares placed together by the performers there appeared a replica of the 14-Bis (Quatorze Bis), an actual working model, we believe, of a canard biplane, with an actor filling in for that little-known homegrown genius, the eccentric inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont. This biplane flew the friendly Brazilian skies out of the stadium and around the Lapa Arches and over Guanabara Bay (or so it was made to seem to viewers). This portion of the show perplexed many of the foreign reporters covering the event, who had difficulty grasping the message that in Brazil, France, and other countries Santos-Dumont is considered the Father of Modern Air Flight, not the Wright Brothers. So be it.

2016 Rio Olympics – Santos-Dumont, flight of the 14-Bis (Photo: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach)

Cue back to the big city — digitally and physically enhanced in the wide-open spaces of Maracanã Stadium. Floating through the airspace, the harmonious sounds of a piano accompanied the voice of Daniel Canneti Jobim, composer Tom Jobim’s grandson, who took center stage. Dressed in a white wide-brimmed hat, he sang and played his grandpa’s singular sensational tune, “The Girl from Ipanema,” with lyrics by poet Vinicius de Moraes.

Gliding down the digital runway, and strutting her stuff as only a super-model of her caliber could, stood Gisele Bündchen — a sixth-generation German descendant — in a stunning silver-lamé gown. Jobim’s image was projected thirty-or-more-feet onto the side of a makeshift apartment complex, as the assemblage sang along with the composer’s grandson. Gisele, all smiles, captivated the crowd as she took her sweet time crossing the open field. “When she walks, she’s like a samba / That swings so cool and sways so gentle that / When she passes, each one she passes goes ‘Ah’!”

Gisele Bundchen strutting her stuff at Rio 2016

Switching over to the pop arena, the succeeding segment emphasized the evolution in tastes and Brazilian musical development with the rise of hip-hop, baile funk, axé, forró, frevo, etc. Popular culture took precedent, with the wailing voices of slum residents. Elza Soares, one of the last surviving grandes dames of variety and theater, sang a brief snippet of Vinicius and Baden Powell’s “Canto de Ossanha.”

Along with capoeira, the heavy sound of a cuica pervaded, along with Zeca Pagodinho and rapper Marcelo D2, delivering Zeca’s patented ode to better living, the song “Deixa a vida me levar” (“Let life take me along”). The clash of musical styles, represented by rap and pop (and contemporary artists Karol Conká and twelve-year-old MC Sofia), continued to duke it out in a syncopated slugfest.

Next up, actress and singer Regina Casé interrupted the proceedings to state her case that we need to “bring people together and celebrate their differences.” “Here’s to diversity,” she shouted. Joined by the forever youthful Jorge Ben Jor (“Mas, Que Nada”), both artists sang one his signature hits, “País Tropical.” This brought out the warring factions of different colors, strokes, and folks into one patchwork design, as at the beginning of the ceremony. With fireworks exploding and lights blazing, the theme struck up anew: “Looking for similarities, celebrating differences.” That’s something we, here, in the United States have been striving to come to terms with for, oh, two hundred and fifty years, or more.

Pause for Reflection: A Reading from “Nausea and the Flower”

The Boy and the Plant: Concerns for the Environment, Rio 2016

The concluding portions of the ceremony explored the alarming rise in CO2 emissions on the planet, the dangers of unchecked global warming, of climate change, the melting of the polar icecaps, and the rising sea levels, all of them “challenges to the coastline cities.”

A lone boy in shorts and sneakers, with a backpack and form-fitting cap, discovers a single green object growing in the street. It’s a plant. Thus begins a recitation of the final stanzas of the poem, “A Flor e a Náusea” (“Nausea and the Flower”), by mineiro author and modernist poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. It would be spoken by two of the world’s greatest actresses, Fernanda Montenegro (in the original Portuguese) and Dame Judi Dench (in English translation). The accompanying music score by Antonio Pinto and Jaques Morelenbaum was taken from the multi-award-winning film Central do Brasil (Central Station):

 

Uma flor nasceu na rua!

A flower has sprouted in the street!

Passem de longe, bondes, ônibus, rio de aço do tráfego.

Buses, streetcars, steel stream of traffic, steer clear.

Uma flor ainda desbotada

ilude a polícia, rompe o asfalto.

 

A flower, still pale,

Has fooled the police, it’s breaking through the asphalt.

Façam completo silêncio, paralisem os negócios,

garanto que uma flor nasceu.

Sua cor não se percebe.

Suas pétalas não se abrem.

Seu nome não está nos livros.

É feia. Mas é realmente uma flor.

 

Let’s have complete silence, hold all business,

I swear that a flower has been born.

Its color is uncertain.

It’s not showing its petals.

Its name isn’t in the books.

It’s ugly. But it really is a flower.

 

Sento-me no chão da capital do país às cinco horas da tarde
e lentamente passo a mão nessa forma insegura.

I sit down on the ground of the nation’s capital at five in the afternoon

And fondle with my fingers this precarious form.

 

É feia.

It’s ugly.

Mas é uma flor.

But it’s a flower.

Furou o asfalto,

It broke through the asphalt,

o tédio,

Tedium,

o nojo

Disgust and hate.

e o ódio.


The boy takes the plant and places it gently into a waiting receptacle. Rising from the ground, he holds the object aloft, and silently walks off the stage.

Time for the parade of athletes.

(End of Part Three)

To be continued…..

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Two): Brazil Rises to the Occasion with a Lavish Opening Ceremony

Opening Ceremonies at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics on Aug. 5, 2016, at Maracana Stadium (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

Countdown to Show Time

Winning and losing. That’s life in the Olympic fast lane. They are also part of every Brazilian’s daily grind.

For Brazil, becoming the Top Dog — whether in soccer or beach volleyball, in Formula One racing or the fast-paced world of international athletics — has proven to be a self-deluding pipe dream.

You may recall that the country had stumbled mightily (or, should we say, crashed and burned?) at the 2014 World Cup Soccer Tournament. But for two full weeks in August 2016, Brazil would be given the opportunity to redeem itself — a do-over, such as it was, where it could enjoy the rapt attention of sports fans, along with a fair share of global viewership and a complement of positive press coverage, for its lavish opening ceremony.

Many in the world media would describe a country’s opening ceremony as its first line of defense — its premier showcase — to prove to inquisitive viewers (and incredulous skeptics) that Brazil, or any other nation, was made of sterner stuff.

Several individuals were involved as creative directors in the planning and execution of this Olympic pool-sized project: Fernando Meirelles, a noted filmmaker and director/producer of City of God and The Constant Gardener; and set designer Daniela Thomas, a screenwriter, stage actor, and ex-wife of writer-producer and theater director Gerald Thomas. Two additional collaborators were also employed: director, producer, and screenwriter Andrucha Waddington (The House of Sand) and choreographer Deborah Colker, known for her work with Cirque du Soleil, as well as hundreds if not thousands of eager volunteers.

Catchphrases for the opening ceremony, which commenced on the evening of August 5, 2016, included such hyperbolic assertions that audiences were in for “a sixteen-day Carnival,” and that “Rio 2016 [was] going to be entertaining.” No need to downplay it, fellas!

As show time neared, a beaming Cristo Redentor (or Christ the Redeemer) statue, the reinforced-concrete symbol of a hospitable host city, stood imposingly upon its base at Mount Corcovado (“The Hunchback”). The towering ninety-eight-foot-tall-figure glowed with a bright green, yellow, and blue light — the colors of the Brazilian flag, calling the world’s athletes to attention in the sporting event of the season.

Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Paradoxically, since the seasons are reversed below the Equator, the quadrennial summer competition took place during Brazil’s winter of political discontent (see the following link to Part One of my piece: (https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/09/03/flames-over-rio-2016-brazils-president-burns-as-the-world-watches-the-summer-olympic-games-part-one/). Even though disgraced Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was suspended from office in early May, she declined an invitation by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to attend the opening ceremony. Her former vice president and soon-to-be-interim president, Michel Temer, had been pegged to represent Brazil in her stead.

Immobile and stone-faced, with bribery scandals of his own to agonize over, Temer sat in stern silence in the grandstand area, unintentionally mimicking the stoical gaze of Rio’s Redeemer (or perhaps needing a savior of his own).

Our Country, ‘Tis of Thee We Sing

Music, theater, and dance, in as much as they could be viewed or heard in a stadium of the massive proportions of the two-hundred-thousand-seat-capacity Maracanã, started the 2016 opening ceremony off with the unassuming, nondescript vocals of a veteran sambista, the Rio-born singer, actor, and songwriter Luiz Melodia (Luiz Carlos dos Santos, who sadly passed away on August 4, 2017, almost a year to the day of the opening festivities).

Sambista, singer, and songwriter Luiz Melodia (Photo: Daryan Dornelles)

Waves hugging the city’s shoreline, swimmers approaching the water and diving headlong into the tide; surfers riding the crest of the ocean current; men playing soccer atop a building’s roof; a skateboarder on a deserted street, a golfer swinging his five iron, a biker winding down a treacherous path; rock-climbing, roof-hopping, jogging, and volleyball;  and, of course, the thrill of hang-gliding and wind-surfing, and strolling along Rio’s characteristic mosaic-laden streets — all to the strains of a Gilberto Gil song, “Aquele abraço” (“That Big Embrace”), and breathtaking overhead shots of Marvelous City.

“That Rio de Janeiro is still gorgeous,” went the lyrics. “That Rio de Janeiro continues on, / That Rio de Janeiro during February and March, / Hello, hello, Realengo, that big embrace. / Hello you fans of Flamengo, that big embrace.”

O Rio de Janeiro continua lindo,

O Rio de Janeiro continua sendo,
O Rio de Janeiro, fevereiro e março,
Alô, alô, Realengo, aquele abraço.
Alô torcida do Flamengo, aquele abraço.

 

Chacrinha continua balançando a pança,
E buzinando a moça e comandando a massa,
E continua dando as ordens do terreiro.
Alô, alô, seu Chacrinha, velho guerreiro.
Alô, alô, Teresinha, Rio de Janeiro.

 

Alô, alô, seu Chacrinha, velho palhaço.
Alô, alô, Teresinha, aquele abraço.
Alô moça da favela, aquele abraço.
Todo mundo da Portela, aquele abraço.
Todo mês de fevereiro, aquele passo.

 

Alô Banda de Ipanema, aquele abraço.
Meu caminho pelo mundo, eu mesmo traço.
A Bahia já me deu régua e compasso.
Quem sabe de mim sou eu, aquele abraço.

 

Pra você que me esqueceu, aquele abraço.
Alô Rio de Janeiro, aquele abraço.
Todo povo brasileiro, aquele abraço

Clearly, Rio “abides.” The song played out as a salute to Cidade Maravilhosa, a tourist’s paradise, and a city that, much like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, never truly sleeps. Alive with activity, Rio de Janeiro (translated as the “River of January”) is a place with style and purpose, and a reason for being.

The old adage that São Paulo, the hemisphere’s most populous (and prosperous) state, carries Brazil on its back has a basis in economic fact. That may well be, but what gives the country its rhythm and pulse is Rio, the heartbeat of a nation.

But to insist this pleasant-sounding number was little more than an easygoing sambinha, addressed to unwary international listeners, is to deny the Brazilian producers the profound depth of knowledge they possessed apropos of Brazil’s tumultuous past.

With regard to that past, Tropicália co-founder and songwriter Gilberto Gil (born Gilberto Passos Gil Moreira) wrote “Aquele abraço” in 1969, during Brazil’s most repressive period and close to the eve of his forced departure from his native soil to a two-and-a-half-year exile in Merry Olde England.

After seventy days in prison, Gil had just been released (along with close friend and fellow Bahian, musician and songwriter Caetano Veloso) from a military detention center in the district of Realengo, which Luiz Melodia mentions above.

Gilberto Gil & Caetano Veloso in London, where they were exiled from 1969-1972

Gil stepped outside to freedom. His lungs took in Rio’s air and warmth. Upon seeing the still-festooned city, he resolved to express both relief and indignation at his forced captivity in the wistful, bittersweet manner familiar to all Brazilians: in words and song. The date was February 19, 1969. Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday), which marked the end of Carnival and the beginning of the Lenten season — a time of reaffirmation and renewal.

He and Caetano had paid the price (so they believed) for their supposed “transgressions,” which, according to Brazilian authorities, involved so-called subversive activities such as outright protests, civil disobedience, and criticism of the military. They were placed under house arrest and taken to Salvador da Bahia, where they were required to report daily to the chief of the federal police. Four months later, they received an “invitation” to leave the country, an offer neither artist could refuse.

Both men had been part of a growing artistic trend that incorporated music, words, images, and sounds, even nonsense syllables, into their work, in an attempt to convey one’s hostility, or whatever emotion they felt compelled to exhibit, toward the current state of affairs — an anything-goes, kitchen-sink-style approach to protesting.

This trend (or movement, if you prefer) acquired the exotic-sounding label of tropicalismo, itself derived from “Tropicália,” a term originally used to describe an installation piece by the carioca visual artist, Hélio Oiticica. Caetano appropriated “Tropicália” (a name he much admired) for the title of a song, a raucous blend of verbal representations invoking the modern capital of Brasília, the French Nouvelle Vague, Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles, birdsong, Carmen Miranda, Dadaism, concrete poetry, Che Guevara, indigenous forenames, the films of Glauber Rocha, and so on.

Visual artist Helio Oiticica, at an installation in Pittsburgh, PA

Unfortunately, rumors had been circulating that the tropicalistas had defamed Brazil’s national anthem in this musically-dishonored manner (the rumors proved to be false). Despite their denials, the accusations served as the flimsy justification for Caetano and Gil’s arrest and their being whisked off to Europe, comparable to riding backwards on a donkey while wearing an ill-fitting dunce cap.

Other pop culture references alluded to in “Aquele abraço” paid respect to two polemic TV personalities of the era (the “clown” Chacrinha and the fictional Teresinha), the city’s largest and most influential soccer team (Flamengo), a girl from the slums of Rio (moça da favela), one of its local samba schools (Portela), and the month of February (o mês de fevereiro), in that order.

Gil concludes the number with a few short phrases: saying goodbye to the samba band from Ipanema — a Guarani word with the distasteful connotation of “bad water” (which, if the Olympic rowers and swimmers had advance knowledge of, may have elected not to participate in those events); and, with his middle-finger raised in the direction of the ruling regime, statements about his personal philosophy of life:

I’ll make my own way in the world

Bahia provided me with slide-rule and compass

Who better than I know what’s best for me?

 

For those who don’t remember me, that big embrace

Hello, Rio de Janeiro, that big embrace

To the people of Brazil, that big embrace

 

And with that parting shot at Brazil’s brass, Gil bid a fond farewell. But don’t think for a moment that he had lowered his head in shame and penance. Not long after “Aquele abraço” was recorded and performed (in a show, given at Teatro Castro Alves in Bahia, to raise money for their “trip” abroad) Caetano and Gil left their old haunt, not knowing whether they would ever see the country again.

Obviously, the number meant more to Gil and Caetano than a hello-and-how-do-you-do. “Aquele abraço” became the expression, in Caetano’s words, of “its wound of love and loss, and above all the direct address to Rio de Janeiro, the city to which I feel so intimately connected … The irony of this song — which seemed a kind of valediction to Brazil (represented, according to tradition, by Rio) but without the least rancor — is that it made us all feel up to the difficulties that lay ahead” (Caetano Veloso, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music & Revolution in Brazil, pp. 266-267).

Caetano (center right) & Gil (far right), with Os Mutantes, Gal Costa & Jorge Ben, performing the song, “Divino Maravilhoso” (1968)

His companion-in-exile Gil was far less circumspect. Turning down the prestigious Golden Dolphin (Golfinho de Ouro) Prize, from the Museum of Image and Sound, for the best-selling record of the year, Gil wrote an incendiary piece, “Recuso + Aceito = Receito” (“Refuse + Accept = Acquiesce,” a less-than-veiled play on words), in the Brazilian periodical O Pasquim, explaining his reasons for declining the dubious honor:

“If the MIS [Museum of Image and Sound] thinks that with ‘Aquele abraço’ I was going to beg forgiveness for what I had done, they were mistaken. And let it be clear to those who thought my mind had changed with ‘Aquele abraço,’ that it does not mean I have been ‘regenerated,’ that I have become ‘a good black samba-player,’ as they want all blacks to become who seem to ‘know their place.’ I do not know what place that is and I am no place at the moment. Even far away I can understand what’s going on. Even in England, the Brazilian Embassy has declared to news agencies that I am persona non grata. No prize will make this situation disappear.”

So this was the background to that simple little samba. And yet, this was but the opening salvo, the first of several Olympic broadsides that, through intricacy and nuance, accomplished what tropicalismo had tried to do, but in a less vulgar, less crass, and certainly less overt way. To these ears, the playing of “Aquele abraço” could only have meant one thing: as a reminder to their fellow citizens, by the producers and creative directors of the opening ceremony, that they should be mindful of their country’s past and present ills.

Their subtlety may have gone over the heads of everyone else who was watching the Olympic program. But it could not have escaped the notice of those Brazilians whose lives were irrevocably transformed during the harrowing military-dictatorship years.

(End of Part Two)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

The ‘Jazz Samba’ Project: What’s Old is New (Part Three, Conclusion) — A Penny for Your Thoughts

Let’s Discuss It!

Drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt at the Jazz Samba Symposium, June 2014 (Strathmore Music Center)

After Ken Avis’s introduction, Leo Lucini started the discussion off with a few words about the roots of Brazilian music, especially the native indigenous sources, mixed in with those of the country’s Portuguese colonizers, and, of course, the African slave influence. He went into a bit of the history of how the descendants of former slaves came together at a street corner named Praça Onze (“Square Eleven”), in Rio, and began to play the rudiments of choro, maxixe, and street samba. From there, later generations of Brazilians, i.e., Jobim, Vinicius, and, in Lucini’s opinion, the “founder” and pioneer of bossa nova, João Gilberto, had also banded together along the beachfront sections known as Ipanema and Copacabana.

Leo paused in his talk to give an active demonstration, involving sections of the audience, of the sounds that comprised the basic samba rhythm. This portion of the program went on a trifle longer than necessary; however, the point was made that samba encompassed a variety of contrasting elements that, together, created the music and rhythm which, when slowed down, gave way to what we know as bossa nova.

The next speaker was David Adler, who wrote the 2004 cover story for JazzTimes on the making of the album Jazz Samba. Most of David’s discussion was centered on his article, but the part that opened most of the audience’s eyes was the sidebar involving the so-called “Phantom Sessions” that allegedly took place prior to Jazz Samba being recorded. Basically, it was an October 1961 session with guitarist Charlie Byrd and saxophonist Stan Getz with Getz’s working quartet at the time, including bassist John Neves and drummer Roy Haynes.

Jazz writer and musician David R. Adler

David actually talked to Haynes, who remembered being in the studio with Charlie Byrd before bossa nova became popular. David even sought out and spoke with knowledgeable individuals, several of whom were able to provide specific dates (October 24-26) for the sessions, although no tapes or supporting material was found. “So there is a Jazz Samba session that’s in the ether somewhere, and it is gone,” David concluded. “It doesn’t exist anymore.”

What David drew from this disclosure was the incontrovertible fact that bossa nova required artists who were exposed to the music, who knew it and were capable of playing it. This is where the drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt and bassist Keter Betts came in.

The talk transitioned over to Buddy and his experience with making the now-classic album. He admitted, quite candidly, that “it’s just my version of it, my interpretation of it. It is not pure bossa nova. It’s exactly what the [album] cover says it is. It’s Jazz Samba. It’s the first fusion album before they even started using the word ‘fusion.’ ”

Without realizing it, Buddy held the audience in the palm of his hand from the start. He remained calm and collected throughout the experience. And he showed a canny sense of humor and comic timing, too, when he regaled the crowd with this morsel: “We had no idea [the album] was going to be so successful. Keter Betts said months later, ‘You know that album we did?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, it got a Grammy.’ And what’s even funnier is, I was 24, and I said, ‘What’s a Grammy?’ I didn’t even know what a Grammy was!”

More controversially, Buddy equated the album’s popular success with, quite possibly, percussionist and second drummer Bill Reichenbach’s placing the emphasis on the rhythm of the songs (which Charlie Byrd selected) on beats two and four, something the “American public was used to hearing” and “could identify with.”

It was now multi-award-winning sound engineer Ed Greene’s turn to discuss his participation in the venture. Ed wasted no time in stressing the fact that a jazz combo, as much as a symphony orchestra, needs to be recorded in an acoustically agreeable environment, not in a “dead room.” It was the raison d’être for recording Jazz Samba at All Souls Unitarian Church in D.C.

Sound engineer Ed Greene

True to his profession, Ed emphasized the technical aspects of sound recording, including his use at the time of vacuum tube circuitry, Ampex tape recorders, condensers, and mixers. More important than these was his insistence the musicians be comfortable playing with one another.

It was at that point that Ed turned to Buddy, who he hadn’t seen in over fifty years, and asked, “Were you guys comfortable on stage, playing together?” Buddy replied with a simple “Absolutely,” which he prefaced with “You made my drums sound better than they ever sounded.” This pleased Mr. Greene to no end, who confided to audience members the reason he left the record business, mainly because he got tired of doing guitar overdubs on albums for weeks on end. Again, the musicians had no one to relate to, which in his opinion made the business much too complicated, what with earphones and monitors and such. “It’s a miracle anything comes through at all.” He did say that he enjoyed the immediacy of television, which is where Ed had been thriving for the past several decades, prior to his passing in August 2017.

Returning to the panel discussion at the Strathmore, D.C. native Tom Cole was asked to provide, in response to Ken Avis’ prompt, some context for, as well as the impact of, the album on pop music during and after the 1960s. Turning the tables on the moderator, Tom inquired of the participants that although both instrumental and vocal music were listened to with equal interest, did any of them recall hearing Jazz Samba on the radio; and, if they did, how did they react to it?

Words to the Wise

Ed Greene was the first to interject, in that he still “hears the album on the radio. It’s an unmistakable sound. There’s something about it. The music was not only well played, superbly played. It’s a very sensual music. That’s really what that album’s about. And that’s the essence of bossa nova.” Leo Lucini confirmed Ed’s appraisal, adding “among other things.”

Buddy offered his own thoughts in that he was “pleased that it sounded good. Everything about it was okay, it was correct. I didn’t hear anything that I disliked. And I’m always listening to mistakes that I made. The worst thing about making any recording is that you have to listen to your mistakes over and over and forever.”

What ultimately came out of this phase of the discussion was that the American record-buying public was readily taken with Jazz Samba over earlier recordings that were issued (in some cases, a decade or so earlier), among them Brazilian music featuring guitarist Laurindo Almeida and saxophonist Bud Shank.

Cover of the classic Jazz Samba album on vinyl (Verve Records)

A brief question-and-answer session followed, wherein yours truly, who was present in the audience and listening attentively to what was being divulged, was asked by Buddy (thank you, my friend!) to comment on the influence of the movie Black Orpheus in popularizing bossa nova. Here’s the answer I gave the panel:

“Vinicius de Moraes and Jobim wrote the music for the original play, Orfeu da Conceição, which later was turned into a film by Marcel Camus, made in Rio. It included none of the music from the play, but all new music by Jobim, as well as music by Luiz Bonfá. That “The Morning of Carnival” and “Samba de Orfeu” were Bonfá’s music. Black Orpheus is a totally other story. It’s a film that really captured, visually and sonically, the imagination of Americans and pretty much the whole world — except at the time the native Brazilians.”

Although nobody asked me, I volunteered a story that I had read in journalist and writer Ruy Castro’s book, Chega de Saudade (a.k.a. Bossa Nova): “My comment is about Stan Getz, they said he was a great player because of his sound and everything. During the recording sessions of Getz-Gilberto, João Gilberto made a comment to Jobim about it. As Getz was blowing away, Gilberto told Jobim [and I was paraphrasing here], ‘Tell that moron to shut up, he’s playing too loud.’ Jobim saw Stan’s expression and he said, ‘He says he likes the way you play.’ And Getz, in response, said, ‘Funny, I don’t think that’s what he said.’ ”

Stan Getz (l.), with Joe Byrd (c.) & brother Charlie Byrd (r.) recording Jazz Samba

I was pleased — no, thrilled — to hear that Brazil’s music, especially the soothing sounds of bossa nova, was still seducing audiences the way it had over half a century ago.

Looking back on the previous Friday night’s  concert with Eliane Elias and Sergio Mendes, I was reminded of an elderly gentleman seated to my right. He had come into the Strathmore Music Center with the aid of a walker, so fragile and weak was his appearance. The man must have been in his eighties. He was accompanied by his wife, who looked about a decade younger.

As the music and vibes reached their peak, the man stood up and, to my astonishment, started jerking his arms around in time to the rhythm. He was hardly able to keep up with the music, but boy, was he having the time of his life! Fond memories of his younger and healthier self must have been on his mind.

Then it dawned on me. Bossa nova continues to charm the world. And based on what I witnessed that night, it never really gets old, does it?

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

 

The Jazz Samba Project: What’s Old is New (Part Two) — Look Back in Delight

Music that Soothes the Soul

Veronneau: Jazz Samba Project, with Lynn Veronneau and husband Ken Avis (far right)

It was such a pleasure to have met and chatted with musician Ken Avis (albeit briefly) on Saturday, June 7, 2014, after the Jazz Samba Project Symposium. A former organizational development consultant with the World Bank Group, Ken is a sharp and knowledgeable music lover, especially of Brazil’s music. I congratulated him and his co-curator, Georgina Javor, for a most enjoyable and thoroughly professional presentation, which brought a variety of speakers together. Among them were teacher, lecturer, musician and journalist David R. Adler; teacher, composer and bassist Leonardo Lucini; editor, producer and NPR host Tom Cole; multi-Emmy Award-winning sound engineer Ed Greene; and professor and author Charles A. Perrone.

The symposium itself was a huge success, as was my talk the following Sunday afternoon with drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt (see the following link to my interview: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/its-jazz-samba-time-celebrating-the-50th-anniversary-of-the-landmark-bossa-nova-album/). Buddy turned out to be a terrific interview subject: involved, alert and ready with a memorable line or two. It was incredible how he managed to recall events from fifty years back with such facility, and in precise detail. And having Jazz Samba’s original sound engineer Ed Greene on the stage and alongside him was icing on the bossa nova cake.

My only regret was that my wife and I missed the Sunday afternoon performance of Ken’s group Veronneau with German-born harmonicist Hendrik Meurkens. Regrettably, we had to rush back to our hotel to catch the shuttle to Dulles Airport. I also regret not having seen the world premiere of Ken Avis and Bret Primack’s documentary, Bossa Nova — the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World.  I asked Ken afterwards if and when the documentary would be made public, either online or on his group’s Website. He was kind enough to send me the link to Primack’s YouTube channel where I could watch the film “in the raw.” Ken assured me it was chock full of fascinating tidbits that a history maven and pop-music buff such as myself would be thrilled to have at my disposal.

While we’re on the subject, Ken also provided me with a copy of a CD he recorded in 2012. Under the title Jazz Samba Project, it was his group’s homage to the milestone Jazz Samba album from 1962. My initial thought was that it was smooth sounding, suave and sophisticated, as only bossa nova was meant to be. The lilting rhythms and additional percussion effects were added virtues, while his wife Lynn’s easy-going vocals fit in beautifully with what I like to refer to as the “Astrud aesthetic” (named after Astrud Gilberto, the former wife of bossa nova pioneer, João Gilberto, who shot to stardom on the strength of her English-language rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema”).

I did have a few reservations with Lynn’s Portuguese pronunciation, though. Heck, even pop singer Lani Hall, one of two artists featured (the other being Janis Hansen) with Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66 on their many A&M albums, wasn’t all that perfect. Still, it did not detract from the generally relaxed vibes I got from the players. And the recording venue, All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., where the original Jazz Samba sessions took place, was heaven sent. While duplicating three of the selections from the original record (“È Luxo Só,” “One Note Samba,” and “Samba Triste”), Veronneau also covered the Bob Marley tune “Waiting in Vain,” Jorge Ben’s perennial “Más Que Nada,” Jobim-Mendonça-Gimbel’s “Meditation,” one of Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes’ afro-sambas, “Samba Saravah,” the Joseph Kosma-Johnny Mercer standard “Autumn Leaves,” and lastly Jobim’s “Wave.”

Getting back to the bossa nova documentary, Ken mentioned to me that “it’s still a work in progress and won’t see the light of day formally until [he and Bret] are able to raise a bit more money for film festival showings, etc.” All the same, Ken urged me to take a gander at it. “I’m sure you will have seen many of the clips before,” he added, “but there’s a lot of new original interview material in there too. There are some things we will change but this is it as of today!”

Bandleader, musician, lecturer, producer and playwright Ken Avis (Photo: Strathmore)

Ken was absolutely spot-on regarding the documentary. There were clips (most of them from second-generation footage) that I had never seen before: a rare showing of composer-guitarist Luiz Bonfá with Perry Como performing “A Day in the Life of a Fool” (known in Brazil as “Manhã de Carnaval”), the persnickety João Gilberto in an extended take on “Desafinado,” glimpses of Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd in concert, Elis Regina with Tom Jobim hamming it up on “Águas de março” (“Waters of March”), Vinicius and Tom in a rendition of “Felicidade,” and an interview with Charlie Byrd’s brother, Joe Byrd. In that one, Joe Byrd claimed, in his elegantly patrician Virginia accent, that brother Charlie called on the services of “two German drummers” — Philadelphia-born Buddy Deppenschmidt and Bill Reichenbach — to man the rhythm section (see the link to the video: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjE3au2p4TXAhVBfiYKHVpiA2EQtwIIJjAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fvimeo.com%2F95835648&usg=AOvVaw0ijjbYF5DjAkC6YrGGGL7s ).

As for my talk with the “German drummer” William “Buddy” Deppenschmidt III (who is of Danish ancestry on his mother’s side), Ken had this to say: “I wish I could have caught the Sunday morning session — I heard from a couple of people who had been there, including the [Brazilian] drummer Vanderlei Pereira that it was interesting and entertaining. I [felt that] Buddy and his companions had a really good time at the festival and were delighted at the opportunity to be part of it, which for me is one of the best things we achieved.”

I asked Ken if he had ever heard of David Chesky and his audiophile label, Chesky Records. “I can recommend many of their CDs,” I wrote back, “especially the one called Club de Sol that highlighted composer-musician Chesky on piano with Brazilian percussionist Café, who my wife and I had met when we lived in New York (see the following link to my story, “Jazz Can’t Resist Brazil”: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/jazz-cant-resist-brazil/). “It’s a wonderful album of all original material, very bossa-nova tinged and jazz oriented — plus it swings, man, it swings! I guarantee you will love it if you haven’t heard it yet.

“I also have two of their earlier compilations (they double as sound checks, too), some of which featured singer Ana Caram, guitarist Badi Assad (she is part of an incredibly talented guitar-playing family that includes her two brothers, Sergio and Odair Assad), Livingston Taylor (James Taylor’s brother), Orquesta Nova, and a bunch of others. It’s all very eclectic stuff.”

My suggestion must have caught Ken’s ear. He wrote back to me after about a week: “When you mentioned Chesky I was aware of the label and a couple of days later I pulled out a compilation CD from them which I had bought years ago. It introduced me to [Bahian-born] Rosa Passos, who had a version of “Girl from Ipanema,” a Colombian singer Marta Gomez, who did a beautiful arrangement of “Cielito Lindo,” and included a bunch of other great tracks such as a bass and male vocal version of “Round Midnight.” If we were with a label, that’s the one I’d like to be with!”

With that said, I made up my mind to write to videographer and music journalist Bret Primack directly and introduce myself. Having put in a plug for one of my all-time favorite albums, I decided to pull out a couple of those Chesky CDs I had told Ken about. As I began to peruse the contents, lo and behold, I realized that Bret had written the liner notes himself. No wonder Ken knew about the label!

Call Me, On the Line

Videographer and music journalist Bret Primack (Photo: Optimise, Kathleen Witten-Hannah)

It was no surprise to me that Bret was a Brazilian music lover, as were David and his brother Norman Chesky. They owned (and founded) the Chesky Records label back in the late 1980s and continue to do so today. I quickly answered back: “I love their stuff! I have several excellent CDs of theirs including the two demo discs, which I still use on occasion to get the imaging right on my speakers.”

I felt an inspiration coming. Here is the gist of what I wrote to Bret: “I got your e-mail address from Ken Avis, who I met last weekend at the Strathmore after the Jazz Samba Symposium. Ken was kind enough to send me the video link to your film, Bossa Nova: The Music that Seduced the World, which I thoroughly enjoyed. My congratulations! I know he spoke with you about the making of, and genesis, of the film. I’d like to correspond with you about it, if you have some free time.

“The interesting thing is that I recommended several recordings to Ken of Brazilian music on the Chesky label. He told me he was familiar with the label. The CDs I suggested were a recital by [Brazilian jazz singer] Leny Andrade with pianist Fred Hersch — in particular, her powerful singing of the song “Wave,” which I think is a standout; and David’s Club de Sol. I would have added Herbie Mann’s Caminho de Casa (see the link to my article about this album: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/a-brazilian-at-heart-for-jazz-artist-herbie-mann-brazil-was-home-too/), but his name did not come up in our conversation.

“Coincidently, I pulled out Caminho de Casa and a Luiz Bonfá CD (also on Chesky) called Non-Stop to Brazil, both of which are favorites of mine. As I looked over the liner notes, I noticed that YOU wrote the notes! I knew, by the way you and Ken had discussed bossa nova in your film, that you must love or at least be familiar with Brazilian music. I had no idea you wrote the liner notes to my favorite works!” I also told Bret about my having met the percussionist Café.

“Please let me know if we can discuss your film. I even suggested to Ken a possible avenue for funding your project via the Audiovisual and Rouanet Laws in Brazil (I don’t know if they apply here, but you can most certainly give it a try). Ken told me he was going to check into them as well. Anyway, I look forward to hearing from you.”

After several false starts, I was able to speak to Bret. I had no idea the Chesky brothers were his cousins! We had a most satisfactory conversation, for which I thanked Ken. Bret hailed from the suburbs of New York. He started booking bands while still a teenager. Wherever he went, Bret met up with Brazilians who were passionate jazz and music lovers. After years in the city, Bret moved out West — to Tucson, Arizona, where he set up a jazz video outlet. He became known as the Jazz Video Guy. Some of his YouTube videos include “Miles Davis, the Picasso of Jazz,” and a series about the life and work of saxophonist Sonny Rollins. In our talk, Bret hinted that in order to complete the Bossa Nova film project he would need access to better archival footage as well as additional funding sources. Perhaps a trip to Brazil would be in order.

What really got my attention was that Ken mentioned using the unexplored avenue of the theater, by way of a play about the coming of bossa nova to the U.S. (specifically, the Washington, D.C. area). I took advantage of the opportunity to discuss, via our e-mail correspondence, a ready-made theater piece that many authorities consider to be the first (and, to date, only) bossa nova musical. That would be Pobre Menina Rica or “Poor Little Rich Girl,” a 1964 play (in the form of a cabaret piece) with lyrics and text by none other than Vinicius de Moraes, and songs by Carlos Lyra, a still-living icon of the bossa nova era.

Carlos Lyra, Nara Leao, Vinicius de Moraes (with Aloysio de Oliveira, standing) – Pobre Menina Rica (1964)

I told Ken that I had a CD of the music, as well as the original text (in both Portuguese and English) in my possession. “You can read about the musical in Ruy Castro’s book Chega de Saudade, translated under the title Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World” — a not inconsequential resemblance to Primack and Avis’ film title.

Suffice it to say that the plot line and music for Pobre Menina Rica are definitely of its time. The story is of the “poor-boy-meets-rich-girl” variety, result: love at first sight, the sort of innocent, innocuous fling that prevailed in the mid-1960s. The best examples I could think of were those Frankie Avalon-Annette Funnicello “beach blanket bingo” flicks from the same period. It may not have been what Ken was looking for, but it did touch on themes related to class differences (one of the main characters is a crippled Afro-Brazilian slum dweller, highly reminiscent of Porgy from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess). Nara Leão and Elis Regina were originally pegged to star in the show when it premiered. In fact, Lyra wrote the musical with Nara in mind: she’s the titular “Poor Little Rich Girl,” which as we know was the title of a Noël Coward song.

I offered to send Ken the text to read over. “You can probably download some of the songs online as well.  If this perks your interest, I can even reach out to my friends in Brazil, Claudio Botelho and Charles Moëller (of Moëller-Botelho) who I have written about extensively on my blog.” For years, Carlos Lyra had been dying for someone to bring his play either to Broadway or to North American theaters in some capacity. It was another way of approaching Ken’s idea, but from a different angle, outside of writing something from scratch (which is more difficult).

However, Ken decided to give the project his own spin, the result of which was an original play called Bossa Fever! — When Samba met Jazz in 1960s Washington DC, with music by his band Veronneau. The world premiere took place in 2015 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in D.C., as part of the INTERSECTIONS 2015 Festival (here’s the YouTube link to the show: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjg06GilYTXAhVFWCYKHXQjCRwQtwIIJjAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DXadG42P5DuA&usg=AOvVaw13PclTp0Xgyoy_XEBq2EFk).

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes