Musica Popular Brasileira

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT IS BOSSA NOVA?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After that, we never heard from him again.

CARLOS LYRA — Guest Contributor

SUNDAY, JANUARY 31, 2016

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

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

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The Jazz Samba Project: What’s Old is New, and What’s New Gets Old Fast

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Of Concerts and Symposiums

The Felix E. Grant "Wall of Fame" at the Strathmore, June 8, 2014
The Felix E. Grant “Wall of Fame” at the Strathmore, June 8, 2014

What’s old is new. And what’s new gets old fast.

This was the takeaway from my visit in June 2014 to the Strathmore Music and Arts Center in North Bethesda, Maryland. As part of their week-long celebration, “Bringing Bossa Nova to the United States,” and in honor of the 50th anniversary of the landmark Verve album Jazz Samba recorded by Stan Getz and the Charlie Byrd Trio, I was invited to take part in the Jazz Samba Legacy Symposium on Saturday, June 7, 2014.

Among the featured events that week was the world premiere rough-cut screening of the documentary Bossa Nova — the Brazilian Music that Charmed the World, directed and produced by videographer Bret Primack and co-produced by music journalist, educator, guitarist, and bandleader Ken Avis, along with a Q & A session with Buddy Deppenschmidt, who played on the classic Jazz Samba. I had the immense pleasure of meeting and interviewing the famed jazz drummer, performer, and teacher on Sunday, June 8, 2014, at the Strathmore Music Center’s Education Room 309, which I have previously written about and posted (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/its-jazz-samba-time-celebrating-the-50th-anniversary-of-the-landmark-bossa-nova-album/)

Prior to our interview, my wife Regina and I took an extensive tour of the Jazz Samba Project Exhibit, co-curated by Georgina Javor, the Strathmore’s former Director of Programming, and the aforementioned Mr. Avis. The exhibit showed only a small fraction of the extensive Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives, at the University of the District of Columbia, which was itself curated by Dr. Judith A. Korey, Professor of Music, whom I also met and spoke to.

Felix E. Grant was a local Washington, D.C. radio broadcaster who took a personal interest in bringing jazz and Brazil’s music and culture to American shores. It was a fabulous exhibit! We were extremely pleased with its breadth and scope, in particular the “walls of sound” (my term) wherein album covers of well known and obscure recordings from the late 1950s up through the mid-60s were displayed up-and-down and across the room’s walls. We had some truly memorable moments re-visiting and re-connecting with bossa nova greats (and not-so-greats) from years past. The entire display reflected a high degree of professionalism and respect for Brazilian music — a most satisfying experience for us.

One of the highlights was a prominently showcased, generously proportioned coffee-table tome (a copy of which I subsequently ordered online) entitled Bossa Nova and the Rise of Brazilian Music in the 1960s, and from which the above exhibition was drawn.

My wife Regina marveling at singer Elis Regina, from the book about Bossa Nova - June 2014
My wife Regina marveling at Elis Regina, from the book about Bossa Nova – June 2014

Published in 2010 by Soul Jazz Books, a division of Soul Jazz Records, this hardcover volume is a collection of bossa nova record album cover art work from the Odeon, Elenco, Philips, and other labels from the period in question. It was compiled by Gilles Peterson, a British-based DJ, record collector, and record label owner, and Stuart Baker, the founder and proprietor of the Soul Jazz label.

Between its covers were featured breathtakingly beautiful modernist and revolutionary designs (some hinting at the coming “psychedelic” era) that reflected “the radical and exciting idealism of Brazil at the start of the 1960s,” an idealism that was quickly squashed with the advent of the military dictatorship post-1964 and the subsequent crackdown of 1968.

The fading memory of those bitter times and my fellow Brazilians’ nearly two-decade long struggle to free themselves from the generals’ iron grip have left some young people — and a growing number of old-timers with faulty recollections — with an alarming nostalgia for “the way things were.” This self-deluded yearning for the purported “good old days,” where Ordem e Progresso (“Order and Progress”) — curiously, the country’s motto stamped on the Brazilian flag — remains an unrealized promise, will serve as an excellent example of our penchant for hankering after a non-existent past.

My observation above of things that are old being new and those that are new getting old stems as well from a Friday evening concert of June 6, 2014, by Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias and the Grammy Award-winning Niteroi-born singer-musician Sérgio Mendes and his band. Both Sérgio and Eliane have long pedigrees in the pop-music business going back many decades.

Photos & Bios of Eliane Elias & Sergio Mendes - Jazz Samba Exhibit, June 2014
Photos & Bios of Eliane Elias & Sergio Mendes – Jazz Samba Exhibit, June 2014

In Eliane’s case, her piano playing craft on the night of the concert was anything but old. Quite the contrary, she displayed finger-snapping pep and vigor to burn on the old 88s. Her treatment of material by Jobim, Ary Barroso, and Ronaldo Bôscoli, in addition to some of her own compositions, was well-nigh perfect, with just the right amount of zing and pizzazz in all the right places. Eliane was helped by a crack band of first-rate players, consisting of husband Marc Johnson on upright bass and the carioca-born Rafael Barata on drums. Barata made a particularly spectacular impression with his lightning-fast solos and fancy stick-work — why, the man was a veritable human octopus!

The second half of the program, which starred Mendes on keyboards and vocals, and his wife Gracinha Leporace as soloist providing backup support, included toward the end a re-imagined “rap” version of Jorge Ben Jor’s signature “Mas Que Nada” tune — fine and dandy in execution, but hardly an audience favorite with the over-50 crowd that predominated — and a final encore of Mendes, John Powell, Carlinhos Brown, Mikael Mutti, and Siedah Garrett’s “Real in Rio” from their 2011 animated collaboration Rio (produced by Blue Sky Studios) that fell flat and virtually sucked the air out of the good vibes left over from “Mas Que Nada.”

Mixing the old with the new, then, turned out to not only to be a mixed bag but one that left a big, fat hole in an otherwise excellent program shared by two established Brazilian artists.

The Offer I Couldn’t Refuse

Before I get into the particulars of the Jazz Samba Legacy Symposium, let me recount what led up to my participation in that weekend invitational. It was Buddy Deppenschmidt himself who informed me about this event in Bethesda. He sent me the link back in mid-March 2014, which I swiftly checked out. As I did so, my wife called me to say that somebody from the Jazz Samba Fest had phoned my home asking for additional information. Now that was quick! My wife tried to get the name of the lady who called, but was unable to understand the semi-garbled message.

My initial thought, if indeed I’d ever get the rare opportunity to be up there with the Giants of Jazz Samba and Bossa Nova, was to discuss Black Orpheus (that is, the original play and musical), how it all came about, how the Vinicius de Moraes and Antonio Carlos Jobim partnership came together, and all that jazz. Might as well put my knowledge to good use, at least that was my impression, since I had been involved in trying to bring the project to Broadway for the last, what, six or more years!

Yours truly showing the Black Orpheus wall -- Strathmore, June 2014
Yours truly showing the Black Orpheus wall at the Strathmore, June 2014

Finally, I received an e-mail from Ms. Georgina Javor, the young lady who had called my home. She would love to have me attend some of the festivities and asked if I had ever moderated any discussions before? I told her that yes, I had moderated a few as well as interviewed several personalities in the recent past, and that I would love to moderate the Q & A session with Buddy.

Georgina spelled out the terms of my participation, to which I accepted. In addition, she kindly provided tickets to the Elias-Mendes Friday night concert, which for us turned out to be the spicy topping on this all-Brazilian pastry.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

It’s ‘Jazz Samba’ Time! Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Landmark Bossa Nova Album

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Me & Buddy Deppenschmidt at Strathmore, Education Room 309, June 8, 2014
Me & Buddy Deppenschmidt at Strathmore, Education Room 309, June 8, 2014

The following is a transcript of an interview I conducted with jazz drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt, done at the Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda, Maryland, on June 8, 2014, as part of the Jazz Samba Symposium dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the landmark Verve album, Jazz Samba.

William “Buddy” Deppenschmidt Jr. is an internationally respected performer, recording artist, and teacher who has been a member of the Newtown School of Music staff since the 1960s. Currently, Buddy teaches and is the artist in residence at the Community Conservatory of Music located in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He studied with Dave Levin in Philadelphia, with classical percussionist Arthur Dextradeur, and with the legendary Joe Morello who was the long-time drumming sensation of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Still active and going strong at 79, Buddy has toured the world and continues to lead an all-star band, Jazz Renaissance. His work appeared on three major motion picture soundtracks, six major record labels, and over 40 CDs. In addition, he has biographical listings in both Leonard Feather’s The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Sixties and Barry Kernfeld’s New Grove Dictionary of Jazz.

Josmar Lopes – Now, to set the stage for what occurred in the 1960s, let me give you a little bit of background. Between the years 1958 and 1962, several incidents took place that would bring the country, people, and music of Brazil into sharper focus. It started off with Brazil beating Sweden, 5-2, at the World Cup. That was June 29, 1958. That occurred with the aid of a 17-year-old sensation named Pelé. A few weeks later, João Gilberto, a shy and reclusive – some would say obsessive-compulsive – singer/guitarist from Bahia recorded a 78-rpm single for Odeon Records. You remember the name of the song, Buddy?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – “Chega de Saudade.”

Josmar Lopes – “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”) by the hit songwriting team of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes. A year later, on June 12, 1959, Black Orpheus, a film shot on location in Rio during Carnival time, was released in France. This film, with music by Jobim, Vinicius, and Luiz Bonfá, another well known Brazilian musician, was an international sensation. It went on to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival, the 1960 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and the Golden Globe Award.

Now let’s move another year ahead, [to] April 21, 1960. Brazil inaugurated its futuristic new capital city of Brasilia. It was the brainchild of its then-president, Juscelino Kubitschek, or as he was known to Brazilians, “Jota Ka” (JK). His motto, “Fifty years in five,” was his promise to bring the Brazilian nation into the twentieth century. I think those five years are just about up. In November of 1960, another JK – JFK to be exact – was inaugurated president of the United States. It was part of that Kennedy administration’s cultural exchange program that in March of 1961 the US State Department sent Charlie Byrd on a three-month, 18-country tour of Latin America. The trio included Charlie Byrd, the guitarist, Keter Betts on bass, and our guest Buddy on drums. The year after that, right Buddy, remember the date … 1962, Jazz Samba?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Oh, yeah, February 13. Three days before my birthday.

Buddy Deppenschmidt with berimbau (ca. 1960s)
Buddy Deppenschmidt with berimbau (ca. late 1960s)

Josmar Lopes – Happy belated birthday! Jazz Samba was recorded at the All Souls Unitarian Church right here in D.C. The album was released on April 20, 1962 and it charted for 70 weeks. It sold half a million copies in 18 months. It was the only jazz album ever to top the pop and jazz Billboard charts. And in 2010, Jazz Samba was officially inducted into…

Buddy Deppenschmidt – The Grammy Awards Hall of Fame.

Josmar Lopes – That’s right. A little bit later in 1962, if any of you remember, in October of 1962, the Missiles of October. We had the Cuban Missile crisis, with tensions heating up between Russia, Cuba, and the US. Buddy, it’s amazing that all this history was packed into just those four years: 1958 to 1962. And here we are, facing another World Cup, coincidentally, in a few weeks. I don’t know if that’s going to go off, but soccer being soccer it’ll come off all right. Brazil should score a goal in that one. But Buddy is still with us, thank goodness. And my first question to you, Buddy, about all this activity that was going on, how did a drummer from Philadelphia get swept up in this grandiose project with the State Department to visit 18 countries in three months?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I was working with a piano trio, the Newton Thomas Trio, a very good trio. And we had played Birdland, the Blue Note in Chicago. We were doing the Virginia Beach Jazz Festival and Charlie Byrd’s Trio was one of the groups that played in the festival. And Dave Brubeck was on the festival, and little did I know that fifteen years later I’d end up studying with his drummer. But Charlie heard us and we did very well on the festival. In fact, we brought the house down and it was a standing ovation and all. And we weren’t supposed to be a big deal. The Brubeck group was supposed to be the star of the festival and, all of a sudden, here we are getting a standing ovation. I was overwhelmed and I was about only 24 at the time.

Charlie Byrd (Photo: Sean Dietrich)
Charlie Byrd (Photo: Sean Dietrich)

Two nights later, into the club walks Charlie Byrd, with his drummer and his drummer’s wife and his wife. His wife slips me a note under the table. I didn’t know what to think, you know. So I said, “Pardon me, I have to go to the restroom.” And I got up and went into the restroom and I read the note, and it said: “If you’re interested in playing with my group, give me a call at this phone number and we can get together in Washington, D.C. We’ll run over a few tunes and see if it will work.” He wanted Keter’s okay, wanted to make sure Keter was happy with it. And he wanted to make sure that I would work out for him.

As it worked out, I stayed with him for about three years. It was a hard decision to make, to leave the Newton Thomas Trio, because I was quite happy with him. That’s how it all happened. All of a sudden I find that here I’m being asked to go to South America. Charlie says, “How much do you want to go to South America?” I said, 24 years old, “I don’t know. What’s the going rate for drummers to South America these days?” Because I didn’t know. So we went down there and we had a great time. The people were wonderful. I hung out mostly with the local musicians and learned a lot.

Josmar Lopes – Did you get prepped by the State Department prior to going there? Did they give you pointers on how to deal with the locals…

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Oh, yeah….

Josmar Lopes – … because of all these political things going on?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah, they said, “You’re going to have a lot of press conferences, be careful what you say. They may try to entrap you into saying things. And then put it in print in the newspaper and distort the facts a little bit.” So we had to be really careful about what we said and how we acted, our manners. We were briefed in every city: “You don’t do this in this country. It’s against the customs.” It might be something that was perfectly acceptable in the United States, and we wouldn’t mean any offense by it. But we could do something innocently and cause a big deal, a big scene. So, yeah, we got briefings in just about every city.

Josmar Lopes – How soon after you joined the Charlie Byrd Trio did you set off to South America?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – It wasn’t very long at all. It was a matter of maybe weeks, not even months. The funniest part of it is that the very first night that I played with Charlie, he said, “Have you ever recorded?” And I said, “Oh, yeah, I made tapes before.” He said, “No, I mean commercial recordings.” Then I said, “Well, not really.” He said, “Well, we have a record date on Saturday.” And that was four days away. “You’re kidding!” And he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll play the tunes every night and by the end of the week you’ll know them.” He said, “We get turnover with the crowds, so we’ll play them early on, then we’ll play them again later in the evening. So you’ll get to play everything at least twice a night, for four nights.”

Josmar Lopes – You think you’d get it into your head by then.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah, and it turned out just fine, it was a great record date.

Josmar Lopes – So, let’s talk about your trip to Latin America. Which country did you hit first?

Buddy (left) with Charlie Byrd (wearing hat) & Keter Betts in the back (Photo: JazzTimes)
Buddy (left) with Charlie Byrd (wearing hat) & Keter Betts in the back (Photo: JazzTimes)

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Venezuela. We played in Caracas, and then we had to do, uh, well, first of all we didn’t get much of a rest. We got a couple of hours sleep, and then we had to get our plane very early in the morning. After the concert, I was thinking, “Oh, wow, I’m going to be able to go back to the hotel and lie down and get a little rest.” There was a command performance for President Betancourt, and we had to go over to the president’s palace. There were all these guys with machine guns lined up on either side of the walkway. I didn’t have to lift the drum. Everybody was grabbing my stuff and carrying it in. And I play with no shoes on when I play drums. I had my shoes off and I was playing in my stocking feet. People were staring at my feet thinking, “This is impolite. You just don’t take your shoes off in the president’s palace.”

Josmar Lopes – I’m sure they didn’t mind once you started playing.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I explained, “Well, you know, think of it this way: if you were a piano player, would you like to play with gloves on?”

Josmar Lopes – No.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – You want to feel the keys. And I wanted to feel the pedals. I always played with no shoes.

Josmar Lopes – You can keep them on for today, Buddy.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I am, I am!

Josmar Lopes – When did you go to Brazil, afterwards?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Actually, we were only in Venezuela that one night. The next day we left and went directly to Brazil.

Josmar Lopes – Did you start in the north and work your way down south?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yes. We were in eight cities in Brazil. We were in Brazil for two weeks. It was in Salvador, Bahia, that I met a judge, Carlos Coqueijo Costa.

Josmar Lopes – Tell us about that. That’s your first encounter with Brazilian music, wasn’t it?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah, he invited us all over to his house for dinner. And then after dinner, everybody got the guitar and passed it around. And everybody in the family played well. His son was a piano player, but he also played guitar well, and a drummer. They put on João Gilberto records and he put a cardboard album jacket between his knees and started playing brushes on it. Unbelievable brushes! I thought, “Wow, this is really great stuff.” So, I think we went out the very next day, Keter Betts and I went out … and bought the records of Gilberto. There were only two at the time. We bought both of them. We’d go to the [American] Embassy and borrow a little portable record player and play the records in our room. Keter would bring his bass down to my room and we would rehearse. We got it together before we ever finished the tour. We were just anxious to get the sound.

Josmar Lopes – Did you show them anything about American rhythms, American jazz drumming, or the style?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Oh, yeah, we hung out a lot with the musicians.

Josmar Lopes – You didn’t go to any of those State Department dinners or banquets or anything?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I went to a few, but they get boring pretty fast. And I don’t like martinis for lunch – for breakfast and lunch. By the time we would get up it would be lunchtime already for most people. We hadn’t had breakfast yet. You don’t want to go off to a cocktail party and start drinking martinis on an empty stomach. So, yeah, we hung out with local musicians more than cocktail parties. I mean, the cocktail parties went on forever. Eventually, I just started bowing out.

Josmar Lopes – Probably a good move, I’d think.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I’d have to get some rest.

Josmar Lopes – You wound up, after that occasion … Well, I might have mentioned to you that that judge that you met, Carlos Coqueijo Costa, was a friend of Vinicius de Moraes. He had even written a song that João Gilberto recorded, believe it or not, in 1973. It was called “É preciso perdoar” (“It’s Necessary to Forgive”). So that judge, the reason the family was so musical, was that he had music in his veins.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – And he never mentioned any of these things, you know.

Josmar Lopes – Ah, Brazilian modesty. Anyway, you found your tour going to Porto Alegre, in the south of Brazil. Now, that led to a very interesting encounter. I’m sure the audience would like to hear about that.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – After our concert in Porto Alegre, this young girl comes up. She was probably of high school age. And she said, “We’d like to invite you over to the house for lunch tomorrow.” And I said, “Well, I’m married and have a couple of children.” And she said, “We’d like to invite you over to the house tomorrow anyway. We’re going to play you João Gilberto records.” I said, “Well, Keter and I just went out yesterday and bought those. And we’ve been listening to them.”

Josmar Lopes – Here’s Malu and a picture of Buddy teaching them the drumming, and vice versa.

Buddy with Mutinho (left) playing guitar & Malu (center), 1961
Buddy with Mutinho (left) playing guitar & Malu (center), Porto Alegre, 1961

Buddy Deppenschmidt – They were teaching me more than I was teaching them.

Josmar Lopes – There you go! That’s her in the middle.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – So anyway, she said, “Well, then, we’ll teach you how to play the rhythm. My boyfriend is a drummer.” That was Mutinho, and he was a drummer, and also played [guitar], everybody played the guitar very well down there. It was just like you grow up, you learn how to play the guitar; just like you learn how to hit the baseball in this country, since you were a little kid.

Josmar Lopes – That’s a good analogy.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – So everybody, the first thing you wanted to do was learn how to play the guitar. When you were old enough that we could trust you to hold it and you wouldn’t break it, now we’ll show you how to play this chord and that chord. So everybody just knew how to play guitar, everyone. I didn’t meet anyone down there that couldn’t play guitar.

Josmar Lopes – So there you are, surrounded…

Buddy Deppenschmidt – We’re surrounded, her father took off from work that day. Her grandmother was there, all her brothers and sisters were there. Her boyfriend was there, and all her friends from school. It was quite a get-together. They just sat me down and showed me how to play that rhythm.

Josmar Lopes – Did you show them some American rhythms?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Not that day, no. But I mean, there were many occasions where I would stay up all night with someone, a drummer, who couldn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t speak Spanish or Portuguese. We would turn a trash basket upside down and then turn the ice bucket upside down, have an ashtray and with a cocktail stirrer. He would show me rhythms and I would show him jazz rhythms. So it was really a cultural exchange tour, for sure.

Josmar Lopes – In the other countries you went to, did they impress you as much as the sounds that the Brazilians had made?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – They were all interesting, but I can only recall one rhythm that I fell in love with down in Colombia. It was taught to me by a drummer from Argentina.

Josmar Lopes – Oh, that makes sense!

Buddy Deppenschmidt – He was playing in the hotel room we were staying, his name was José Signo. He and I corresponded quite a bit. He would even send me rhythms written out on paper. But he taught me this one rhythm called the matecumbe, which was really an interesting rhythm.

Josmar Lopes – You demonstrated that for the [Jazz Samba] symposium yesterday.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah, I did.

Josmar Lopes – Fascinating!

Buddy Deppenschmidt – It’s an unusual rhythm.

Josmar Lopes – I’ve never heard anything like that.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – It has one cowbell beat on the first beat of every measure, just one beat. And “konk,” two, three, four, boom “konk,” two, three, four, boom “konk …” And so you hit one bass-drum beat and one cowbell beat. And then, with your drumsticks, if these were the rims of your drum, they’d go “click, click,” you’d go “bam, click, ka-tick, ka-boom, ka-tick kam, ka-tick, ta-boom-boom, ka-tick boom-kam.”

Josmar Lopes – Sounds like rap.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – So you’re hearing: “One, two, three, four, boom bah, two, three, four, boom-bah, ka-tick, tick-ka, ka-tick, tick-ka, ka-tick-tick-ka boom boom, ka-tick-bam, ka-tick-tick-ka-boom-boom, ka-tick.” Then it was such an interesting rhythm. And all the parts were very simple and sparse, but when you put them all together and at the same time, there was a lot going on there.

Josmar Lopes – A lot going on here!

Buddy Deppenschmidt – And there was nothing even close to it. I never heard anything like it. I used to play all these Arthur Murray dance parties when I was growing up. And I liked Latin rhythms a lot. I’d get those jobs because I could play the rumba, the mambo, the samba, oh, what was that called, the paso doble, the tango. And it was Arthur Murray dance party, so it was all about doing the dance steps. You had to know how to play all the different rhythms to all the dance steps. All those waltzes … It was good experience for the drummer, because you got to use your entire repertoire of rhythms.

Josmar Lopes – Getting back to Malu — Maria de Lourdes Regina Pederneiras, [but] everyone called her Malu. The young girl you met, did you have a reunion with her sometime later in life? 

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yes, she came up to visit Margie [Marjorie Danciger] and me. Margie is my best friend and she also … Well, I would call her the best manager in the world, if you want to call her a manager. She sure manages me. Anyway, Malu came up and visited us after 50 years. The funny thing is, a few years before we were talking about Malu, and Margie said, “Why don’t you call her up?” I said, “I don’t have her phone number.” She said, “Well, I’ll get her phone number.” And I don’t know how she did it, but she got online and she got the phone, and she talked to information. She ended up getting the right phone number and I called Malu and left a message. She couldn’t believe that I had found her phone number, living up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and finding her phone number in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Josmar Lopes – I’d like to show a picture of you and Malu, in October of 2010. These are the two friends after almost 50 years.

Malu & Buddy, Bucks Cty, PA, October 2010
Malu & Buddy, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, October 2010

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah.

Josmar Lopes – She looks the same.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I don’t know if I should read you this, because I’m not much of a singer.

Josmar Lopes – Before [you] do, let me tell you what Malu said of your ultimate success.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Oh, yeah. Why don’t you read that thing that she sent to me.

Josmar Lopes – I’ll tell you, she wrote here at the time that she was a fifteen-year-old girl. Yup, “I was just a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who loved jazz and played the piano and sang bossa nova.” As a matter of fact, João Gilberto was a very close friend of her uncle. He was single and lived with his parents. There are a lot of funny stories of João Gilberto being locked in the bathroom and playing guitar all night. He was a night owl and slept all day. But she came down and saw the Charlie Byrd Trio play in Porto Alegre, and her English teacher recommended it to her classmates. She attended the show. She said here that “there was a good looking young man playing the drums. He looked so American, and was so absorbed by the music as he played. And he played so well that when the show was over I climbed up to the stage and spoke to the lady.” That was Ginny Byrd, Charlie Byrd’s wife – she was doing the singing. She was singing “Cry Me a River,” and she wrote down the lyrics for Malu and she loved it.

Charlie Byrd, with wife Ginny, Buddy in sunglasses & Keter with overcoat, 1961
Charlie Byrd, with his wife Ginny, Buddy in sunglasses & Keter with overcoat, 1961

Then she found out that you were 24 years old and married and decided to try to make friends with you. “An American musician. Imagine! And he had such good manners and was welcoming. I told him that I knew João Gilberto and that I had a friend who was a drummer and could teach [Buddy] the bossa nova beat.” You seemed quite interested, so she invited you to have lunch with the family the next day and invited Mutinho along, the drum player, and that’s what happened. Years later, this is what she said 50 years later when you picked up the conversation again and the relationship: “All of this may not have happened if we hadn’t done what we did.”

Buddy Deppenschmidt – That’s so true. And she’s just as important a player as I am in this whole picture. Because if it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t have even known how to do this. And probably if it hadn’t been for my intense interest, we wouldn’t have done that. So, I was obsessed with it. I just did everything but hit Charlie over the head to make him do this thing, and finally … Charlie’s wife is the one who really convinced him to do it. I figured that was the best way to get to Charlie, it was through his wife rather than through Keter. Keter tried, but Charlie didn’t seem that excited about it at the time. And he had a reputation for playing the classical guitar and bluesy, kind of jazz stuff on the classical guitar. He figured, “Well, I better stick with this because it’s working so far. And I was saying, “No, this is just perfect for you, this is guitar music and you play guitar. You just got back from South America, and it would be so timely to do this now, rather than wait and have someone else do it. Why don’t we do it?”

Josmar Lopes – Whose suggestion was it to bring Stan Getz into the project?

Stan Getz (Photo : Getty/Frans Schellekens)
Stan Getz (Photo : Getty/Frans Schellekens)

Buddy Deppenschmidt – It was my suggestion to bring Stan Getz in. But Ginny really is the one who talked [Charlie] into doing it. Fortunately, Ginny listened to what I had to say. And many a night we would sit there in the booth, while Charlie was doing his classical set. I would say, “Look, Ginny, tell him he should do this. This is going to be a great thing for him.” I didn’t know it was going to be that great, but it really turned out to be a very good thing for him. It was good all the way around, it was good for everyone. I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it hadn’t been good for me, too. So I have to admit that it was good for all of us.

Josmar Lopes – Who was the alternative to Stan Getz, if you couldn’t get him to do Jazz Samba?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – I thought that the only other person that I could think of who might do it well would be Paul Desmond.

Josmar Lopes – The Dave Brubeck Quartet…

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah. I had a lot of Dave Brubeck records that I listened to Paul’s solos, and they were nice and fluid and loose and lyrical. But Stan was my first choice. I thought he would be ideal. As it turned out we did it with Stan. But I was thinking that, you run into some problem with the record company and they don’t want to let their boy record with you, then that would be a good alternate playing.

Paul Desmond on Tenor sax (Photo: Jan Persson & CDJ)
Paul Desmond on alto sax (Photo: Jan Persson & CDJ)

Josmar Lopes – Speaking of music and lyrics, I think you have a little song of your own.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah, I wrote this for Malu when she came to visit.

Josmar Lopes – Based on “One Note Samba” (“Samba de uma nota só”)?

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Yeah, it’s based on the “One Note Samba.” And if you’ll forgive my poor vocal quality, I’ll try to sing it for you.

Josmar Lopes – Oh, Buddy, here’s JazzTimes, the magazine that the original article, “Give the Drummer Some,” appeared in, which finally gave you credit for bringing the Brazilian beat to American ears. What I’m going to do is accompany you, your rhythm section, beating on top of Stan Getz’s head.

Buddy Deppenschmidt – Oh, my God … Okay, well, here it goes. I’ll give you four beats:

Seems that more than 50 years have past

Since the day I saw you last

You shared your music and your song

This reunion took so long

 

Tom Jobim, Gilberto and Brazil

Seems somehow I just can’t get my fill

Of the samba rhythm, what a dance

You sparked a musical romance!

 

When I got back to the States

I surely knew that I was on a mission

No time for fishin’

Even though I made it happen

I guess drummers just don’t get commission

So keep on wishin’

 

Though ‘twas not authentic, just our version

Jazz and samba started mergin’

I guess we helped to spread the word

And bossa nova sure got heard

 

Now today the year’s two thousand ten

We’ve a friendship which will never end

And the message that I want to say is

Bossa Nova’s here to stay!!!

 

So that kind of tells the whole story … in one chorus.

Josmar Lopes – And on that note, let’s have a round of applause for the man who brought the Brazilian beat to American ears!

With gratitude and appreciation to William Henry “Buddy” Deppenschmidt Jr., for his kindness in allowing the use of our interview to be published on this blog site.

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Bossa Nova’ — Carioca Love Story: The Rio of One’s Dreams

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Doing the Bossa Nova

Antonio Fagundes & Amy Irving in Bossa Nova
Pedro Paulo (Antonio Fagundes) & Mary Ann (Amy Irving) in Bossa Nova

While Walter Salles’ Central Station attempts to bind up old wounds from Brazil’s past with expectations of a brighter future, Bruno Barreto’s Bossa Nova (1999) takes a step backward towards an altogether different set of standards. There’s no point in making a side-by-side comparison of the two pictures, although if one were attempted it would be the equivalent of pitting, say, Mark Hellinger’s documentary-style The Naked City against Hope and Crosby’s farcical Road to Rio — both flicks from the same late-forties time period.

Adapted from the 1989 novel A Senhorita Simpson by carioca writer Sérgio Sant’Anna, Bossa Nova (a Woody Allen-like romantic comedy, by most descriptions) stars the director’s spouse, Amy Irving, as the widowed Mary Ann Simpson, a forty-something former airline hostess-turned-English language instructor; and Rio-born leading man Antonio Fagundes as Pedro Paulo Silva, a middle-aged lawyer who finds the still fetching Miss Simpson worth pursuing (don’t we all?) during the course of its long-winded plot.

The other cast members, most of whom have worked together in diverse capacities throughout the years, include Drica Moraes as Mary Ann’s friend and assistant Nadine; Alexandre Borges as Acácio, a girl-crazy soccer player who frets about his recent trade to a British club; Débora Bloch as Tania, Pedro Paulo’s wife of seven years who recently left him for a Chinese tai-chi practitioner; Pedro Cardoso as Roberto, Pedro Paulo’s lovesick brother who hankers after the law firm’s new intern; Giovanna Antonelli as Sharon, the new intern who only has eyes for the soccer player; Kátia Lyra as the English school’s one-track-minded receptionist; and Stephen Tobolowsky as Gary/Trevor, a nerdy American corporate type who strikes Nadine’s fancy via an online dating service.

You can imagine the endless combination of circumstances this mixed-up group of individuals gets into! Here’s a tiny sampling: still smarting from his wife’s separation, Pedro Paulo has a meet-cute with Miss Simpson; in fact, they share an elevator ride to the English school where she teaches. Naturally, he’s immediately taken with the tutor, so he signs up for nightly classes as a pretext for getting to know her better (his master-tailor father just happens to have an office in the same building as the school).

Pedro Paulo is but one of numerous of complications Mary Ann has to contend with, among them that over-sexed soccer player who wants more than private lessons from her. His prankish efforts at turning Brazilian expletives into their English equivalent (“Go to shit!” and “Kiss it, my ass!”) are nothing short of strained.

Acacio (Alexandre Borges) tries to kiss Mary Ann (Amy Irving)
Acacio (Alexandre Borges) tries to kiss Miss Simpson(Amy Irving)

Billed as a “love letter to Rio” — and a perfect Valentine’s gift to his wife — Barreto’s Bossa Nova was produced by his parents, Lucy and Luiz Carlos Barreto, and co-produced by the movie arm of Rede Globo, Brazil’s largest TV network. Shot in ultra-photogenic style by French cinematographer Pascal Rabaud, the city itself has never looked lovelier, scrubbed down and polished up in the manner of another French-guided frolic, Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus (1959), which also happened to have been filmed in Rio.

Miraculously, there are no street urchins or beggars to mar the luscious backdrops — and no prostitutes or drug dealers to confront, either; nor are there glimpses of ramshackle housing developments (known as favelas) to distract from this celebration of Rio as a place for lovers. From interior shots of rooms with strategically-positioned camera angles, to exterior settings of picture-postcard comeliness, the city’s idyllic landscapes (Corcovado, Guanabara Bay, Sugar Loaf Mountain, and Copacabana Beach) are expertly arranged to elicit wistful sighs of longing and nostalgia.

“Everybody has some kind of fantasy about Rio,” Barreto claimed in the Los Angeles Times, on the occasion of Bossa Nova’s release, “and I wanted the film to take place in the Rio that people fantasize about … There is the Rio of the social problems; that’s there. Then there’s the Rio of the bossa nova; that’s there too.”

Dedicated to Antonio Carlos Jobim, one of the pioneers of bossa nova, Barreto’s candid admission is a most telling change from that of veteran filmmaker and fellow Brazilian Cacá Diegues, whose own views on the subject of Marvelous City, along with his motives for remaking Black Orpheus into something less pandering to potential tourists, are markedly different.

Pass the Soap, Please

Rather than go with the flow of more serious late nineties fare, Barreto kept to a winning formula that pays homage to the work of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, two of Hollywood’s finest purveyors of screwball comedies. Though scarcely what most people would think of as a Cary Grant or even a Katharine Hepburn, Mr. Fagundes (closer in build to the burly Gérard Depardieu) and Ms. Irving did make for a credible pair of over-aged lovebirds. The other participants gleefully joined in the fun, resulting in a generally pleasing if hardly innovative feature.

Amy Irving as Miss Simpson
Amy Irving as Miss Simpson at the airport

Not surprisingly, the high-gloss sheen behind the film’s facade was shaped by a variety of factors, primarily those “soap-opera” vehicles called telenovelas (or novelas, for short) that super-conglomerate Rede Globo continues to export to countries beyond those of Latin America.

Those carefully crafted images of Rio — likely held together with spirit gum and baling wire — were deliberately designed to produce an effect, a dream vision of Cidade Maravilhosa which, as evidenced by the above quotation, the film’s director made no bones about exploiting. However, at this point some additional cultural background may be warranted.

For decades, Globo’s writing teams have been churning out dozens upon dozens of formulaic scripts, many if not all of these “serialized dramas” boasting interlocking story lines tailored to the serendipitous lives of the rich and fanciful. Most are ensemble pieces, i.e., character-driven dilemmas with serio-comic undertones that thrive on the chemistry and interaction of a capable cast, if only to make it in the highly competitive 9 to 10 p.m. viewing slot.

At their best, novelas are models of their kind, a factory product of enormous popularity and appeal, and, of course, staggering ratings success. Two of the more watchable examples from about the same period as Bossa Nova are Laços de Família (“Family Ties”), which aired between June 2000 and February 2001, and featuring such stalwarts as Vera Fischer, Carolina Dieckmann, Reynaldo Gianecchini, José Mayer, Tony Ramos, Marieta Severo, and the aforementioned Alexandre Borges and Giovanna Antonelli; and the earlier Torre de Babel (“Tower of Babel”), broadcast from May 1998 to January 1999, that included an all-star lineup headed by the ubiquitous Tony Ramos, Glória Menezes, Tarcísio Meira, Cláudia Raia, Maitê Proença, Edson Celulari, and Adriana Esteves.

With his qualified team of screenwriters (Alexandre Machado and Fernanda Young), Barreto employed the same logic that TV Globo had mastered and developed for its own vast repertoire of sudsers. The web of interconnected plot threads that made Bossa Nova so typical of the genre is neatly untangled by movie’s end, though not always to an individual character’s liking. (No spoilers here, I’m afraid. Let’s just say that not everyone lives happily ever after, and leave it at that.)

The job of taking this kind of culturally specific program out of its natural element and preparing it for international dissemination must have been challenging not only to Barreto’s sense of his own Brazilianness (i.e., of his having been born a carioca), but also the California lifestyle he’s been leading for well on twenty years.

Bossa Nova is very personal to me on every level,” he admitted to IndieWire magazine in April 2000, “in the sense that I wasn’t aware as I was doing it. I guess that’s actually good … When I started to edit the film and then looked at sections of it, I went, ‘It’s so close.’

Bruno Barreto behind the camera
Director Bruno Barreto behind the cameras

“The fact that the more time I spend here, the more I miss the city where I come from. I remember that while driving all the time in L.A., whenever a Brazilian song played, some song from when I was growing up, I would just cry. I’m so homesick. At the same time, I’m very happy that I have a career here. That I do what I love to do.

“The way [Rio] is in the movie doesn’t really exist. It’s the way I like Rio to be. It’s a totally idealized city. People go, ‘Oh, wow!’ But the minute they get off the plane, they see a very different Rio. The Rio in the movie is the Rio I have in my heart. It’s the way I remember Rio. That is why I think this is my most personal movie.”

If we’re to understand the director correctly, Bossa Nova represents one man’s unrequited passion — a love story, if you will, though not necessarily about a woman but for a city. In the same IndieWire interview, Barreto explained his picture’s other dedication: to the late Nouvelle Vague director, François Truffaut.

“I think Truffaut was maybe the last truly romantic filmmaker in my opinion. Above all, he was a master for me. All the films I make are very much about relationships and encounters and miscommunications. All of these in a light romantic atmosphere. And I think Truffaut was the master of that.”

Along the lines of l’amour toujours, Barreto indicated that “In Brazil, there isn’t this obsession with youth and being young … People are not self-conscious about their bodies. They go around, even the men, in their small bikinis, and they go to the beach and they don’t care much about the way they look. They’re having a good time, and they think they can fall in love and have affairs in their sixties or seventies. They don’t think that love and romance is just for young people.”

Of course not! One is never too old for love, and the film proves that. It may also help to explain Barreto’s decision to adjust Pedro Paulo’s age in the novel from a young and restless public servant to a silver-haired legal professional in pin-striped suits and expanding waistline.

What of the movie’s namesake, that calmly soothing and rhythmically enticing beat of bossa nova? Alas, there are moments where the music is simply too overpowering — that is, when it’s not relegated to the background in a way that speaks inoffensively of Muzak. At other times, as in the gathering at the cemetery, the soundtrack wells up expectantly. But then, we hear the raspy tones of rocker Sting, groaning his rendition of Jobim’s “How Insensitive.” How apropos is that?

Pretty Little Love Songs

Michelle Johnson & Michael Caine in Blame It on Rio
Michelle Johnson & Michael Caine in Blame It on Rio

Whether Barreto was conscious of it or not, his film bears a striking resemblance to another “rom-com” from the mid-eighties, Stanley Donen’s sex romp Blame It on Rio (1984), which starred Michael Caine, Joseph Bologna, Valerie Harper, and a young Demi Moore.

Caine plays a foreign businessman living in São Paulo, who, on vacation in Rio, meets up with his best friend’s daughter, the buxom Michelle Johnson. He’s hard-pressed to resist her nubile charms, so he winds up having an illicit affair with the girl. In return, his wife (Harper) has an affair of her own with his best pal (Bologna). The outcome? Emotional and family mayhem.

This irritating piece of fluff boasted a purely bossa- and samba-strewn score, with original music by guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, a longtime resident of the West Coast. Most of the movie’s songs were written by Kenneth Wannberg and Dennis Spiegel, with the title tune and another number, “I Must Be Doing Something Right,” the work of Cy Coleman and Sheldon Harnick.

Basically, the plot stayed at B-movie levels, and was the kind of thing done better by expert hands: case in point, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), which, in 1973, was transformed into the musical A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim; and Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy from 1982.

As bad as it turned out, Blame It on Rio did serve its purpose as a stepping-stone to better things; in this instance Bossa Nova, as thoroughly acceptable a domestic product as any in recent memory, but only slightly more authentic as a snapshot of present-day Rio with its share of unresolved issues.

Bossa Nova poster art
Bossa Nova poster art

How, then, did Bossa Nova stack up in the popular song category? From such classics as “Useless Landscape” (“Inútil Paisagem”), “One Note Samba,” the inescapable “Girl from Ipanema,” “Wave,” “The Waters of March,” “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (“Corcovado”), “No More Blues” (“Chega de Saudade”), and “Once I Loved,” it was a veritable Jobim love-fest.

This is where the film finally came into its own to live up to that iconic title. And with the artistry of orchestrator and musician Eumir Deodato, along with performers Djavan, Bárbara Mendes, Stan Getz, João and Astrud Gilberto, Claudia Acuña, Carlos Rogers, Elis Regina, and Jobim himself, how could it be otherwise?

Still, one can’t help recalling this sage advice, allegedly attributed to the self-same Tom Jobim. When pressed for his thoughts, upon stepping off his plane at Galeão International Airport, of having lived and worked in New York and Rio de Janeiro, the shy and unassuming Tom, in that vaguely understated fashion of his, complied as only he could:

Nova York é bom, mas é uma merda. Rio é uma merda, mas é bom.” Roughly translated, it means: “New York’s good, but it sucks. Rio sucks, but it’s good.”

That sums it up for Bossa Nova as well: “The film’s good, but it sucks. The film sucks, but it’s good.”

Oh, wow! ☼

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

Lo, the Savior Approaches (Part Six) — ‘Yerma,’ the ‘Girl from the Clouds,’ and the Flirtation with Hollywood

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Villa-Lobos' Yerma poster art (sagradocacete.wordpress.com)
Villa-Lobos’ Yerma – poster art (sagradocacete.wordpress.com)

After Magdalena, Heitor Villa-Lobos’ only other stabs at the theatrical genre were the opera Yerma (1955-56), written in New York and Paris to a Spanish text based on the 1934 play by poet-dramatist Federico García Lorca; and his final subject for the stage, the children’s fairy-tale musical A Menina das Nuvens (“The Girl from the Clouds,” 1957-58), given a paltry number of posthumous presentations in Rio and São Paulo’s Municipal Theaters.

As his most ambitious and innovative vocal work yet, Yerma was an atypical oeuvre in the canon of the confirmed Brazilian nationalist. But if the operatic idiom was still an unfamiliar dialect to him, certainly the play’s tightly-knit structure (three acts with two scenes each) and dramatic plot devices (the clash of earthly frustrations with magical and supernatural elements) stirred Villa-Lobos to new heights of lyricism.

The central character of Yerma is one of those incredibly demanding soprano roles requiring the vocal resources of a Leontyne Price mixed with the dramatic capabilities of Maria Callas. The story bears a striking resemblance to German composer Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten (“The Woman without a Shadow,” 1919) in its psychological depiction of the eternal feminine and the archetypal yearning for motherhood, albeit transplanted to rural Spain.

In brief, a peasant woman named Yerma (derived from the Spanish word yermo, or “barren”) wrestles with her insatiable desire for children and the indifference of her husband Juan, who prefers working in the fields to raising a family of four. Yerma ponders an affair with the young shepherd Victor, but her honor prevents her from taking up the matter with the youth as her lover.

With her married life turning more and more bitter and her husband’s persistent recriminations and false accusations of infidelity, Yerma’s frustrations with Juan for his using her “for sexual rather than procreative purposes” boil over in Act III, leading to his death by strangulation at her hands. The tragedy of the piece, according to a 1989 Tempo article, “is that in killing Juan the chance of a child dies with him, and [Yerma] remains imprisoned by her childlessness even more.”

Yerma at the XIV Amazonas Festival in Manaus, 2010 (fotolog.com)
Yerma at the XIV Amazonas Festival in Manaus, 2010 (fotolog.com)

“I myself have killed my son!” she cries at the end. Unfortunately, the opera focuses almost exclusively on the vocally exhausting title part, with the additional negative factor of “too little dramatic variety and characterization” in the remaining dramatis personae.

Yerma never saw the light of day during the composer’s lifetime, and, as a result, went unperformed until New Mexico’s Santa Fe Opera finally mounted a production of it on August 12, 1971, a full twelve years after his demise. A Time magazine article dated August 23, written a few days after the opera’s premiere, revealed that Santa Fe’s stage director, Basil Langdon, had heard of the Villa-Lobos score, “secured the rights” to the work, and “determined to produce it in the original Spanish.”

That task took him a total of thirteen years, which resulted in Yerma’s world premiere, in Santa Fe, in the Spanish language version that Villa-Lobos had initially set to music. Despite the sophisticated soundscape and numerous references to the styles of Puccini, Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg, along with “an undertone of suppressed sexuality running through the whole score,” Yerma did not catch on with audiences or with other opera houses.

There have been subsequent attempts to revive the piece: the first one, in 1983, in Rio de Janeiro, which was deemed its premier presentation on Brazilian soil; and the second, in England, in July 1989. About the British production, music critic Guy Richards remarked at the time that Villa-Lobos’ orchestration, as in all his mature works, was “highly individual, full of quirks that tease the ear, but always light and airy… and never overwhelming.” Not exactly the most ringing of endorsements as far as reviews go, but a fair-minded assessment nonetheless.

On a side note, Villa-Lobos dedicated the work to his mother-in-law, Hermenegilda Neves de Almeida, on Mothers’ Day, appropriately enough. An even more fascinating aspect is the theme of the original play, which apparently appealed to the composer, in that “the premise of the social ostracism of an infertile woman was a highly personal one… because,” in the words of Villa-Lobos’ biographer David P. Appleby, “he had never had any children of his own.”

Could this be a Freudian interpretation of real-life events? Perhaps. But children or no, Yerma miscarried just the same, and has languished in undeserved obscurity for the better part of half a century.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

A Menina das Nuvens (The Girl from the Clouds) Photo: Paulo Lacerda
A Menina das Nuvens (The Girl from the Clouds) Photo: Paulo Lacerda

The same could be said for his joyous Menina das Nuvens, although this work’s performance history has lately been less checkered than that of its immediate predecessor.

Dedicated to his wife Mindinha, with a text by Brazilian playwright Lúcia Benedetti, one of the founders of the Teatro Infantil (Children’s Theater) movement in Brazil, A Menina premiered in Rio on November 29, 1960, a year after Villa-Lobos’ passing. Soprano Aracy Belas Campos interpreted the title role, along with tenor Assis Pacheco, baritone Paulo Fortes, bass Guilherme Damiano, and conductor Edoardo de Guarnieri.

The work’s libretto is said to lie “somewhere between Cinderella and The Wizard of Oz,” but instead of a magic slipper, “it is a cloth made from the rays of the moon” that becomes the “deciding factor.”

The actual plot concerns a girl who has been brought to the clouds by a bird and is raised there from infancy into early adulthood. Upon learning of her origins the girl expresses a strong desire to get back to her terrestrial family. Complications ensue, as one might imagine, but all ends happily, as most fairy tales are wont to do, with her marriage to a handsome young prince.

The critics and public remained divided in their responses to the work, which, for a children’s opera, has its longueurs. Given its creators’ reputation, they were not as receptive to The Girl’s charms as one would have expected, the main objection being its overuse of recitative (with a preponderance of “melancholy tones”) and the lack of a consistent musical viewpoint.

Journalist Irineu Franco Perpetuo, reporting on a September 2009 revival at the Palácio das Artes in Belo Horizonte, noted that Menina das Nuvens suffers from “excessive length” and complained of “some banal writing by Villa-Lobos in the first two acts. But it all comes together in the third… where the lush orchestration and neo-romantic Villa-Lobos of the 1950s meets the melodic serenades of the 1930s, in addition to some rhythmic and harmonic daring from the 1920s.”

One of its tuneful glories, we would like to point out, is the lovely ode for soprano that opens Act III, “Ó Lua redonda” (“O Moon so round”), done in the form of an “invocation to the moon”; in style and in substance, it brought to mind an earlier set-piece, the “Song to the Moon,” from the late Romantic-period opera Rusalka, written by another, better-known European nationalist, Czech composer Antonín Dvořák.

Gabriella Pace as "The Girl from the Clouds" (YouTube)
Gabriella Pace as “The Girl from the Clouds” (YouTube)

You can judge for yourself how thoroughly delightful this number is — when heard in its proper theatrical context, of course — in the following YouTube excerpt from the 2009 Palácio das Artes production. The titular “Girl from the Clouds” is exquisitely sung by Gabriella Pace, winner of the 2010 Carlos Gomes Competition; the bug-eyed Soldier in the Queen’s Guard uniform is humorously played by tenor Flávio Leite, and the Westerly Wind is voiced by bass Homero Velho: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y5CJ81bkMAQ.

This same production was transferred to São Paulo’s Teatro Municipal in August 2011, with most of the original cast intact. William Pereira provided the direction and scenic design, with candy-colored sets by Rosa Magalhães and subtle lighting effects by Pedro Pederneiras. The work was arranged and conducted by Roberto Duarte, whose arduous task it was to organize and put order to Villa-Lobos’ chaotic material.

“Opportunities to familiarize oneself with Villa-Lobos’ operatic inclinations are exceedingly rare,” wrote reviewer Alexandre Freitas for the magazine Carta Capital’s online edition. “A large portion of his output is all-but unknown to the general public. For that reason, A Menina das Nuvens presents the perfect occasion to draw ever closer to Brazil’s main exponent of so-called classical music… In any form, it is a work that should be presented, performed, recorded, published and preserved as widely as possible.”

A “Forest” of Troubles

An amusing footnote to Villa-Lobos’ long musical career focuses on his Hollywood commission to write a music score for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1959 film adaptation of the old W. H. Hudson potboiler, Green Mansions.

Villa-Lobos & Audrey Hepburn (instantencore.com)
Villa-Lobos, Audrey Hepburn & friend (instantencore.com)

Directed by actor Mel Ferrer, the movie starred his talented wife, the delicate but miscast Audrey Hepburn (War and Peace, Breakfast at Tiffany’s), as Rima, the “bird-girl” of the Amazon, and the boyish Anthony Perkins, in his pre-Psycho period, as the blasé love-interest. The other denizens of the studio rain forest included such equally out-of-place extras as Lee J. Cobb, Sessue Hayakawa, Henry Silva, and Nehemiah Persoff.

With typical motion-picture logic, the film’s producers informed the master musician of their intention not to have him orchestrate his work — actually, a standard studio practice at the time, but which totally infuriated the usually unruffled Brazilian. MGM further compounded the offense by releasing the finished product with most of the music credited to composer Bronislau Kaper, a more-established movie veteran, who had previously scored the delightful Leslie Caron vehicle Lili (1953), in addition to other gems for the silver screen.

Not that Villa was so naïve about movie-making that Hollywood took unfair advantage of his ingenuousness, but his unfamiliarity with how things were done in filmdom astounded even a famed film composer of Miklos Rozsa’s repute:

“I met [Villa-Lobos] when he arrived in Hollywood, asked him whether he had yet seen the film and how much time they were allowing him to write the music. He was going to see the picture tomorrow, he said, and the music was already completed. They had sent him a script, he told me, translated into Portuguese, and he had followed that, just as if he had been writing a ballet or opera. I was dumbfounded; apparently nobody had bothered to explain the basic techniques to him. ‘But Maestro,’ I said, ‘what will happen if your music doesn’t match the picture exactly?’ Villa-Lobos was obviously talking to a complete idiot. ‘In that case, of course, they will adjust the picture,’ he replied. Well, they didn’t. They paid him his fee and sent him back to Brazil.”

For his part, the wily Villa took his own “advantage” of Hollywood’s callous disregard for his abilities by re-fashioning the completed score into a large-scale symphonic tone poem for soprano, male chorus, and expanded orchestra. He christened it A Floresta do Amazonas, or “Forest of the Amazon,” a title that recalled, and paid belated tribute to, his earlier wanderings into the rain forest region.

Four love songs written expressly for the film, but never incorporated into the final cut had their concert premieres at New Jersey’s Palisades Park on July 12, 1959. Madame Dora Vasconcelos, the former Consul-General of Brazil in New York and a voracious musical dilettante, provided the lyrics for the unused numbers.

Audrey with Anthony Perkins in Green Mansions
Audrey Hepburn with Anthony Perkins in MGM’s Green Mansions

The richly exotic treatment of this colorful orchestral epic was everything one could expect from so fiercely independent and astute a musical artist as Villa-Lobos; it was, simply put, a classic case of Hollywood’s loss and the concert hall’s gain.*

The work (along with the four additional love songs) was committed to posterity in 1959 by United Artists Records, with the difficult soprano part taken by the legendary Bidu Sayão, who came out of her early retirement as a special favor to the conductor of the recording sessions: her most esteemed friend and admirer, the gravely-ill composer.

There have been several complete recordings of Forest of the Amazon, including a highly recommended 1995 version with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Villa-Lobos expert Alfred Heller, and starring American prima donna Renée Fleming who brought Rima the bird girl to vivid life.

Postlude: The Villa-Lobos Legacy

Heitor Villa-Lobos eventually succumbed to the bladder cancer that had been temporarily halted by the operation he had undergone a decade earlier. He passed away on November 17, 1959.

Four months before his death, however, Villa-Lobos received the prestigious Carlos Gomes Medal as part of the festivities commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro.

One could make the argument that this award was a rather dubious honor, what with his having produced no operatic masterwork of any lasting renown. On the contrary, he had done more for Brazilian music education, and for Brazilian social awareness of music’s beneficial properties and potential, than any other national celebrity before or after him.

“He enriched the lives of various generations of students and guided the musical direction of an untold number of future artists,” went an official New York University document from 1959 dedicated to the composer’s work. “A vibrant personality, gifted with an infectious and communicative enthusiasm, his reputation has expanded throughout the known world as a brilliant creator of modern music.”

A more appropriate postscript might have included his equally infectious — and frequently sly — sense of humor:

“Artists live with God – but give their little finger to Satan. I sleep with the angels and dream of the devil.”

— Heitor Villa-Lobos

Villa-Lobos at the piano
Maestro Villa-Lobos at the piano

Although not the prophesied savior of the Brazilian national opera, Villa-Lobos was without doubt the most famous and highly regarded native-born classical musician in memory.

Who would have thought that another citizen of the state of Rio, the pert and petite Bidu Sayão, would become, as a result of championing Villa-Lobos’ works and following Toscanini’s baton beat, the person most linked in the minds of the theater-going public with the very best that Brazil had to offer in operatic circles; and the country’s foremost international proponent of the Italian, French — and Brazilian — repertoires. ☼

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

* The movie Green Mansions was not the composer’s first attempt at a film score, since, as we already know, Villa-Lobos had begun his long association with the cinema during the silent-movie era, as part of the music-band at the Odeon Theatre in Rio. He was later commissioned by the Vargas administration to provide the music for a patriotic picture, O Descobrimento do Brasil (“The Discovery of Brazil,” 1936-38), which was transformed by Villa into a four-movement concert suite of themes of the same name.

Brazil’s World Cup Runneth Over with Song — The Best of the Best by the Best

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Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66
Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66

Ever have one of those days when you’re forced to use your head in making a last-minute decision while the pressure of a deadline looms stealthily in the distance?

No, I don’t mean on the soccer field. Certainly, Team USA’s dramatic, make-or-break victory over Ghana on Monday came down to the wire, with the U.S. coming up the winner off John Brooks’ incredible “head” shot in the 86th minute of play. Nothing I inscribe could ever be as heart-stopping as that moment, but I do digress.

To this point, I received an e-mail from musician Ken Avis, whose band Veronneau recently appeared at Strathmore’s Jazz Samba Project Festival in North Bethesda, Maryland — about which I will be devoting extensive coverage during the weeks to come.

“I’ve just had an unexpected request from the Washington Post,” Ken wrote the other night, “with an urgent deadline.” And here we go: “Very lightly defined, but they would like a playlist of eight to ten songs to add to an article about the Brazil World Cup… a kind of reader’s primer on what to listen to in order to get into the mood.”

Okay, I thought, that sounds like something I could tackle. To continue the soccer analogy, I know for a fact the Brazilian National Team has often mixed samba into their joyous style of play. And this felt like a fun project all-around, something to relieve the stress from intensive World Cup viewing (now how can THAT be stressful…?).

“Just off the top of your head,” he continued, “what would you consider to be three or four Brazilian songs to hear and why? Your desert Island discs!”

As Heath Ledger’s Joker would say, “Now you’re talkin’!” It’s just the thing to wipe the summer heat away. My initial strategy was to suggest songs that would span the length and breadth of the country’s eclecticism.

Brazil is a musically diverse nation with a wide array of regional styles, genres, forms, and trends: from choro and maxixe, to samba, samba-canção, bossa nova, MPB, Tropicália, axé, frevo, forró, funk, and pagode, to name a few.

But if it’s desert island airs you want, naturally I’d have to start with the best of the best, the top of the heap, the A-Number 1 of them all:

1. “The Girl from Ipanema” – Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Ole Blue Eyes never sounded better when paired with Carioca maestro Tom Jobim, in what I dubbed a dry run for Sinatra’s later Duets album. Here, the Chairman of the Board soothes the ears in his quietest, most laid-back mode. “I haven’t sung this soft since the last time I had laryngitis,” he famously quipped afterwards. Sure, Frankie. Anything you say…

2. “Tarde em Itapoã” (“Afternoon on the Beach at Itapoã”) – Vinicius de Moraes and Toquinho. The first song the Little Poet Vinicius wrote with his new-found partner, Toquinho. Their voices are beautifully blended in this, their most whimsical combination. It’s a lovely tune, one that’s been covered by a variety of artists, including Brazilian singer Jane Duboc who partnered with baritone sax specialist Gerry Mulligan on their 1994 album Paraíso on Telarc.

3. “Mas que nada” (“Oh, That’s Nothing”) – Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66. A bossa nova classic by any measure of the term, most people would be surprised to learn that bandleader Mendes (still going strong at 73) did not compose this rollicking number. That honor goes to Rio-born musician Jorge Duilio Lima Menezes, whose stage moniker is currently Jorge Ben Jor. The song was revived by Sergio in 2006 as a joint venture with the Black Eyed Peas for a commercial aired during the 2006 World Cup, leading to reconfirmation of its status as an international cross-cultural hit.

The flamboyant Ney Matogrosso
Ney Matogrosso

4. “Aquarela do Brasil” (“Brazil”) – Ney Matogrosso. Known as Brazil’s theme song, it was written by the prolific Ary Barroso, who lived for a time in Hollywood and was courted by none other than Walt Disney himself, although little to nothing came of the encounter. Barroso was even rumored to have had an affair with Carmen Miranda (discounted by author Ruy Castro in his biography of the famed Brazilian Bombshell). Ney Matogrosso’s priceless, flamboyant rendition of the tune is my preferred version, which finds him in singularly spectacular voice.

5. “Adeus, batucada” (“Bye-Bye, My Samba”) – Carmen Miranda. More than any other record, this melancholy samba fit Carmen’s profile as her country’s premier ambassador of Brazilian song. Its composer, a poor black youth named Synval Silva, also served as the entertainer’s chauffeur in Rio. He even wrote the refined lyrics, which reflect Carmen’s clear-eyed philosophy of life: “Vou-me embora chorando / com o meu coração sorrindo / E vou deixar todo mundo valorizando a batucada” – “With tears in my eyes / I’ll leave behind a glad heart / So that everyone I meet can enjoy the beat of samba.”

6. “Only a Dream in Rio” – James Taylor and Milton Nascimento. Written by the ethereal voiced Milton with his favorite lyricist, Fernando Brant, the English text was supplied by Mr. Taylor. Nasally twang aside, it’s one of arena favorite Sweet Baby James’ few forays in a foreign language. Despite the linguistic difficulties of Brazilian Portuguese, he manages to win listeners over by his complete sincerity in putting the song across. Milton joins him for one of the verses as well as the main chorus.

Milton Nascimento "Live"
Milton Nascimento “Live”

7. “Nos Bailes da Vida” (“In the Dances of Life”) – Milton Nascimento and Fernando Brant. Recorded live in November 1983 at the Teatro Municipal in São Paulo (my wife just happened to be present for the session), this extremely catchy tune is so infectious that Milton has the audience sing right along with him in one of those magical moments. His red-hot band mates include such stalwarts as keyboardist Wagner Tiso, guitarist Hélio Delmiro, and Robertinho Silva on drums and percussion. Hit it, Miltie!

8. “Meu nome é Gal” (“My Name is Gal”) – Gal Costa. Maria da Graça Costa Penna Burgos, known professionally as Gal Costa, has been at the forefront of not only the tropicalismo movement, but of Brazilian popular music in general. Born in Bahia, Gal Costa’s eponymously titled song was released in 1969, with words and music by Roberto and Erasmo Carlos, two artists whose work bears listening to. It’s another of those personal statements that Gal, a consummate singer of impeccable taste, has reshaped throughout the years to suit her various moods. The older she gets, the more fascinating (and jazzier) she becomes.

9. “Aquele abraço” (“That embrace”) – Gilberto Gil. Also written and recorded in 1969 was this musical salute to Rio de Janeiro from fellow Bahian and former minister of culture, Gilberto Gil. Filled with topical and cultural references from the era, among them the Flamengo Soccer Club and colorful TV personality Chacrinha, Gil penned this number shortly after his release from prison and just before his being exiled to Europe. Accompanying him was tropicalismo co-founder Caetano Veloso, who helped bring Brazil’s music and rhythms to Britain.

Caetano Veloso singing "Sampa"
Caetano Veloso singing “Sampa”

10. “Sampa” – Caetano Veloso. And finally, we have Mr. Veloso himself. Acknowledged at one time as Brazil’s answer to our own Bob Dylan, the intellectually stimulated Caetano passed through a phase where he and various other musical artists channeled concrete poetry and symbolism in their works. In this song, he pays homage to São Paulo, where upon his crossing of Ipiranga Street with São João Avenue, something always happens inside his heart. It’s both a critical commentary as well as a love letter to South America’s largest and most crowded urban center (and the city of my birth).

How’s that for a play list? I had to ask my wife Regina to dig into her memory banks for some help with the above compilation, but it was worth it. As a side bonus, I’d like to give an honorable mention to an old sixties Carnival standard, “Mascara Negra” (“Black Mask”), by that great sambista Zé Keti, sung by powerhouse chanteuse Dalva de Oliveira, one of dozens of female performers who made their mark during the glory days of Música Popular Brasileira.

Ken’s response to the list was definitive: “Not easy is it to narrow it down, is it? I love the broadness of your tastes, including Frank Sinatra and James Taylor. I agree that sometimes the best interpretations are done simply by the most musical folks irrespective of geography.” To which, he added: “I’d love to hear someone like Cameroonian bass player/vocalist Richard Bona do some of these great tracks.”

Wow! So would I. “You’re right about narrowing things down,” I replied. “It’s practically impossible. The list is notable for who was excluded (Chico Buarque, Maria Bethania, Zeca Pagodinho, Marisa Monte, etc.). Where’s [Senegalese singer-songwriter] Youssou N’Dour when you need him? Why, he’s singing ‘In Your Eyes’ with Peter Gabriel, that’s where!”

One gets used to doing these sorts of on-the-spot requests after a while. Last summer, I remember providing the English lyrics to the Andrew Sisters’ version of “I Want My Mamma” (“Mamãe eu quero”), for a one-man show that my friend Claudio Botelho was doing in Rio that week. Claudio sent me an MP3 clip of the song, which I must have listened to a gazillion times before I could get the gist of what that fabulously harmonious trio was singing.  It was well worth the effort, though — and I had a blast listening to it, too.

Ken shared my enthusiasm for this assignment: “I enjoyed listening to lots of musical options to get to the songs which gave me goose bumps. Of course, with these [types of] lists there are always the questions of ‘what… you didn’t include (fill in the blank)’ and ‘how could you have added that one.’ I reckon that’s largely why magazines and papers do lists.”

I reckon so, too, Ken, which is fine by me. The final group of ten, like any selection — and I include the selection of players for those national teams participating in this year’s World Cup — was based primarily on personal choice. It incorporated some of the above suggestions, in most cases executed by other artists, along with several items that, as a rule, were fairly representative of the country’s multiplicity of talents.

Still, it’s nice to be needed — and to use one’s head for reasons other than game-winning goals. Hmm, on second thought… uh, maybe not…

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Brazilian Dream Team — If it’s Musicals You Want, Möeller-Botelho You’ll Get! (Part Two)

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Claudio Botelho, interviewer Marilia Gabriela & Charles Moeller (atelevisao.com)
Claudio Botelho, TV interviewer Marilia Gabriela & Charles Moeller (atelevisao.com)

This is Your Life!

Picking up where we left off, we continue with the biographies of the Brazilian “Kings of Musical Theater.” Today’s subject is the versatile actor, singer, musical director, adapter, composer, translator and lyricist Claudio Botelho, one of the major names of musical theater in Brazil.

Born in the town of Araguari (in the state of Minas Gerais), Claudio Botelho Pacheco was raised in Uberlândia, a principal city. “One of the first words I remember uttering was ‘radio.’ I loved listening to the radio, and I used to go crazy when a band would go down my street. I was a child of the 1970s, in the countryside of Minas Gerais, where the local bands would pass right under my window!

“Music played a large part in my upbringing,” he recalled. “My grandmother Raúla, my mother’s mother, was a violinist who worked in movie theaters when live music was the norm. My grandfather Nenê, my father’s father, used to play the accordion. No doubt their genes had an effect on my life.”

What about the theater? “Theater? I didn’t know such a thing existed. There weren’t many theaters in Uberlândia in the decade of the 70s. The biggest cultural event in the city was the annual show put on by pop star Roberto Carlos, who appeared at a soccer stadium directly across from our house.”

It was during these formative times that Claudio came into contact with the song output of many of the era’s top singing sensations, Chico Buarque chief among them.

“Our household was filled with the mellow sounds of Silvio Caldas and Nelson Gonçalves, who were my family’s favorites. When I first heard Chico, whose voice was nothing extraordinary, I went into shock. But little by little, as I listened closely, again and again, to his lyrics, what I initially thought was outlandish turned out to be a revelation: Chico Buarque quickly became my idol.”

In 1978 — coincidentally, the same year that Chico’s musical play, Ópera do Malandro (“The Street Hustler’s Opera”), made its premiere there — Claudio’s family uprooted itself and moved to Rio de Janeiro.

“My mother was invited to be the coordinator of the Sacré Coeur de Marie School in Rio … We went to live in Copacabana. That’s where the piano first entered my life: my aunt Maria Helena, who already lived there and would become our guardian angel, had a piano in her house. Whenever I used to visit her, I would go directly to her piano. And that’s how I learned to play, by myself.

“In 1980, I changed schools from Sacré Coeur to São Vicente de Paulo, where there was a strong artistic movement and more progressive air; that’s when I experienced a rebirth. It was there that I discovered a wider world than I had known in Uberlândia, that I began to understand and appreciate Rio de Janeiro which opened my eyes to a new life.”

Actor, singer, musical director Claudio Botelho (nabroadway.com)
Actor, singer, musical director Claudio Botelho (nabroadway.com)

That “new life” Claudio hinted at would comprise a career in musical theater. First, he began by studying theater at UNI-RIO, then letters at the State University of Rio (UERJ), graduating as an actor at the Art House of Laranjeiras (Casa das Artes de Laranjeiras – CAL).

After several youthful ventures, including an early adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s play, The Paul Street Boys, he almost gave up his dream of ever being on the stage. In a burst of “arrogance and audacity,” as he politely phrased it, Claudio went straight to the theater where actor, writer and director Ary Fontoura was appearing and, as Lady Luck would have it, convinced Fontoura to hear him out as Claudio presented his own musical version of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

“Ary must have thought it the oddest thing in the world … He told me (with all the patience of Job) that my version of Oliver would be difficult to mount, with more than 30 characters on stage, that he couldn’t possibly do it. However, he was about to put on a play that he was writing with a friend, in which he’d thought about inserting some music. Would I be interested?”

Indeed, he was. Not only did Claudio compose the score to Moça, Nunca Mais (“No More a Woman”), he also rewrote the song lyrics (“I thought the originals were awful”). After several more such endeavors, and many “ups and downs” in the musical-theater market, he started to rub elbows with other well-known theater personalities, to include the late Sergio Britto, Miguel Falabella and Ítalo Rossi.

During rehearsals for Rossi’s 1989 mounting of Tadeusz Rózewicz’s White Wedding (“Casamento Branco”), in the audience Claudio noticed “a young man with golden curls who answered to the name of Charles Möeller. He played Miguel Falabella’s son in a TV soap opera and was attending his friend’s rehearsal that day — and that’s how it all started.”

(To be continued…)

(The above information was compiled from the Möeller-Botelho Website, along with various excerpts from Tania Carvalho’s book, Os Reis dos Musicais, published by Imprensa Oficial, São Paulo, 2009. English translation by Josmar Lopes, with grateful acknowledgement to Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes