The Enraged ‘Genius’ of Maestro John Neschling (and Two Others Besides)

Posted on Updated on

The degree of self-knowledge possessed by these three singers, Mariza, Teresa Salguiero, and Marisa Monte — a rare and precious gift at any age, and indicative of a highly developed maturity well beyond their years — is not quite as startling as it might appear to be at first; for historically, as most fans of the genre know, the rocky road to the top of the music charts has been strewn with all manner of formally-trained participants.

From Johnny Mathis, Pat Benatar, and Freddie Mercury, to Linda Ronstadt, Rick Wakeman, and Yngwie Malmsteen, all had shifted gears early in their professional careers to reap the greater personal and financial freedom pop-music stardom seemed to promise.

One such singer, a German-born rocker named Peter Hofmann, used his powerful pipes and Teutonic good looks to become, in 1979, one of the few pop idols around to have actually reversed the trend and emerge, cocoon-like, as a Wagnerian heroic tenor (!).

But for the opera in Brazil, no such transformation has yet been possible. Indeed, never have the ghosts of the Fat Lady’s operatic past been more eagerly anticipated — or more desperately needed — than they are now, to help the long denigrated art form decide what it too wants for the future, while attempting to find its lost way in today’s pop-oriented music world.

In view of this present situation, it would be wise to consider the cases of three of the most likely modern candidates for inclusion into our select gallery of opera greats:

  •  John Neschling, former conductor and artistic director of the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo, and a past director of the Municipal Theaters of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo;
  •  Eliane Coelho, lyric-dramatic spinto soprano, and a resident artist of the Vienna State Opera; and
  •  Gerald Thomas, controversial stage and theater director, and founder of the Dry Opera Company.

Culturally speaking, they represent a dynamic cross-section of the complexity, diversity, and, if you will, perplexity of the current Brazilian and international opera scene. Their shining examples do more than justice to the next installment of this study — a section given over to why these stellar attractions forsook their home country, and any semblance of a normal work-life, for the greater glory of their art.

To the Manner Born

What exactly is a malandro, and what does it have to do with the erudite world of grand opera? Perhaps the most concise definition of this colorful term comes to us from author Joseph A. Page, in his classic work The Brazilians, who rightly associated the descriptive epithet with the ever-popular sport of soccer:

“The malandro [or ‘street hustler’] lives by his wits, converting his weaknesses into strengths and standing reality on its head, to the utter consternation of his betters… Neither conventions nor laws hold him back because of his expertise in bending them or finding ways around them. He is an individualist and a survivor, yet there is an unmistakable joie de vivre about him.”

At first glance, it might prove difficult to conceive how a carioca-born descendant of the Jewish faith — with a not very Brazilian-sounding appellation, at that — could ever have hoped to establish any kind of rapport or identification with the street philosophy quoted above.

John Neschling (wdk-koeln.de)

Yet the quest for what was artistically right for John Neschling commenced, immodestly enough, not on the cobblestone walkways of his hometown of Rio, but in the Old World ambiance of Western Europe — significantly, in Vienna, where his ancestral origins can be traced.

A grandnephew of composer Arnold Schoenberg, one of the inventors of the twelve-tone scale, and of Arthur Bodanzky, former head of the German wing of the Metropolitan Opera between the World Wars, Neschling’s musical blood-ties extended even to his maternal grandfather Robert Bodanzky, who was a librettist to composer Franz Lehár, the “Operetta King.”

With these fabulous progenitors as backdrops, a life in the lyric theater was all but a foregone conclusion for the musically gifted youngster.

Reflecting back on his multifaceted experiences, the cosmopolitan conductor recounted, in an entertaining 2001 interview for O Estado de São Paulo newspaper, how, in 1936, his father and mother were forced to leave Vienna for Brazil to escape Nazi persecution. “So I was really born in Rio by chance.”

Although he considers himself to be thoroughly Brazilian (“from head to toe”), psychologically Neschling had more trouble accepting his heritage than his immigrant parents did.

“It was much more difficult for me to find my own identity,” he confided, so much so that during the time he himself spent in the waltz capital Neschling underwent years of intensive analysis at the hands of a confirmed Freudian: “Vienna can drive anybody crazy.”

His formal musical education, however, began in Brazil in 1959, at the age of twelve, with the Pró-Arte Music Seminary of Rio de Janeiro. By 1964, with the backing of his parents and teachers, the precocious music-lover decided to further his studies at the Vienna Music Academy, a move that would have fulfilled any starry-eyed newcomer’s fondest wish, but which, in the now 65-year-old maestro’s words, turned out to be his own worst nightmare.

“The house I stayed in had no bathroom. The toilet was in the hallway, where there was no heat or hot water. The shower was in a corner of the kitchen. I froze to death every time I had to bathe in that two-foot-by-two-foot cubicle.”

Nine years and many baths later, an abrupt end to a romantic relationship triggered a firm resolve to return to his native soil, in what he described as an “unconscious effort” at putting down Brazilian roots: “I had already jump-started my career by winning competitions in Florence and London. I even guest-conducted the Vienna Symphony, but after the affair I became severely depressed… and profoundly aware of being alone.”

“I had no more ties to Europe,” he went on, “so I tried to distance myself from Vienna, just as my Jewish conscience started to kick in. By that time, my father had died and my mother lived by herself. That’s when I decided to go back to Brazil. It was during this move that my ‘second life’ began.”

That life revolved around his writing music, first for Brazilian television, then for the movies and the theater, with several of Neschling’s more ambitious projects from that period cropping up in the most unpredictable of places.

Notably, he is credited with the film scores to some of director Hector Babenco’s finest features, including Lúcio Flávio (1977), Pixote (1981), and O Beijo da mulher aranha (Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1985), along with providing the music for the post-Cinema Novo classics Os Condenados (The Condemned, 1974) and Gaijin (1980).  He was also the musical director for Chico Buarque’s carioca version of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s popular The Threepenny Opera, called, coincidentally enough, Ópera do Malandro (1978).

“All this became a part of rediscovering who I was,” Neschling later admitted, “of searching for my own rhythm, my own music, and getting into my own lifestyle, that is, of a womanizer and good-for-nothing.”

It was the malandro side of him talking now, in an almost complete acceptance of the street hustler’s code of ethics: “Sometimes, I would sneak out of a popular-music program to conduct a classical concert. I was living in both worlds at once.”

Conflicts and Resolutions (Sort Of)

Having returned to a nation unprepared to put his classical credentials to better use, Neschling lived solely by his wits, tailoring the rules to fit the occasion.

Still, the obvious contradiction of balancing the art of the sacred with that of the profane would eventually lead to a resolution, of sorts, in the mind of the eclectic conductor — despite constant clashes throughout his career with key individuals, many of who have felt the abrasive sting of his notorious temperament, a holdover from his street days.

In 1983, that same impulsive nature forced Neschling to leave his fledgling brood and travel once more outside of Brazil — this time to Portugal, to take up the musical directorship of Lisbon’s Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, after having already accepted and served, in a similar capacity, at both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo’s Municipal Theaters.

He realized early on, however, that the vastly different playing field that Brazilian politics thrived in took precedence over high art and his own personal ambitions in the running of a major opera house — in particular, two of the Southeast region’s premier PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers’ Party) show palaces.

His tumultuous tenure at the Teatro Municipal of Rio, for example, bore witness to frequent exchanges with the state’s Vice-Governor Darcy Ribeiro, who, in 1984, accused Neschling of “pretentiousness” in his over-zealous juggling of three theaters at once.

Not one to flee from controversy, the intrepid conductor lashed out at Darcy, in turn blaming his ruling party for the “precarious state of culture” in Rio at the time. “There was a moment when I thought I could do it all,” he acknowledged. “Of course, I was acting like a megalomaniac.”

But in a separate piece printed in Jornal do Brasil, Neschling wryly asserted, “We need to dispense with the notion that people must listen to classical music. Let them choose for themselves… but don’t force them to hear Mahler, let alone bring Clementina de Jesus [a popular singer of African-Brazilian songs] to the Teatro Municipal, as Darcy did when I was director. I resigned on the spot.”

In another potentially career-destroying incident, Neschling again played the part of a bête noir, this time openly expressing his opposition in 1990 to the administrator of the Teatro Municipal of São Paulo, Emilio Kalil, and to Secretary of Culture Marilena Chauí, over the course the city’s principal theater was then about to embark upon.

“I had a huge falling out with Marilena,” he explained. “I felt the PT was unprepared to understand the real language of the theater. Unfortunately, she sided with Kalil, who had an artistic vision the exact opposite of mine. I haven’t spoken to her since, but would very much like to.”

Driven off by his own recalcitrance, Neschling settled down to a mostly Continental-based conducting career, successfully serving as director of the St. Gallen Theater in Switzerland (1990-97), the l’Opéra de Bordeaux of France (1996-98), and the prestigious one-hundred-year-old Teatro Massimo Orchestra in Palermo, Sicily (1996-99), in addition to a brief turn as Resident Conductor of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (1992-94).

He appeared also as a guest conductor in numerous European cities, from Zurich and Stuttgart to Verona and Bonn, where he led a 1994 revival of Carlos Gomes’ Il Guarany with Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo. In November of 1996, he made his North American debut in the same work, brought to Washington Opera by Domingo and German opera-loving film director Werner Herzog.

Impressively, his extensive theatrical repertoire has run the gamut of operatic works, from the classical to the late-romantic periods — The Magic Flute (Mozart), Don Pasquale (Donizetti), The Tales of Hoffmann (Offenbach), Macbeth (Verdi), Il Tabarro (Puccini), Elektra (Strauss), and Wozzeck (Berg) — along with a novelty or two by the little-known Viennese composer Alexander von Zemlinsky.

Upon the passing of longtime music director Eleazar de Carvalho, the ubiquitous maestro Neschling was asked, in 1996, by newly-appointed State Culture Secretary Marcos Mendonça, to return to Brazil and face the incredibly daunting task of reshaping the now leaderless Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo (known locally as OSESP) into a world-class ensemble worthy of the Berlin Philharmonic.

The new Sala São Paulo Concert Hall, in the historic Júlio Prestes train station, was built for the express purpose of housing the revamped symphony’s players. It was inaugurated in July 1999 with a gala performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, subtitled the Resurrection, and symbolic of a renewal not only for the city’s once dilapidated Centro Velho (“Old Center”), but also for the conductor’s waning classical-music career in his home country.

Neschling at Sala São Paulo (composicaoeregencia.wordpress.com)

Heedless of the attention this high-profile position was prone to, Neschling has gone on to win support from most corners for his tireless efforts at achieving the orchestra’s aims, while at the same time garnering criticism for his no-nonsense approach, some of which has come from the ranks of his own musical forces.

Charged by disgruntled players in mid-2001 with being an “authoritarian” and a “necessary evil,” the combative conductor banished several of OSESP’s more unruly members from the pit, claiming: “It’s a Brazilian thing. I ask the musicians to come early, tune their instruments, and not talk during rehearsals. If they’re late, they get a written notice. If it happens a second time, they’re dismissed.

“Musicians have a perfect right to voice their concerns, and conductors to keep alive their pet projects. There are some players who are a necessary evil as well, and if they want better conductors, then we’re even: I too would like better players.”*

A Maestro by Any Other Name

Ever the outspoken individualist, and a fiercely competitive survivor of today’s embattled classical music business, Neschling continues to persevere in his present-day struggles against artistic and bureaucratic complacency.

He is the verbally defiant yet physically benign embodiment of the rampaging “bull in a china shop.” Here is what he had to say about the condition of the country’s lyric singers, at the start of the new millennium:

“They’re such poor, miserable wretches who, because there’s no longer any operatic tradition left in Brazil, have so little opportunity to sing there.”

More combatively, O Globo published a January 2005 statement wherein the wily conductor was alleged to have compared the supposed poor quality (and even poorer salary) of the rival Orquestra Sinfônica Petrobras Pró Música, or OPPM, of Rio, with that of his more “elite” band of music makers.

In retaliation, OPPM’s veteran baton-wielder, Isaac Karabtchevsky, countered with his own equally candid comments on the subject: “I think it’s unethical for [him] to have come all this way to a sister-city to speak ill of a kindred orchestra. It’s a position that can only be attained by someone completely out of touch with reality.”

Maestro or malandro, composer or conductor, by any other name Neschling would still be Neschling — and just as contentious. Neither conventions nor laws seem to ever hold him back. An individualist? Yes, certainly. A survivor? By all means!

He exhibits, above all, a peculiar pride (call it a joie de vivre) in his lofty status as classical music’s errant conductor with a cause: still speaking his mind, still sounding off at will, and still paying the ultimate price for his overly caustic assessments. Whether or not one agrees with his personal points of view are another matter.

But however the average person may react to these momentary disruptions to his demeanor, there is no arguing the passion, dedication, and integrity of the artist that resides within; if that artist also happens to step on a few toes in the process… well, then, what else can one say, except: “Once a malandro, always a malandro.” ☼

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes


* At the end of June 2008, Neschling announced his decision not to renew his contract with Osesp. He cited undue pressure from São Paulo State Governor José Serra, as well as from João Sayad, the State Culture Minister. After much dillydallying over his eventual succesor, the orchestra’s chairman, former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, summarily fired the recalcitrant conductor in February 2009. Neschling ended up with a huge US$500,000 payout for his troubles. Not bad for a South American symphony conductor!

Advertisements

‘Relatively’ Speaking, It’s All in the Brazilian Family

Posted on Updated on

Maria Rita (israbox.com)

As regular readers of my pieces know, I have a profound interest in, and deep admiration for, music of all kinds and from every conceivable category, as evidenced by the number of articles I’ve written on the subject over the past few years alone.

This fondly felt appreciation for the performing arts was instilled in me at an early age, and which my Brazilian wife in turn has cultivated to an even greater degree in the years we’ve been together.

I’m glad to report that this passion for all matters musical has now been handed off to my two daughters, who as luck would have it have been blessed with beautiful voices, have sung in the school choir, have learned to play the keyboard, and can boast of innate artistic abilities we hope will serve them well in the years to come.

Having been born myself in a high-rise district of São Paulo, I’ve often wondered if other musically inclined Brazilian families have experienced the same phenomenon of passing this gift of a previous generation’s genetically entwined talents on down to their descendants.

That thought gave rise as Maria Rita, the daughter of celebrated MPB star Elis Regina, mounted the dais to accept the Fifth Annual 2004 Latin Grammy Award for Best New Artist and Best Música Popular Brasileira Album. Her late mother would have been pleased, I’m sure, had she lived to see young Maria Rita’s triumph as she won these well-deserved honors.

But what of the fate of other children of great Brazilian artists? Who are they, and what has become of their fleeting chances at putting a personal stamp on their own individual accomplishments?

Nowadays, the endless possibilities for “fame,” in general, have greatly multiplied, given the proliferation of the Worldwide Web, digital photography, desktop publishing, instant messaging, chat-lines, iPods, iPhones, PDAs, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, you name it.

These and other so-called modern conveniences, not to mention the latest rounds of so-called “talent” shows and reality-TV programming, have conspired to make it a lot easier for simple folk, like us, to “make it” as well in the entertainment business.

But being the possessor of a well-known moniker, however, or a relative with an estimable lineage, just might get that window of opportunity lifted a bit higher for you than it normally would for your average Joe — at least, that’s the public perception of things.

In any case, it’s talent that counts — or so they say — and it’s worth paying a return visit to some of the major and minor ones out there, born to fabulously wealthy (in ability) musical families, so as to prove this simple hypothesis correct.

Brotherly Love

Beginning with the tropicalismo movement of the late 1960s, there’s no better sampling of sedate professional rivalry among Brazilian relations than the love and affection shown by pop singer Caetano Emanuel Viana Teles Veloso (born August 7, 1942) for his younger sister, Maria Bethânia Viana Teles Veloso (née June 18, 1946), both of who come from the Northeastern town of Santo Amaro da Purificação, in the state of Bahia.

They have shared the musical spotlight on numerous occasions, and, to their mutual benefit, have kept up a reasonably amicable working relationship on and off the world stage for nearly 40 years. If anyone knows of an incident where this has not regularly been the case, please let me know.

Carmen & Aurora Miranda (allclassics.blogspot.com)

Factually, there is some historical precedence for this behavior in the effervescent nightclub routines of the great Carmen Miranda and her younger sister Aurora, who at one time appeared together at the Cassino da Urca in Rio de Janeiro during the early 1930s.

While Carmen later hit it big in Hollywood wartime musicals, little Aurora Miranda managed to sustain her own, not-insignificant solo career; some condescending old-timers even insisted she had a lovelier singing voice than her more vivacious blood relative, but no matter.

For those interested in making the comparison, Aurora sings and sambas her way, along with Walt Disney characters Donald Duck and Zé Carioca, in the colorful cartoon epic The Three Caballeros from 1945. Its stunning visual design and zany, surreal presentation predates the Beatles’ own animated foray, Yellow Submarine (1968), by a full generation. She also appeared in a handful of forties crime dramas, most memorably in Phantom Lady (1944), with Franchot Tone and Ella Raines, and directed by Robert Siodmak. It’s considered a minor classic.

From Tinsel Town we journey further eastward, to the core of the Big Apple — New York City, to be precise — the rather incongruous birthplace of Brazilian pop stylist Bebel Gilberto (Isabel Gilberto de Oliveira).

Bebel has carved out an impressive niche as a sophisticated re-interpreter and original composer of bossa nova, a style of music mastered long ago by her curmudgeon of a paterfamilias, vocalist-guitarist João Gilberto. One of the few living legends still active in the field today, Joãozinho is an artist who has spent considerable time in the States as a former resident of the borough of Manhattan.

Bebel’s entertainer mother, carioca artist Miúcha (real name: Heloísa Maria), is the Bahian musician’s second wife and the sister of another famous celebrity, lyricist, author, and singer-composer Francisco “Chico” Buarque de Hollanda — so much for impeccable pop credentials!

A bold proponent of the current trends in Brazilian popular music, Bebel is considered by fans to be an influential part of the contemporary “new wave” of performers to have made a market splash here, as her marvelous compact disc debut, Tanto Tempo from 2000, pleasantly proved.

For this inaugural effort she was nominated for a Latin Grammy in 2001, and — talk about déjà vu — in the same artistic categories that Maria Rita later competed in. Her follow-up album, the self-titled Bebel Gilberto (Six Degrees, 2004), continued to push the musical envelope in newer and ever more dynamic directions, with a bit of “electronica” thrown in for good measure.

Its success in the jazz and pop arenas has aided immeasurably in increasing the exposure and vitality of modern bossa nova at a time of decreasing public awareness and sagging record sales.

Another in a long line of inspired native-sons of Salvador da Bahia is the incomparable Dorival Caymmi, whose prolific song output has served as the melodic equivalent to the literary works of Bahian novelist Jorge Amado.

Dorival has sired several exceptionally gifted offspring of his own that include singer-guitarist Dori Caymmi, songstress Nana Caymmi, and flutist Danilo Caymmi. While most jazz buffs may only be familiar with the first of these three performers, each has contributed his or her own fair share of talent toward keeping their father’s surname alive in the minds of music lovers on both hemispheres.

In fact, Dori (Dorival Tostes Caymmi) has often been featured as a guest artist, instrumentalist, arranger, composer, performer, and producer on an incredible variety of studio releases over the past three decades alone.

Apropos of his versatility, Caymmi enjoys a formidable reputation among smooth jazz colleagues David Benoit, Larry Coryell, Don and Dave Grusin, and many others, as a highly competent and in-demand session player as well as a premier vocalist.

Dori Caymmi (irom.wordpress.com)

His distinctively deep and mellow baritone voice, so reminiscent of his father’s unique timbre, can be heard on the soundtrack to the 1990 Sydney Pollack-Robert Redford film Havana, issued by GRP Records. Dori also shows up, in the flesh, on CTI’s Larry Coryell: Live from Bahia (1991) outing, singing his own delectable mid-seventies composition, “Gabriela’s Song.”

Older sister Nana (Dinahir Tostes Caymmi) is no slouch, either, in the song department, as demonstrated by her lyrical partnership with Chico Buarque on the sensitively intoned “Até pensei,” written by Chico, to be found on her EMI album Nana Caymmi — Resposta ao Tempo (1998).

The ballad is a highlight, too, of Mr. Buarque’s compilation of cuts (from 2002) entitled Duetos, on the RCA/BMG label, and produced by longtime associate Vinicius França. Included on the disc with Chico is the Jobim/Moraes work, “Sem você” (“Without You”), taken from the songbook Vinicius de Moraes (1993), with the ever-popular Rio-born composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim, at the piano.

Papai Sabe Tudo (“Father Knows Best”)

As one of Brazil’s most widely respected and best-loved bossa nova practitioners, Antonio Carlos Brasileiro de Almeida “Tom” Jobim was himself the proud parent of similarly endowed children — namely his son, Paulo, and daughter Elizabeth Jobim, an established artisan and painter in her own right.

All of them, including second wife Ana Beatriz Lontra, were prominently displayed, along with Danilo Caymmi and his spouse Simone, on the CD/Video program Rio Revisited, in the JazzVisions series of concerts put out by Verve-PolyGram in 1989.

Filmed at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, California, in 1987, this remarkable live event captured the still expressive Jobim — many pounds heavier than what we remember from his youthful, carefree visage — basking in the familial atmosphere, with these two tuneful clans providing the harmonious backdrop to his most enticing creations.

Presciently, Tom’s broad musical influence would reach far beyond his homegrown Brazilian brood. Indeed, three of the more “junior” members of this elite gathering — guitarist Paulo Jobim; cellist Jaques Morelenbaum, whose claim to fame was as Caetano Veloso’s musical director, in addition to having been a frequent collaborator with Jobim Sr. on several of his recording projects; and his vocalist wife, Paula Morelenbaum — went on to form the Quarteto Jobim-Morelenbaum after the composer’s untimely passing.

It consisted as well of Paulo’s own son and Jobim’s musical heir apparent, pianist and singer Daniel Cannetti Jobim. One could say that this latter-day, jazz-chamber ensemble had taken up the late and much-lamented carioca’s performance mantle where he had literally left off.

Their year 2000 recording debut, Quarteto Jobim-Morelenbaum (Velas Records), and an ensuing American and European tour, were both a popular and critical success. The album’s exceedingly erudite liner comments by Veloso, however, were not very idiomatically translated from the original Portuguese and struck the sole sour note.

Moreno +2 (blesok.com.mk)

And speaking of Caetano, his son, Moreno, has also turned up of late in a musically eclectic group format of his own — called Moreno Veloso +2 — on the Ryko-Palm release Music Typewriter from 2001. The other key players associated with the concept were multi-talented instrumentalists Domenico Lancelloti and Alexandre Kassin, with Moreno himself on guitar, percussion, and cello.

In his youth, the now thirty-something Veloso the Younger had toured frequently with his dad, and served as musical accompanist to such illustrious pop names as Gilberto Gil and Carlinhos Brown.

With this kind of background, then, it should come as no surprise that the most offbeat item to issue forth from his Typewriter is straight out of left field and reads like some esoteric producer’s worst nightmare: Moreno launches into a duet, at one point, with guest artist Daniel Jobim, on the Churchill-Morley tune, “I’m Wishing,” from the 1937 Disney animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the lines sung alternately in English and Portuguese.

Exactly what kind of statement Moreno wanted to make with this rather oddball number escapes me. It could, among other things, represent a personal thumbing of his proboscis at the poor state of Brazilian and American pop music per se, or whatever else his fertile mind might have conjured up at the moment. But who’s to say?

Either way, it was a decisive move on his part to have taken this more idiosyncratic song route, much as his own father had done decades before him.

And we’re not done yet, as the ubiquitous Daniel crops up once again on jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli’s newest recorded entry, Bossa Nova on Telarc (2004), the latest stateside contribution to an already crowded platform.

In a salute to João Gilberto, the genre’s trailblazing pioneer and acknowledged path breaker, the American-born Pizzarelli (himself the son of famed guitar-picker Bucky Pizzarelli) has his Brazilian counterpart, Daniel Jobim, perform the background vocals and Portuguese lyrics to his grandfather’s most popular tune, the classic “The Girl from Ipanema” — now that’s entertainment nepotism!

Another welcome guest on several of the album’s tracks is none other than pianist, composer, and producer Cesar Camargo Mariano, the talented former-husband of singer Elis Regina, which brings this genealogical survey full circle.*

All of these diverse musical examples seem to share a common enough thread: they’re not just empty coincidences, but illustrate instead the vast interconnectedness of the Brazilian artistic experience.

Taken as a whole, they proclaim, to one and all, the sheer joy gregarious Brazilians get out of participating in life’s continuous songfest — with its firm and steady grounding in the sounds and rhythms of that most captivating of Latin American countries, the always musically-exhilarating Brazil. ☼

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

—————————————————-

* Other famously talented family members include the sons of composer-guitarist Baden Powell (guitarist Marcelo and pianist Philippe); the children of sixties pop singer Jair Rodrigues (Jair Oliveira and Luciana Melo); the performing daughters of sambista Martinho da Vila (Mart’nália Mendonça Ferreira) and tropicalismo co-founder/ex-Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil (singer Preta Gil); the sire of country-music sensation Xororó (the popular sister-brother act of Sandy Leah Lima and Durval de Lima Júnior, known collectively as Sandy & Júnior); and the guitar-playing virtuosos, the Assad family, headed by brothers Sérgio and Odair, and younger sister Badi Assad.

Brazil’s Musical Polyglots, Part Two: The American ‘B-Side’

Posted on Updated on

Sinatra & Jobim (dixiedining.wordpress.com)

To expand upon my previous comments about Brazil’s musical polyglots, I decided to write a sequel devoted exclusively to the American side of this entertaining yet shamefully under-represented subject.

My original piece was prompted by a critique from Scottish-born journalist John Fitzpatrick of Caetano Veloso’s 2004 CD release A Foreign Sound, wherein the veteran pop star from Bahia, one of the co-founders in the late 1960s of the musically eclectic movement known as tropicalismo, performed cover versions of everything from vintage Irving Berlin (“Blue Skies”) to more recent Stevie Wonder fare (“If It’s Magic”).

Garnering mixed reviews for his efforts, Mr. Veloso can rest assured that he had succeeded in producing, at the very least, a fairly respectable stab at American pop standards — filtered, naturally, through his own Northeastern-Brazilian ethos and sensibility. It certainly wasn’t his first crack at this artistically enticing musical genre, nor will it be his last.

Not surprisingly, Caetano was not the only Brazilian performer to have contributed an English-language recording of what amounted to a recycled batch of “oldies but goldies.” Among the multitude of tunes covered over the years by acknowledged native entertainers were those perpetrated by fellow colleagues Milton Nascimento, Ed Motta, Marisa Monte, Roberto Carlos, Ivan Lins, Sandy & Júnior, Gal Costa, and a slew of others — some good, some bad, many only so-so, and leaving much to be desired in the pronunciation department.

Not that these singers’ poor English diction was, whether by design or intent, the deciding factor in their relative lack of success with these hits. Essentially, and in view of the global-wide pervasiveness of MTV, VH1, satellite radio, hip-hop, rap, world-beat, and other so-called cross-cultural influences, it was all a matter of style and mood.

On the other hand, there are an equally representative number of Brazilian-inspired themes tackled by an imposing international assemblage of performers, among them Sarah Vaughan, George Duke, Al Jarreau, Sting, Susannah McCorkle, Roseanna Vitro, Sadao Watanabe, Pat Metheny, Lee Ritenour, and Hendrik Meurkens, that might also fit this same bill.

Looking back at recent music history, however, we note that as the market for bossa nova abounded in ever so plentiful a manner in the U.S. during the early to mid-sixties — and not only among the jazz and pop-music set, either — by the end of the decade, the efficacy of the entire convoluted American obsession with the craze had come in for a well-merited drubbing.

Elvis Bossa Nova Baby (45cat.com)

Even Elvis Presley, the self-styled “King of Rock & Roll,” relented at one point in his hip-swaying, rockabilly career and released, in 1963, a 45-rpm quickie of a bogus Brazilian novelty number, “Bossa Nova Baby,” composed by the award-winning songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were earlier credited, among other successful tunes, with Elvis’ 1957 hit “Jailhouse Rock.”

On the disc’s B-side was the cabaret-nightclub staple, “Witchcraft” (Leigh-Coleman), which only goes to show the extremes that some record companies were willing to go to in order to cater to mass audience appeal.

The Carioca Meets the Chairman

To the rescue came what has since been described as the single most underrated, and most outstanding, contribution to the form in the entire popular music catalog.

For better or worse, the award for the top-of-the-list, A-Number-One, best Brazilian covers album ever would be shared (in this writer’s opinion) by two back-to-back releases on the Reprise label, both memorializing the pan-cosmic pairing of the Chairman of the Board, American pop-music idol Frank Sinatra, with Brazilian composer Tom Jobim.

The albums were astutely differentiated by the titles Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim, from 1967, and Sinatra & Company, recorded in 1969, but not released until two years later.

These late-in-the-day nods to the core bossa repertoire employed two different arrangers for the ageless Jobim tunes: the Prussian-born Claus Ogerman, for Francis Albert & Antonio Carlos; and the Brazilian Eumir Deodato, for Sinatra & Co. They featured Ole Blue Eyes smartly swinging along, in relaxed cocktail-lounge fashion, to some of the Rio master’s most memorable melodies.

The original LPs proved especially absorbing but were pretty much over before they started, barely clocking in at a miserly 30 minutes. But what a brilliant half hour of music making it was! Particularly revelatory was the duo’s interpretation of “The Girl from Ipanema,” in which Frank’s trademark conversational-style phrasing is effortlessly supported by Tom’s own impeccably conveyed word-painting, in an infuriatingly abbreviated vocal blend more reminiscent of a test run for Sinatra’s much later Duets work on Capitol (1993) than an estimable ensemble display.

The other Jobim tracks, spaced out evenly between the two recordings, included “Dindi,” “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (“Corcovado”), “Meditation,” “How Insensitive,” “Drinking Water” (“Água de beber”), “Someone to Light Up My Life” (“Se todos fossem iguais a você”), “Triste,” “Don’t Ever Go Away” (“Por causa de você”), “This Happy Madness” (“Estrada branca”), “Wave,” and “One Note Samba.”

Sinatra even managed some peculiarly authentic-sounding Brazilian Portuguese on “Drinking Water,” although a momentary croak had somehow crept into that once unassailable throat of his, evidence no doubt of too many late nights spent with the infamous Rat Pack; Jobim provided the sensitive guitar accompaniment (he was particularly miffed, the legend goes, that he was not asked to play his usual instrument, the piano).*

On Sinatra & Company, the carioca’s enduring classics collided with more mundane material from the period, in particular the contemporary “Close to You,” written by Hal David-Burt Bacharach and popularized at the time by Karen Carpenter; “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “My Sweet Lady,” both the work of the bespectacled John Denver; and “Bein’ Green” (Joe Raposo), originally introduced by Sesame Street’s favorite Muppet character, Kermit the Frog. It was not, I venture to say, the sort of thing Sinatra fans were looking for from the great Francis Albert back then.

Frank Sinatra & Tom Jobim (sinatra.com)

In retrospect, though, his restrained, almost laid-back approach to Jobim’s music was, in many ways, a triumph of art and attitude (reverential and respectful) over the prevailing pop styles (rock and psychedelia) of the time.

Pay close attention to the way Frank lingers over the phrase, “Oh, what was I to do, what can one do, when a love affair is over,” from the song “How Insensitive” on Francis Albert & Antonio Carlos; how he invests it with just the right measure of longing and regret — what in Portuguese is commonly known as saudade — as he shares his bittersweet thoughts of a lost love and life lived on the edge with the gentle, soothing tones of the composer, ruminating as well in his native tongue, “Ah, por quê você foi falso assim, assim tão desalmado?” (“Why were you so false to me and so heartless, too?”).

The linguistic nuances both artists draw from these few lines suffuse the song with psychological underpinnings. In addition, the sheer level of mutual understanding present, indicated by the simultaneous outpouring of their romantic plight — voiced, of course, in each artist’s respective lyrical language — gives the number an added layer of intellectual sophistication and weight evidently undetected until now.

With stylistic fluency and complete mastery of the musical idiom, Frank Sinatra accomplished more than a generation ago what Caetano Veloso intrinsically tried to do today, but had ultimately failed to put over.

Even so, Sinatra and Veloso’s bucking of the official pop trends could easily have had dire career consequences even for such established vocal talents as themselves. The end result, however, will be that one’s committed efforts are oftentimes misunderstood, so that they can either be lovingly praised well after the fact, as in Frank’s case, or critically panned, as in Caetano’s. It’s all in how and when one’s work is perceived, and by who — sometimes by reviewers, but always by your (hopefully) forgiving record-purchasing peers.

What a pity, then, that the Hoboken-born singer/actor had to wait so long for his recorded salute to Brazil’s lone Chopin-esque songwriter, the supremely gifted Antonio Carlos Jobim. It was, by most accounts, that “once-in-a-lifetime” linking of like, transcontinental mind-sets.

All in all, Sinatra’s break-through bossa nova projects hold the deserved distinction of being the only two albums the Chairman ever devoted to a single composer’s body of work.

Along Came Ella…

After this long-departed high-water mark, whatever covers album anyone else subsequently tried to disseminate was, to these ears, disappointingly (and quite justifiably) met with less than halfhearted enthusiasm. Many of these sincere but otherwise fatuous attempts at recapturing the essence of the Brazilian musical soul have all suffered ungraciously by comparison.

Ella Fitzgerald (taringamusica.com)

One of the more curious examples of the genre was the titillatingly titled, double-long play album Ella Abraça Jobim: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Antonio Carlos Jobim Song Book, compiled between the years 1980 and 1981, and originally put out by Pablo Records.

A natural, one would think, for this sort of extended overview, what with her acclaimed series launched several decades earlier for producer Norman Granz (on the Verve label) of the songbooks of such popular American composers as Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, and Johnny Mercer, the sublime Ella was already long in the tooth, and long past her prime, when she stepped into the Group IV Studios in Hollywood, California, for her turn at the bashful Brazilian’s best-known oeuvre.

Unfortunately for the diva, even the presence of such experienced sidemen as Joe Pass on electric guitar, Oscar Castro-Neves on acoustic guitar, Clark Terry on trumpet, Zoot Sims on sax, and Paulinho da Costa on percussion, could not turn back the proverbial time-clock on her obviously declining vocal powers. Sadly enough, it was insufficient to reclaim Ella’s glory years before the mikes.

Number after number seamlessly whiz by, whilst Ella wobbles and scats her heart away on “Dreamer” (“Vivo sonhando”), “Triste,” “He’s a Carioca” (“Ela é carioca”), “One Note Samba,” and more; but they only make one pine for the intelligence and grace she once brought to such pop standards as George and Ira Gershwin’s “Oh, Lady Be Good,” Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “There’s a Small Hotel,” and Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love.”

While not totally wasteful of her well-documented resources, it was still a poorly rendered testimonial to the glorious American singer’s previous recorded output, and far from her best work, when contrasted with her stellar achievements for Verve.

The reissued and digitally re-mastered 1991 compact disc version, now on one CD, lacked two of the original double-album’s numbers, “Don’t Ever Go Away” and “Song of the Jet” (“Samba do avião”), due to maximum playing-time limits. It was deserving of a failing grade for that miscalculation alone.

… As Dionne Loses Her Way

Another case in point, and a valiant but unfulfilling affair to boot, came about in 1994 from noted pop stylist Dionne Warwick.

As one of her generation’s most illustrious musical performers, with scores of top ten hits scattered all over the entertainment charts throughout the entire length of the sixties, the divinely inspired Dionne practically defined the terms “adult contemporary” and “middle-of-the-road” — words we too often associate with New Age, soft rock, smooth jazz, and the like — long before they ever came into regular usage.

She was fondly remembered, too, for having had what could genuinely be described as several quasi-Brazilian-based successes in the elegant and classy work of tunesmiths Hal David and Burt Bacharach (“Walk On By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” and “Do You Know the Way to San José?”).

Dionne Warwick Aquarela do Brasil (qpratools.com)

But the years had not been kind to her, either, so much so that by the time she got around to laying down an actual track of bossa nova and samba-tinged songs an uncharacteristic throatiness had developed, and became the main distraction of her Aquarela do Brasil on Arista Records.

The opening medley of Jobim hits, which included umpteenth versions of “How Insensitive,” “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars,” “Wave,” and “The Waters of March,” began promisingly enough, with the preceding “Retrato em preto e branco” (“Portrait in Black and White”) setting the right romantic mood.

But again, the recently acquired dryness to the Warwick sound, as well as a pronounced and disturbing rasp did little to compensate for the almost total absence of her former lushness and warmth.

Dionne’s own composition, “Virou areia” (“Back to Sand”), with Portuguese lyrics by songwriters Lenine and Braulia Tavares, and the Dori Caymmi number “Flower of Bahia,” are only two of the fistful of standouts, as is the smooth jazz favorite, “Captives of the Heart,” newly composed for her by ex-mentor and musical guiding light, Mr. Burt Bacharach.

Regrettably, no amount of digital wizardry could possibly have overcome, or even disguise, the glaring realization that, by the middle of the 1990s, Dionne Warwick had lost most of her lovely singing voice.

This is not to say that advanced age in the entertainment industry can be a major deterrent in the planning of an all-Brazilian covers album — or any other record, for that matter. Certainly, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, and many other important older artists have proven to be the notable exceptions to that rule.

However, given the fact that plain old insight and artistry can sometimes help to patch over growing vocal deficiencies, it must not be overlooked that subtlety and timing, as demonstrated by Mr. Sinatra, can be just as important as a rich and powerful vocal presentation, if not more so.

In any event, less is decidedly more, especially where it concerns Música Popular Brasileira. It’s a valuable and much-needed lesson that many of today’s manufactured “pop stars” — and, by implication, their money-grubbing managers and producers — could most assuredly profit from. ☼

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes


* There is an especially amusing story, told in Jobim’s sister Helena’s biography Antonio Carlos Jobim: Um Homem Iluminado (“An Enlightened Man”) about a late afternoon telephone call received at the composer’s home. The unknown caller was told to try again at Jobim’s favorite hangout, the Veloso Bar, where the attending barkeeper passed the call along to a clueless Tom. Upon hanging up, he informed his fellow club members that the “gringo” on the line was none other than Frank Sinatra, wanting to hook up with him in Los Angeles for a future album date. No one believed him, of course, no matter how hard Jobim tried to convince his friends otherwise. He did get the last laugh, though, when Tom came back from sunny California with ample photographs from the now-famous Sinatra/Jobim recording sessions.

Brazil’s Musical Polyglots, Part One: ‘Pardon Me, But What Was That You Were Singing?’

Posted on Updated on

Caetano Veloso A Foreign Sound (tomamusica.com)

I read a review a few years back by a friend of mine, Scottish journalist John Fitzpatrick. It was of Caetano Veloso’s latest album of English-language covers called, appropriately enough, A Foreign Sound (Nonesuch, 2004).

I was sufficiently motivated by that review to put together a piece about other recorded efforts by some of Brazil’s, and the entertainment world’s, past musical polyglots.

It’s interesting to note that John’s lambasting of Caetano’s solo effort dwelt on his poor diction, which was regretfully right on the money. All right, I’ll say it out front: Veloso tries a bit too hard to bridge the obvious cultural divide between current Brazilian and American pop-music tastes. The album clearly looks backward in time, not forward (more on this aspect later).

Even the Bob Dylan cover, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” makes one long for those halcyon days when the young and intellectually stimulated Mr. Veloso had once been boldly touted as Bahia’s answer to the elliptical Mr. Dylan.

Also mentioned in the same breath with Caetano were such popular native-born performers as Ed Motta, Marisa Monte, and Roberto Carlos, whose late-sixties sojourn as the winning contestant in an Italian popular song contest steered him in a whole other direction. Roberto went on to conquer the rest of Latin America, before finally being dethroned by the fluttery tones of romantic Spanish vocalist Julio Iglesias.

Although he’s definitely got the retro African American, bluesman-style down pat, Ed Motta is still no linguist, despite an exceptionally impressive musical lineage worthy of the talented nephew of Brazilian soul-funk artist Tim Maia.

Nor, for that matter, is Marisa Monte, who, in 1996, performed her own, rather odd musical experiment (with a simultaneous video tie-in, photographed in artsy-fartsy black and white) on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s wonderfully poetic ditty, “Águas de março” (“The Waters of March”), from the Red Hot & Rio album for PolyGram.

Scottish-American musician and producer David Byrne, formerly of the group Talking Heads, is no stranger to Brazilian influences (see his 1989 album, Rei Momo, on Warner Records). He joined forces with the youthful Marisa for this unusual vocal romp. Their version of the frequently covered classic pop tune turned out to be an unintended yet striking homage to the 1974 recording, made in Los Angeles for the Verve label, starring beloved MPB icon Elis Regina singing alongside the composer, Tom Jobim.

At least, the musically astute Mr. Byrne was wise enough not to try the song in Portuguese, preferring instead to alternate his English verses (written by Jobim himself, by the way) with the original lyrics, sung beautifully, of course, by Ms. Monte.

In all, it was a brave showing, and considered by many as stylistically acceptable, if not authentically accurate, bossa nova.

Nascimento’s Sin

Milton Nascimento Crooner amazon.com)

My own vote for the most absurd-sounding covers album ever committed to compact disc — and by an established Brazilian artist almost as well-thought of in musical circles as Caetano — has got to go to Crooner by the estimable Milton Nascimento.

Recorded in 1998 and released the following year by Warner Music Brazil Ltd., this spurious effort predates Caetano’s own work by a good half a decade.

In it are egregiously sung examples of such pop-style favorites as the latino “Aquellos Ojos Verdes” by Nilo Menendez and Adolfo Utrera (in Portuguese), “Certas coisas” by Lulu Santos and Nelson Motta, Jorge Ben’s early hit “Mas que nada,” made famous by Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ‘66, and other Brazilian compositions.

But the real clunkers are the American numbers, delivered by the mineiro singer in absolutely execrable English, particularly the fifties torch ballad, “Only You” (Buck Ram-Ande Rand), and the Michael Jackson bad-boy anthem, “Beat It” — you really haven’t lived until you’ve heard the usually soft-spoken Mr. Nascimento, the owner of one of world music’s most ethereal voices, spit out the words, “You wanna be tough, better do what you can so beat it.”

What ultimately sinks this offbeat production, though, is the schmaltzy and anachronistic string accompaniment arranged by the disc’s musical director, noted composer-guitarist Wagner Tiso, an old band-mate and ex-musical partner of Milton’s on many of his earlier seventies successes. It’s all of a piece, and a most curious one at that.

Despite the lushness of the stereo ambience, listeners and critics alike greeted the whole mawkish affair with noticeable shrugs and frigid reviews.

In its defense, the work came at a particularly patchy period for Milton, who had just gotten over a bout of serious illness. He had also finished taping a highly publicized (and emaciated) guest appearance on the popular weekend comedy show, Sai de Baixo (“Get Out From Under It”), on the Globo TV network. The album was to have been his musical “comeback” of sorts — so be it.

Whose-ever bright idea it was to pose the avant-garde Milton Nascimento in a tuxedo with black tie, and dish out those timeless tunes in by-the-numbers fashion à la Perry Como, definitely needed to be sacked on the spot. It must have been the same clueless individual who gave the green light to Rod Stewart’s misdirected Cole Porter and pop standards tribute, another idea that looked better on paper than in the actual execution — then again, it probably looked just as bad on paper, too (“So in Love,” indeed).

This is surprising because, like Caetano and others, Milton has often rubbed shoulders with talented American musicians for the better part of 30 years, as witness his encounters with former Weather Report member Wayne Shorter, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, pop singer Paul Simon, and guitarist Pat Metheny.

Portuguese Pitfalls

Even stranger than this was his duet, “Only a Dream in Rio,” written and performed by American singer-songwriter James Taylor, with Portuguese lyrics by Fernando Brant, to be found on Milton’s 1994 album Angelus and later as a solo on Taylor’s 1998 DVD/Video release, James Taylor: Live at the Beacon Theatre.

James Taylor (article.wn.com)

Who could forget the soulful sound of the man who gave us such stadium standards as “Fire and Rain,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Handy Man,” and “How Sweet It Is,” driving full-speed-ahead into the song’s spirited chorus, “O lugar de onde eu vim brota no coração” (“The place where I came from springs from the heart”), his mildly nasal twang earnestly struggling with the unfathomable pitfalls of Brazilian Portuguese.

But, as in the case of Milton Nascimento and Caetano Veloso before him, James Taylor is an old hand at musical eclecticism: no matter how laughable (or naïve) his attempts at enunciating the Portuguese text may have seemed, his complete and total sincerity in putting this piece across more than made up for any lapses in his linguistic abilities.

Milton and Taylor’s haunting vocals miraculously coalesced, overall, while the song and Nascimento’s album as a whole owed as much of its success to Gregorian chant as to the percussive effects of world-beat.

On the same, unforgettable Angelus CD, however, is a remarkable cover of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “Hello Goodbye,” sung this time in fairly presentable English and amazingly done in Milton’s inimitable, three-octave high-tenor range. A classic!

Denver and Domingo

Speaking of which, it’s no secret that, for the most part — and with good reason — opera singers have generally been considered to be the one true musical polyglots of the entertainment industry, often singing in a wide variety of languages in any number of foreign works.

Indeed, any lyric soprano worth her salt would be wise to make it a point to familiarize herself with the songs of Hernani Braga (“A Casinha Pequenina,” or “The Little House,” for example), Francisco Mignone, Camargo Guarnieri, and Heitor Villa-Lobos, placing added emphasis on the latter’s lovely Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5.

One of the few examples around of poetic Portuguese entering the standard classical repertoire, this thoroughly captivating air has been done to death by a whole host of supposed female “superstars,” many of who had no business tackling its linguistic and vocal rigors without at least a working knowledge of how to pronounce the difficult Romance language.

The most fluent modern interpreter of them all, for that matter, is tenor Plácido Domingo. The Spanish-born opera star, conductor, theater administrator, and all-around overachiever, has been performing professionally going on 60 years. He has literally mastered, at last count, no less than seven different languages, including such stylistic anomalies as Liturgical Latin, German, Russian, and Modern Hebrew. Now that’s what I call versatility!

Placido Domingo & John Denver (last.fm)

But even Plácido was not immune to the occasional side-trips outside his chosen field, as his 1980s partnership with the folksy John Denver, resulting in the lilting pop ballad, “Perhaps Love” (Denver), resolutely showed. Domingo’s charming Iberian accent lent a wistful touch of nostalgia to the proceedings, as did his softy-modulated tone.

The song was no classic, but it surely wasn’t the career killer it had been predicted to become by nearly every other music critic. For that, we must turn to The Three Tenors — or, more precisely, to two of them: divo Domingo and fellow Spaniard, José Carreras, bawling at the top of their lungs the unintelligible lyrics (were they singing in English, Italian, or Portuguese?) to the Ary Barroso anthem, “Aquarela do Brasil,” at the 1998 World Cup Soccer tournament in Paris.

Astrud’s Contribution

Which brings me back to bossa nova: if ever any singer lacked the goods to make it in the pop music field, that person was undoubtedly a young singer named Astrud Gilberto.

In hindsight, though, most Brazilians owe a profound debt of gratitude to her ingenuous language skills: she built up a solid career-footing on the flimsy foundations of one fortuitous recording session — a session that eventually gave rise to a whole generation of pop idols.

As luck would have it, Astrud, a housewife and non-professional at the time – although a fairly practiced vocalist – was asked by Verve Records (hotly contested, one might add, by none other than composer Jobim) to perform the English verses of the songs, “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (“Corcovado),” in her patently awful Brazilian accent.

With her then-husband João Gilberto on acoustic guitar, starting things off in Portuguese in his typical rambling style; the legendary Stan Getz, as winsome as ever, on tenor saxophone; and Antonio Carlos Jobim in the background, gently stroking the keys of his piano, the album instantly caught the imagination of a hit-starved worldwide audience — and catapulted every one of its principal participants, including Brazilian drummer Milton Banana, to the front ranks of jazz-pop artists way back in 1964.

It would do well for us friends of Música Popular Brasileira to remember, then, that if it had not been for Astrud Gilberto’s allegedly “bad” American English, many of the songs and composers we now take for granted would never have been recognized at all, let alone been recorded, by such towering greats as Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Nat “King” Cole, Nina Simone, and Ella Fitzgerald, to name a random few.

Therefore, Mr. Veloso, my own sincerest and humblest apologies are in order for your adventurous Foreign Sound. In view of the foregoing, it’s really not so “foreign-sounding” after all. ☼

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

A ‘Brazilian’ at Heart – For Jazz Artist Herbie Mann, Brazil Was Home Too

Posted on Updated on

Herbie Mann (amazon.com)

The first decade of the new millennium saw the passing of many great jazz, blues, pop, classical, and operatic artists. But the most disturbing for me personally was the death on June 30, 2003, at age 73, of jazz giant Herbie Mann.

Herbert Jay Solomon was born on April 16, 1930, in the Northeast section of the United States (Brooklyn, New York), and died in the Southwestern portion of it (Pecos, New Mexico) — but his real home was most probably the planet Earth.

A superb flutist, Mann was one of the pioneers in bringing that silvery instrument out of the stuffiness of the concert pit and into the smoky spotlight of countless jazz joints, nightclubs, and cafés around the world.

He was originally a clarinetist who later took up the tenor saxophone, before finally pressing his lips to the elongated eloquence of the flute; it was a literal love at first drawn breath. His playing ultimately achieved a remarkable airiness and bounce that would greatly contribute to the making of the flute into an essential focus of the modern jazz ensemble.

Mann’s extensive career took him on a restless, globetrotting quest for newer and ever more exotic musical herbs. A true ethnologist, Herbie was forever honing his beloved craft — but always in the service of his flavorful creations and their multi-ethnic origins.

In 1961, he paid his first visit to Brazil, which led to a lifelong association with that country’s unique harmonies and infectious toe-tapping rhythms. Mann became one of the earliest American jazz performers to discover and record the novelty known as bossa nova, still in its infancy. The album he made at the time was entitled Do The Bossa Nova With Herbie Mann, and featured unknown guitarist Baden Powell, the young Sérgio Mendes, and a novice composer named Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Mann continued to experiment with a multiplicity of musical forms and styles, incorporating bebop, pop, rock, jazz, fusion, reggae, disco, R&B, Latin, African, Oriental, and Middle Eastern influences into his performance grooves. In his later years, he even looked to his own Eastern European cultural roots for inspiration, but inevitably returned to his first loves, Brazil and bop, for his musical grounding.

That Magic Flute

My main remembrance of this side of Herbie Mann was his 1990 album Caminho de Casa (“The Road Home”) for Chesky Records. On it, Mann played works by a veritable buffet of Brazilian songwriters: pianist and arranger Nelson Ayres; vocalist and guitarist Dori Caymmi; singer-composer Ivan Lins; songwriters Roberto and Erasmo Carlos; ex-Novo Baiano, Moraes Moreira; perennial jazz favorite Milton Nascimento; and Mann’s own composition, “Yesterday’s Kisses,” tossed into the salada for added spice.

Caminho de Casa (cheskyrecords.com)

His band-mates for the recording sessions included several artists that comprised his Jasil Brazz combo at the time, among them Paul Socolow on bass, Mark Soskin and Eduardo (Edward) Simon on piano, Ricky Sebastian on drums, Romero Lubambo on acoustic guitar, and the wonderful Café on percussion.

For me, the album’s success is due in large part to the air of delicacy and lightness that is sustained throughout the program. There isn’t a heavy-handed moment on it, and even Socolow’s growling electric bass lines are tamed in the general low-key approach to things. The spare use of percussion and other distracting effects are kept to a minimum, credit for which must be given to the individual arrangements as well as to Café’s solid studio experience.

Mann gets things moving right from the opening track with the jaunty title tune by Nelson Ayres. His flitting flute work along with Romero’s plucky guitar licks constantly challenge and support one another in a fabulous game of one-up-man-ship. Eduardo, on piano, picks up the thread at key moments by doubling with the flute on the main theme. It’s a perfect blend of two disparate elements, with the melody soaring upwards into the studio stratosphere and staying with the listener long after the song’s end.

The next two pieces, at a decidedly slower tempo, are no less emotionally charged. The electricity generated by that first number continues on into Dori Caymmi’s lovely “Gabriela’s Song,” at once delicate and mild, lyrical and light, a summertime breeze that stays bewitchingly in the flute’s earthy lower register, which stresses both the instrument’s sonorous and sensuous sides.

“Aparecida,” Ivan Lins and Maurício Tapajós’ song about a woman who disappears during Brazil’s military-dictatorship years, has its own moment in the sun. It’s a beautifully languid piece, employing a lilting bossa nova beat, a soft sinuous statement offset by Mark’s tumbling piano cascades that make the keys of that instrument sound more like a slow and steady waterfall. You imagine yourself on a leisurely stroll along the Copacabana coastline, with Café’s delicately tapped congas echoing each of your sand-filled footsteps and Ricky’s drum kit and hi-hat providing a perfect counterpoint to this delightful tropical sojourn.

This is followed by an equally charming piece by Roberto and Erasmo Carlos, “Seu corpo” (“Your Body”), which originally came with some evocatively sensual lyrics and is even more laid-back than the previous number. Mann’s flute predominates here by virtue of its hypnotic vibrancy.

The temperature is raised a few degrees with the rhythmically propelled samba-and-choro workings of “Pão e poesia” (“Bread and Poetry”) by Moraes Moreira and Fausto Nilo. The flute takes off on its own wave of celebratory sound, and gives the listener the impression of being an active participant in a Rio Carnival parade, while giving equal time to the piano as it voices its lines in a flowing and expansive variation on the main idea.

Mann’s gorgeous work, “Yesterday’s Kisses”, brings us back to bossa territory, where the prevailing mood is that of a warm and humid summer night; of wiping away the perspiration from your lover’s sweaty brow. The work is enlivened throughout by the bass’s mewling love call, answered in turn by both piano and flute, purring playfully in languorous obeisance to it.

Milton Nascimento and José Renato’s classic “Anima” is given an unusual treatment by Mann and Venezuelan pianist Simon, both of who pull the main melody around in deliberate stop-and-go fashion — very different from the version, recorded in 1991, by clarinetist Richard Stoltzman on his equally memorable Brasil album for RCA Victor, which also happened to feature percussionist Café.

At almost a full nine minutes, “Anima” is the longest number on the album and, perforce, takes its time to make its poetic presence felt. The original song’s lyrics about the soul reaching out in search for something beyond this temporal existence emphatically reflects Mann’s own long-range career goals; it can stand as his personal life statement.

The final two tracks, “Choro das águas” (“Cry of the Waters”) by Lins and his frequent collaborator Victor Martins, and “Doa a quem doer” (“No Matter Who It Hurts”), also by Lins, wrap up the proceedings quite nicely.

Guitar and piano start the forward propulsion in “Choro,” as the flute enters in ever-so-hesitating a fashion, then pulls back with several long-limned phrases. One can fully appreciate the marvelous atmosphere of the recording venue, the famous RCA Studio A in New York City — you can even hear Mann dexterously fingering his favored instrument, captured for all time by the minimalist microphone technique.

Romero’s rock-steady guitar strumming returns as playful as ever; but this time, it drags itself into momentary fits and starts, hemming and hawing as it goes, while the flute slowly emerges, pleading for obvious forgiveness for some past fault. The guitar eventually defers to it for the long-held final word, which becomes a literal sigh of breathless anticipation of some future assignation.

The closing number, “Doa,” adds one last samba note to the celebration, as we’re taken back to the Carnival parade and its colorful cacophony of street sounds, a fitting formal conclusion to our Brazilian excursion.

I listened to this splendid album in tribute to the artist, Herbie Mann, who was without a doubt the “main man” of world music.

He has, indeed, found the proverbial road back to his heavenly home, but here on terra firma — and especially on this recording — Mann was truly at ease with Brazilian music, Brazilian artists, and his “adopted” Brazilian homeland, one he often returned to in his wayward wanderings. And Caminho de Casa, or “The Road Home,” is no better testament to his musical memory – a fitting tribute to a marvelously talented performer. ☼

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

Jazz Can’t Resist Brazil (And the Feeling is Mutual)

Posted on Updated on

New York City Skyline
New York City Skyline

 

It was back in New York City — in the year 1991, as I remembered it — at the office of the stock exchange where I once worked, that I found myself chatting with Mike Boyd, an African-American coworker of mine. We were discussing, among other topics, the relative popularity of Brazilian music with American lovers of jazz, and the fact of his having been a big fan of both genres.

“But Joe,” as Mike pointed out, “Brazilian artists and musicians have been playing on pop and jazz recordings for over 20 years.”

He offered as evidence three percussionists whose respective careers, in some cases, went as far back as the late sixties and early seventies: Airto Moreira, for Chick Corea’s band Return to Forever; Paulinho da Costa, in the Quincy Jones-produced Michael Jackson album Thriller; and Naná Vasconcelos, with Pat Metheny’s ECM works.

“You’re kidding,” I scoffed, unconvinced by this ridiculous assertion. But after our conversation had ended and the day wore on, my curiosity started to get the better of me.

I rushed home that night to thoroughly ransack my living room in a mad attempt to read the credits and album covers on every one of my CDs, cassettes, and long-playing records — the sole purpose of which was to disprove my music-loving friend’s offhanded remark.

To my amazement, I discovered that Mike was right. Gracing the liner notes of my precious music collection, and buried deep within the print type of that microscopic two-and-a-half-point font, were the unmistakable, tongue-tripping Brazilian names of Gilson Peranzzetta, Nico Assumpção, Waltinho Anastácio, Duduka da Fonseca, Claudio Roditi, Cyro Baptista, Leila Pinheiro, Paulo Braga, and so on.

I needed no further convincing.

To state the obvious, no jazz or popular recording artist from the past, or of the present, has been able to completely resist the incredibly sultry sounds of Brazilian samba and her twin sister, bossa nova.

For decades, the recordings and live appearances of bandleaders, soloists, and performers — as varied and talented as singers Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Eydie Gormé, and Dionne Warwick; instrumentalists Charlie Byrd, Stan Getz, Vince Guaraldi, Joe Henderson, Cliff Korman, Pat Metheny, and Emily Remler; pop vocalists Paul Simon, David Byrne, Al Jarreau, Suzanne Vega, Sting, Eric Clapton, and Sade; down to the slightly less than mainstream outpourings of smooth-jazz artists David Benoit, Bob James, Don and Dave Grusin, Larry Coryell, George Duke, Lee Ritenour, Michael Franks, Basia, Spyro Gyra, The Rippingtons, The Manhattan Transfer, and countless others — have featured Brazilian sidemen and session players, or been influenced by Brazil’s most sublime and precious commodity: her music.

Looking back on my own initial shock at this revelation, I should not have been so surprised. After all, my native-born wife Regina had introduced me to the gorgeous melodies of Brazilian jazz, samba, bossa nova, and MPB (Música Popular Brasileira, or “Brazilian Popular Music”) way back in the mid-1980s when we first got married.

She had opened my eyes to this bright new world of vivacious sounds, sophisticated harmonies, and loping rhythms, sung and played by a dazzling array of original and, in many cases, completely self-taught vocalists and musicians from our mother country, Brazil.

She had also been a regular listener to a now defunct New York-based radio station with the rather intriguing call letters of CD 101.9 (“Cool FM”), which played endless back-to-back smooth and light-jazz favorites, many of them flaunting the syncopated rhythms of bossa nova-tinged tunes.

How was it that American jazz and pop, and especially the soothing sonorities of cool jazz (which had originated on the West Coast in the 1950s), came to influence, and be so influenced by, the music of a country once considered a musical and cultural backwater?

In an online article entitled “Brazil’s Theme Song,” author Steven Byrd related the various influences of American popular music of the 1940s on the future bossa-nova sounds that were to emanate from Rio in the late fifties and early sixties. Byrd charted the gestation period of one of world music’s most famous and best-loved classic pop songs, “A Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl from Ipanema”), with music by Tom Jobim and lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes, as a major example of this influence.

He also stressed the distinctive guitar-playing style of Bahian singer João Gilberto and the intriguing vocals of his then-wife, Astrud, as popularizing elements. To these must be added her plaintive, almost childlike performance of the lyrics, as well as the wonderfully honeyed tones of tenor saxophonist Stan Getz.

Debt Repaid

From these primeval beginnings, Brazilian artists and musicians came to lasting preeminence, and have long since returned the favor and repaid Brazil’s debt to American pop music, by permanently changing the landscape of jazz for future generations to thrill to.

The presence of so many Brazilian musicians in recording studios all over the United States, and around the world, which my friend Mike had once so casually alluded to, may have greatly accounted for the presence as well of the familiar sounds of this singularly infectious style of music found in American jazz; and which has been happily incorporated into the vocabulary of multi-ethnic performing artists from places as far afield as Africa, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, and Japan.

This influence can be partially attributed to immigration, which first took place during and after the Second World War, with the early appearances of such iconic figures as singer-actress Carmen Miranda, guitarist Laurindo Almeida, Metropolitan Opera star Bidu Sayão, crooner Dick Farney, and poet and diplomat Vinicius de Moraes. This would become known as the “first wave” of Brazilian artists to hit the American musical and cultural shores.

The next mass migration occurred soon after the worldwide bossa nova craze took off in the early 1960s, made fervent by the championing of the cause by such luminaries as Tom Jobim and Luiz Bonfá, who were later joined by guitarists Oscar Castro-Neves and Bola Sete, singers Astrud and João Gilberto, and bandleader Sérgio Mendes. This “second wave” also came about just as Brazil had won successive victories in the World Cup Soccer finals of 1958 and 1962, and which coincided with my own family’s moorings into the port of New York around September of 1959.

Maria Bethania, Caetano, Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil
Maria Bethania, Caetano, Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil

With the further flowering of MPB and the tropicalismo movement of the late sixties and early seventies, artists as diverse as Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethânia, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and Tom Zé (all from the Northeastern state of Bahia), along with Chico Buarque and Milton Nascimento, had evolved a highly eclectic and controversial brand of music that, while popular with the public, proved consciously critical of the right-wing military government’s repressive practices.

Along with other leftist-leaning intellectuals, poets, directors, writers, and journalists, many of these fine artists were either jailed or banished in a solemn “third wave,” with Caetano and Gil prominent among the offenders that included movie-maker Carlos Diegues and Brazil’s future president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in their number.

 Mass Defection and Disaffection

The fourth, and possibly largest, flight of immigrants from Brazil began as the country took its first unsteady steps toward democracy in the late eighties to early nineties. It later threatened to totter altogether as the scandal surrounding President Fernando Collor de Mello helped spiral the already sputtering economy further downward in the early nineties.

At the time, the mass defection of so many Brazilians, by both legal and illegal means, to the environs of such tempting locales as New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, and Toronto, greatly increased the size of the overseas community of artists and musicians, and for which American jazz has been eternally grateful.

It certainly helped to benefit the dining and restaurant business: the popular lower-Manhattan hotspot S.O.B. (Sounds of Brazil), for example, had affiliated itself with jazz chanteuse and pianist Tânia Maria, another Brazilian émigré. It catered exclusively to the now chic and highbrow tastes, both culinary and musical, for all things Brazilian among New York’s dinner-hopping crowd.

In the major cities, however, these makeshift expatriates quickly became a rather motley assortment of street personages more akin to Old World gypsies than to New World pioneers, constantly multiplying and dividing in number and size — vanishing and reappearing with equal dexterity — and traveling freely to-and-from the U.S. and Brazil, seemingly at will and without proper documentation.

I personally ran into many of them while living in New York. Most were invariably from the state of Minas Gerais, the birthplace of composer-guitarist Toninho Horta, and of Milton Nascimento, another popular vocal export and a highly influential artist among knowledgeable jazz buffs (see Wayne Shorter’s 1975 album Native Dancer).

But all these migratory patterns and sociopolitical ramblings are neither satisfactory nor fully convincing explanations for this musical diversity and embrace of Brazilian talent. For another, more mundane exploration of this phenomenon, we must look to one Edson Aparecido da Silva, known professionally by the name “Café.”

Cafe da Silva
Cafe da Silva

Café, a percussionist from the Vila Maria section of São Paulo, has appeared on many American jazz recordings featuring such artists as Herbie Mann, James Last, Sadao Watanabe, Gato Barbieri, Chuck Mangione, Ernie Watts, Paquito D’Rivera, and Stevie Wonder. He first began his musical association with Chesky Records — primarily an audiophile specialty label out of the Big Apple — as a new arrival atop the “fourth wave” of immigrants back in 1985.

Record producer and part owner of the label, David Chesky, is a multi-talented bandleader, jazz pianist, and classical composer in his own right, as well as a confirmed Brazilianist. He enlisted the aid of some lesser known but experienced Brazilian performers (Ana Caram, Romero Lubambo, Badi Assad) to counter-balance the engagement of older, more established pros (Luiz Bonfá, Leny Andrade) in his all-digital music productions.

Chesky’s own album of original compositions, Club de Sol (1989), is a particular favorite of mine, and is highlighted by his superb piano playing and by Café’s distinctive vocal and percussive effects on several of the tracks.

The Love Connection

Both my wife and I had the immense pleasure of meeting Café at the Brasilia Restaurant, in midtown Manhattan, in the spring of 1988. It was basically a friendly get-together of teacher and students from my Portuguese language class at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village.

Upon greeting him, I was immediately struck by Café’s pleasant demeanor — typical of many Brazilians — and easy smile, which completely lit up his coffee-colored countenance, hence his descriptive sobriquet. He wasn’t tall by American standards, but was as solidly built as the Gávea rock in Rio, and as sturdy as a Brastemp refrigerator (a native-Brazilian brand).

He was visiting a fellow student at the time, a doctor by profession, who lived on Roosevelt Island, an exclusive and nearly inaccessible enclave wedged between the boroughs of Manhattan and Queens.

It was apparent from our brief conversation that Café had abundant personal charm, which he used to overcome his rudimentary grasp of English. “Americans are so… antipathetic,” he explained, as he plopped increasingly generous portions of feijoada (a black bean stew made with dried meat and pork) onto a spacious dinner plate. He was trying to describe the general aloofness of most New Yorkers by using the Portuguese word antipático in lieu of “unfriendly,” the more common English term for it.

“Not so,” I argued, as the discussion really started to heat up.

While we were talking, his doctor friend — a blue-eyed, strawberry blonde — sat there and beamed at him, fascinated by his bungled yet inoffensive transgressions against the English language. The obviously smitten American professional appeared to be totally captivated by this happy-go-lucky, wire-haired Afro-Brazilian musician seated to her left.

It was then that it finally struck me, the reason why so many jazz practitioners enjoyed playing and performing Brazil’s marvelous music: they simply happened to love Brazilians. But I needed to put this theory to the test.

I thought back to some captivating artistic and romantic pairings of the recent past: American trumpeter Randy Brecker with jazz keyboardist Eliane Elias; actor-director Robert Redford with sexy screen siren Sônia Braga; movie director Bruno Barreto and his actress wife Amy Irving; jazz-funk guitarist Lee Ritenour with his Brazilian spouse Carmen Santos; and other amorous associations too numerous to mention, including my own.

I remembered, too, that back in his salad days as an entertainer, Sérgio Mendes and his Brasil ’66 ensemble recorded and performed a Burt Bacharach/Hal David song, “The Look of Love”, which proved to be one of the group’s most requested numbers. Maestro Mendes was far more successful in his musical career in the States with his then-revolutionary strategy of lacing a Brazilian beat or two into the seams of American pop standards — a musical union of sorts — than he would ever have been had he stayed in his native land.

I guess my theory could be true after all, I reasoned. This love affair that American jazz and pop musicians have had, continue to have, and — dare I predict it — will continue to have for Brazilian harmonies, rhythms, and musical textures, despite the difficulties they may encounter with their respective languages from time to time, clearly reflects the real, palpable, and overpowering affection they must feel for the unaffected and ingenuous qualities of the Brazilian people themselves.

It would seem to be the all-important missing ingredient I had been searching for all along, if not the all-powerful magnetic allure — a literal marriage of convenience, and of mutual benefit.

One could probably justify anything to oneself, I correctly fathomed, if given enough time and thought. But yet I could not help to recall that in his massive historical novel War and Peace, Russian author Leo Tolstoy once wrote that to love life is to love God.

Christ the Redeemer (downloadwallpapers.com)

Since many Brazilians truly believe the old adage that Deus é brasileiro (“God is Brazilian”), it should naturally follow, then, that to love life is to love Brazilians — and, by extension, their music, language, and culture.

If only most things in life and art were that simple, or logical. ☼

Copyright (c) 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

A Fever Called ‘Corinthians’ — The Always Beautiful Game

Posted on Updated on

There’s No Need to Fear, Timão is Here!

Cinco Esquinas
Cinco Esquinas

“Don’t worry,” my father assured the rowdy bunch of soccer aficionados that had gathered outside the Cinco Esquinas (Five Corners) Bar & Grill, near the central part of the city known as Parí, “Corinthians will do it.”

“What? You can’t be serious?” exclaimed Azevedinho, one of dad’s old cronies. “Annibal, tell me you’re joking?”

“That stupid team hasn’t won a damned thing in years,” roared another, “and you’re saying they’ll be champions? Quick, someone, call an ambulance!”

“I’m telling you, Corinthians will win,” dad repeated, with even more gusto than before. “I’ll cut off my neck if they don’t go all the way,” he declared, as he defiantly left the bar, followed by the raucous crowd of doubting Thomases.

Dad was on his way to Morumbi Stadium, an imposing Coliseum-like structure situated in the choicest section of São Paulo, accompanied by my mother, her younger sister, and his brother-in-law. They were to be the guests of my father’s oldest nephew, Fredemari, who was shortly to become the chief administrator of Sport Club Corinthians Paulista, and were to celebrate his timely promotion in fairly big fashion: by going to the concluding match in the Paulista Championship between the underdog black-and-white-striped Timão (the name Corinthians followers gave their club) and the Ponte Preta squad.

Arriving early at the stadium, they sat down behind a glass-enclosed partition in a specially reserved corporate booth, cushioned from the delicate blows of paper cups, flying debris, and stray confetti strewn about everywhere by the thousands of delirious soccer fans assembled for this exciting occasion. They were flanked as well by the governor of the State of São Paulo along with other notables, politicians, and dignitaries.

The date was October 1977. Corinthians had last won the elusive Paulista title back in 1955, the year after my birth. Since then, the club had weathered 22 dismal seasons of ever-worsening drought conditions without ever having won a single campeonato. It was more than time for the team to make up the lost years and break this nearly quarter-century curse inflicted upon them — and dad did not want to miss out.

“Thanks be to God,” my father pronounced upon his return to New York, after having taken the month off to visit family and friends, “Corinthians did it.” At this point, he furtively crossed himself, which I correctly took for reverence.

“They did?” I quickly noted, giving my parents a big welcome home hug. “Did what?”

“They won the Paulista Championship,” he croaked, in barely audible tones.

“What happened to your voice?” I inquired. Mom then intervened, and explained that my father had yelled himself hoarse at the stadium after Corinthians had finally regained their championship club crown.

“Oh, I see,” was my absent-minded reply. Undisturbed by my lack of interest in this latest news flash, dad asked how I had spent the last four weeks that they had been away.

“Well, I went out last Sunday to Giants Stadium with Uncle Daniel,” I answered, “and we both saw Pelé’s final match with the Cosmos and his old team, Santos.”

“How was the game?” dad whispered, his words taking on the sound quality of a badly tuned radio broadcast.

“Boring. Low scoring, no thrills, no nothing. And the weather was awful, too. Cold, damp, and drizzly.”

“What did you expect from soccer in October?” he snorted. “Ridiculous!”

“Yeah, but there were seventy-seven thousand people in the stands. And Pelé gave a moving farewell speech. How was it at the stadium in São Paulo?” I asked innocently.

As if in blind obedience to some invisible, preconceived cue, dad pulled out his copy of the most recent edition of the Brazilian magazine Manchete. “See for yourself,” he asserted proudly.

There, on its front and back covers, was a splendid panoramic display of Morumbi Stadium, filled to the rafters with one hundred and fifty thousand screaming fans. Huge plumes of gray smoke issued from every conceivable vantage point, along with hundreds of fire cracker explosions, dozens of colorful balloons, miles of waving banners, and bushels of ticker-tape streamers, all vividly capturing the festive Carnival atmosphere provoked by Timão’s amazing victory performance — with my parents smack-dab in the middle of it all.

“Wow,” I mused to myself, wishing like crazy that I had been there with them, “it must’ve been quite a show.”

“You wouldn’t have believed it,” said dad, all misty-eyed and venerable for once, “but your mother and I witnessed it. Imagine nothing for 20 years and then, all of a sudden, a miracle. And I told everyone that because I was there, cheering for Corinthians, that they simply had to win, but no one believed me.”

My father’s voice was almost gone now, as he went to the kitchen to get a glass of water to soothe his aching throat.

“I bet they believe you now, huh dad?” I smiled knowingly, while gawking at the magazine photograph.

Pois é,” was his strained final say on the matter. “Yes, indeed.”

Cradle-to-Grave Fanaticism

My father had been what was once most commonly referred to as a corinthiano roxo or, for lack of a better translation, a “purple-faced Corinthians fanatic.” He truly ascribed to the lyrics of that old stadium standard (author unknown):

Doutor, eu não me engano,
Meu coração é corinthiano.

Doctor, I’m not mistaken,
But my heart beats Corinthian.

Indeed, all serious Timão addicts were widely renowned for their collectively shared suffering, usually experienced at home or in the stadium, and in clamorous accompaniment to the troubles of their luckless team.

Parque São Jorge (mundialesportesblogspot.com)

Dad was no different. He had first felt his own unrequited pangs for the club during the daunting Depression years of the 1930s, as a less than academically inspired youngster brought up in the cement surroundings of São Paulo.

He frequented the club’s Parque São Jorge sports complex, located in the burgeoning middle-class neighborhood of Tatuapé, where it occupies enormously expansive property space to this day. He loved to hang around the main lounge, attempting to play snooker with the local pool sharks and trying to participate in the conversations of the more senior club members, all of whom had scrupulously analyzed the swings of the pendulum in the team’s ever-vacillating fortunes with the solemn exactitude of astrophysics.

With the aid of friends, but more specifically through the connections of his Corinthians-employed nephew Frede, dad became a lifetime member of the club, as had most of his relatives, with the notable exception of brother-in-law Arlindo, who was of Italian descent and, therefore, more of an “in the blood” Palmeiras rooter.

I suppose there were stray sheep to be found in just about every family’s flock, including ours, but our Uncle Arlindo was an especially lost cause. He would go into paroxysms of distress every time a foul was declared against his favorite green-shirted players. He would then proceed to berate the offenders, as well as rain down a hailstorm of abuse onto the head of the profligate referee responsible for the call, until finally being ejected bodily from the playing field. And those were his good days!

Uncle Arlindo reshaped team fanaticism into a pure art form.

All Glory and Honor Is Yours, Corinthians

Much as he had done with opera, film, and classical music, my father was the major soccer mover in my life, and in the life of our Brazilian immigrant family. His all-out love for the sport, especially where it concerned Corinthians (and every four years, the Brazilian national team), was what most clearly permeated our home environment during those precious times when the constant demands of work and school were assiduously set aside for the simple pleasures of soccer.

Dad’s unsinkable enthusiasm for the game can be traced back to his early life experiences. The many outrageous soccer stories he was wont to recall from time to time, in addition to other similarly embellished tales, were told with a marked infectiousness and lively brio that are as difficult to recapture in writing as they were in the retelling. Nevertheless, they formed the crux of my own personal opinions about this highly entertaining subject almost from the moment I could speak.

My father used to tell me about the various friendships he had formed over the years, especially the one with Oswaldo Nunes, who I met in 1979. He was another of those overzealous soccer fans one hears so much about — and rightly so, for Oswaldo’s famous uncle, the great Manoel “Neco” Nunes, was one of the original Corinthians Club idols from the early decades of the twentieth century.

Manoel “Neco” Nunes (omanicomio.com.br)

Considered by knowledgeable Brazilian soccer buffs as a legendary sports figure along the lines of a Babe Ruth or a Knute Rochne, Neco Nunes had been a pioneer player in his day, and was a worthy participant, too, in the national team’s legacy. His life-sized bronze bust, still to be seen outside the lobby of the main administration building (where I had first gazed upon it during my initial visits there), is a testament to Neco’s superb soccer credentials and historic contributions to the club and to the sport.

Another of my father’s friends, Nelsinho, who I also made the personal acquaintance of, was an ex-member of the 1955 Corinthians championship team. He worked as an athletic trainer at the club, and remained a recognized mainstay there for years once his playing days were over.

In fact, it was largely due to the generosity of people like my cousin Fredemari and the other club officials that kept many former players out of the streets and on the company payroll when nothing else was available to them. One sensed the profound gratitude these proud men felt for Corinthians, and the total allegiance they swore to the club, due to this extra degree of compassion shown them by the powers above. And not many people knew about this magnanimity, save for a select few.

“But for the grace of God and Corinthians go I,” dad once told me, as another of his impoverished pals passed by to greet him.

The Long and Winding Soccer Road

While my father had lived in São Paulo, he was able to associate freely with others of the original club champions who were still in permanent residence there, including the ever-popular Baltazar, another best buddy from the Golden Age of fifties futebol. But all that changed once we moved to the soccer-less streets of 1960s New York.

Because of our fundamentally Brazilian sports background, however, it can be stated, with complete conviction, that my family and I were fortunate eyewitnesses to the incredible growth and spread of soccer in the United States. On the flip side, I can also testify to the agonizingly slow and painful deterioration of the same sport in my native land at the hands of incompetent coaches, unscrupulous club owners, and overly avaricious players.

My own childhood memories of the game were filled with scenes of long, hot summers on weed-covered playing fields, learning to play soccer with my dad and younger brother, always competing for attention and space with the other popular outdoor activities of sandlot baseball, schoolyard stick ball, and cement-court basketball.

I can recall one Sunday afternoon in the mid-sixties, when dad took us to see our first exhibition match at Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island, where we thrilled to the once-in-a-lifetime pairing of Santos’ star scorer, O Rei (“The King”) Pelé, with Europe’s two-time Athlete of the Year, Eusébio, the Lion of Angola, who despite his ferocious-sounding epithet was actually born in Mozambique.

I can remember viewing the 1970 World Cup matches from Mexico on the giant closed-circuit screens at Madison Square Garden, and dancing in the aisles there with my family and our compatriots (as a huge Corinthians banner was unfurled) when the imperturbable Brazilian squad trounced Italy’s Forza Azzurri (“The Blue Force”) by a score of 4-1, to retire the coveted Jules Rimet trophy with an historic third world title.

I closely followed the late-seventies phase of Pelé’s American career with the New York Cosmos, and even went to many of their home games at the Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey, to watch world-class players of the caliber of ex-Lazio striker Giorgio Chinaglia, the German “Kaiser” Franz Beckenbauer, the Portuguese Seninho, the Brazilian Carlos Alberto, the Dutchman Johan Neeskens, and the Croatian Vladislav Bogicevic, attempt to transform the fledgling North American Soccer League into one of international standing and competitiveness.

Prof. Mazzei & Pelé (people.co.uk)

I looked back fondly on a nervy conversation my father had in the early eighties with Professor Júlio Mazzei, the late soccer coach, teacher, and mentor to Pelé, as dad asked him over lunch why more Brazilians weren’t hired by the Cosmos as starters; to which, the ever-loquacious Professor Mazzei responded that the owners of the team had demanded more players from the Continent because of the higher proportion of European immigrants living in the U.S. In other words, it was strictly a marketing ploy, but he felt sympathy for my father’s frustration in wanting to see more of his fellow countrymen play here, and, quite naturally, commiserated with him over it.

I empathized with the league’s later monetary misfortunes, as it inevitably folded in 1984 due to serious lack of funding and interest, as well as television ratings. Many (but not all) of the overpaid international stars who had come here were on their last soccer legs anyway, and went on to finish up their field careers as spent war veterans with very little left to thrill testy North American audiences.

Moreover, I managed to observe the slow and steady buildup of the sport throughout the remainder of the eighties and nineties, up to its present participative level.

And during the time of my residency in São Paulo, I withstood the steady onslaught of constantly televised games; the endlessly confusing soccer tournaments; the incomprehensible club playing schedules; the scandalous Wanderley Luxemburgo corruption investigations and the shocking revelations they ultimately disclosed of money-laundering and feather-bedding activities; and, worst of all, the pathetic and self-serving press conference given by coach Mário Zagallo, after Brazil’s embarrassing loss to the French at the 1998 World Cup finals in Paris.

Surely, I surmised, with a deep sense of saudade (“longing”) for the glory days of soccer, the final reckoning for futebol was close at hand. But then, in Japan, in the year 2002, the Brazilians won their fifth world championship, and all previous soccer transgressions were dutifully absolved.

Keeping Faith with Football

Earnest soccer fans will argue, of course, that the driving force behind their adored teams was fueled not by greed but by passion; that the outstanding mental and physical attributes of the greatest players were complemented not by the bulging balances of their bank accounts but by the overpowering love, affection, and respect they showed for their sport.

My father would spin in his grave if he ever caught whiff of the stench of scandal that had wrapped itself around his favorite pastime. On the other hand, he might also have taught us to continue to believe in the spirit of the team; that despite the recent setbacks, the hard times, and the terrible moments of loss, there would soon come the grand celebrations, the good times, and the glorious triumphs to be, if we would only keep faith with the game.
And dad was the living embodiment of that principle: his own faith was of the type that would never move mountains, but instead willed his teams to win.

As young children, and later as adolescents, my brother and I looked to our parents for help and guidance with all aspects of our lives, believing them to possess outsized hearts to go with their heads and hands; always telling us what to do and when to do it, much as anyone’s parents might. We also viewed them as godlike creatures — indestructible, infallible, and all-wise in the ways of the world.

So how could we, as rational human beings, possibly ever have believed that dad could really bring his favorite clubs back from the brink of sudden death, to deliver them to the promised winner’s stand, and turn team despair into total victory?

It seemed inconceivable for us to accept that our father had made some sort of devious pact with a minor soccer demon; rather, it appeared more likely he might have made all of this come to pass through the sheer force of his personality — not to mention several well-placed slaps to the knee.

But regardless of whether it was logical or not, we eventually became true believers in spite of our doubts. We needed to believe, for dad had convinced us to believe — because he was himself convinced of his gift, firmly and categorically.

As if in imitation of some ancient Eucharistic rite, he gave full credence to the notion that his own manifest presence in our living room, or at a soccer stadium, could somehow turn the proverbial tide against an implacable foe and confer credibility upon Corinthians, earn esteem for Brazil, or nurture respect in the Cosmos — and, by dint of it all, acquire safe passage into football heaven, for whosoever was the lucky recipient of his brash beneficence. Isn’t that what all purple-faced fanatics aspire to?

Mind you, it didn’t always work out that way; but, like grace itself, it was there for the asking. And, if perchance, the teams really did need dad’s earthly intercession… so be it.

It’s been almost 20 years since my father passed away, yet I can’t help thinking that he would have gotten a tremendous kick out of Brazil’s latter-day World Cup wins, which, sadly, he never got to see. He would also have been among the first to join in and sing, right along with us, the popular anthem for Timão, “Salve o Corinthians.”

Corinthians celebrating 100 years of their club
Corinthians celebrating 100 years of their club

Perhaps the song could, in the end, serve some higher purpose: as a universal rallying cry for soccer clubs everywhere. The lyrics curiously read like a long-lost biblical passage — only insert the name of “Corinthians” for any team or organization, substitute the country of “Brazil” for any nation or continent, and one would still have a rousing enough theme-song that could reverberate in a thousand soccer stadiums, with the true sentiments that die-hard fans have always felt for their beloved sport.

Dad would have wanted it so:

Salve o Corinthians,
O campeão dos campeões,
Eternamente dentro dos nossos corações,
Salve o Corinthians,
De tradições e glórias mil,
Tu és orgulho dos desportistas do Brasil.

(Lyrics by Benedito Lauro D’Ávila)

Hail to you, Corinthians,
The champion of champions,
You are and forever shall be in our hearts,
Hail to you, Corinthians,
With a thousand glories and traditions behind you,
You are the pride of every sports-lover in Brazil.

(Translation by the Author)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes