‘Once I Loved’ – In Memory and Celebration of Vinicius de Moraes on His 100th Birthday

Born nearly a century ago, the man known as “The Little Poet” lived la vie de Bohème and wrote the play Orfeu da Conceição, while bringing the sumptuous sounds of bossa nova to the musical forefront

Poet and playwright Vinicius de Moraes (bhfazcultura.pbh.gov.br)

Poet and playwright Vinicius de Moraes (bhfazcultura.pbh.gov.br)

Saturday, October 19, 2013 marked the centenary of the birth of one of Brazil’s most recognizable and controversial personalities. A talented man of letters, as well as a poet, a composer, musician, performer, and lyricist, Marcus Vinitius [sic] Cruz de Moraes — more widely known as Vinicius de Moraes — was born in Gávea, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. He earned a law degree in his native city without having to give up his all-consuming interests in music, philosophy, dance, theater, and cinema (in particular, the silent cinema), along with his love for English literature and language, which he studied at Oxford University (1938-41).

Upon his return to Brazil, Vinicius began writing film criticism for a Rio daily, in addition to answering letters in an “advice to the lovelorn” column. In line with the above, he also worked as a civil servant, had close encounters with maverick filmmaker Orson Welles and social critic Waldo Frank (1942), both of whom made extended visits to Brazil and were instrumental in increasing his awareness of social causes; published several books of verse; spent quality time in Hollywood (1946-50); and participated in film festivals throughout Europe — all while serving in the Brazilian Foreign Ministry.

Vinicius had a weakness for the opposite sex, and was rumored to have married a total of nine times. While in Hollywood, he, along with his first wife Beatriz (nicknamed Tati) and their young daughter Susana, practically resided in Carmen Miranda’s Beverly Hills household. They were close friends until Carmen’s unforeseen demise.

Tom Jobim & Vinicius (imovelvip.com.br)

Tom Jobim & Vinicius (imovelvip.com.br)


In 1954, on the advice of another poet, Vinicius entered a draft of his play in verse, Orfeu da Conceição, in a writing contest. It won one of the top prizes. On leave from his post with the Foreign Service, Vinicius united with a fledgling composer named Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim. Together, the Little Poet and the publicity shy Tom brought Orfeu to the stage of the Teatro Municipal, in Rio, on September 25, 1956. It was the beginning of a beautiful songwriting relationship that resulted in a flurry of classic tunes, among them “Chega de saudade” (“No More Blues”), “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Once I Loved,” “How Insensitive,” “One Note Samba,” “Se todos fossem iguais a você” (“Someone to Light Up My Life”), and many more.

In 1962, Vinicius, with the presence of Jobim and the young João Gilberto, made his singing debut at the Au Bon Gourmet nightclub in Rio. From there on, the Little Poet followed the performing path, later teaming up with a new partner, Toquinho, from the 1970s up until his death in July 1980.

The release and popularization of the film Black Orpheus (1959), produced by Sacha Gordine and directed by Marcel Camus, and the subsequent worldwide acclaim it garnered (including the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and the Oscar™ for Best Foreign Film) brought renewed focus on Brazil — especially on Vinicius’ subsequent work, which numbered some 400 songs, many of them with the top talents of the day: Jobim, Pixinguinha, Baden Powell, Carlos Lyra, Ary Barroso, Chico Buarque, and Toquinho.

Vinicius and Toquinho

Vinicius and Toquinho

Orpheus, the Myth and the Man

Notwithstanding these myriad activities, Vinicius’ serious side was reflected in Orfeu da Conceição, in which he expressed outright concern for the poor and disadvantaged. But why did he choose this particular subject to dramatize?

To put it simply, the Orpheus legend happened to be one of those recurring motifs that have managed, in both theory and practice, to adapt themselves rather easily to other media — most opportunely to the operatic, cinematic, and theatrical art forms.

For starters, such foreign-born dramatists as Oskar Kokoschka, Jean Anouilh, and Jean Cocteau, along with their American counterpart, playwright Tennessee Williams, all drew inspiration from his mythological fable, with varying degrees of success. Until Black Orpheus made its initial worldwide impact in 1959-60, French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau‘s pairing of Orphée (1949) with his later The Testament of Orpheus (1960) had previously blazed the cinematic trail, while Sidney Lumet‘s The Fugitive Kind (1959), starring Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani, in turn took up the slack from the American side; it was supposed to have been the film adaptation of Williams‘ talkie stage play Orpheus Descending (and a not very good one, at that). Next to Cocteau’s classics, it bombed badly.

As one might have guessed, there were scores of lyric versions lying about the opera house, too, beginning with those of early Baroque masters Jacopo Peri, Claudio Monteverdi, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Christoph Willibald von Gluck. In the mid-19th century, the wildly popular Jacques Offenbach, a German-Jewish émigré to Gay Paree, composed the comic operetta Orpheus in the Underworld. And in the early 1920s, Kokoschka‘s Expressionistic play Orpheus und Eurydice was transformed into a modern opera by the Austrian Ernst Krenek, creator of the Jazz-Age hit Jonny spielf auf (“Johnny Strikes Up”); while in our own time, an offbeat addition to the standard repertoire (by American minimalist Philip Glass) caught moviegoers by surprise with an ingenious musical rewrite of Cocteau‘s art film as an operatic tour de force.

There was even a modern dance version, titled simply Orpheus (1948), commissioned by the Ballet Society of New York, with music by the always-acerbic Igor Stravinsky and choreography by Russian ballet master George Balanchine. These tantalizing tidbits of the Orpheus legend were but the tips of the musical iceberg.

This was all well and good, but what attributes did the Little Poet find in the myth that would eventually lead him to produce such an influential hit? Vinicius expressed interest in the tale as far back as the early forties. His own words will suffice as to where and how his inspiration might have been derived:

“It was around 1942 that one night [at the home of my uncle, the architect Carlos Leão], after reading once again about the [Orpheus] myth in an old book on Greek mythology, I suddenly realized that it contained the framework for a tragedy set among the black population of Rio. The legend of the artist who, thanks to the fascination of his music, was able to descend into Hades to search for his beloved Eurydice… might very well take place in one of Rio’s shantytowns…

“I started to jot my vision down into a few verses, which then became a full act, finalizing it just as the sun rose over Guanabara, now visible through the window. It was another six years after that, while living in Los Angeles, that I was able to add the last two acts, and even later in 1953, after misplacing the third act and having to rewrite it, in Paris, before it was completed.”

On September 19, 1956, one week before the musical play’s official opening of September 25, at the imposing Teatro Municipal in downtown Rio de Janeiro — and three months after the commencement of stage rehearsals, which were constantly interrupted by his consular activities — playwright and poet Vinicius de Moraes dashed off this poignant dedication:

“This play is an homage to the Brazilian black man, to whom I owe so much; and not just for his organic contribution to the culture of this country — but more for his impassioned lifestyle that has allowed me, with little to no effort, by a simple spark of the imagination, to feel in the [inspiration] of the divine Thracian musician, that same inspiration [born of] the divine musicians from our own native carioca hills.”

Tom Jobim (left) and Vinicius (in dark glasses) in rehearsal for Orfeu

Tom Jobim (left) and Vinicius (in dark glasses) in rehearsal for Orfeu

The all-black, all-Brazilian cast — by and large, a fairly radical undertaking for its time — starred Haroldo Costa as Orfeu, Daisy Paiva as Eurídice, Léa Garcia (who played Serafina in the French film version) as Mira, singer Ciro Monteiro as Apolo, and Zeny Pereira as Clio. Other members of the troupe included Adalberto Silva (Plutão), Pérola Negra (Proserpina), Waldir Maia (Corifeu), Francisca de Queiroz (Dama Negra), Clementino Luiz (Cérbero), Abdias do Nascimento, one of the founders of Brazil’s Experimental Black Theatre, as Aristeu the beekeeper, and Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump, Adhemar Ferreira da Silva, as one of the choristers as well as the skeletal Black Death figure in the movie.

Orfeu da Conceição packed them in at the Municipal for a solid week, up through September 30; after which it moved to the Teatro República (no longer in existence) for a month-long stay. A last-ditch effort to switch venues to São Paulo, however, collapsed due to a lack of available funding and space.

Truth be told, Vinicius saw himself as Orfeu. He certainly put much of his own tastes, passion, and outlook into this noble creation. Notwithstanding the fact that Orfeu was black (or what we might describe as Afro-Brazilian) and the playwright was white (of Portuguese descent, with traces of German, Italian, Hungarian, and Argentine blood in his veins), Vinicius commonly referred to himself as “O branco mais preto do Brasil” (“The blackest white man in Brazil”).

Always a heavy drinker, he rarely performed on stage without his trusty bottle of whiskey close at hand. A forerunner and follower of the liberated lifestyle of the swinging 1960s, as the decade began Vinicius had given himself over to the life of a sensualist. Consequently, some things had to go by the wayside. For neglecting his diplomatic duties, he was expelled from the Foreign Service in 1969. After a series of health crises (stroke, heart problems), brought on by his continuing alcoholism, Vinicius finally expired in his bath on July 9, 1980. It is said that he died in the arms of his last song partner, Toquinho.

Orfeu da Conceicao album cover

Orfeu da Conceicao album cover

Despite the controversies that surrounded him in life, Vinicius de Moraes was officially reinstated into the Brazilian diplomatic corps in 2006, in recognition of his many contributions to the cultural and literary life of his beloved Brazil. Finally, in February 2011, with President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva present and the surviving members of the Moraes family in attendance, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies elevated him to the posthumous post of Ambassador, with all the requisite honors intact.

Vinicius lived, Vinicius loved — wildly, passionately, without restraints. He went through Hell, much like his forlorn Orfeu. And like Orfeu, he came back from purgatory — cleansed, triumphant, renewed, and absolved of his sins… while searching for his drink.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

Sadness Has No End (Part Eleven): All the World’s A Stage… No, Really It Is

“Playing” for Time

Black Orpheus (Breno Mello & Marpessa Dawn)

Black Orpheus (Breno Mello & Marpessa Dawn)

The most striking thing about the episodes in Orfeu da Conceição is how little they have in common with Marcel Camus’ rosy-eyed vistas of Rio: no streetcar-conducting lead; no enchanting ferryboat ride; no colorful costume pageant, as such; no return and parting of Orfeu’s lost love; and no voodoo mumbo-jumbo, either, although Dama Negra does get to perform a bit of macumba during portions of the play’s opening act. Oh, and Cerberus, the guardian canine of the realm, puts in a guest howl at the second act dance-club sequence.

Otherwise, in Camus’ grandiose treatment of Carnival, Orfeu is not torn to shreds by an angry mob of whores but instead falls off a steep cliff holding on to his expired love after being conked on the head with a rock. If Vinicius de Moraes hadn’t left the theater by that point, he most assuredly would have done so here, so dissimilar was his play from the movie — the undeniable irony of which never fails to impress, in that there would be no staged play at all without the insistence of the French for a screen treatment. Vinicius himself admitted as much: “And it was in Paris… that I met the producer Sacha Gordine, who was interested in the story and wanted to make a movie of it. So it was really the movie that made possible the staging of the play…”

On the face of it, though, Diegues’ 1999 re-filming does come closest to actually carrying out, to a limited extent, the poet’s intentions, more than adequately preserving the systemic violence of the hills that was markedly absent from Camus’ freshly scrubbed reading. He even threw in Orfeu’s parents as a good-will gesture to the original.*

Orfeu (Toni Garrido & Patricia Franca)

Orfeu (Toni Garrido & Patricia Franca)

That said, neither picture even remotely approaches Orfeu da Conceição’s lyrical foundation, its soul-stirring poetic imagery, or its classical refinement and construct. That the piece intermittently betrays melodramatic overtones, seriously over-playing its hand when it comes to the emotional and physical state of the title character’s suffering and distress (think Milton’s Samson Agonistes) makes it a major liability.

Only Jobim’s perfectly-limned musical responses keep it from wallowing in its own excess. About the worst that could be said of his score was that it was too tasteful and refined for such violent displays of passion.

Factor in a whopping Fat Tuesday celebration and a healthy dollop of Afro-Brazilian dance sequences, choreographed by the debuting Lina de Luca, and voilá: you have the makings of a total work of art, a stunning stage realization (albeit in primitive form) encompassing a veritable periodic table of theatrical elements — drama, music, poetry, dance, setting, and scenic and lighting design — with all the pomp and majesty, as well as the flaws, inherent in that much-bandied-about term “opera,” or, in this case, “drama with music,” which is a more accurate description.

Does everything that has been written about Orfeu da Conceição make it the Brazilian musical to end all musicals? No, not necessarily. Should we continue to hold out hope, then, that Orfeu might one day be restored to his proper place on the world stage? Anything is possible, if the opportunity were ever to arise. (Broadway producers, take note.) But, as we have tirelessly strived to point out to readers, Vinicius de Moraes was incontrovertibly put in the awkward position of having to bear witness to the cinematic “decimation” of his most-prized work.

The record clearly shows that Vinicius walked out on the Brazilian premiere of Camus’ Black Orpheus, the first of two film adaptations. Doesn’t it seem odd, though, that the world-weary poet would have survived such a profound jolt to his system by the palantir-like glimpse he was afforded of the future misdirection of his country — where it was headed and how those in the public trust conspired to keep it off course — only to lash out in the one way an artist of his standing could lash out: by taking the “law” (or his feet) into his own hands, as the situation demanded?

That’s an awfully big “maybe,” when you come right down to it. In support of his own modern view of the ancient Greek fable, director Diegues took care not to disturb the playwright’s easily offended fans (get thee behind me, Dama Negra!). “In the original play,” he argued, “there’s a poem in which Vinicius says that everything in the world dies except for Orpheus’ art, which is forever — and I tried to visualize that.”

The actual lines, which are given to the members of the chorus and form the basis for the play’s ontological outlook and conclusion, vary somewhat from his recollection but are no less inspiring:

Para matar Orfeu não basta a Morte.

Tudo morre que nasce e que viveu

Só não morre no mundo a voz de Orfeu.


To kill Orfeu, Death is not enough.

Everything that is born and lives must die

In the world only Orfeu’s voice survives.

It is incumbent upon us to insist that, even if the country itself were to fall off a cliff — which, in as much as it pained The Little Poet to learn, it very nearly did at key moments in its recent past — Orfeu’s voice (and, by suggestion, Brazil’s music) would live on in the world as well.

 *           *          *

One of Vinicius’ closest contemporaries, writer and poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, offered this discerning opinion of his friend: he was “the only Brazilian poet,” Drummond decreed, “who dared to live under the sign of passion. That is, of poetry in its natural state.” Orfeu da Conceição, Moraes’ most ambitious literary and musical creation, was the complete fulfillment of this sign of passion, his poetic and unvarnished imitation of slum life in its natural state. God help the person who came between him and that passion!

Author Lúcia Nagib’s Brazil on Screen: Cinema Novo, New Cinema, Utopia goes into excruciating detail on the “natural state” of writer-director Carlos Diegues’ passion for Orfeu. One scene, in particular, has a special poignancy for her:

“As the film draws to a close, the favela hill returns to its everyday violence after the ‘great illusion of carnival’ [sic] is over, as sung in ‘Felicidade,’ a song by Jobim and Vinicius, delivered with innocent simplicity by Jobim’s adolescent daughter, Maria Luiza Jobim, who plays a minor role in the film.”

The opening line of that number, which happens to fit in perfectly with this post’s main heading — and which is also the first one to be heard in the French-made Black Orpheus — is simplicity itself, yet speaks volumes of the illusory effect the annual ritual of Carnival has had on the lives of the poor:

Tristeza não tem fim

Felicidade sim

A felicidade do pobre parece

A grande ilusão do carnaval

A gente trabalha o ano inteiro

Por um momento de sonho

Pra fazer a fantasia

De rei ou de pirata ou jardineira

Pra tudo se acabar na quarta-feira


Sadness has no end

But happiness does

A poor man’s happiness is like

The great illusion of Carnival

You work all year long

For a brief fulfillment of a dream

To play the part of

A gardener, a pirate or a king

Only to have it all end on Wednesday morn

What cannot be deemed a “great illusion” is Carnival’s restorative power; how its raw, incessant energy seems to electrify every one of the parade participants gathered, in spite of four solid days of nonstop action and fun. After a highly favored samba school falls to a lesser rival; after the drums go silent and the crowds begin to disperse, you’re awakened from “a brief fulfillment of a dream” to the reality at hand.

It’s the same instinctive feeling Vinicius must have sensed when he first realized what had been wrought upon his carioca tragedy. It is not a pretty sight, what with all those drained and disappointed faces. But hey, there’s always next year, which is another way of saying that “happiness” will return to them — in some way, shape or form — se Deus quiser, or “God willing,” an everyday Brazilian expression; along with the other assorted rituals of one’s existence: births, deaths, anniversaries, baptisms, weddings, funerals, and what have you.

Life has a continuous ebb and flow — a beginning and an ending — and “sadness,” as our title implies, is just an orderly part of that flow. In that respect, the melancholy air, “A Felicidade,” could never have been able to bookend Black Orpheus and the much-later Orfeu, much less come to the fore, had it not been for the sublime music of bossa nova. What is more, bossa nova could never have achieved the worldwide fame and recognition it doubtless deserved without the fortuitous teaming of Jobim with Moraes, the irrepressible partnership that started it all.

Barack Obama, "Dreams from My Father"

Barack Obama, “Dreams From My Father”

In Barack Obama’s autobiographical Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, he specifically mentions Black Orpheus by name as “the most beautiful thing” his mother had ever seen. “The film, a groundbreaker of sorts due to its mostly black, Brazilian cast, had been made in the fifties. The story line was simple: the myth of the ill-fated Orpheus and Eurydice set in the favelas of Rio during Carnival. In Technicolor splendor, set against scenic green hills, the black and brown Brazilians sang and danced and strummed guitars like carefree birds in colorful plumage.

“About halfway through the movie,” he continued, at almost the exact spot that Vinicius had gotten up and left the screening, Obama decided that he had “seen enough, and turned to my mother to see if she might be ready to go. But her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment, I felt as if I were being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.”

Here’s one simple fantasy we might consider setting by the wayside: if there is anyone out there who winds up in the same, awkward position a temperamental Brazilian poet — or a future U.S. president — once found himself in, let him declare, here and now, he will not slip out of the movie theater… no matter what happens inside. ☼

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

* The role of Orfeu’s mother — in this version, called simply Conceição — was played by veteran actress Zezé Motta, who in her earliest days as an ingénue played the lead in director Diegues’ first big international screen success, the feature Xica da Silva from 1976.

‘Sadness Has No End’ (Part Ten): Requiem for Some Brazilian Heavyweights

It’s Not Easy Being Green

Antonio Carlos "Tom" Jobim in Rio

Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim in Rio

Aware of the transitory nature of fame in the artistic universe, “The Master” Tom Jobim gave a shout in his later years to the damage being done to the environment. “They want to destroy the thing they can’t create,” he warned, in Carlos Lacerda’s wide-ranging magazine exposé. But it wasn’t all gloom and doom from his part, not by a long shot.

“When a tree is cut down here on Earth,” Jobim pondered wistfully, “it will grow again somewhere else. When I die, it is to this place that I want to go, where trees live in peace.” Tom was thinking and acting “green” long before it became fashionable for celebrities in the spotlight to do so.

He expressed some of those same concerns to writer-lyricist Gene Lees, the person credited with the English-language versions of “Corcovado” (“Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars”), “Desafinado” (“Out of Tune”), “Chovendo na roseira” (“Double Rainbow”), and other Jobim favorites. “We are building a desert, my friend,” Tom told him. Lees never forgot that ecological message, which he repeated verbatim in his liner notes to Jazz Masters 13: Antonio Carlos Jobim, a no-frills edition of excerpts compiled by Verve Records and released in 1994, the year of the composer’s passing.

In 1995, Sony International issued Antonio Brasileiro, Jobim’s commercial swan song. It presented a “killer” lineup of greats, among them Ron Carter and Tião Neto on bass, Marcio Montarroyos on trumpet and flugelhorn, living legend Dorival Caymmi on guest vocals, and Sting, the original Mr. Greenpeace, joining the bashful Brazilian in a breathy rendition of “How Insensitive.” Norman Gimbel, who re-worked “The Girl from Ipanema” for the North American market, provided the idiomatic English text for that one as well.

The track also turned up on Antilles/Verve’s Red, Hot & Rio anthology from 1996. Sinatra he wasn’t, but the front-line rock star-cum-Amnesty International advocate, the Stinger, gave Ol’ Blue Eyes a respectable run for his Vegas buck; it was light years ahead of Frank’s deadly dull reading with Jobim (whose portion was taped in Rio by producer Phil Ramone) of the Bart Howard standard, “Fly Me to the Moon,” on Duets II from Capitol.

Maria Luiza Jobim & Tom (Ana Lontra / uol.com.br)

Maria Luiza Jobim & Dad (Ana Lontra / uol.com.br)

Tom’s youngest daughter, Maria Luiza Jobim, contributed her own (at the time) slim vocal line to the languidly-paced “Forever Green,” the moving lyrics of which say all that needed to be said about dad’s desire to rescue the planet from man’s self-destructive impulses:

Let there be flowers
Let there be spring

We have few hours

To save our dream

Let there be light
Let the bird sing
Let the forest be forever green

Little blue planet
In great need of care
Crystal clear streams
Lots of clean air

Let’s save the Earth
What a wonderful thing
Let it be forever green

Her famously subdued parent even dedicated a fitting ode to his little girl. He dubbed it “Samba de Maria Luiza.” Likewise, Vinicius, who himself had concocted over 400 songs in toto, was not above tossing a few melodic treats to kit and kin. During the period that he was living in France, and before clinching the deal with his future working partner Tom, the poet composed a lilting waltz tune, “Valsa de Susana,” for his progeny to remember him by.

He later considered placing it into the proposed Orfeu da Conceição project, especially after playing the song for an enthusiastic Jobim. Naturally, the name was changed to protect the innocent. And so it went: from a ravishingly simple melody to a full-fledged orchestral passage with solo-guitar accompaniment, the rechristened “Valsa de Eurídice” (the title by which it is known to this day) can be heard, on an old Odeon recording, as part of the Overture to the poet’s stage hit.

Most of the numbers on the ten-inch long-play were given to a single vocalist — Roberto Paiva, in fact; not what one would expect from an original-cast album, but good enough for the play’s purposes. Because of Orfeu’s obvious musical and lyrical inclinations, the songs were deliberately designed to emanate from his poetic lips only. (For the most part, both movie versions respected and/or maintained the tradition.)

The lone exception was the magical “Monólogo de Orfeu,” beautifully intoned by the Brazilian bard himself, with Luiz Bonfá soloing on acoustic guitar and Tom Jobim leading the studio orchestra. It is the sole, surviving sonic record — an ancient relic from a long-forgotten musical past — of that legendary Rio stage production.

Stop the World, I Want to Get Off

Tom & Banda Nova (nicinefilo.blogspot.com)

Tom & Banda Nova (nicinefilo.blogspot.com)

As the eighties and nineties wore on, Tom was anything but worn out. He took up touring again and, for good measure, brought along his Banda Nova (“New Band”), a crack ensemble of veteran players mixed with current Jobim-Caymmi-Morelenbaum family members (as well as the young Maúcha Adnet), to such estimable locales as Brazil, Europe, and the United States. These concerts were particularly well received by a newer generation of listeners, many of who had grown up without samba and bossa nova to kick around but were willing to give the composer’s “romantically tinged” output a second spin.

It was in the summer of 1992 that Jobim finally settled his accounts with his fellow countryman (or maybe it was the other way around) by serving as the “theme” of a parade staged, in his honor, by the Mangueira Samba School of Rio.

We don’t want to belabor the point that everything under the carioca sun ends in Carnival. Rather, let’s look at it as a delayed reaction to all that “the most beautiful man in Brazil” had done for the land that once tried to tune his music out; only two years more, and he was gone from their midst.

Author Ruy Castro accurately pegged the national mood of the time as conciliatory toward Tom: “Brazil, sick and tired of so many mediocrities, saw in his work (and in him, as a man) a reflection of how it needed to have seen itself.”

Jobim’s classic number, “Se todos fossem iguais a você,” translated word-for-word as “If Everyone Were Like You,” helped push this sentiment along, with celebrants singing and playing the tune over and over again in the streets of his hometown. Posthumously adding Tom Jobim’s name to Marvelous City’s Galeão International Airport was another, far less musical means of addressing the issue. It may have been too little, but it was never too late.

In the end a mighty oak had been cut down on Earth, only to grow again somewhere else: Antonio Carlos Jobim found his eternal peace among the trees of Cemitério São João Batista (Cemetery of St. John the Baptist) in Rio de Janeiro, not far from the Botanical Garden of his youth, and near to the tomb of his good friend, Vinicius de Moraes. They were born fourteen years apart.

At his death, Jobim followed the path that Vinicius had earlier laid out for him by the same fourteen-year spread. Let it never be said of either artist that he who had come before — or after — wasn’t fit to tie the other’s bootstraps. (We could be wrong about this, but it’s believed they preferred slippers and loafers to boots.)

For the poet, all was forgiven at last via his posthumous reinstatement, in September 2006, to his former post with the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Those relations were never cordial to begin with, but whatever animosity once existed between him and the Brazilian State Department was cast aside in lieu of services rendered, reinforced by the 2004 publication of the Vinicius de Moraes Songbook – Orfeu, followed in 2007 by part two of his Songbook – Biography and Selected Works.

(End of Part Ten)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Sadness Has No End’ (Part Nine): The Once & Future Song King

The Hits Keep on Coming

Tom Jobim (veradasdopensamento)

Tom Jobim (veradasdopensamento)

There are no existing records (at least, none that we are aware of) of Carnival taking over the lives of two of the most naturally gifted songwriting talents Brazil has ever had the good fortune to produce: composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes. Both hit the ground running with their very first collaboration, and hardly paused to draw breath thereafter.

With the conclusion in November 1956 of their Orfeu da Conceição, both took on further challenges by throwing themselves into new work, the result of which led to an enviable (and nearly unbroken) string of song hits. “Between the years 1958 and 1965,” by writer Ruy Castro’s reckoning, “Vinicius produced close to 50 titles with Tom [alone], 40 with Baden Powell, and 30 with Ary Barroso, Moacyr Santos and others,” to include such promising newcomers as Carlos Lyra, Edu Lobo, Francis Hime, and Toquinho.

Researcher Sérgio Ximenes put the total for Tom at “over 250 works, with 29 albums recorded under his own name,” and as a guest artist or participant in approximately 37 more.

Even more impressive, musicologist Jairo Severiano, in his Uma História da Música Popular Brasileira, records that, “In the period 1963-1994, Jobim composed a hundred some-odd pieces of music that, taking into account those he had completed earlier, reached 230 recorded compositions. Besides sambas, sambas-canções, and other characteristic constructions…there were songs dedicated to ecological themes, expressed in his usual good-natured style and tinged with a degree of romanticism.”

Severiano cites such supreme examples of his art as “Águas de março” (“The Waters of March”), “Chovendo na roseira” (“Double Rainbow”), “Matita perê” (“Song of the Thrush”), “Passarim,” Borzeguim,” “Chansong” — a play on chanson, the French word for “song” — “Anos dourados” (“Looks Like December”), “Sabià,” “Retrato em branco e preto” (“Portrait in Black and White”), and those pretty little ditties with ladies in their titles (“Ana Luiza,” “Bebel,” “Lígia,” and “Luiza”).

The more songs the tunesmith turned out, it would seem, the more accomplished he became at it. The only thing that Jobim had failed at evolving was an appropriately thick skin to go with his compositional flair, something not even his most frequent working partner Vinicius had bothered to grow over a lifetime of living large in the public eye.

According to the composer’s self-analysis, timidity is the word that best described his reticent comportment around others. But be not deceived: Tom was no pushover when it came to defending his artistic turf; neither did he find it necessary to berate the opposition in the same demonstrative mien The Little Poet loved to exhibit. Audacity, intuition, curiosity, duality, obstinacy, unconventionality, and universality were the other key attributes of Jobim’s personal makeup, and they undoubtedly showed.

Still lionized as “the most beautiful man in Brazil” (which he was), he had grown increasingly discomfited over reports in the national press of his becoming too Americanized — journalistic shorthand for “going native” — for his introduction of jazz and bebop elements into the corpus of his work. (Actually, jazz owed more to bossa nova than bossa nova owed to jazz, but that made little difference to the naysayers of his day.)

These were the same baseless accusations that had dogged the footsteps of the late Carmen Miranda in her prime, the kind that forced the popular entertainer to pull up stakes in her home country and go seek her fortune elsewhere (in the United States, to be exact). Now they were winding their insidious way into Jobim’s world as well. He was even accused at one point of adopting the American form of “Tom,” a nickname younger sister Helena had tagged him with as a boy, as proof of his outside aspirations.

Vinicius making a point to Jobim

Vinicius trying to make a point to Jobim

For a man whose middle name also happened to be Brasileiro (Portuguese for “Brazilian”), this was a savage blow indeed to his integrity and self-worth. Overcoming his own well-documented reserve, Jobim seriously contemplated putting out some sort of riposte while maintaining his vaunted coolness under fire, even in the face of mounting critical concerns.

His much-publicized 1970 interview with left-wing journalist and ex-politician Carlos Lacerda, for the Brazilian magazine Manchete (“the only serious piece that explains who I am,” Jobim announced to all), is a fair indication of how he conducted himself in hand-to-hand combat with the press. In it, Tom simply took on the same E daí? (“What of it?”) attitude the equally good natured Heitor Villa-Lobos once opted for when confronted with a similar situation in his past:

“I am Brazilian, and I write Brazilian music not because of nationalism, but because I don’t know how to do any other kind. If I were to do jazz, I’d be an idiot, since any black musician from their Lapa [the poor bohemian district of Rio] could play better than I.”

That’s telling them, Tom! Lacerda gave the composer free rein to air his pent-up feelings and frustrations to a nationwide audience. Before the dust had time to settle, though, the wily reporter and would-be shrink made the following annotations about them:

“It seems to me that [Jobim’s] worries were not about criticism of his music. His songs get better over time. His critics only get worse. He’s accused of being Americanized? Nonsense! The Americans speak of French influences. The French know, after Black Orpheus, that he’s very much Brazilian. The most Brazilian there is, since Heitor Vila-Lôbos [sic]. What he’s incapable of hiding is his musical education.”

In the decades that passed since this piece first saw the light, many a “black musician from their Lapa” would unhesitatingly step up to the stage and pay tribute to Tom’s “musical education.” In Antonio Carlos Jobim: Um Homem Illuminado (“An Enlightened Man”), an unusually intimate portrait of her dearly departed older sibling, novelist and poet Helena Jobim remembers what one of them, the reclusive pianist Thelonius Monk, had to say about Brazil’s lasting contribution to his particular style of music making: “Bossa nova gave to New York’s intellectual jazz community what it lacked, that is, rhythm, balance, and a Latin heat.”

Tom was quite beside himself to hear how Americans had taken to the harmonically advanced chord progressions he and Vinicius hammered out for their chart-busting single, “The Girl from Ipanema” from 1963,* thanks ever so much to saxophone great Stan Getz and the sensuous come-hither sounds (speaking of Latin heat) of Astrud Gilberto. Their recording came in at Number Five on the Billboard Top Pop of 1964, while reaching Number One on the Adult Contemporary scene. It was kept under wraps for a solid year before being released into a market dominated by The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, The Rolling Stones, and other formidable folk.

And the World Goes ‘Round

For now, there was no jumping off the bossa-nova bandwagon. On the contrary, Jobim was more anxious than ever to hold on for dear life and keep the mutual admiration society going. “More and more,” his little sister acknowledged, “Tom respected the U.S. as a country that received, with open arms and without prejudices, artists from all over. He felt himself a citizen of the world there,” and with good reason.

From 1963 until his death, in December 1994, of heart failure following surgery for bladder cancer — another uncanny reference to his hero, Villa-Lobos — Jobim divided his time between the American East and West Coasts, and the southeastern tip of Brazil. While in the States, he recorded many of his most fondly remembered works (including two classic sessions with Sinatra) for Warner-Reprise, as well as for the strictly jazz label Verve and the R & B-based A&M Records. His two pet projects, the albums Matita perê (1973) and Urubu (“Vulture,” 1976), were roundly rejected in Rio but eventually picked up here by MCA and Warner, in that order.

Toquinho, Miucha, Vinicius & Jobim

Toquinho, Miucha, Vinicius & Jobim

Having gone their own way since the middle of the 1960s onward — the motive behind the amicable split being Moraes’ need to share his poetic insights with other, lesser-known adherents — the once inseparable duo reunited as a quartet in September 1977 for a now-historic series of concerts. Backed by Toquinho, Vinicius’ then-current touring partner, and Chico Buarque’s sister, Miúcha (recently wed to the equally hermetic João Gilberto), the group played Rio’s Canecão nightclub for seven straight months, then took their show on the road to such places as São Paulo, London, and Paris.

Ruy Castro recounts, in his fact-filled tome Ela é Carioca: Uma Enciclopédia de Ipanema (“She’s a Carioca: An Encyclopedia of Ipanema”), one of the high points of their encounter: the nostalgic “Carta ao Tom,” followed immediately by its parody, “Carta do Tom” (“Letter from Tom”), in which the composer and his lyricist Chico bemoaned the loss of innocence once associated with Ipanema’s tranquil, middle-class neighborhood.

“Their music,” Castro informs us, “woke audiences up” to the shocking realization that “a marvelous world was about to pass on,” to be replaced by “another, more somber and alarming one.” He concluded his musings with a painful reminder of what was to come: “At the end of 1978, when the show finally closed due to the members’ complete exhaustion, no one could imagine that Vinicius had less than two years to live.”

(End of Part Nine)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

* From F-sharp major at the words “Oh, but I watch her so sadly” and on “How can I tell her I love her?” to G minor at “Yes, I would give my heart gladly,” back down to A major with “But each day when she walks to the sea,” ending on D major, then G major for “She looks straight ahead,” and finally returning to F-sharp major on “not at me,” in Norman Gimbel’s sultry English-language verses.

When Forms Cease to Follow Function: The Passing of a Brazilian Legend — Architect Oscar Niemeyer, Dead at 104

Oscar Niemeyer, 1907-2012

Oscar Niemeyer, 1907-2012

On Wednesday, December 5, 2012, the world mourned the passing of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer at age 104. The way that Niemeyer seemed to talk about himself and his achievements, one would think that he planned to live forever – and in a way, he will. Let me explain.

An architect is, generally speaking, not the sort of individual that inspires people to great passions. No, they tend to be plain old, “down to earth” folk, although in Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, her lead character Howard Roark (an architect) is anything but down to earth. As interpreted by Gary Cooper in the 1949 film version, Roark works up a steamy head of lather and a fair amount of sweat, and not just over some old buildings (I believe his co-star, the lovely Patricia Neal, had something to do with that).

Nevertheless, Niemeyer’s place in forging a modern Brazilian nation is firmly secured, what with his imaginative contributions to the country’s futuristic capital city of Brasília. He also designed her Our Lady of Aparecida Cathedral, which resembles an upside-down crown of thorns – unusual, in that Niemeyer was an avowed atheist as well as a die-hard communist sympathizer. No matter. The old saying, “Do as I do, not as I say,” comes to mind here in properly assessing his life and work.

Niemeyer did bring life back to staid forms. You can say that he saw the benefit that curves possessed over straight lines; in addition, he gave form to what was arguably the tired and the formless — see his Rio Sambadrome if you have any doubts of his abilities. Indeed, he took a well-worn architectural turn of phrase, “form follows function,” and twisted it around to read “form follows feminine,” which tells you more about Niemeyer the man than you may have wanted to know.

He lived so long that he buried both his first wife and his one and only daughter. You can read about his range of accomplishments in any of this past week’s obituaries. Still, I would like to draw your attention to the superb one written by one of my favorite print journalists and television commentators, the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/eugene-robinson-oscar-niemeyer-soared-as-an-architect).

What went unstated in all these glowing postmortems, however – and what most of the architect’s many admirers may not even have known about him – is Niemeyer’s impact on Brazilian theater, vis-à-vis his revolutionary set designs for the musical play, Orfeu da Conceição (“Orpheus of the Conception Hills”), written by two of Brazil’s leading artists, poet Vinicius de Moraes and composer-musician Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim.

The work premiered on September 25, 1956, at Rio’s Teatro Municipal. Here is what I had to say about Niemeyer’s participation in the venture:

“Oscar Niemeyer, a master of curvilinear shapes and forms (who incidentally marked his stage debut with this piece), was himself strongly influenced by classical antiquity, as was Lila Bôscoli de Moraes and her designs for the show’s captivating gowns. Beyond this, Niemeyer’s plans for Brazil’s futuristic new capital city — by filling its ‘vast empty space’ with ‘sensuous white curves in glass and concrete’ — were the visible manifestations of what Tom and Vinicius aurally tried to capture with their epicurean taste in tunes.”

Now here is what Niemeyer himself said about his involvement:

“Invited by Vinicius to design the sets for Orfeu da Conceição, my first reaction was to decline, for I had never worked for the theater before and the subject seemed rather complicated to me. But my friend insisted, so I accepted the challenge which, fortunately for me, became more of a pleasure.

“When I began the design of the sets…, I decided not to make any preconceived notions, considering instead the blocking of each scene and the poetic gist of the text. Hence the absence of realistic elements and the sketchiness of the scenery, the idea being to preserve the climate of lyricism and drama, at once so fantastic, that Vinicius created and that leaves the characters hovering in space, entirely at the mercy of their passions.” (From the Songbook Vinicius de Moraes: Orfeu, published by Jobim Music, 2003)

The play inspired the passions of French filmmaker Marcel Camus, who went to Brazil to direct the Academy-Award winning Black Orpheus, his own cinematic paean to the beauty of Rio de Janeiro. Most of the music for the film was provided by Jobim (along with Luiz Bonfá). What fans of Vinicius and Jobim’s song output may not have realized is that Jobim first took up architecture as a profession, only to drop it in favor of music. He toured the site for the proposed Brasília project with his songwriting partner Vinicius and Niemeyer in tow. This later bore fruit in a major new composition, the Sinfonia da Alvorada, from 1961.

Barely a year later, as poet and musician were comfortably ensconced outside the Veloso Bar in Rio, a teenager by the name of Heloísa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto (later Pinheiro) crossed their path. She became the inspiration for the entranced pair to write their most wittily sensuous and widely recorded song hit, “The Girl from Ipanema.”

If “form follows feminine,” as Oscar Niemeyer so claimed, then let the above incidents serve as “concrete” proof of that sentiment. And as far as inspiring passion goes, Niemeyer had plenty of it to spare. May he be granted eternal rest from his labors… †

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Down in Brazil,’ With American Jazz-Pop Vocalist Michael Franks

Michael Franks (mp3.com)

Poor Michael Franks. He gets no respect, no respect at all from jazz purists. Although most critics have grievously placed him in the same New Adult Contemporary, bush-league music category as that of L.A. keyboardist David Benoit — that is, of artists who’ve been plying their trade for years without either public acclaim or mass countenance — Franks doesn’t look like a Rodney Dangerfield, nor does he act or sound anything like the late stand-up comedian.

Despite decades of slaving away in the pop-music business — in itself, nothing to laugh about, that’s for sure — his biggest obstacle to lasting success has always been his inability to please those same critics, if indeed that’s anything to lose sleep over.

As Rolling Stone staff writer Paul Evans so astutely concluded about him, “The attitude his music is intended to provoke is invariably: ‘Dim the lights, get out the Chardonnay, cuddle up.’ ” But for the many Brazilian musicians and performers who’ve worked closely with Franks over the years, it’s another story entirely.

Still, the oddest aspect of Michael’s 33-plus-year singing and composing career is the West Coast native’s apparent lack of hits (his “Popsicle Toes” from 1976’s The Art of Tea the only exception) or multi-platinum-selling albums to crown off his consistently earnest achievements.

In a nutshell, the main difficulty for most people remains his unattainability as a crossover specialist, a singer secure enough in his song-filled art at closing the ever-expanding gulf between the jazz and pop spheres so prevalent in the U.S. during his performance heyday.

Not that Franks worries one bit about his nondescript status among his peers. It’s just that the low-key method he’s brought to his words and music, manifested in the refined manner with which he’s formulated his spare yet insightful lyrics — abetted, to no end, by that Comparative English Literature degree he earned at UCLA in the seventies — hasn’t exactly bowled over what’s left of the uncommitted. And likely never will.

Surely Michael’s laid-back vocal temperament could be the hindrance, being that his basic singing style, which closely resembles that of American pop crooner Kenny Rankin, has been allied more to sophisticated Brazilian-jazz contexts than to pop-music puffoonery.

One could even say his voice is a warmed-over version of folk-rock’s best friend James Taylor, but without the singer-songwriter’s deviated-septum vocal production. Incidentally, before Taylor moved on to Columbia (now part of Sony) Records, both he and Franks were Warner Brothers label-mates in the mid- to late seventies, as was smooth-jazz pioneer Al Jarreau, another under-appreciated denizen of the Redwood State.

In actuality, though, Michael Franks is the nearest Americans have ever come to having that old Bahian bossa-nova stylist, the famously cantankerous maestro João Gilberto, in their midst — minus that eccentric singer’s onstage peculiarities, of course.

It would not be an exaggeration, then, to admit that Franks, in his inimitable fashion, is a continuation of the romantic spirit exemplified by the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim — considered by Michael to be one of his prime movers ‘n’ shakers — alongside the still-imposing frames of Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and the great George and Ira Gershwin.

But whatever issues he has pending with reviewers, they have had no ill-effects with the many steadfast fans who happen to be in the musical “know.” Take, for instance, former Steely Dan band member-turned-record producer Walter Becker, who paid the ultimate tribute to Franks’ compositional skills in the September 1990 issue of Jazziz:

“There’s a purity to what Michael does that I really admire. His songs are always simple in the best sense of that word. You immediately know what the song is about and where it’s going. It has its effect without too much digestive effort.”

“At the same time, there’s a lot there,” Becker added. “They’re very perfect little gems of structure and lyrical purity. Michael has a directness and a Zen-like quality to what he does that I really admire.”

That directness and simplicity was amply illustrated from the get-go with his trend-setting Art of Tea offering, particularly with such song titles as “Eggplant,” “Monkey-See, Monkey-Do,” “Mr. Blue,” “I Don’t Know Why I’m So Happy I’m Sad,” and “Sometimes I Just Forget To Smile.”

Sleeping Gypsy (beatgoeson.main.jp)

Even better still, and an early career milestone in the catalog of his cumulative works, was the Tommy LiPuma-produced 1977 outing Sleeping Gypsy, the first in a series of studio efforts to enlist the aid of Brazilian session players; in this case, Hélio Delmiro on guitar, João Donato on piano, and João Palma on drums — all of them associated at one time or another with Rio-born music-master, Tom Jobim.

Along with the now-classic “The Lady Wants to Know,” a modern-day jazz standard if ever there was one (“Daddy’s just like Coltrane / Baby’s just like Miles / The Lady’s just like heaven… when she smiles”), were two numbers originally conceived in red-hot Rio de Janeiro: “Antonio’s Song (The Rainbow),” a moving evocation of Jobim himself, and “Down in Brazil.”

“I wrote [these] in my room at the Copacabana Palace Hotel,” claimed Michael. “I went to Rio to record at the suggestion of Jobim, who had been very kind in his praise for The Art of Tea. It’s no secret he was one of my major heroes and influences.”

With that in mind, “Antonio’s Song” starts out in nearly the same tempo and rhythm-pattern as “The Lady Wants to Know” — it must have been a deliberate choice on Michael’s part to begin in this mode — but for the gentle-on-the-mind string accompaniment arranged by veteran Claus Ogerman, who worked on many of Jobim’s albums for Warner and Verve, including the timeless Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim pairing on Reprise a decade prior.

The image of a decadent Cidade Maravilhosa (“Marvelous City”), contrasted with that of Rio’s sunniest songwriting native-son — so peerlessly captured by Michael in the first few bars — set the prevailing tone and mood:

Antonio lives life’s frevo
Antonio prays for truth
Antonio says our friendship
Is a hundred-proof
The vulture that circles Rio
Hangs in this L.A. sky
The blankets they give the Indians
Only make them die

That opening phrase (“Antonio lives life’s frevo”) is a masterstroke of understated lyricism. Upon first hearing, it will ever-so-slightly pass by the untrained ear, unless one is intimately aware of the inner meaning of this uniquely Brazilian-Portuguese term: an exceedingly agitated Northeastern dance-rhythm, native to both Bahia and Recife, frevo is typically played during the pre-Lenten season. As a partial metaphor for the composer, moreover, it shrewdly encompasses Jobim’s hectic artistic lifestyle in a brief, eight-syllable sentiment.

While not the bold social statement often associated with the best of Bono and U2 (or early Sting, for that matter), the song nonetheless hints at an undercurrent of tension amid the tropical froth; as if Franks instinctively sensed the adoration his newfound friend felt for his seaside abode, despite all the harshness and strife he may have encountered there from time to time.

Franks & Tom Jobim (michaelfranks.com)

As well, the singer’s laconic, almost vibrato-less delivery of his lines, as matter-of-fact as only he was capable of producing back then — an American smooth-jazz offshoot of German Sprechgesang (“Song speech”) — adds to the objective formality of the piece. More so than the actual words, Michael’s aloof, non-judgmental approach leaves it to the listener to make up his or her own mind about the foibles of “Sin City” Rio:

We sing the Song
Forgotten for so long
And let the music flow
Like Light into the Rainbow
We know the Dance, we have
We still have the chance
To break these chains and flow
Like Light into the Rainbow.

The last line, “Like Light into the Rainbow,” echoes the essential English text (supplied by American jazz essayist Gene Lees) to one of Jobim’s bounciest Brazilian melodies, “Double Rainbow” (“Chovendo na Roseira”), also known by the less-familiar title “Children’s Games,” recorded by Tom with Elis Regina, in Los Angeles, in 1974:

Look at the double rainbow
The rain is silver in the sunlight

“Down in Brazil,” the closing track on Gypsy, is dedicated (for one) to the beauteous charms of Brazilian women, and is relayed high-up in Michael’s reediest tonal range:

Down in Brazil
They never heard of win or lose
If you can't feel
That all those café olé girls
In high-heel shoes
Will really cure your blues
It seems they all just aim to please
Those women sway like wind
In the banana trees
When you know you're
Down in old Brazil

At the fadeout, the oft-repeated verses of “Down in old Brazil” reminds one, too, of music legend Frank Sinatra’s sly sendoff on the time-worn Ary Barroso-Bob Russell theme, “Brazil” (“Aquarela do Brasil”), found in the first — and best — of Ole Blue Eyes’ various Billy May collaborations, namely Come Fly With Me (1957) for Capitol.

Yet what are we to make of the Franks brand of music making? Is it less-than-mainstream jazz, or plain old middle-of-the-road pop styling?

“Michael’s music actually exists in that ideal space between pop music and jazz that’s so difficult for people to locate and be comfortable in,” comments Becker.

“Part of the problem has been that traditionally, in jazz, you have a different kind of lyrical mentality than you have with pop. A lot of people associate jazz-vocal with the less ambitious lyrical things. Michael doesn’t do that. He just writes what he writes, undaunted by the ‘moon-June-spoon,’ Tin Pan Alley tradition of jazz. Again, it’s just hard for people to function comfortably to make that transition.”

In light of this estimation, and Franks’ positive working relationship with Brazil’s native-born performers, his unabated love for the country’s music conveniently spilled over into his subsequent long-play output, significantly in the 1978 Burchfield Nines release, with arrangements by Eumir Deodato (see 1971’s Sinatra & Company on Reprise); in Tiger in the Rain (1979), with the cut “Jardim Botânico” (“Botanical Garden”), featuring jazz artist Flora Purim and trumpeter Claudio Roditi; in Passionfruit (1983), with Astrud Gilberto and Naná Vasconcelos, on “Amazon”; and in Dragonfly Summer (1993), with key contributions by percussionist Paulinho da Costa and guitarist Toninho Horta.

Abandoned Garden (us.7digital.com)

But the work to end all works — the sine qua non of Brazilian tribute albums — was the career-defining Abandoned Garden project from 1995, recorded in loving memory of the late Antonio Carlos Jobim. Described as the “jazziest” of Michael’s subtropical jaunts, the CD features rhythm tracks laid down for him by paulistana pianist Eliane Elias — a current, and past, Jobim acolyte — along with a contemporary all-star lineup of acknowledged light- and smooth-jazz favorites, among them Michael and Randy Brecker (Eliane’s husband), Mark Egan, Art Farmer, Russell Ferrante, Bob James, Bashiri Johnson, Chuck Loeb, Bob Mintzer, Joshua Redman, and David Sanborn.

Two of the disc’s many highlights, “Cinema” (co-written with Jobim) and “Bird of Paradise” (music by Alagoan singer Djavan/English lyrics by Michael Franks), reveal a thoroughly evolved mastery of the lyrical style, as infectiously and flavorfully literate as anything in the Jobim-Moraes canon.

Some of the other songs on the set, including “This Must Be Paradise,” “Like Water, Like Wind,” “A Fool’s Errand,” “Hourglass,” “Eighteen Aprils,” “Without Your Love,” and “Somehow Our Love Survives” — originally on ex-Jazz Crusader Joe Sample’s album Spellbound (Warner, 1989), where it was performed by Al Jarreau — revolve around the themes of love-found, love-lost, and love-regained.

Interestingly, the main title-tune comes at the end of the nearly hour-long endeavor. With its slow, dirge-like musings, this mildly morose homage to Tom more than compensates for any rhythmic shortcomings by becoming a fitting formal close to the storied Jobim-Franks joint venture:

Though the samba has ended, I know in the sound of your voice,

your piano, your flute, you are found,

and the music within you continues to flow

sadly, lost Antonio.

You were my inspiration, my hero, my friend;

on the highway of time will I meet you again?

If the heart ever heals, does the scar always show

for the lost Antonio?

For the lost Antonio?

High hopes tinged with sadness: that was the message Michael Franks tried to make clear and convey in all his best work. And along those same lines, everyone from Shirley Bassey, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ana Caram, Natalie Cole, and Laura Fygi, to Diana Krall, Patti LaBelle, Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae, Melissa Manchester, The Yellowjackets, and Ringo Starr has happily complied in covering his highly sought-after song material.

Shut out of FM-radio due to rapidly diminished airplay, Michael’s only-other completely original release thereafter,* the 2003 Christmas-themed Watching the Snow — with seasoned talents Romero Lubambo and Edson Aparecido (Café) da Silva among the artists present — was sold privately to fans on his personal Website via the Sleeping Gypsy label, an obvious (and sentimental) allusion to the first of his many Brazilian-inspired productions.

If, as they say, you can never go home again, Michael can now feel at ease, rest assured of having earned the love and respect of his infinitely loyal fan-base, not the least of which can be counted one deeply devoted admirer: Brazil’s dearly-departed and best-loved composer, a certain Mr. Jobim.

Take that, jazz purists, if you can! ☼

* His 1999 album, Barefoot on the Beach, for the New Age label Windham Hill, while consistent overall with Michael’s basic songwriting philosophy (“Heart Like an Open Book,” “Now Love Has No End”), was not entirely representative of the best of his earlier works. Consequently, it was not a big-seller either, nor did it do well in the record charts.

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

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’

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.

‘Sadness Has No End’ — A Testament to ‘Black Orpheus’ and the Partnership That Started It All (Part One)

Why Walk When You Can Run?

Breno Mello as Orfeu (The Criterion Collection)

Breno Mello as Orfeu (The Criterion Collection)

After sitting in silence for nearly three quarters of an hour, an agitated audience member suddenly let loose with an unexpected outburst that completely filled the main hall.

“It’s an outrage, an outrage I tell you!” the man shouted. “See what they’ve done to my piece!”

In the middle of the film’s premier presentation in Laranjeiras, a well-to-do Rio de Janeiro suburb, the person who would be deemed most responsible for its worldwide success had just stood up from his seat. He was headed briskly for the nearest exit.

“No, wait! Don’t go!” cried the movie’s producers after him. “Tell us, what’s wrong? Let’s talk it over. Give us a chance to explain. Wait, wait… come back!”

But it was to no avail. They were unable to calm their irate guest down or prevent him from leaving the scene in that infuriated fashion. To make matters worse, the now seething citizen was suspected of having gone all the way home to his apartment complex in Rio, overlooking the gorgeous Guanabara Bay, and drowning his sorrows out by getting “comfortably numb” in his bath.

This highly speculative account, insofar as it possesses all the earmarks of a Hollywood scenarist’s private fantasy, fits in perfectly with the events as they were known to have occurred — give or take quite a few dramatic liberties, of course. But they did not, thankfully for us, occur to composer Antonio Carlos Brasileiro de Almeida Jobim, or to such an underwhelming Columbia Pictures project as Bruno Barreto’s Bossa Nova (2000).

As a matter of record, Jobim, who was born in the Tijuca section of Rio on the 25th of January, 1927, could never have been given the red-carpet treatment there at the time Bossa Nova hit movie theaters: he had previously passed away of heart failure in New York City, at the age of 67, on December 8, 1994, a good five or more years before the film was even released.

Admittedly, not only could he not have left the showing in that uncharacteristic manner, he played absolutely no part in the Amy Irving/Antonio Fagundes co-starring vehicle. A weak celluloid homage to Cidade Maravilhosa, Bossa Nova was the brainchild of Amy’s director-husband Bruno, designed to show off Jobim’s Marvelous City through some of his most delectable song structures — “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Corcovado” (“Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars”), “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”), “Wave,” and other classics — even though his name appears prominently in the opening credits.

It’s hard for anyone to imagine the gifted but introverted Tom Jobim — a gentle enough “free spirit” who suffered terribly from a persistent stage fright and shyness of others — as managing so attention-grabbing a stunt as running out of a movie screening, never mind having to live down the next day’s news headlines because of it. It simply wasn’t in his nature.

One man, however, did have the nature inside him, a man who had taken part in many a motion-picture gathering, along with the late-night extravaganzas and five-star gala events that inextricably went with it — and who did, in fact, walk out of one of them. That man was Vinicius de Moraes.

Not just another urban dweller of that photogenic playground-by-the-sea we know as Rio (he was born there on October 19, 1913), former diplomat, journalist, movie critic, lyricist, poet, playwright, songwriter, and performer Marcus Vinitius da Cruz Moraes was an obviously cultured sort, as well as Jobim’s senior by fourteen summers. Yet he died, almost Marat-like, in his trademark porcelain tub (so we are told) in his native city, on July 9, 1980, during the height of the region’s seasonal cold snap — and at almost the same expiration age (66) as his ex-creative partner.

It is there that any similarity between these popular-music icons would end. For while Jobim had labored valiantly to leave his admirers with the erroneous impression of coolness incarnate (he did adore the sophisticated sounds of North American cool-jazz players, though), the veteran Moraes was, for lack of a better term, the personification of volatility in the Brazilian male.

Not surprisingly, for two such hard-living talents as Vinicius and Tom had been while they were alive (their mutual fondness for strong drink and equally potent conversation was legendary among close friends and colleagues), the most lasting part of their 24-year association — their classic song output — was the one surviving aspect that could easily have been counted on to outlast them both.

Perhaps it was a sad commentary as well that the organ they most touched in others by their timeless tunes would, ironically for both of these fine artists, give out so early in their own lives: Ars longa, vita brevis, as the case may be.

But surely, if Heitor Villa-Lobos could be associated with the revered name of Johann Sebastian Bach; if another Antonio Carlos — opera composer Antonio Carlos Gomes — could be hailed as the “successor” to the Italian master Verdi, then the songwriting unit of Jobim and Moraes was bound to be touted as Brazil’s answer to German Romanticism’s Robert Schumann, with the British variant of John Lennon and Paul McCartney following close behind.

No matter who they were compared to, we can be assured of one thing: make no mistake about it, they were, by common consent, the recognized “rock stars” of their generation — within certain limitations.

This brings up not a few interesting points to ponder, such as how this intemperate league of extraordinary Brazilian gentlemen reached such unattainable heights in so short a period of time; by what means did the popular pair — exposed, as it was, to the early stimulus of art, literature, poetry, language, music, theater, and film — generate so much excitement within the jazz-pop field; and lastly, what was the catalyst that enabled the team to ride the crest of the once fast-rising bossa nova tide?

These preliminary thoughts go to the very heart of the duo’s longstanding relationship with listeners. Yet there is so much available material to sift through on this vast topic alone that it would be foolish for any writer to attempt to cover it all in one sitting. It’s better to concentrate at first on a single facet of their epochal music-making career — the most logical spot being at the beginning of it.

The Power of Myth — The Orpheus Myth, That Is

Vinicius de Moraes (circa 1938)

Young Vinicius de Moraes (circa 1938)

By now it should be apparent the lone, dissenting voice crying out in the Tijuca forest wilderness belonged to that of Vinicius de Moraes, the country’s best-known, modern-day bard. And the work that had wreaked such havoc with his fiery temperament, if not his high blood pressure, was that of French director Marcel Camus’ Orphee Noir, or Black Orpheus, his own 1959 screen adaptation of Vinicius’ musical play in verse, Orfeu da Conceição (“Orpheus of the Conception Hills”), from 1956.

Filmed on location in Rio between the years 1957 and 1958, and based on a modern re-working, set during the city’s renowned Carnival celebration, of the ancient Greek myth of poet-musician Orpheus — now transformed into a happy-go-lucky streetcar conductor — and his beloved Eurydice, the joint French, Italian, and Brazilian co-production soon took on mythic proportions of its own.

As a cross-cultural phenomenon, it proved an instantaneous hit with delighted movie audiences, not only grabbing the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival but sweeping all others before it, including major entries by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard, in the Best Foreign Picture category at the following year’s Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

Though not a purely homespun product of Brazil by any means, Black Orpheus nonetheless helped focus the world’s eyes on the newly emerging Cinema Novo (or “New Wave”) movement about to take place there, which was a homespun product, and about as close to the French Nouvelle Vague as the talkies were to silent films, Vinicius’ other pet passion.

At any rate, it did help draw needed attention to such previously unknown talents as Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Glauber Rocha, Ruy Guerra, and Carlos Diegues (more about his individual contributions later on), thus making straight the path to serious cinematic recognition via a barrage of influential reviewers and opinionates.

The film also caused real-life poet and musician Vinicius de Moraes no end of controversy, evidenced by his bringing down the wrath of Zeus onto the hapless Camus and his producer, Sacha Gordine (who had befriended Vinicius during the poet’s stay in Paris), for perpetrating such a travesty of his stage conception. The deadliest of verbal thunderbolts, however, were hurled at screenwriter Jacques Viot — so much so that the carioca poet insisted his name be taken off the credits.

In view of the topnotch qualities of the work itself, why would Moraes raise such a splendid ruckus over it, especially after viewing the end result in all its prize-winning glory? What did the film world’s most respected award committees see in Camus’ magnum opus that its originator found so offensive and untrue?

To better comprehend the rage behind Vinicius’ unforeseen departure in Rio we must look to how the idea for his play first came about — and who better to communicate the history behind it all than the Brazilian Renaissance man himself:

“It was around 1942 that one night [at the home of architect Carlos Leão], after reading once again about the [Orpheus] myth in an old book on Greek mythology, I suddenly realized that it contained the framework for a tragedy set among the black population of Rio. The legend of the artist who, thanks to the fascination of his music, was able to descend into Hades to search for his beloved Eurydice… might very well take place in one of Rio’s shantytowns…

“I started to jot my vision down into a few verses, which then became a full act, finalizing it just as the sun rose over Guanabara, now visible through the window. It was another six years after that, while living in Los Angeles, that I was able to add the last two acts, and even later in 1953, after misplacing the third act and having to rewrite it, in Paris, before it was completed.”

In 1954, at the urging and insistence of his good friend, João Cabral de Mello Neto, who gave the work its title, Vinicius entered the finished draft in a contest commemorating the Fourth Centennial Celebration of the founding of the city of São Paulo; it won the top prize. Notwithstanding that fact, the poet’s representation of the Thracian minstrel Orpheus as an Afro-Brazilian of suitably “humble” origins (the direct result of his friendship with American writer and social critic, Waldo Frank, who encouraged Vinicius in his updating of the tale to contemporary times), along with Jobim’s shrewd depiction of favela (“slum”) life through the pulsating sounds of 1950s street samba, were not as novel a choice of material as might initially have been suggested by the above.

According to musicologist Richard Taruskin, in The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume Three: The Nineteenth Century, it was clear the allegorical Greek figure was the subject of numerous stage treatments long before Moraes got hold of his mythical lyre:

“Orpheus was present… at the creation of opera. Several of the earliest ‘musical tales’ that adorned Northern Italian court festivities in the early seventeenth century were based on his myth.”

Taruskin then took this notion a step further, emphasizing his strongly-held belief that, “The Orpheus myth was a myth of music’s ethical power, the supreme article of faith for all serious musicians… whenever the need was seen to reassert high musical ideals against frivolous entertainment values.”

That might have worked for opera’s founding fathers, but how would it play with Rio’s common folk? Indeed, whatever “high musical ideals” our serious-minded Brazilian poet intended for his poor-bound Orfeu would have to wait, due to his participation in some of those same “frivolous entertainment values” Taruskin had just railed against.

In essence, what Vinicius had failed to recount for readers were the subliminal influences the work of another close companion would have on the final scope and scenario of his play.

Welles Raises Kane in Rio

Orson Welles in Rio (LIFE Magazine)

Orson Welles in Rio (LIFE Magazine)

Enter the American director, writer, producer, actor, and jack-of-all-media-trades, the inimitable Orson Welles, once known in theatrical circles as the “Wonder Boy of Acting”; that master showman — some would say shaman — and larger-than-life personality (at six-foot, four-inches tall and weighing close to two hundred and fifty pounds, he certainly was that), now thrust into the cultural cauldron that was Carnival-crazed Brazil.

The Wisconsin-born Wunderkind had carved out a fabulous niche for himself in movie-land with his self-aggrandizing maiden effort, the classic Citizen Kane (1941). But during the turbulent years of the middle thirties, before the time that Vinicius claimed he was inspired to put pen and paper to his carioca tragedy, Welles had experimented with a version, set in Haiti, of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, staged in Harlem by him and his associate, John Houseman. With Welles at the helm, so to speak, drilling and coaching his non-professional cast for months on end, the all-black ensemble managed to traverse the tongue-tripping impediments of iambic pentameter, to the extent his so-called “Voodoo” Macbeth became one of the singular achievements of that racially divided period.

Of course, Vinicius could never have been privy to such an unconventional production in its prime, but he did get to make the acquaintance of the talented Mr. Welles in his. The chance to absorb from, and cavort with, the frenetic young “genius” up-close and personal — and in the poet’s backyard — was a rare opportunity indeed, one the dedicated film-lover and movie critic could ill afford to pass up. Fortunately, his cinematic credentials would help ease the transition into establishing the seismic connection.

It presented itself, in December 1941, through the Motion Picture Division of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, which, along with RKO Pictures, dispatched the twenty-five-year-old “boy wonder” to Brazil to film a cultural exchange project, in three parts, promoting friendly relations with Latin America — a job cartoonist Walt Disney had similarly been called upon to perform earlier that same year.

Uppermost on the division’s agenda was the use of this kind of innocuous programming ploy as an excuse to counter alleged militaristic tendencies within the Getúlio Vargas administration, in addition to shoring up needed support for the coming U.S. war effort. In line with this strategy, the Brazilian government was apparently unperturbed by the ruse. Quite the opposite: it was positively thrilled to have the much talked-about radio and film star visit its home shores, gauging his impending excursion “as a huge endorsement and a hope for the future; the native film industry perceived it as a step towards its emergence from obscurity.” These were both overly optimistic appraisals.

Delusions of pan-hemispheric unity aside, Vinicius witnessed firsthand the challenges Welles took on with regard to his mostly improvised semi-documentary It’s All True — in particular, the unfinished segment “Carnival,” in which the easily distracted director had poured his unflagging energy (and the studio’s monetary resources) into capturing Rio’s annual whirlwind procession circa February 1942.

What Welles hoped to achieve, as soon as a workable plan had come to mind, would be a spectacle “that would treat its black participants and black culture with respect and affection” — a view shared by his newfound friend Vinicius (then a worldly 29), who was more than willing to act as Orson’s tour guide through the country’s cultural labyrinth.

Quick study that he was, Welles had been tipped off beforehand as to Brazil’s geography, politics, customs, language, and cuisine. In fact, no sooner had he set foot in Rio than the welcoming throng greeted him as a conquering warrior: he was immediately referred to, appropriately enough, as o simpático garotão, or “the charming big boy.”

If that now meant he could samba the night away with some of Sugar Loaf’s loveliest ladies — and go off to shoot “Negroes covered with [m]aracatu feathers” afterwards, in an honest to goodness favela — then more power to him; with the upshot being that RKO Pictures and the Office of Inter-American Affairs got more than they bargained for, what with their self-indulgent “big boy” out of control.

On top of all these troubles, there were the meddling Brazilian authorities and not-so charming press types to tangle with. They certainly had their own ideas about what impressions of Brazil their neighbors to the north needed to have come away with — and they did not include footage of dancing “jigaboos” and “no good half-breeds” running around Rio “as if it were another Harlem.” Not only that, but the accidental drowning death of Jacaré, one of the poor Northeastern fishermen to be featured in Welles’ proposed third segment, “Four Men on a Raft,” slammed the door shut on the doomed endeavor beyond all hope of reopening.

With a management change and reshuffle at the home studio, the rain soon fell on Orson’s Rio Carnival parade. Expecting something along the lines of a standard-day travelogue, a somewhat “superficial view of Brazil that would encourage tourism rather than criticism and cries for social justice,” the head offices were rewarded instead with the director’s 16mm rough-cut of “poor people, particularly poor black people.”

In his review of the 1993 New York Film Festival presentation of It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles, movie critic Vincent Canby rightly observed: “[This] did not fit into any good neighbor policy that RKO or the U.S. State Department wanted to publicize,” with the result that the financial spigot was abruptly turned off on the aborted Brazil project. That did not stop Welles from carrying on with the assignment through his own makeshift means; but it did foil previous plans for him to finish the editing of his latest epic, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which laid the groundwork for his eventual undoing and removal from Hollywood’s A-list of sought-after filmmakers.

What of the faithful Moraes? He would meet up with his incorrigible pal Welles once more in 1946, in Los Angeles, where the poet and playwright went to assume his latest diplomatic post as vice-consul for Itamaraty; and where, by his own admission, he picked up the story of Orpheus right where he had left it. Not that his official duties with the Brazilian Foreign Service ever got in the way of perfecting his art. But while Vinicius was on the West Coast he did learn all he needed to learn about the movie business, mostly by watching the quadruple-threat Orson in action making The Lady from Shanghai (1948), a dismal box-office failure upon its belated release, as well as the unmaking of his friend’s four-year marriage to screen siren Rita Hayworth.

After the late 1940s, the well-tempered boy wonder’s career had seen its best days, but the seemingly more mature Mr. Welles would gamely soldier on by continuing to work as an independent. Because of the notorious Brazilian escapade, however, highlighted by his freewheeling methods and chaotic approach to movie-making, the major studios could no longer trust Orson to do the needful with respect to their valuable film properties. Welles’ own disillusionment with the elite of Hollywood’s motion-picture establishment led to his voluntary exile in Europe for most of the remainder of his life.

Despite all his difficulties with It’s All True (many of them, quite frankly, of his own devising), as expected Orson did, in fact, leave his personal stamp on Brazil’s nascent film industry — in a manner of speaking. To quote from critic Canby: “‘Four Men on a Raft’… [has] the gloriously liquid look of the heavily filtered, black-and-white photography favored in the 1930s to ennoble peasants and other common folk. It’s corny and possibly condescending, but it still works. Glauber Rocha, a leading talent in Brazil’s own Cinema Novo movement, used the same style in his Barravento (1961), which is set in the fishing village of Bahia.”

Otherwise, it was a slow and steady slide from Welles’ brilliant but barely conclusive beginning with Citizen Kane to his all-but unemployable ending, the memory of which would linger in Vinicius’ mind long after their warm relationship had substantially cooled. But not long enough to have profited from the director’s unheeded lesson about compromising one’s artistic integrity in the face of social and political realities.

A Certain Mister Jobim

Tom jobim & Vinicius de Moraes

Antonio Carlos Jobim & Vinicius de Moraes

Upon the satisfactory completion, in France, of his Orfeu da Conceição, and after its having attained the formal status in Brazil of an award-winning play of extraordinary merit and substance, Vinicius made the determined decision to have his glorified text set to music. He went about the task of searching for a composer of equivalent stature, someone who could do his poetic Orphic tragedy the musical justice it so richly deserved.

We can spare curious readers the needless suspense, since, as any reasonably knowledgeable music fan will tell you, Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim was the individual chosen to perform that estimable deed. How his future songwriting partner happened to pick Tom from among the wealth of available talent that samba-driven Rio had to offer is a familiar yet infrequently expanded-upon topic worth delving into at length.

All of the existing accounts either corroborate or confirm what we already know about how these two industry giants gradually came together at the Casa Villarino Bar, located in the old cultural center of Brazil’s former capital, Rio de Janeiro. Although the gist of their historic union resulted in the hesitant Tom’s halting commitment to write a score for Vinicius’ yet-to-be-produced masterpiece, there are enough differences in the details as to make those with inquisitive minds want to ask who-did-what-to-whom to bring this mighty encounter to life.

Take, for instance, the contributions of writer-composer Ronaldo Bôscoli, one of Vinicius’ closest journalistic companions and an early proponent of bossa nova (as well as his future brother-in-law). A behind-the-scenes radio commentator, music critic, and all-around authority on Brazilian popular culture, Bôscoli is often credited with being the first to mention Jobim by name as a possible candidate for the poet’s consideration.

Other sources hint at newspaperman Lúcio Rangel, a mutual friend, historian, and music buff, as the person most likely to have brought the two artists together. There was even a third party present, disc jockey Haroldo Barbosa, who was an eyewitness to the “earthshaking” event, as were many others, I’m sure, all of them steadfast in their recollection of what was said and done and why.

It would better serve us to know, with some clarity, the circumstances under which composer-musician Antonio Carlos Jobim rose to the forefront of one of the most respected and fruitful collaborations of recent times.

In the same year that Orfeu da Conceição received deserved distinction in São Paulo, the youthful Tom Jobim — a mere 29 at the time, and the same age as Moraes when the poet first met Orson Welles in Rio some twelve years earlier — had been eking out a passing existence as a copyist by day and part-time piano player by night. He even toyed with the idea of arranging and producing, along with being a sometime songwriter, primarily for the Continental Record Company.

Gravitating toward the larger Odeon label, where the novice Carmen Miranda made her mark a generation or so before, Jobim learned his craft from the ground up through the expert guidance of master arranger, producer, and composer Radamés Gnattali, who had a major influence on his style, as did Pixinguinha (Alfredo da Rocha Viana), Heitor Villa-Lobos, Ary Barroso, Dorival Caymmi, Frédéric Chopin, Maurice Ravel, and Claude Debussy, among others.

The early sambas and sambas-canções (“samba-songs”) he whipped up during this formative period — though nowhere near the subtlety and harmonic invention of his lasting work with Moraes, Newton Mendonça, Chico Buarque, and other greats — were admired and recorded by some of the era’s finest singing stars, among them Bill Far, Nora Ney, Lúcio Alves, Dolores Duran, and the mellow-voiced Dick Farney (real name: Farnésio Dutra e Silva).

Naturally, such consistent exposure in the marketplace soon attracted the notice of the local pop mavens. It’s probable, too, that Vinicius and Tom may have unknowingly crossed paths with each other — as spectator and guest performer, respectively — during one of their frequent nocturnal sorties into Rio’s exuberant nightlife.

However it came about, and by whatever means, let’s say that by April 1956, Antonio Carlos Jobim was a known and welcome quantity to those who wandered into his artistic milieu, which basically assured his discovery at some point in his life.

“Is There Any Money In It?”

Vinicius (center) at Casa Villarino

Vinicius (center) at Casa Villarino

The spot where the formidable carioca pair would finally meet and be formally introduced turns out to have been a favorite hangout for Rio’s political, intellectual, and literary community, sort of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse of its day. As immortalized in Brazilian author Ruy Castro’s book, Bossa Nova (“Chega de Saudade”): The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World, “It is almost unbelievable that the partnership of Vinicius and Tom Jobim could have been born in [a place such as] Casa Villarino,” only because no one took very seriously what came out of that easygoing establishment, knowing full well the detrimental effects that too much alcohol had on the proffered wisdom of the bar’s regulars.

But no matter: the fraternal gathering of music-loving and poetry-reading compatriots and cohorts would take place there on a late afternoon in the autumn of 1956. By that time, Jobim had a full-time day job to slave over, and a growing family of his own to concern with. He happened, quite by accident, to have been seated at a separate table inside Casa Villarino when his friend, Lúcio Rangel, called him over to speak to the notoriously opinionated bard.

Unbeknown to him at the time, however, was the fact that the veteran Vadico (Osvaldo Gogliano), a longtime collaborator with the tubercular Noel Rosa and an old hand at songwriting, had recently turned down Vinicius’ request (“for reasons of health”) to provide him with the music for his still scoreless play.

Not expecting much in the way of progress after the proposed tête-à-tête meeting with Vadico fell through, Vinicius, for his part, spent most of his getting-to-know-you session with Tom summarizing Orfeu’s plot and story line to the visibly incurious composer. Jobim, no doubt worried about his family’s finances, risked adding insult to injury by his justly famous remark, “Tem um dinheirinho nisso?” – “Is there any money in it?” (A slight variation of which is often translated as, “Is there any money associated with this story?”) Numbed at this tantalizing yet disingenuous line of questioning, Rangel stared blankly at his friend for a moment, then responded with a quotable line of his own: “But Tom, how can you bring money up to the poet at a time like this?” or something to that effect.

How could he, indeed, but that’s exactly what Jobim did — and he had a good laugh about it later, too, when recapping the incident for reporters. After a few more rounds of back-and-forth bargaining, to include copious amounts of liquid “persuasion,” an agreement was finally struck and a long-running partnership formed.

As these things tend to happen, Vinicius had a slightly different reading of the events of that particular day. “I was looking for some musicians,” he related in an interview for São Paulo’s Museum of Image and Sound. “Back then we used to hang out at… the Villarino; a lot of friends used to get together there around a large table in the late afternoon. It was there that, one evening, I was talking to Lúcio Rangel and Haroldo Barbosa, and Lúcio said: ‘Why don’t you try a young guy I know who I think is really talented?’ This guy played in some hellholes in Copacabana…”

“It was Lúcio who suggested Tom Jobim,” he went on, “though today there are two or three people who deny this, one of them his nephew. Tom was sitting at a table nearby, we asked him to join us, I made the proposal and he was vague about it, as usual. But we did decide to meet to talk about it later. I went to his apartment, gave him the play, he read it and liked it and said okay, he’d write the music for it. And so we began.”

The task of physically putting together a show and placing it onto the carioca stage had started in earnest. For the next several weeks, the newly cemented working outfit would barricade itself within Tom’s Ipanema apartment until the musical portion of their program was over, thanks largely to liberal helpings of native-Brazilian brew.

Gathering up his old friends and colleagues into one leftist-leaning basket, the “Little Poet,” as he was often called, enlisted the aid of architect Oscar Niemeyer, the man responsible for the country’s futuristic new capital, Brasília, as the principal set designer; painters Carlos Scliar, Djanira, Luis Ventura, and Raimundo Nogueira were hired as poster and scenic artists; Vinicius’ second wife, Lila Bôscoli de Moraes, was the costume designer; along with Argentine choreographer Lina de Luca, stage director Leo Jusi, and conductor Leo Peracchi in charge of the thirty-five-piece orchestra.

On September 19, 1956, one week before the musical play’s official opening of September 25th, at the imposing Teatro Municipal in downtown Rio de Janeiro — and three months after the commencement of stage rehearsals, which were constantly interrupted by his consular activities — playwright and poet Vinicius de Moraes dashed off this poignant dedication:

“This play is an homage to the Brazilian black man, to whom I owe so much; and not just for his organic contribution to the culture of this country – but more for his impassioned lifestyle that has allowed me, with little to no effort, by a simple spark of the imagination, to feel in the [inspiration] of the divine Thracian musician, that same inspiration [born of] the divine musicians from our own native carioca hills.”

The all-black, all-Brazilian cast — by and large, a fairly radical undertaking for its time — starred Haroldo Costa as Orfeu, Daisy Paiva as Eurídice, Léa Garcia as Mira (Serafina in the French film version), singer Ciro Monteiro as Apolo, and Zeny Pereira as Clio. Other members of the troupe included Adalberto Silva (Plutão), Pérola Negra (Proserpina), Waldir Maia (Corifeu), Francisca de Queiroz (Dama Negra), Clementino Luiz (Cérbero), Abdias do Nascimento, one of the founders of Brazil’s Experimental Black Theatre, as Aristeu the beekeeper, and Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump, Adhemar Ferreira da Silva, as one of the choristers as well as the skeletal Black Death figure in the movie.

Orfeu packed them in at the Municipal for a solid week, up through September 30, after which it moved on to the Teatro República (no longer in existence) for a month-long run. A last-ditch effort to switch venues to neighboring São Paulo collapsed due to a lack of available funding and space.

The Brazilian Play’s the Thing!

Haroldo Costa with Daisy Paiva (haroldcosta.com.br)

Haroldo Costa with Daisy Paiva (haroldcosta.com.br)

Nostalgia and the fog of remembrance often blind us to the reality of what life was like for the poor of the poet’s time. So let’s not mince words: it was exceedingly rough. The unrelieved harshness of their hand-to-mouth existence, so near in proximity to the city’s Mount Olympus-like natural wonders, compelled many of Rio’s neediest to huddle for shelter alongside her vast, hilltop expanse.

Finding comfort as well as misery in each other’s company, they were sandwiched in like sardines in makeshift corrugated shacks. The horrendous living conditions the populace had to endure frequently mimicked the horrendous behavior of the favela’s resident malefactors, which included the local constabulary charged with providing for their betterment. Poverty and hunger, rampant corruption and out-of-control crime, child abuse, disease, drugs, prostitution, broken homes, and juvenile delinquency — problems we still deal with on a daily basis whether they’re found on the streets of Philadelphia or in the slums of Mumbai — were the unfortunate outgrowth of this dysfunction and neglect.

Vinicius was not unmindful of such matters, as we well know, nor was he at all ignorant of the turbulence endemic to the warlike ethos of Orpheus’ time. With a firm nod in the direction of Euripides, he transposed many of the starkest elements of Greek drama whole-scale into his Tragédia carioca em três atos, while re-positioning them against everyday Brazilian slum life.

This is an important distinction, as elaborated on by Thais Flores Nogueira Diniz of the Federal University of Ouro Preto, in her transcendent essay, “O Mito como tradução, em Vinicius de Moraes” (“Myth as Translation in Vinicius de Moraes”). The play, she notes, is a celebration of Rio de Janeiro’s culture, not Greece’s; and Orfeu, a uniquely Brazilian individual with so-called “special qualities,” is both an un-god-like hero and a quasi-immortal with his own tragic destiny to fulfill.

Oscar Niemeyer, a master of curvilinear shapes and forms (who incidentally marked his stage debut with this piece), was himself strongly influenced by classical antiquity, as was Lila Bôscoli de Moraes with her designs for the show’s captivating gowns. Beyond this, Niemeyer’s plans for Brazil’s futuristic capital city — by filling its “vast empty space” with “sensuous white curves in glass and concrete” — were the visible manifestation of what Jobim and Vinicius aurally tried to capture with their epicurean taste in tunes.

Orfeu da Conceição is dedicated to Vinicius’ daughter, Susana de Moraes, and prefaced by two literary quotations referencing the mythological poet-minstrel and his lyre: the first from John Dryden’s “Ode in Honour of St. Cecilia’s Day,” and the second from “La Crema” by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

There next comes a series of directives, the most informative of which stress that, “All the personages of this tragedy should normally be played by black actors… The popular slang that is employed throughout, which tends to fluctuate with the times, can be adapted to fit these new conditions. The lyrics of the sambas included in the play… should be used as is, although the story can be altered in the same manner as the slang.” Film director Carlos Diegues later took Vinicius’ injunction to update his story “to fit these new conditions” literally, and to its ultimate extreme.

A recapitulation of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, excerpted from The Golden Legend of Gods and Heroes by Mario Meunier — apparently, the inspirational source for the poet’s imagination — follows a listing of the play’s dramatis personae. Orpheus represents the duality present in all artists and their art. A serious figure, as well as a bold adventurer and inveterate toga-chaser — that is, until he meets up with the lovely tree-nymph Eurydice — he is a musician and a poet of surpassing skill and grace whose melodic musings caused the very birds of the air to give pause before taking wing.

Musician and poet Vinicius de Moraes knew the type only too well. He telegraphed those qualities he found within himself by expressing (as Caetano Veloso, in a brush with purple prose, once wisely put it) his soul’s “sweetly tragic aspects through music” and verse. Nine times married, as opposed to his songwriting partner’s lowly two, and a sensualist right down to the marrow in his bones, he made the successful transition to the stage via an extraordinary leap of faith in the untested Tom Jobim, who through a thin veneer of self-confidence at his disposal had the wherewithal to make it all happen.

While it’s tempting to equate an artist’s past or present circumstances with any of his finished handiwork, or to read too much into them, it is perfectly reasonable to make the extra effort in this regard. There are many instances in Vinicius’ “Carioca Tragedy in Three Acts” where one gets the uneasy feeling the actual events of his sybaritic existence were being staged for our gratification and enjoyment — an uncomfortable reenactment of the poet-musician’s life as a voluptuary, or “a person given over to luxury and the pursuit of sensual appetites.” You be the judge.

Orfeu da Conceicao

Hot-blooded Latin temperaments vie with Aegean passion and lust in the play’s lengthy first act, which takes place in a hillside slum. After the opening speech by the leader of the chorus — “Many are the dangers of this life for he who possesses passion,” goes the exculpatory first line — and an expository sequence between Clio and Apolo, Orfeu’s poverty stricken parents, the title character wanders in with Eurídice’s name in his thoughts and in his words. There’s a scene for mother and son, in which Clio begs him to forget about marriage (“Why tie yourself down when you can have any girl?”), along with a passage wherein she warns Orfeu not to provoke the jealousy of other women — advice unheeded by our hero.

The object of his affection soon arrives, but not before Orfeu launches into his first solo, “Um nome de mulher” (“The Name of a Woman”). The lovers trade terms of endearment, while Eurídice half-jokingly confides that she will die from love of Orfeu (prophetic phrases, indeed). He in turn calls her the “beauty of life,” among other amorous declarations, in the famous monologue that follows. With its gorgeous guitar and flute accompaniment, “Mulher mais adorada” (“Most Beloved Woman)” is the closest thing in the play to an aria.

His poetic ruminations (the wonderful ballad, “Se todos fossem iguais a você”) soon provoke the ire of Mira de Tal, his jealous ex-girlfriend. In their angry exchange, Orfeu reveals heretofore-untapped levels of macho posturing: he’s notorious, among other things, for his abusive mistreatment of women.

In addition to the above incidents, there are numerous references to the plight of the impoverished (“Poor folk don’t marry,” his mother informs him, “they just live together”); Eurídice’s premeditated stabbing death by the envious Aristeu (soon after Orfeu’s deflowering of her maidenhood); preceded by Orfeu’s song, “Mulher, sempre mulher” (“Always a Woman”), and the infernal ravings of Dama Negra, a terrifying harbinger of death, who at the curtain claims Eurídice’s lifeless form with her huge cloak.

Act II occurs in the seamy underside of the city, here depicted as a combination dance palace and single’s bar known as Os Maiorais do Inferno, or “The Big Shots from Hell,” where the biggest shots of all, Plutão (“Pluto”) and his obese queen Proserpina (“Persephone”), preside over an all-out Bacchanalian orgy of wine, women, and samba. The act is primarily taken up with Orfeu’s crashing of the Carnival revelers’ party, his drowning of his own sorrows, and his pathetic cries of “Eurídice, I want my Eurídice,” first evidenced in Act I and now duly mocked (“I am Eurídice”) by the taunting denizens of the club.

Act III is in two scenes. In the first, which is reminiscent of the communal outpouring of grief in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, we are back at the slum. Orfeu’s parents and friends are in mourning for the dead Eurídice. Individual voices recite an irreverent form of the Roman Catholic Creed (a hint of Orfeu’s “divine” origins), with the distraught hero curiously at its center. One by one, the slum dwellers relive the couple’s tale of woe.

Several of the townspeople take the inconsolable Clio away to a waiting ambulance, the operators of which stubbornly refuse to take up the hill for fear of their lives. The delirious Clio blames Eurídice for all the trouble she has brought to her son and their once “happy” community. A group of boys, playing on homemade percussion instruments, now enter and chant a samba, “Eu e o meu amor” (“My Love and I”), repeating the verses as they cross the stage and disappear into the background.

The scene now shifts outside to a house of ill repute on the outskirts of town. Mira is seen drinking and picking a fight with one of the girls. A bewildered Orfeu appears. He walks around in a perpetual daze while speaking to his departed Eurídice as if she were still with him (“Lamento no morro” – “Lament on the Hill”). His forlorn attitude and dejected behavior rekindle the drunken Mira’s wrath, as she and the other enraged women fall upon their hapless prey. They attack with all the fury of females scorned, slicing and dicing him up with their knives and switchblades.

Relief comes in the ghostly apparition of Dama Negra, who entices Orfeu to join her in death by imitating Eurídice’s love call. Orfeu resigns himself to his fate, as the women pounce upon him one last time. Emerging from the bloodletting with the hero’s guitar (his manhood?) in hand, Mira flings it over the cement wall. There is an enormous crash as the instrument lands, which frightens some of the women away.

The violence comes to an end in the same manner as before, with Dama Negra claiming Orfeu’s corpse with her cape amid the soft sounds of his guitar, mysteriously playing on its own in the background. The curtain falls on the chorus’ spoken apotheosis.

It’s All Just a Myth-Understanding

For most hardworking individuals, success is not just a two-syllable word meaning a “favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors” — in this case, the sufficiently favorable run of not only Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes’ fully-orchestrated musical concept, Orfeu da Conceição; but also its much anticipated screen adaptation, Black Orpheus (known inside Brazil by its alternate title, Orfeu do Carnaval), which arrived on the scene a few years later.

No, success is more often a two-way street, implying that, with a good deal of time (and a little bit of leeway) between them, all enterprising new ventures begin to acquire a complex mythology all their own; what nowadays is described as “excess baggage” — usually one separate and distinct from their original purpose or intent. This was evidently so of the all-Brazilian Orfeu and the French-made Black Orpheus.

Breno Mello (Orfeu) serenading Marpessa Dawn (Euridice)

Breno Mello (Orfeu) serenading Marpessa Dawn (Euridice)

One of these myths circulated around the soundtrack to Marcel Camus’ acclaimed co-production. Contrary to popular belief, it did not incorporate any of the original show tunes created by Vinicius and Tom for their contemporary stage version of the story, the most memorable of which, the beautiful ballad “Se todos fossem iguais a você” (“If Everyone Were Like You”), called, under its better-known English title, “Someone to Light Up My Life,” became a standard with entertainers of the time. The other numbers on the list, “Um nome de mulher,” “Monólogo de Orfeu,” “Mulher, sempre mulher,” “Eu e o meu amor,” and “Lamento no morro,” all met the same fate and, ergo, were not part of the film; neither was any of the incidental music Jobim had so carefully labored over (“Overture,” “Tema de Eurídice,” “Modinha,” “A Dama Negra,” and “Macumba”).

The reason for their omission was, as a matter of financial expediency, a purely practical one — from the French vantage point, that is: the producers did not want to be encumbered by future royalty payments or copyright infringement issues. Touché! Whatever new music did come out of the arrangement would, by contractual obligation, become the exclusive property of the studio, thereby placing it under its strict control — a win-win proposition for the French that left the playwright and composer out of the revenue stream.

Another related aspect concerned the quality and quantity of the vocal numbers. As one of the first foreign productions to introduce street-style samba, samba de morro (“samba from the hills”), and the wonderful “new beat” of bossa nova to the international movie-viewing public, Black Orpheus has been lavishly praised and idolized — beyond all recognition — as a wall-to-wall musical montage, a non-stop Carnival pageant, and (worst of all) a fantastic party-hearty banquet for the senses from beginning to end, much as Brazil’s own pre-Lenten festival was reputed to be.

This is patently untrue, and a fabulous trick of the mind played on the part of loyal movie followers with famously short memories. It happens that the score for the stage version, in keeping to the prevailing trend, was much closer in style to samba-canção, or “slower samba,” than anything that came after.

Although in the film real-live street sambas were recorded on the spot, then re-edited for use, by Camus, into the Rio Carnival sequence, the much-ballyhooed bossa nova sound — which, technically speaking, did not reach its maximum potential as a fully-formed pop genre until after the close of the decade — barely managed to make its debut in Black Orpheus. It was imperceptible in the play, however, which was comprised of more rudimentary material.

Regardless, the music that was ultimately used lasted no more than several minutes of screen time, if that; nor did it take up every second of every film frame, either, as some critics have ascertained. As it was, the relatively few numbers overall were spaced out somewhat evenly, if not always seamlessly, over the film’s one-hundred-and-three-minute running time (the Criterion Collection DVD features an additional four minutes of previously unseen footage) — hardly the super-duper sound fest most fans seem to recall from the Black Orpheus of their youth.

But the most common misconception of all, which may or may not have been an unintended distortion of Vinicius’ integral idea for his work, was the conviction that Jobim and Moraes were the sole perpetrators of the movie’s songs and music. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sharing co-equal billing status with fellow carioca Tom Jobim was a friend of singer Dick Farney: composer and performer Luiz Bonfá, who from the Teatro Municipal’s orchestra pit had plucked away on Orfeu’s lovely guitar solos in the original Rio stage setting.

On their own, and away from the movie house, Bonfá’s additions — the plaintive mournfulness of “Manhã de Carnaval” (“Morning of Carnival,” better known as “A Day in the Life of a Fool”), followed by the raw jubilation of his rhythmically buoyant “Samba de Orfeu,” which ends the urban tragedy on a hopeful note — came to symbolize, for most foreign viewers, what the “reel” Black Orpheus was all about.

In the beautifully flowing strophes of Bahia’s own native poet-minstrel, the singer-songwriter (and former movie critic) Caetano Veloso, both Vinicius’ play and Camus’ subsequent film version succeeded in unveiling Brazil to the world “as an Orphean country, a country that expresses its soul’s sweetly tragic aspects through music.”

Almost by definition, Bonfá’s two unforgettable melodic “expressions,” written in tandem with his lyricist Antonio Maria, became the heart and soul of Black Orpheus, and, quite fittingly, its most widely disseminated (and listened to) showpieces — more so even than Jobim-Moraes’ opening number, “A Felicidade” (“Happiness”), or the team’s other able efforts, “Frevo de Orfeu” and “O nosso amor” (“Our Love”).

Without diminishing the market value of Tom and Vinicius’ songwriting abilities, the universal hoopla that quickly followed in the wake of the movie’s built-in mass appeal caught most Brazilians off guard and completely by surprise.

Let the facts speak for themselves: the entire enterprise came, coincidentally enough, at a rare cosmic convergence in the country’s history — when Brazil was basking in the sunlight of a potential resurgence — with the national team winning its first World Cup Soccer Championship in Sweden; with the U.S. State Department sponsoring a trip to Brazil that would bring the American jazz-pop community into closer contact with bossa nova; and with Brazil being strategically placed to join the front ranks of First World nations in the inauguration of its modernistic new capital city, Brasília.

Hats off to the visionary developmentalist responsible for that incredible coup: Brazil’s President Juscelino Kubitschek, whose quasi-governmental entity Tupan Filmes helped put up part of the financing for French director Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus project in the first place. Talk about hedging one’s bets!

Beware of Greeks and Gauls Bearing Gifts

We now come full circle, to return to the point in our drama where Vinicius de Moraes met the Eastmancolor® widescreen — and the widescreen won. Every indication we’ve seen so far should have prepared the film’s producers for the defiant stand the inflamed carioca poet took with respect to the premiere of Black Orpheus at the presidential palace in Laranjeiras. (It did not.)

Some of the more insightful commentaries regarding Vinicius’ willful behavior there range from his “ideological” opposition to, rather than the aesthetically “visual” and/or “narrative” aspects of, the story, in Professor of Art History, Dr. Stephen Wright’s more studied interpretation; to singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso’s personal take on the matter, framed by his own extensive movie-going experience, wherein he criticizes director Camus’ cinematic view of his countrymen as “inauthentic,” “unreal” and “outrageously fanciful,” even by Brazilian standards.

“To say that the film was received without enthusiasm in Brazil is an understatement,” wrote Veloso in The New York Times. “The contrast between the fascination that Black Orpheus generated abroad and the contempt with which it was treated by Brazilians, who saw themselves depicted as exotics, invites thoughts on the loneliness of Brazil,” to say nothing of the loneliness of the long distance-running Vinicius in his late-night getaway from the movie’s gala preview to his more modest surroundings in Gávea.

So what got the poet’s goat? Why did Vinicius so precipitously “bail out” of Black Orpheus on opening night? The nearest one can arrive at a logical explanation would, by necessity, have to be built on the prima facie evidence at hand, and from a deeper understanding of the poet’s personality and character: a posteriori, it had plenty to do with his undisguised displeasure at how his poetic creation was disfigured by the French in the transition from stage to screen.

Marpessa Dawn & Breno Mello (The Criterion Collection)

Marpessa Dawn (Euridice) & Breno Mello (The Criterion Collection)

From the caring individual he first envisaged, a person intimately involved in and aware of the problems of his poor favela neighborhood, yet still capable of expressing outgoing concern for family and friends (whole sections of which were virtually eliminated from the screenplay); to one more than a little “obsessed,” shall we say, with the charms of a country bumpkin-style Eurídice (played by Pennsylvania-born dancer Marpessa Dawn), the filmic interpolation of soccer star Breno Mello as Orfeu emerged as altogether unrecognizable to the socially conscious playwright.

If that were the only consideration, he might just as easily have withstood the onslaught a bit better than he inopportunely did. But there was more to it than that. Part of the problem stemmed from his over-familiarity with the deplorable state of Brazil’s impoverished under-classes, many of who had wrestled with government inaction in attending to their needs for as long as he could remember — with none of it, lamentably, finding its way either into the script or onto the big screen.

This was hard enough for Vinicius to swallow, but what could have tipped him even further over the edge was the supplanting of the play’s lofty oratory with one that robbed his characters of their sublime elegance and charm, hence the hasty decision to distance himself from any affiliation with Camus’ work.

Coming to the French filmmaker’s aid, Dr. Wright appears willing to weigh in with a slightly different take on the issue: “Camus was less worried with the social realities of the favela and more interested in creating a classic retelling of the [Orpheus] myth with an emphasis on the tragedy through a complex iconography that symbolically merges myth and reality, albeit from a foreign [emphasis added] perspective.” That would certainly help to explain, but not to justify, Vinicius’ protestations about it all, in that he may well have blown the whole thing out of proportion, in addition to taking what was done artistically to his play far too seriously (and too personally).

“It was one of the greatest disappointments I have ever had in my life,” he complained soon after the film appeared. “I had not seen the rushes, and I was in Montevideo when I was told that the movie had won the Palme d’Or. So I went wild and celebrated and thought they had really gotten it right. Then, when I came back [to Brazil], Juscelino invited me for the first screening at the presidential palace, together with his family and two or three people from the production. I got such a shock as I watched the movie that I simply slipped out and went home. I felt I just wouldn’t be able to face those Frenchies when the lights came on. I might even have come to blows with them.”

While all this was bubbling over, where was the poet’s composing partner and what did he think of his hotheaded friend’s frustration with the flick? He may have said something along the lines of, “Meu chapa, deixa isso pra lá,” loosely translated as “Let it go, my man,” which would have been sound advice if the bard had actually heard it. That neither Tom nor Vinicius thought very highly of Camus and Gordine’s extravagances is thoroughly documented in their correspondence.

Even with Vinicius’ nonconformist attitude toward his and other people’s lifestyles, he simply could not tolerate the inexplicable racial stereotypes that were prevalent throughout the film, some of them rather perplexing. A good example is the comic spat between Eurídice’s cousin, Serafina (Léa Garcia), and her sailor boyfriend Chico (Waldetar de Souza), two characters created especially for the feature. After waiting months for shore leave, the passion-starved marinheiro literally throws himself onto the girl at first sight, only to be stalled by a snoot-full of watermelon. He then proceeds to devour the treat as compensation for his failed lovemaking efforts — how droll.

There were other penny-dreadful situations as well, many involving the overly jealous Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), Orfeu’s intended bride and a major holdover from the play, who carries on like a “bitch in heat” every time she catches her fiancé diverting his gaze from her buxom form. In fairness, there exists a valid basis for her frantic disposition, most likely derived from the actions of the Maenads, or Bacchantes (after the god Bacchus), of Greek mythology, as handed down to us by the Roman poet Virgil and reinterpreted by Camus in this updated context.

As irresponsible a personage as he was frequently portrayed in the media, and in life, Vinicius was nothing if not true to his inner self. He lived by his words — and what beautifully expressive ones they were, too, in particular his heartfelt paean to Brazil’s black population, quoted earlier in this essay and written on the eve of Orfeu da Conceição’s debut.

Isn’t it ironic that what was shown up there on the silver screen, for all the world to see, in the Cidade Maravilhosa of 1959 was essentially the same old, Carnivalesque view of the city (remember those dancing “jigaboos,” “no good half-breeds,” and “Negroes covered with [m]aracatu feathers”) which the path-breaking Orson Welles once tried to capture — and paid a dear price for — in his tarnished It’s All True epic, back in the “good neighbor” days of 1942.

The poet was well versed as to the details of what happened to “this great Brazilian,” that young filmmaking genius, who, in a spirited homage Vinicius paid to him at the time, “has felt Brazil and the Brazilian people in a deeper, richer way than the vast majority of foreigners who have lived among us,” Camus later included. He remembered, quite vividly, the struggles Welles went through to get his more truthful vision of Rio off the ground, and the resounding failure he experienced at his inability to see it through to fruition.

The difference now was that, in the interval between the making of these two features, a new feeling — call it a nationalistic fervor — had taken root in the administration of then-President Juscelino Kubitschek and in the Brazilian nation as a whole; whereby the image to be imparted to would-be travelers was that of a happy, friendly, carefree people with wide-open, welcoming arms… why, just like that of the country’s emblematic Christ the Redeemer-figure. (Fancy that!)

Brazil had basically done the talk; it was time now to get down to business and do the walk (more like a leisurely beach stroll). Not that this meant anything to Vinicius, but the message he received from the film — perhaps through his more politically-oriented mode of thinking — was this: “Forget about slums and poverty, folks, come along and party with us.” That was some revised “good neighbor” policy that was put into effect! Whichever way one looks at it, the authorities in both the northern and southern climes, and on both continents, got what they deserved in inadvertently realizing their dream for a “superficial view of Brazil that would encourage tourism rather than criticism and cries for social justice,” the poet’s ability to see through the farce notwithstanding.

And being a poet, of course, Vinicius knew precisely what the differences between reality and myth entailed. What he ultimately objected to was the mockery of slum life the producers had made out of his carioca tragedy. If a foreigner (and good friend) such as Welles, after all the time, money, and energy he spent in Brazil learning how to samba in a Rio de Janeiro nightclub, could get it right from the start and still remain faithful to the material — warts and all — as well as respectful of its sources, then why couldn’t Camus, in his eyes, do the same?

Artists are such temperamental creatures by nature. That being the case, Vinicius’ flight from Black Orpheus should be construed as no less of an aggrieved artistic statement than, say, avant-garde playwright and theater director Gerald Thomas’ highly-publicized butt-baring episode at the Teatro Municipal — in the same city and in our own time — after his controversial 2003 staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde premiered there.

Keeping the above incident in mind, Vinicius de Moraes was, as we have witnessed, profoundly incapable of taking such abuse of his work in stiff-upper-lip fashion (“tolerance” was not a virtue in his vocabulary). He may have been asking a lot from Monsieur Camus, but who’s to say how much is too much where the original author was concerned?

The real carioca tragedy, then, for us outsiders, and especially for the noted Brazilian poet, was the bruising of his artist’s ego as well as the un-just neglect of his compassionate, respectful edition of Orfeu in favor of the gussied-up, prettified, less faithful rendering of the movie version. Still, for all its inherent flaws, including a patchwork delineation of street Carnival and a truly bizarre macumba sequence towards the end — comparable to the one in Bruno Barreto’s 1978 sex comedy, Dona Flor e seus dois maridos (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands), but for the opposite purpose — the award-winning Black Orpheus managed to come along at exactly the right moment.

It fit this ideal, picture-postcard view of Marvelous City to a “T,” and, as such, should be taken on its own terms, i.e., the marvelous costumes, the superb cinematography, its closer adherence to the Greek myth, and the fine musical score. Whether the production was of Gallic origin or a strictly Brazilian affair all the way was of little consequence to viewers. All the same, no amount of boycotting from its official co-creator could have prevented the Black Orpheus juggernaut from fulfilling its entertainment mission at any cost.

To be sure, the film was an absolute goldmine to the travel and hospitality industry, which would have had to make due without Vinicius’ backing in promoting it. (It did.) How many uncommitted foreigners turned into fervent expatriates after dining on a steady course of the eye candy our all-too astute Frenchman, Marcel Camus — like any good French chef — had so elaborately prepared for them? One can easily lose count.

Marcel Camus (left) with Vinicius (1959)

Marcel Camus (left) with Vinicius (1959)

The only other element to have come out of this unscathed — and one well supported by the facts — was the soft “new sound” of Brazilian bossa nova, a breezy sonic enhancement most pop-music fanatics had no reason to suspect would become the next biggest thing to hit the record stands since Bill Haley and His Comets convinced us to “Rock Around the Clock.”

(End of Part One)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes