Protest Songs

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

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

Countdown to Show Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Country, ‘Tis of Thee We Sing

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

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

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

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

O Rio de Janeiro continua lindo,

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll make my own way in the world

Bahia provided me with slide-rule and compass

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

 

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

Hello, Rio de Janeiro, that big embrace

To the people of Brazil, that big embrace

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(End of Part Two)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

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‘There’s Somethin’ Happenin’ Here’ — Songs that Celebrate a Turbulent Time (Part Two): From Folk-Rock to Pop

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For Pete’s Sake

American Folk-Rock Bank: The Byrds
American Folk-Rock Bank: The Byrds, circa the 1960s

Long before Bob Dylan made his mark; before Peter, Paul and Mary made the folk scene a regular happening; before the Limeliters came to light and the Kingston Trio thrilled us with their harmonies; before Trini Lopez, Harry Belafonte and Arlo Guthrie serenaded us with their hits, there were the likes of Huddy Ledbetter (“Leadbelly”) and Jimmie Rodgers, Arlo’s legendary papa Woody Guthrie, and that craggy rock of ages, Pete Seeger.

You can’t talk about Sixties rock and pop without mentioning that grand ole man of folk music and world beat — that is, before “world beat” had become a standard term of art. For all intents and purposes, Pete Seeger was to protest songs and political activism what Martin Luther King Jr. was to oratory and the spoken word: our country’s conscience and moral epicenter.

Born in New York City on May 3, 1919, Pete started playing banjo while still a teenager. His father was the musicologist Charles Seeger, from whom his lifelong love and pursuit of Earth’s musical marvels would derive. A prolific recording and concert artist, the constantly touring Seeger, even in his 70s and 80s, had more energy and drive than most individuals half his age.

Although blacklisted in the 1950s for alleged Communist activities and for his failure to give testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, Seeger boldly soldiered on as only he could, eventually winning an acquittal in 1962 of his contempt of Congress charge. Not that any of this prevented him from touring and recording, but Seeger must hold the record (or somewhere near it) for his many contributions to the expansion of America’s musical tastes.

 A young Pete Seeger in the 1940s
A young Pete Seeger in the 1940s

It is to him that we can attribute such popular fare as “If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Little Boxes,” and “Guantanamera,” along with “Goodnight Irene” and “On Top of Old Smokey.” Just as Dylan eventually proved unwilling to take on the mantle of prophet of his generation, Seeger was just as willing to fill the gap — whether he realized it or not.

Like Dylan, Seeger’s sway on the flowering folk-music revival and ever-widening anti-Vietnam War movement was felt in the two most lyrical expressions from the era: “Mr. Tambourine Man,” written in 1964 and recorded by Dylan in 1965; and Seeger’s own interpolation of phrases from the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes (attributed to King Solomon), “Turn, Turn, Turn,” both numbers recorded by Jim (later Roger) McGuinn and the Byrds.

Dylan’s use of trippy, dreamlike imagery gave “Mr. Tambourine Man” the flavor of a call to action, but not necessarily one to go out and protest. The words seem to refer to a Pied Piper figure, a charismatic personality (along the lines of Jesus Christ, a rock star, or Dylan himself perhaps) capable of sweeping you off your feet; of taking you on a voyage of discovery, of excessive contemplation of the self in what critics of the period would deem “navel gazing.”

As was his wont, Dylan’s acoustic original with guitar and harmonica boasted a rambling discourse in four verses, each one faster than the other, thus making it purposely difficult to follow his train of thought. This style of performing was atypical of the entire purpose of popular song: to absorb the lyrics and be able to convey a message that would fall effortlessly on receptive ears. Alas, we were witnessing the changeover from the easily discernible to the deliberately vague and indecipherable (vide Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones).

Sixties rock fans doted on the strewed nature of Dylan’s words. One can further detect the influence of LSD and other acid-induced trips, something the Beatles and other rock groups experienced as they tried to set their lyrics down on paper. Oh, and psychedelia was also blowing in the wind, but at this stage it was several years off from gathering a full head of steam.

Bob Dylan in the Swinging Sixties
Bob Dylan in the Swinging Sixties

Where did the folk-rock group the Byrds fit in? Before the British invasion of the early 1960s and the melodic Merseybeat took hold, American singer-guitarists McGuinn and David Crosby, bassist Chris Hillman, vocalist Gene Clark and drummer Michael Clarke were already active as folkies in and around the Los Angeles area. The Byrds’ short-lived fame (the original members split off into various groups) came from their signature twelve-string guitar sound (a Rickenbacker 360, by all reports), a jangly bell-like texture that enveloped pristine vocal harmonies like a musical glove.

Most critics compared them to the British groups the Searchers and the Hollies, not to mention the dominant style of the “Fab Four” (to wit, McGuinn’s penchant for wearing bangs and fashionable granny sunglasses came about). As a matter of fact, Graham Nash, who co-founded the Hollies with Allan Clarke, joined, in 1968, with David Crosby and Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield to form Crosby, Stills and Nash, a trio devoted to purity of the vocal line in their highly accessible work.

For “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the group’s debut single on Columbia, the Byrds performed only one of the four verses (the second), which held the song to just over the two-minute mark (two minutes and eighteen seconds, to be precise), quite the opposite of Dylan’s five-and-a-half minute homily. Besides McGuinn’s twangly guitar, only the group’s vocals were employed. The record label had decided to go with more experienced L.A. session players, known collectively as the Wrecking Crew, for the musical backdrop. On subsequent albums, the Byrds were allowed to accompany themselves on their own instruments — a wise choice.

The Byrds singing "Mr. Tambourine Man" on The Ed Sullivan Show
The Byrds singing “Mr. Tambourine Man” on The Ed Sullivan Show

 

“Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965), composed by Bob Dylan

Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me

I’m not sleepy and there ain’t no place I’m going to

Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me

In the jingle jangle morning, I’ll come followin’ you

 

Take me for a trip upon your magic swirling ship

all my senses have been stripped

and my hands can’t feel to grip

and my toes too numb to step

wait only for my boot heels to be wandering

 

I’m ready to go anywhere,

I’m ready for to fade

Unto my own parade

Cast your dancing spell my way

I promise to go under it

 

Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me

I’m not sleepy and there ain’t no place I’m going to

Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me

In the jingle jangle morning, I’ll come followin’ you

 

You can sense the giddy, almost dizzying stream-of-consciousness verbiage in the lyric makeup above. The repetitive nature of the melody and its insistent, forward motion were deliberately designed to force listeners to pay closer attention. No wonder audiences were so keen on following the Piper along. Let’s get a move on, folks! On a side note, McGuinn’s opening guitar riff was based on Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” in a version he adapted.

A very different air, albeit with a comparable rhythmic beat, surrounded the Byrds’ next musical number: the gorgeous, gospel-like sermon of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which the Limeliters first recorded back in 1962 under the title “To Everything There is a Season.” Seeger’s version came a few months later, while a year after that Judy Collins laid down the track (sensitively, I might add) on her Judy Collins 3. McGuinn, who arranged it for Collins’ album, expressed familiarity with the tune.

“It was a folk song by that time,” he explained in some 1996 CD liner notes, “but I played it and it came out Rock-n-Roll because that’s what I was programmed to do like a computer … We thought it would make a good single. It had everything: a good message, a good melody, and the heat was there.”

And what did the song’s composer, Pete Seeger, think of McGuinn’s interpretation? “I was a Pete Seeger fan and a Beatles fan,” he told musicologist John Einarson in 2005, “and mixing the two. Actually Pete liked what we did back when we recorded it and sent me a long letter saying that he really enjoyed the arrangement of it. He said, ‘Dear Byrds. I liked your rendition of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” very much. I thought it retained artistic integrity. My only musical query was why you didn’t repeat the first verse again?’ and obviously the answer to that is because of time. We wanted it playable on the air. As the years have gone by he’s been sending me letters that he’s really gotten into it. It’s totally different from his arrangement, but he loved it.”

That is for certain. It’s our honest opinion, then, that the Byrds may have had Mr. Seeger in mind, and not Mr. Dylan, when they recorded “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

With that said, Seeger’s rendering of “Turn, Turn, Turn” (sometimes written as “Turn! Turn! Turn!”) is taken at a faster clip, although it’s not at all rushed. The melody goes up and down the scale, with a goodly amount of syncopated rhythm. The stresses fall on the phrase “Turn, turn, turn,” with added emphasis on the prominent “r” sound. It’s far from a romantic accounting, which the Byrds’ variant is a fair representative of.

Too, Seeger’s banjo playing may feel, at times, like the jangly twelve-string, but its purpose is to lend support to the vocal line; whereas on McGuinn’s take, the soaring guitars provide the primary emotional outlet as the main bridge between the third and fourth verses. And, of course, the timing lasts a full three-minutes-and-forty-nine seconds (or thirty-four seconds for the single) — not exactly in Dylan’s lengthy league, but close enough.

The Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn," a 45-single on CBS
The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” originally a 45-single on Columbia Records

 

“Turn, Turn, Turn” (1966) by Pete Seeger

To everything — turn, turn, turn

There is a season — turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven

 

A time to be born, a time to die

A time to plant, a time to reap

A time to kill, a time to heal

A time to laugh, a time to weep

 

To everything — turn, turn, turn

There is a season — turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven

 

A time to build up, a time to break down

A time to dance, a time to mourn

A time to cast away stones

A time to gather stones together

 

To everything — turn, turn, turn

There is a season — turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven

 

A time of love, a time of hate

A time of war, a time of peace

A time you may embrace

A time to refrain from embracing

 

To everything — turn, turn, turn

There is a season — turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven

 

A time to gain, a time to lose

A time to rend, a time to sew

A time for love, a time for hate

A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late!

 

If one could express the sentiment that rock was inherently beautiful, then the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” is the very embodiment of that description. Yes, it’s folk-rock magic at its best; yes, it came out of the California lifestyle; and, yes, it had a political as well as a religious undercurrent. But by any measure, this is classic radio-friendly stuff. The blending of all-male voices, the delicious harmonies, the authoritative guitar licks, the fullness of the bass, the tightly wound band sound — this is what listeners remember the most. And we should give credit where credit is due.

Pete Seeger (1919-2014) in his later years -- the Grand Ole Man of Folk Music
Pete Seeger (1919-2014) in his later years — the Grand Ole Man of Folk Music

Thank you, Byrds! And thank you, Pete Seeger!

(End of Part Two – To Be Continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes