Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Musical Bridges III: Brazilian

Aside from jazz, my favorite music is Brazilian, many types of Brazilian music: samba, bossa nova, choro, and MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira), as well as Brazilian soul and funk. I became a resolute convert to Brazilian music in the early 'eighties, though even as a ten-year-old I was enthralled by the Jorge Ben song "Mas Que Nada," a big hit in the U.S. for Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66, and of course there was "The Girl from Ipanema." I started collecting Brazilian recordings in the 'eighties and, as with all passions or obsessions, one thing led to another. I was familiar with the singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento through his work with jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter. One day, at Tower Records, I found an album of Milton Nascimento songs performed by other Brazilian artists. One of those artists was the singer Elis Regina. This was a revelation. I had discovered one of the greatest voices of the 20th century just shortly after her death. I fell in love with Elis. And through Elis I found Joao Bosco, one of the young songwriters whose work she recorded and championed. Bosco is one of the writer-performers who emerged in the 'seventies, along with Nascimento, Ivan Lins, and Djavan. The previous generation, the immediate post-bossa generation, had included Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa, all central players in the Tropicalia movement, as well as Chico Buarque, as revered in Brazil as Jobim, a composer-lyricist and singer who might be considered a Brazilian blend of Dylan and Cole Porter.

Elis Regina recorded many of Joao Bosco's songs, including the samba "O Bebado e a Equilibrista" ("The Drunkard and the Tightrope Walker"), with lyrics by Aldir Blanc. The song, a metaphoric ode to the resilience of Brazilians in the face of the horrors of the military dictatorship ("Hope dances on a tightrope with an umbrella"), became an anthem. Elis's recordings led me to Bosco's own albums. By the early 'eighties he had really reached his stride as a writer and performer. Many of his songs have a strong samba influence, and eventually he also became known for romantic ballads--beautiful songs when performed acoustically, but often recorded with unfortunately syrupy arrangements. Something in Bosco's music really grabbed me from the start, perhaps its particular mix of samba, jazz, and African influences (though his own ancestry is Portuguese and Lebanese). In the past ten or so years I've seen him live at least seven times. I had the opportunity to tell Bosco how much his music meant to me when I buttonholed him at the bar before a recent performance of his at Birdland. I don't usually buttonhole musicians. The only other living Brazilian musician I'm equally excited by is Jorge Ben Jor, whose music is the quintessence of funk.

While Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento and, of course, Joao Gilberto were well known in the U.S. by the late 'eighties, Bosco was virtually unknown here. My fondness for Bosco helped me to make some Brazilian friends when I visited Tobago in December of 1989. I was at the Port of Spain airport, waiting for the short flight, during a trip that included visits to Caracas and Trinidad & Tobago. A group of four men, one woman, and two children were sitting next to me, speaking Portuguese. At one point a member of the BWIA staff at the airport asked the little boy in the group where he was from. One of the adults whispered something in his ear, and he proclaimed loudly and proudly, in heavily accented English, "I am from Brazil!"

I had been speaking Spanish in Caracas, so I asked one of the adults in the group, "Habla Espanol?," assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that Brazilians were more likely to speak Spanish than English. We conversed in Spanish a bit, but eventually switched to English mostly. At first I told the group I had a question about Brazilian music. I wanted to know whether Joao Bosco was very well known in Brazil. "Oh yes, very famous," one of them told me. Brazilian music became the anchor for our conversations, but we eventually we moved on to other topics.

The person I became closest with was Antonio Carvalho, a travel agent from Sao Paulo who took small groups on escorted trips. There was also a young gay couple and a family of four. It beats me why they needed an escort for a beach vacation, but they were all very nice. The kids, a girl and a boy, were very cute. I wondered why Brazilians were going on a beach holiday to Tobago when Brazil was so famous for its beaches. Tony told me that the beaches in Brazil were too crowded and crazy, and that Tobago was so quiet and bucolic.

As I hadn't booked a place in Tobago I followed this group to where they were staying. For a Caribbean vacation spot, Tobago is especially rustic and unspoiled. The Trinidad and Tobago government had long insisted that their islands not become playgrounds for rich foreigners, and oil and smart economic planning helped them keep their integrity. There are no high-rise or sprawling resorts on Tobago, just small hotels and bungalow complexes, like the one we stayed at.

Being from heavily West Indian Brooklyn I had no trouble understanding accents in Port of Spain, but in Tobago the accent is particularly thick. As I took a cab from the airport with several of the Brazilians I chatted with the cabbie, but with some difficulty. When we got out at our destination the woman in the group, whose name I forget, said, "I thought I knew English, but I didn't understand one word he said."

So I hung out with these Brazilians for the couple of days I spent in Tobago (they were staying longer), talking in English and Spanish and, to the kids, in body language. I got some tips on Brazilian musicians I hadn't previously heard of. One of the pleasures of solo travel is making new friends. Another pleasure of solo travel is not making new friends (or seeing old ones) if you don't want to, but this time I enjoyed the company.

Tony Carvalho and I corresponded a bit afterwards, but we soon lost touch. This was before email, after all.

Tony, if you somehow stumble upon this, get in touch, velho amigo.

* * *

This happened in London on the morning of November 5, 1999. I know this because I still have the program from the concert I attended that evening, one of the most amazing shows I've ever seen.

I had come to London to see the concert "Since Samba Has Been Samba," named for a song by Caetano Veloso ("Desde que o Samba e Samba"). It was an all-star Brazilian show at the Royal Albert Hall, a benefit for an organization that aided Brazilian street urchins. The show featured six of Brazil's most famous singers, three men and three women: Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque, Gal Costa, Elza Soares, and Virginia Rodrigues. Soares is an older Brazilian jazz and samba singer with a gravelly voice who emulates Louis Armstrong, and Rodrigues is a younger singer with a pure, angelic voice who was discovered by Veloso. The concert featured each of the artists performing solo, then duo, relay-style. So, for instance, Gilberto Gil sang some songs, then Gal Costa came on for a duet with him, then she sang solo, then Caetano came on for a song with her, etc. Before this part of the show, two London-based escolhas de samba performed. There was also a special guest, British hipster icon Georgie Fame, who had one American hit in the 'sixties, "Yeh Yeh." I believe it was the first time I'd seen any of these artists, and it was nirvana for a lover of Brazilian music. The opportunity to see Chico Buarque live was an especial treat as he rarely performs or records any more, devoting more time to his second career as a novelist. The show was also a homecoming for Caetano and Gil, who had lived in London from 1969-72, in exile from the junta. Caetano sang his song "London London" to thunderous applause.

I was staying at a small hotel near Hyde Park. I noticed at breakfast that most of the kitchen staff were Brazilian. I think this is common in London hotels. I got into a conversation with the guy who was serving me. I told him about the concert I was going to see that evening, and he was incredibly envious. He became nostalgic about Brazil and Brazilian music. He sat down at my table to chat, probably breaking the rules.

"I love all these singers," I told him, "but one singer I really love who is not on the program is Joao Bosco." I had just seen Bosco live for the first time the previous year, at Lincoln Center.

"Oh, Joao Bosco, I love him too. His song 'Papel Mache' was very special. So beautiful." The song, a romantic ballad, was a breakthrough hit for Bosco in 1982. I saw tears begin to well up in the waiter's eyes. "I really miss Brazil so much," he said, his voice cracking, pining for his sunny homeland, so far away, on this typically grey, damp, November morning in London.

* * *

Youtube Jukebox

(I could have gone on forever with links to great clips, but I had to stop somewhere (though some more video links are buried in the descriptions below). Do share your thoughts on the music.)

Joao Bosco - Linha de Passe. One of Bosco's most infectious sambas, featuring the bandolim (mandolin) player Hamilton de Holanda, from a recent live DVD.

Joao Bosco - Papel Mache. A really cheesy music video, but the soundtrack is the original recording that brought tears to my waiter's eyes.

Elis Regina - O Bebado e a Equilibrista. A performance of the Bosco song that helped keep hope alive. There are a couple of glitches in the video, but I prefer this version to several others available on Youtube. She often sang it at a slower tempo, but this one has more of a samba feel.

Elis Regina & Antonio Carlos Jobim - Aguas de Marco. From the recording session of the classic album, "Elis & Tom." One of Jobim's greatest compositions, Elis was its greatest interpreter. Art Garfunkel recorded an English version ("Waters of March"). I could live without Art's version.

Milton Nascimento - Travessia. One of his most popular songs, "Bridges" in English.

Joao Gilberto & Caetano Veloso - Garota de Ipanema. Probably the most famous Brazilian song internationally. A meeting of two generations. If you absolutely must have Astrud . . .

Chico Buarque & Friends - Paratodos. This is a fun video. Chico begins his song and it's picked up by a succession of Brazilian music legends: Gal Costa, Djavan, Dorival Caymmi, Tom Jobim, Daniela Mercury, then back to Chico.

Jorge Ben Jor - Taj Mahal. One of his biggest hits, this infectious tune was appropriated by Rod Stewart for his "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?"

Daniela Mercury & Caetano Veloso - Desde Que o Samba e Samba
. The song that provided the title for the show I saw in London.

Caetano Veloso - London London. Caetano's bittersweet tribute to the city of his exile. Audio track with London slide show and lyrics.

Gilberto Gil - Drao. One of my favorite compositions by Brazil's current Minister of Culture. From his Acustico MTV (Unplugged) performance.

Gal Costa - Coracao Vagabundo. Composition by Caetano Veloso, featuring Jaques Morelenbaum on cello.

Elza Soares - Formosa. A spirited performance of a samba-choro by Baden Powell (the Brazilian guitarist, not the founder of the Boy Scouts) and Vinicius de Moraes.

Virginia Rodrigues with Nana Vasconcelos - Canto de Xango. Also by Baden Powell & Vinicius de Moraes. Vasconcelos is a master percussionist from Recife in northeastern Brazil who has performed in a wide variety of musical contexts.

Alaide Costa - Solidao. There are certain female vocalists who are legendary for a visceral honesty of expression, for a rare ability to communicate vulnerability, artists who transcend their genres. This pantheon includes Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, the Portuguese fado singer Amalia Rodrigues, the Egyptian singer Omm Kalthoum, and more recently the "barefoot diva" of Cabo Verde, Cesaria Evora. One artist I'd add to that esteemed company, virtually unknown in the U.S. and hardly even a "star" in her native Brazil, is Alaide Costa. Costa is one of those singers who improve with age.

Max de Castro - A Historia da Morena Nua
. See what Time magazine had to say about this contemporary Brazilian artist. De Castro is one of the mostly Sao Paulo-based artists, along with his brother Wilson Simoninha, Ed Motta and Paula Lima, among others, who update Brazilian funk and soul for an urban sound that has become popular in U.K. clubs but is virtually unknown in the U.S. Many of these artists record for the excellent Trama label, which is run by one of Elis Regina's sons, Joao Marcelo Boscoli. Elis's other two children, Pedro Mariano and Maria Rita, both have successful singing careers.

Seu Jorge - Tive Razao. One of the most charismatic performers to come out of Brazil in years. He's appeared in a number of films, including "City of God" and "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," where he performed adaptations of David Bowie songs.

Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66 - Mas Que Nada. One of the first songs that got me hooked on Brazilian music. I even have a weakness for their Beatles covers.

Georgie Fame - Yeh Yeh
. Because I mentioned it.

Note: My apologies for the absence of accents throughout. It's just too difficult with a U.S. keyboard.


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