Blame It on the Bossa Nova
By Harvey Pekar
JULY 5, 1999: Brazil has one of the richest and most varied pop music scenes in the world, which isn't surprising given that the South American beach paradise has an enormous, culturally diverse population. But what else do you know about Brazil? Not much, huh? Well, Caetano Veloso's coming to town, so you'd better bone up on your Brazilian pop music history unless you don't mind being embarrassed, possibly in front of your loved ones. Especially if you don't know who Caetano Veloso is!
Brazil's populace is descended mainly from Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans. It was a colony of Portugal until 1822, and the vast majority of its citizens speak Portuguese, though large numbers of people whose origins lie in other European countries live there too. Portuguese, especially the Brazilian variety of it, is a gorgeous language, by the way. Sing in Brazilian Portuguese and you're ahead of the game already.
The African-descended portion of the country's population has been able to preserve many of its cultural traits, a large number of Brazilian people continuing to practice African-influenced forms of religion, including candomble and umbanda. Excellent examples of the earliest types of Afro-Brazilian music surviving into the 20th century can be heard on field recordings cut in the Thirties and early Forties and available on Rykodisc's The Discoteca Collection Missao de Pesquisas Folclorias and L.H. Correa de Azevedo: Music of Ceara and Minas Gerais. Both are brimming over with congos, xangos, and maracatus.
Despite the fact that slavery wasn't abolished in Brazil until 1889, reports are that it's a racially harmonious nation. These reports may be exaggerated, but photographs dating back to the early part of this century show that musical aggregations were racially integrated, as they are today. This is consistent with knowledge that the African influence on Brazilian music was noted centuries ago; we have a reference to the Angolan "lundu" song and dance dating back to the 18th century. The tango, habanera, and polka have impacted indigenous Brazilian musical forms as well. A lot went into the mix.
In the late 19th/early 20th century, distinctive popular genres of Brazilian music emerged as a result of synthesis: maxixe, choro, marcha, and that most well-known of Brazilian musical forms, the 2/4 syncopated samba. The samba originated in Rio de Janeiro, created by some of that capital city's most talented musicians, who shared their ideas at informal meetings and jam sessions, such as those that took place at the home of hostess Tia Ciata. Among these innovators were such legends as Pixinguinha, Donga, Sinha, and Ismael Silva.
Samba quickly caught on, becoming a significant part of the Brazilian pre-Lenten celebration called Carnaval. Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Brazil's Carnavals attracted tourists and became an important source of income. As they grew larger and more elaborate, competitions among the participants attracted more and more attention, leading to the establishment and subsequent rise of "samba schools" -- social and fraternal organizations, often neighborhood based, that contributed floats, music, and dancing to the Carnavals. Samba schools grew important enough to gain official recognition, members working year round to prepare for Carnaval. They needed original music for their performances and thus provided a great deal of support for Brazilian musicians, among other artists.
Once established, the samba evolved rapidly and began to vary in form. The samba cancao composers of the Thirties emphasized melodic and harmonic development and sophisticated, poetic lyrics, anticipating the later bossa nova artists. Among samba pioneers were Noel Rosa, sometimes referred to as the Brazilian Cole Porter; Braguinha; Dorival Caymmi, the father of Dori, Nana, and Danilo Caymmi, important contemporary artists in their own right; and Ary Barroso, author of "Aquarela do Brazil" and "Bahia," heard respectively in Walt Disney cartoons, Alo, Amigo, and Three Caballeros. During the Forties, Brazilian music began having an international impact, partly due to the records and films of Carmen Miranda.
But Brazilian popular music wasn't just evolving nationally and internationally; it was also changing and growing locally as well. Luis Gonzaga (1912-89) pioneered a type of music known as forro, or party music, which is native to Brazil's arid Northeast, where cattle and farm country are cultivated. When Gonzaga was a youngster, polkas were popular, so he became an accordion virtuoso. In the Forties, Gonzaga began playing Northeastern-flavored music in Rio, scoring a big hit in 1946 with "Baiao," which kicked off a new style of music and dance. His "Asa Branca" vividly describes in song a disastrous drought and has been called a Northeast anthem.
Another seminal Northeast artist was Jackson do Pandeiro, who popularized the ultra infectious coco and embolada forms. Northeast music, in which the accordion is prominent, is, roughly speaking, the equivalent of our country & western style, and also reminiscent of Tex-Mex music. A good introduction to this upbeat and festive music is Luaka Bop's CD Music of the Brazilian Northeast, which contains music by Gonzaga and do Pandeiro, as well as important later artists including Joao do Vale and Dominguinhos, and was compiled by label chief David Byrne,
During the Fifties, Brazil's most internationally popular music movement arose: the bossa nova. This involved young Brazilian musicians mixing elements from American jazz, standards by composers like George Gershwin, and classical work by, among others, Debussy, Ravel, and Villa Lobos. Among these innovators was one of Brazil's greatest composers, Antonio Carlos Jobim, who wrote such classics as "The Girl From Ipanema," "Corcovado," "Wave," "No More Blues," "One Note Samba," and "Dindi," which have become standards themselves. At one time, Jobim had written 12-tone classical music, but found that popular Brazilian forms were closer to his heart. His complex, sophisticated compositions with their interesting chord changes and lovely melodies attracted jazzmen in the States, who frequently improvised on them. Thus Jobim, who'd gotten ideas from American popular composers and jazz artists, was now marking their work.
Bossa nova lyrics by such writers as Vinicius de Moraes were as sensitive as they were lyrical, while performances by singers including Joao Gilberto were frequently understated. In fact, Gilberto's singing style has often been compared to the introverted vocals of Chet Baker. Another bossa nova pioneer was guitarist and composer Luiz Bonfa, whose music, along with Jobim's, was featured in the acclaimed Brazilian film Black Orpheus. Bonfa's musical theme for the film, "Manha de Carnaval," was a tremendous hit. (Bonfa later cut albums in the U.S. on a variety of labels, including jazz stalwarts such as Verve and Milestone.) In fact, the film did an excellent job of hipping the world to Brazilian music and other aspects of its culture.
The aesthetic concepts of American cool jazzmen like Baker, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, and Bud Shank had much in common with the founders of bossa nova, another "cool" form of music, so naturally there was an interchange of ideas between the two groups. In 1954, before the term bossa nova was even coined, alto saxophonist/flutist Shank cut an entire album of Brazilian tunes with Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida, who'd recorded with Stan Kenton for the Pacific label. Brazilian composers Carlos Lyra and Roberto Menescal established a music school in Rio in which they exposed students to the work of the American jazzmen who'd influenced them. When Brazilians absorbed some of their ideas and returned them in a bossa nova package, American jazz artists jumped on the genre. They started digging the work of Jobim, Bonfa, Gilberto, Oscar Castro Neves, pianist Joao Donato, and guitarists Bola Sete and Baden Powell, recording bossa nova compositions sometimes in collaboration with them.
Tenor saxman Getz especially got into bossa nova in a big way. His now-ubiquitous recording of "The Girl From Ipanema" with Astrud and Joao Gilberto, Jobim on piano, and percussionist Milton Banana, and "Desafinado," with guitarist Charlie Byrd, were huge hits that appealed not only to a hip inner circle but also a mass audience. In addition to this, Getz cut albums containing Brazilian material with arranger Gary McFarland, Bonfa, and Almeida. West Coast-based musicians Paul Desmond and Clare Fischer were others that became deeply involved with the bossa nova.
I spoke to Shank recently about the fate of West Coast cool jazz, which I thought had vanished when some Los Angeles-based cool musician gave up jazz for studio work and others became influenced by post boppers.
"Oh, no," said Shank, "it became bossa nova."
Soon all sorts of jazz musicians, not just cool jazzmen, were playing bossa nova compositions, including the funky Gene Ammons on Prestige and swing era great Coleman Hawkins on Impulse. Miles Davis did a great Columbia album, Quiet Nights, with Gil Evans charts. Herbie Mann, the great popularizer, deserted Afro-Cuban stuff for the bossa nova. Pop stars got into the game as well: Frank Sinatra cut a 1973 Reprise LP titled Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim, while Edie Gorme did "Blame It on the Bossa Nova." Sergio Mendes and Brazil '66 pleased all sorts of people with their versions of Brazilian music, as well as Beatles tunes. Eventually the novelty appeal of bossa nova wore off and some of its U.S. fans went elsewhere. Nevertheless, the music of that nation has influenced the whole world.
From 1964-1985, Brazil was ruled by a brutal military dictatorship that jailed or drove into exile a multitude of people who opposed them overtly, and even those who didn't but were viewed as a threat by virtue of their unconventional lifestyles. These included bohemians and artists of all kinds. Obviously, circumstances didn't favor creative expression in Brazil, yet music continued to flourish under the dictatorship, even as musicians were persecuted. As a matter of fact, the scope of Brazilian musicians during the Sixties and Seventies broadened, and new groups of players soon emerged, some classified as belonging to an MPB ("Musica Popular Brasiliera") movement. Musicians with an MPB label varied so much in orientation that it may not have made much sense to group them together in a single category. Some were relatively traditional, others more experimental.
For a while, certain artists like Geraldo Vandre wrote songs that protested against the military dictatorship. Vandre's work was popular, winning prizes at music festivals, but soon his songs were banned and he was forced into exile. Upon returning, he was subjected to persecution, and ended up leaving the music scene altogether. Edu Lobo was another outstanding singer-songwriter affected by the military rule. Lobo's complex but melodically lovely and irresistibly buoyant pieces include numbers such as "Ponteio," "Arrastao," "Reza," "Sinhere," "Upa Neguinho," "Jogo de Roda," "Corrida de Jangadag," and "Boranda." He was a fine vocalist in the Gilberto tradition. When he began to get hassled, however, for writing what were considered protest songs, Lobo left the country. He lived in the States for a time, appearing on a Paul Desmond album containing some of his compositions, and cut one of his own on A&M. When he returned to Brazil, Lobo concentrated on writing for the stage and screen and seldom performed publicly.
A superb lyricist, Chico Buarque was called by Vinicius de Moraes "a phenomenon who accomplished the perfect union of both cultivated and popular culture." Initially, Buarque, who was from a socially prominent family, had a great deal of public support, although some on the left criticized him for his conservatism. In 1968, however, Buarque authored a play in which members of the cast offer pieces of the protagonist's liver to the audience. It caused a riot in São Paulo, and was banned by the government. Consequently, Buarque left for Italy. Returning in 1970, Buarque found his music, which now had a more radical qua1ity, banned repeatedly, which didn't help his music income, but brought him in line with antigovernment intellectuals.
Some of the other major singer-songwriters of this period were Luis Melodia and Djavan, whose work has a funky quality, and Martinho da Vila and Paulinho da Viola, gifted samba traditionalists. Da Vila is credited with pioneering a complex, narrative style, in addition to using colloquial lyrics, and Joao Bosco, an eccentrically creative performer with an irresistible sense of humor, overwhelmed listeners with his energy and machine gun-like delivery of lyrics. Ivan Lins, along with lyricist Vitor Martins, has created some gorgeous songs, some of which were recorded by jazz singer Mark Murphy on his album Night Mood (Milestone).
In terms of sheer talent, you'd have to go long way to find an artist more gifted than Milton Nascimento. His compositions range from "The Call," an elemental piece featuring his gorgeous falsetto, to "Cravo e Canela," a joyous, jazz-influenced tune demonstrating his considerable musical sophistication. Drawing ideas from everywhere, Nascimento can blend them together seamlessly, morphing vocal and instrumental combinations stimulatingly in the process. He's open to everything from working alone with his acoustic guitar to being backed by a large string-filled ensemble.
His initial appearance on an American LP, Wayne Shorter's Native Dancer, brought him to the attention of American jazz musicians, who flipped and have wanted to work with him ever since. Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Pat Metheny are among those who've appeared on his albums. Brazilian vocalists sing quietly just about all of the time and don't have much of a range, but with Nascimento you get much vocal richness; he's got a full, plaintive voice, creates a variety of timbral effects, and has a range that's something to marvel at.
During the Seventies and Eighties, a number of female Brazilian vocalists with powerful, aggressive singing styles also emerged. One, Clara Nunes, was the first Brazilian female singer to sell hundreds of thousands of albums on a consistent basis. Beth Carvahlo, a strong human rights advocate, and Maria Bethania, Caetano Veloso's sister, have broad, rich contralto voices. Bethania's Alibi (1978) was the first album by a female Brazilian to sell over a million copies. Elis Regina wasn't known as a songwriter, but she had a knack for finding the good ones before they became famous and recording their songs. Regina gave a lift to the careers of Lobo, Nascimento, Lins, and Bosco.
Alcione not only does a fine job of singing sambas, but interprets romantic ballads convincingly. Some of the most important vocalists from the Northeast were Gal Costa, who once had a hippie queen image, Elba Ramalho, and Margareth Menzes. Flora Purim became prominent in the U.S. in the fusion groups of people like Chick Corea and George Duke. A sweet-voiced ballad singer, she also gained attention with her wordless improvisation. Check out her Moon Dreams album (Milestone).
More recently, Rio's Marissa Monte has emerged as a gifted and versatile performer. Within the past year, a stunning album was released on Hannibal by Virginia Rodrigues, who has humble origins and had done most of her singing in church until theatre director Marcio Meireles brought her to the attention of Caetano Veloso. As a matter of fact, Djavan, Gilberto Gil, and Milton Nascimento were so impressed with Rodrigues that they appeared on her recording. Rodrigues isn't identified with any style, but her broad, soaring majestic voice more than does justice to anything from religious music to samba.
Okay, let's backtrack to 1967. The military regime is still in power and it's time for the Second Annual Festival of Brazilian Popular Music, which involves a hotly contested songwriting competition. Among the contestants are two old buddies from Bahia, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. The former's song, "Alegria, Alegria," is booed by the audience, partly because a rock group backs him, which is viewed as a manifestation of American imperialism. Gil's "Domingo no Parque" also causes controversy when he employs electric instruments and an arrangement by modern classical musician Rogerio Duprat, who was influenced by the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper LP. Unfazed by their reception, Veloso, Gil, Gal Costa, Nara Leao, Os Mutantes, Tom Ze, Torquato Neto, Capinam, and Julio Medaglia put together Tropicalia, an album that gave a name to a Brazilian avant-garde movement.
Gil was jailed in 1969, then went into exile with Veloso. Thirty years later, they're doing quite well; Gil has picked up a Grammy, while Veloso, who used static and incidental noise on a 1973 album, has become accessible, though still challenging, as his latest release, Livro (Nonesuch), indicates. David Byrne at Luaka Bop has been doing a good job of resurrecting the career of Tom Ze, who at 62 has finally been getting some props from the likes of Tortoise, Sean Lennon, and the High Llamas. After reissuing some of Ze's stuff, Byrne put out a CD of new material, Fabrication Defect, and has just released a mini-album of remixes, Postmodern Platos. And just think, right before Byrne contacted him, Ze was thinking about working in his nephew's gas station.
A university trained musician familiar with experimentation in several genres, Ze's known for using the sounds of electric drills, a floor sander, and a bicycle pump in his music, frequently employing samples and other effects. Don't be afraid to check Ze's music out though. He writes pretty melodies, sings in a pleasant, subdued manner, and uses infectious Brazilian rhythms. Ze remains a politically and socially committed person. On Fabrication Defect, he employs humor to attack capitalistic exploitation of Third World peoples.
Similarly, Byrne has also revived interest in Os Mutantes, an avant-garde trio that issued some stunning albums in the late Sixites and early Seventies. Luaka Bop's new Everything Is Possible is a best-of introduction to Os Mutantes that contains some superb material. The group originally came from São Paulo, composed of Rita Lee, whose father was from Alabama, and Arnaldo Baptista and his brother Sergio, all of whom met in high school. Calling themselves Os Mutantes (the Mutants), which most people would consider an experimental rock band, the trio was among the first Brazilian groups to experiment with sampling, tape manipulation, and other effects. They used a variant of the wah-wah pedal called the whooh-whooh pedal. The band created sound collages, and in Sergio Baptista had one of the best rock guitarists ever.
Currently Brazilians are picking up an increasingly large group of influences from just about everywhere, a trend that's happening all over the globe, actually. Carlinhos Brown, a percussionist and composer, whose latest album Omelet Man was just released on Metro Blue, has synthesized the samba and reggae and also exhibits a smooth R&B influence. He copped the name Brown to honor one of his heroes, James Brown. Another contemporary, Chico Science, employs rap in his work.
Brazil's purely instrumental music hasn't had anything like the impact on international culture that its vocal music has, but many skilled instrumentalists have come from there. About 125 years ago, an instrumental form developed in Brazil called choro, in which European popular themes -- polkas, waltzes, mazurkas -- were improvised on by groups that featured a flute backed by plucked string instruments such as the guitar and the ukulele-like cavaquinho. Pixinguinha, in addition to his contributions to the samba, was a highly regarded choro flutist and leader, having added Brazilian percussion and later horns to his group. Shortly after that, large popular dance bands began appearing with greater frequency in Brazil.
Perhaps the first musician to mix jazz with Brazilian music was Oscar Aleman. Actually, Aleman was from Northern Argentina but had connections in Brazil and performed there as well. He spent most of the Thirties in Europe, working with Josephine Baker and jazzmen with whom his excellent, virtuosic Django Reinhardt-like playing was heard to advantage. In 1940, Aleman returned to Argentina, where he made a number of recordings. On some, he improvised jazz solos over Latin American rhythms, including the samba. He cut "Tico-Tico no Fuba," written by Brazilian composer Zequinha de Abreu, which is available on his wonderful 2-CD Acoustic Disc label release.
Acoustic Disc has also issued two CDs (separately) by Jaco do Bandolim, a brilliant mandolinist, which come from the Forties, when choro was relatively popular. His playing also resembled Reinhardt's. One has to wonder if Aleman and/or do Bandolin were influenced by Reinhardt, or whether all three musicians drew from a common source, such as Mediterranean plucked string playing styles. Guitarists Baden Powell, Almeida, and Bola Sete have already been mentioned, but there were many other fine Brazilian guitar players. Toninho Horta, a fine composer, impressed Pat Metheny with his guitar work, and made valuable contributions to some Nascimento albums.
Egberto Gismonti is a school of music unto himself, having studied classical piano for 15 years and composition with Nadia Boulanger and Jean Barraque. He's also a proficient guitarist. An improviser and composer with a working knowledge of jazz, classical, and Brazilian genres, Gismonti uses all of them in his selections. Hermeto Pascoal is also a highly regarded multi-instrumentalist and is mostly self-taught. He plays flute, saxophone, accordion, piano, and percussion. The accordionist Sivuca has long been an associate of Pascoal's and both have performed frequently with a wide variety of American pop and jazz artists.
Perhaps the best known Brazilian percussionist is Airto Moreira, whose work with the fusion bands of Miles Davis, Weather Report, and Chick Corea brought him considerable attention. Airto's noted for employing a truckload of instruments, some traditional Brazilian, some of his own design. Another important percussionist is Nana Vasconcelos, who's played with Gismonti and Metheny, and has formed the Codona trio with Cohn Wolcott and Don Cherry. Vasconcelos has also done some striking movie soundtrack work. Dom um Romao, known in the U.S. for his efforts with Sergio Mendes, is a gifted and creative percussionist, as is Robertinho Silva, a Nascimento group member who has a tasty CD, Shot on Goal (Milestone) out. The Brazilian funk/fusion trio Azemuth was internationally popular in the Eighties and recorded for Milestone, as well.
Today, some listeners who fell in love with Brazilian music in the early Sixites (i.e. the bossa nova era) seem to resent its evolving. They believe "authentic" indigenous music from that country should be soft, quiet, melodic, and backed by a gentle samba beat. I have nothing against anyone who likes lyrical, understated work, but there's never been a time when some Brazilian music wasn't loud; a number of fans just weren't aware of the whole picture there. It's unrealistic for anyone to hope that Brazilian musicians won't incorporate elements from R&B, rock, reggae, and rap into their performances, since these forms are so popular. Like it or not, Os Mutantes was an outstanding, innovative band, despite not specializing in bossa nova performances.
David Byrne, for one, tries to keep up with what "cutting edge" artists are doing in Brazil, traveling there periodically. When we spoke, he had just returned from a trip there and spoke enthusiastically of a musical movement in which traditional country music, rap, and funk are combined, and praised groups like Karnak, whose members have been known to dress like ancient Egyptians, and Mundo Livre.
"I think that we're getting to the point where we're seeing Brazilian music as something other than exotic," said Byrne, "where we view the music as relevant to our lives and don't have prior expectations about what it should be."
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