Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “Music”

Lost Samba – Chapter 19/01 – Brazil’s musical wizards.

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Hermeto Pascoal

The final year at the Colégio Andrews was completely different to the previous ones and one hundred percent directed at preparing us for the ultimate exam. The classes were in a separate building with the students grouped into four classrooms – two for earth sciences, one for biomedicine and one for the humanities. I had chosen the latter. By now, school was pure stress. The methods were intense with teachers bombarding us with infallible secrets to jump over the massive hurdle that was the Vestibular.

Our schools’ programme had a good reputation, and students transferred there from other institutions in Rio as well as from further afield. One of the new students had come from Chile. Kristof was of German descent and resembled the actor Jack Palance, albeit with long blonde hair. A few days after school began; Kristof and I took the usual bus home and started chatting. For some reason, the conversation turned to Teresópolis and we discovered, to our absolute amazement, that we were next-door country house neighbours in the Jardim Salaco. This was a massive coincidence and it helped to make us instant best friends.

We had more things in common: Kristof was also into music and played the transversal flute (he was to become a professional saxophone player), he also had a European edge and in some inexplicable way we both managed to stay academically in the top quarter of the student body despite being members of the “smoke squadron”. Kristof had come to Rio to live with his dad and, after he joined the music circuit, his flat on a hill at the end of Leblon became the new headquarters of our small brotherhood of musical misfits.

Although for us the rock giants of the 1970s still reigned supreme, we were also into jazz-rock represented by a generation of brilliant musicians such as John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Focus, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jeff Beck, Stanley Clarke and Weather Report. As was the case with so many aspects of Brazilian life and youth culture, we were some five years behind what was happening in Britain and North America and were still completely oblivious to the existence of both punk and reggae. Anyhow, I suspect that even if we had known of these developments, as aspiring musicians, we still would have stayed tuned into those great instrumentalists.

There was also new high calibre local musical talent emerging and our ears were ripe for musicians like Hermeto Pascoal, Nana Vasconçelos and Egberto Gismonti who seemed to be a conduit for the kind of energy I had experienced in the south of Bahia. If Bossa Nova had been a reflection of Brazil’s post-war optimism, this new musical generation reflected a moment of self-discovery and of rebirth emerging from the resurgence of political freedom. Despite being exclusively instrumental these musicians were popular, their concerts attracted respectable large crowds, and for a short while they were the top selling acts amongst the educated middle class.

Of the three, Egberto was my favourite. His talent first became apparent in his father’s musical instrument shop where he demonstrated pianos to customers. As a young adult, Egberto went to France to study classical music. When he returned to Rio, he applied his acquired knowledge and his genius to Brazilian music, going way beyond Bossa Nova.  Arguably, Egberto Gismonti became as significant a musician as Heitor Villa-Lobos, Brazil’s greatest classical composer. Among other things, Egberto was unique in experimenting with indigenous music, going as far as to learn sacred music from a shaman in the Xingu area. The story goes that for Sapaim, the musician/shaman, to accept him, Egberto had to camp outside his jungle longhouse for about a month until he was invited in. Perhaps because of what he learned there, the sounds in Gismonti’s concerts were hypnotic, almost like a solid entity, with audiences always giving their absolute attention.

Hermeto Pascoal was born in the remote and dry interior of the Brazilian Nordeste – the Sertão. As Hermeto was an albino, he couldn’t work under the scorching sun, so his brothers would lock him up in a barn where he channelled his fury and energy into music. Hermeto’s long and curly white hair and beard, and his strong facial features covered by thick glasses, lead to the deserved nickname of ‘the Sorcerer’. His band made insane noises, not only with instruments, but also with everyday objects such as broken bottles, saws and pans. In the midst of this madness, however, there was genius, with valleys of heavenly music brewed from the mysteries of the Indigenous, the Africans and the Europeans.

Of the three instrumentalists, the one with the greatest international success was Nana Vasconcelos. The magazine Down Beat, the most important one in the Jazz world, was to elect him eight times as the best percussionist in the world; he also was to receive eight Grammy awards. Being from Pernambuco and the only African descendant of the three he had a close attachment to the spiritually charged Maracatu rhythm. Perhaps due to both he took percussion to previously unimaginable psychedelic heights.

Egberto, Nana and Hermeto were by no means the only expressions of Brazilian instrumental and experimental music in the late 1970s early 1980s. There were also bands such as Uakti – known for using custom-made instruments, made by members of the group themselves – the name derived from a native Tucano myth of a man/instrument. There were also the more electrical bands such A Cor do Som and the guitarist Pepeu Gomes, both offshoots of the Novos Baianos. Anyhow, after their relatively brief popularity in Brazil, the three main exponents of their generation would fall out of fashion at home but would emerge as stars on the international jazz scene.

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Tereza Rachel Theater – The cradle of Rock from Rio

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Back in 1974 my friend Johnnie invited me to go to my first Rock concert of a band that had an English vocalist. The name of the band was Vimana, the English singer was to become a household name in the Eighties, better known as Richie. The guitarist and the drummer would also become mega rock stars in Brazil, Lulu Santos and Lobao respectively. For a twelve year old boy this was thrilling; I had never been to a concert, let alone seen a world class band. Their musical genre was what would become known as Progressive Rock represented by amazing bands such as Pink Floyd, Yes, PFM, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Focus and Genesis. It was not only the sonority of these bands that blew our minds but the technology too; their music was futuristic and was as close to high-tech that a kid of my age living in Rio de Janeiro would ever get to.

The show was not the epiphany I had imagined, in reality, Prog Rock was something that you had to warm up to, if the song wasn’t great one only started to understand/like it at the third or the fourth hearing, although to look good you had to pretend with your friends that you loved it. Vimana only had two exciting songs and the rest had complicated instrumentation which were as distant to my taste as most of the songs in my older sister’s records. The only thing that stayed with me after the gig was a buzz in my ear due to the super loud amplification, however what continued with me for a long time was the venue, the Tereza Rachel Theater, or the Terezao as it would become known.

Vimana went on to form a band with Patrick Moraez, one of the many keyboard players that Yes, one of the Progressive Rock monsters, but the project never went ahead. On the other hand, the Tereza Rachel went on to be the most popular music venue in Rio in the seventies. There was the more traditional and expensive Canecao, with tables and waiters, where the well known mainstream artists presented themselves and more underground theaters that were a bit too rough for upper middle class youngsters and where not all the bands were good. The Terezao was the place to go, and during its five year reign it managed to present the best upcoming artists at a accessible price and retain a counter-cultural aura.

Its stage witnessed the gradual shifted from Rock and Roll to Brazilian (electrified) music and then back to Rock in the eighties. It became so popular that it could not be ignored by the big names of the Brazilian Musical scene such as Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Jorge Ben, Tim Maia and Milton Nascimento and even the veteran legend of Northeastern music Luiz Gonzaga. The theater had a wild atmosphere of its own, and communication with the public was always easy for the artists. More than once did I presence them organizing the audience in choirs of men and women, choirs on the left and on the right, choirs upstairs and upstairs and downstairs and choirs whistling and non-whistling in famous songs. It was also a given that the a concert would end up in an out of season carnival with the audience taking the corridors and the stage in a crazy party. The Terezao was like the air escape of the pressure pan created by the suffocating dictatorship; a place where people could be themselves and literally let their hair down.

The audience was like a club; independently of who the artists were or the trend they represented one always bumped into the same faces. The weird thing was that it was in a commercial gallery and it would be strange to see on every weekend that tribe of displaced people gathering in front of the closed shops waiting for the gates to open. In accordance to what happened at the time there were many guys with long hair and dirty clothes, many girls in hippie dresses and a lot of cannabis. There must have been an agreement with the police because there was never one bust inside the theater in its history.

There was an intellectual and aesthetic effervescence in that theater that made everything that was happening pass through it. The best shows were of the newcomers: Alceu Valenca, Fagner, Djavan, Ze Ramalho, Moraes Moreira, who had recently left the Novos Baianos but still played with its legendary guitarist Pepeu Gomes and with Salvador’s Trio Eletricos’ founder’s son, the incredible Armandinho, Joao Bosco and so many others who would become established artists.. There were also the intrumentalist vein; names that would become internationally known in the Jazz scene such as Egberto Gismonti and Nana Vasconcelos and Hermeto Pascoal, would mesmerize Terezao’s audience with their technique and musical erudition. Meanwhile, democratically sharing the theater with these “respectable” artists, were the “dinosaurs” of Brazilian early seventies rock bands like O Terco, Made in Brasil, Bicho da Seda, Casa das Maquinas and of course Rita Lee, the succesful remnant of “Os Mutantes” Brazil’s pioneers in quality rock.

When the new bands of the eighties arrived there were still rock concerts at the Terezao, but with the appearance of new venues and of a new generation, it shrank and ended up becoming a meeting place for an Evangelical church. However for our generation was one of those magical things where who saw it loved it and who didn’t missed out in something amazing. I’m happy to be part of the first group.

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