We might as well start a tour of the most famous and distinctive music of Brazil with the wonderful recipe and hagiology in Samba da Bénção (“Blessings Samba”) by Vinicius de Moraes. Vinicius was a remarkable figure: poet, diplomat, and songwriter who partnered with Jobim and (as in this song) the guitarist Baden Powell. I think de Moraes has it right in emphasizing that samba, even without lyrics, is not just party dance music, but weaves together (in various proportions), sadness, joy, and resignation. There’s a good English translation here. He also gives us a sort of hall of fame, thanking a constellation of great sambistas from early days to the present. You could skip this whole post and just hop across tracks by the masters called out in this song, and you should anyway, because I will not hit more than a third of them.
From the twenties through the seventies, the history of samba can be imperfectly distilled into a migration of the music of the (African, rural) northeast, samba schools, and Rio favelas into places middle class, whiter people and tourists hung out, greatly accelerated by radio and records, and during the Vargas years, affirmative government policies of subsidy and promotion (and censorship that had the typical effect of encouraging subtlety and symbolism) for nationalistic purposes (JStor paywall). Of course this also enriched the result with European musical resources while generally preserving the dotted, off-beat, polyrhythmic base that, as I have observed before, makes Iberian plus west African the can’t-miss recipe for immortal music that gets your whole body engaged.
Aside from the obvious rhythmic complexity and swing, why listen to this stuff? First, samba is not just rhythm; listen to the harmony, which is never predictable, extremely advanced, and frequently makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up with a modulation or altered chord you never heard before. Like the bridge in Body and Soul? Stuff like that happens all the time in samba. Second, it is not fixed in a framework (like the 32-bar structure that makes the Great American Songbook so good for jazz groups to riff on, or the guajeo Lego block central to Cuban jazz), so composers in Brazil could spread out with a very differentiated and innovative catalog. Speaking of catalogs, if you want to try playing this stuff, while sheet music for Brazilian music is not easy to come by, standard guitar/piano/vocal arrangements of hundreds of songs (choros, sambas, valsas, everything) over almost the whole twentieth century are collected in ten priceless volumes edited by Mario Mascarenhas (O Melhor da Música Popular Brasileira) and for sale here. There are also three volumes in fake book form (no piano) as Versão Compacto.
Finally, Brazilian songs have sophisticated, complex, beautifully crafted lyrics, for which the operative standards are very high on purely poetic grounds. Gene Lees, who wrote English lyrics for some Jobim songs to get them access to the US market, certainly created a lot of value by helping to get bossa nova a worldwide audience, but he also gave them a misleading sappy, sentimental flavor with the corners rounded off — sort of turning Lorenz Hart into Oscar Hammerstein III — and often just ran off on a completely different track of his own (the singer in Garota de Ipanema is not mooning about why the girl doesn’t love him back; Smith’s lyrics for Sinatra’s cover of Wave are a whole new song, and not a better one). These English lyrics are not translations, and do not carry the bite and grownup flavor of the originals, which is a pity. I was stalling on this post for months thinking about all the time I would have to spend translating lyrics until I came across this priceless website with good (not singable; singable and accurate are barely overlapping qualities for song lyric translations) translations for a lot of important songs, along with interesting essays about many of the artists. Obrigado, parabens, Victoria!
OK, enough trampling the grass; here’s some stuff you should hear. You know how to use Spotify and Google and I’m not going to make a whole playlist for you. When you come across a singer or songwriter you like, click out and try more. Start a Spotify radio station from any one of these and you’ll find a whole world. In this post, I’ll highlight some early songwriters, and next time, important performers.
Noel Rosa, a somewhat tragic figure of the 30s who burned brightly but died at only 26, wrote songs, many quite heartbreaking, and more with an open-eyed, ironic social commentary , that are still performed, and by top-rank artists like Tom Jobim and Gal Costa.
In the next generation, the picaresque Cartola missed the middle of his career owing to domestic and personal fecklessness, but came back in the 60s and 70s. I’m liable to come completely unglued by his singing, either his own stuff or covering others’. He also made an important contribution to Brazilian musical culture as a restaurateur; his café in Rio was a sort of central station for a whole generation of important musicians. Institutions like this (cf: Algonquin Round Table, or the Brill Building) are an underappreciated complement to artistic advance.
Nelson Cavaquinho had a long career, starting about when Rosa died, and an enormous output. Many of his compositions are unflinchingly tragic (not just sad), even bitter and eyes-open honest, without the winking persona Rosa often takes on – the one that keeps (for example) Cole Porter’s songs at a safe emotional ironic distance. A lot of important Brazilian music seems to have been centered on his Mangueira neighborhood [no, it wasn’t named after a fire hose; mangueira is also a mango tree], about which Cavaquinho wrote Pranto da Poeta. Cavaquinho’s singing is an acquired taste; I actually like Cartola’s cover better than the composer’s version.
Two of my favorites illustrate the fallacy of interpreting art as some sort of unedited emotional dump of the artist’s personality. It’s notable that the same person could write this with its halting, descending lines and unrelenting bleakness, and this . In 2010, Globo TV dedicated an episode of Som Brasil to Cavaquinho with a variety of artists covering his songs: Nina Becker, known mainly for compositions that are far from samba , sang those two songs, backed up by a rock ensemble of bass, guitar and drums instead of the traditional Brazilian bateria (here and here). Some YouTube commenters predictably fulminate, but I think it works; samba is not a religious doctrine or a museum.