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Brazil Mixtape

April 18, 2013

In 1914, six years before he wrote the first of his famous, fun pieces, the French composer Darius Milhaud took a job working for his government in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In his free time, he was introduced to the lively and emotional music of Brazil by one of that country’s top composers, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and he heard another composer, Ernesto Nazareth, playing piano in a theater which showed silent movies. “The rhythms of the popular music intrigued and fascinated me,” Milhaud wrote (in French). “In its syncopation, there was a subtle hiatus, an indolent breathing, that I found hard to capture.” Nevertheless, after he got back to France, Milhaud began using Brazilian melodies and rhythms in his own work. (He later used jazz, and in 1940 took a job at Mills College in Oakland, where he taught many future jazz as well as classical musicians.)

Movies with sound, including Flying Down to Rio with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (1933) and Walt Disney’s Saludos Amigos (1943) helped get Brazilian music out to the rest of the world, and the French-Brazilian film Black Orpheus (1959) popularized both the annual carnaval festival in Rio and the jazz-influenced music called bossa nova, which would become an international hit. This mixtape is just in time to help us celebrate the April 21 Brazilian holiday, Tiradentes’ Day, which bears the nickname (literally ‘tooth-puller’, or dentist) of one of the heroes of the struggle for independence from Portugal. You’ll find the boundaries between classical and popular music get delightfully blurred, just as do the boundaries between the races in Brazil, a great place to listen to and to visit.

  1. Aquarela do Brasil
    Literally "Brazilian Watercolor," this song by Ary Barroso is arguably the first of the famous pieces of Brazilian music, as it was carried around the world on the voice of Carmen Miranda (who appeared in American movies wearing a fruit-festooned headdress) and in the Disney cartoon mentioned above. Listen for the sound. of the African cuica, a friction drum that can imitate laughter, monkeys, or laughing monkeys. 
  2. Villa-Lobos: Dance, from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5
    This composition by Brazil’s most famous classical composer was an adaptation of some of Bach’s techniques to the melodies and rhythms of Villa-Lobos’s native land. 
  3. Milhaud: Brasileira
    You’ll hear some of what the composer Darius Milhaud brought back to France from his time as a civil servant in Brazil, including the samba, Brazil’s national dance, and the melodies of Ernesto Nazareth, whom Milhaud heard at Nazareth’s own day job, playing for silent movies. 
  4. Ernesto Nazareth: Brejeiro
    Here’s one of Nazareth’s own compositions. Can you see why he’s known as the Brazilian Scott Joplin? 
  5. Luiz Gonzaga: Asa Branca
    Brazil is a huge country, containing many more kinds of music than most Americans realize. This song, whose title is translated from the original Portuguese as “White Wing”, is one of the most famous examples of forró, a dance style from the dry northeast of Brazil, akin to our own country music. 
  6. Samba De Orfeu
    From the soundtrack of the movie Black Orpheus, this was written by the then-young Antonio Carlos Jobim to accompany the last scene, where the kids, whom you’ll hear singing, take up the guitar of Orpheus after his death. Even since I first saw it when I was fourteen, this part of the film, in spite of, or maybe because of, its celebration of rebirth, always makes me cry. 
  7. Aguas de Março
    A marvelous example of bossa nova, which was born in the clubs or Rio and became a fad in the U.S. and elsewhere in the early ‘60s. It’s shared here by Elis Regina, a wonderful singer who fell victim to bad habits, and Antonio “Tom” Jobim, who wrote it, but didn’t sing much. I had the good fortune to interview him in the early ‘90s. 
  8. Sons de Carrilhoes: Yamandú
    Translated as “Sounds of the Church Bells,” this has a sublime classical sound, but was written by Joao Pernambuco, a composer nicknamed for his origins in the north of Brazil. Listening to the gorgeous melody, it's hard to believe that Pernambuco never learned to read or write music, but we don't recommend that you try that at home. I interviewed the guitarist Yamandu, who hails from the south of Brazil, before he was presented here in the Omni Guitar series. Yamandú dresses up the original composition with syncopation and the sound of his instrument’s low, seventh string, and he’s accompanied by clarinet, a favorite instrument in Brazilian choró, a style named for its evocation, in its more common minor mode, of crying. Here, it’s pretty darned happy.

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.