My first exposure to Brazilian music was a Stan Getz recording of my father’s that featured the music of Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim. It made scant impression on my young mind, as I was far more interested in the Beatles, and the burgeoning sounds of the 1960’s pop revolution. It was later, in the mid-70’s, when my California housemate, a jazz vibraphonist, sat me down and handed me a record cover as he placed the platter it had contained on the stereo. This was what I heard:
The celestial sounds that filled my cranium were that of tenor and soprano saxophonist master Wayne Shorter‘s latest album “Native Dancer,” subtitled “featuring Milton Nascimento,” which some waggish reviewer would later disclaim should have been titled as “Milton Nascimento featuring Wayne Shorter.” In truth, the swirling vocals, madly dancing from baritone to falsetto, dueling with Shorter’s expressive sax and Herbie Hancock’s impassioned piano, did at times dominate, but I was captivated. Who was this mysterious vocalist, who compositions sounded like nothing else that I had ever heard before?
This was my first exposure to MPB, or “Música popular brasileira,” the fertile amalgam of Brazil’s traditional musical influences (samba, bosso nova) with the rhythms of jazz and rock and roll.
Samba is the iconic music of Brazil, with its rhythms rooted firmly in Africa, but became well-established as the most popular form of musical style in urban Río de Janieiro and throughout the Southeast and Northeast regions of the country in particular. It is universally recognized as the music of Carnival, Brazil’s most festive holiday.
In the 1950’s, bosso nova was birthed. Bosso nova means “new trend,” and musically it would fuse samba with the modern, urbane sounds of jazz. Most often performed with classical guitar and gentler vocalization, it became internationally emblematic of Brazilian music in the mid-20th century, popularized by Jobim, and the hit song “Girl From Ipanema.”
MPB arose directly out of the bosso nova movement, and many of MPB’s royalty began their careers writing and singing songs that would fit comfortably into that category. The meteoric rise of the Beatles, however, would ultimately transform Brazilian music as it did in North America and Europe. A generation of singer-songwriters, in their twenties during the mid- and late ’60’s, subtly incorporated the rebellious strains of rock and roll into their music, which found a receptive audience among the university student population. Several used their songs as a podium of protest during Brazil’s military dictatorship. This gave rise to the short-lived tropicalia or tropicalismo movement, personified by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, who were jailed and later forced to live in exile along with Chico Buarque, by their vocal opposition to military rule.
There is something about bosso nova that just drills deep down into my soul, and my explorations into Brazilian music have only expanded across 30 years, growing along with my love for the country of its birth, its people and, of course, its flora. As Todd Rundgren stated, “Bosso nova is serious music – not for the faint of heart. It’s a music devoid of the histrionics that mask your true feelings. It’s about the thoughtful study of emotions and conditions – of why we feel as much as what we feel.”
But it was Milton Nascimento who first opened this new world of music to me, a portal to a culture that is now the foreign country that I have visited more often than any other, but for which my love of its music predated my first trip by 13 years. Below he is performing one of his numerous signature songs, “Travessia,” followed by his recording of an English version (“Bridges,” the English lyrics authored by Gene Lees) from his 1968 U. S. debut album Courage.
Milton Nascimento was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1942, but was adopted by the couple for whom his mother once worked as a housekeeper. His biological mother died when he was a toddler, and his adopted family moved to a small town in Minas Gerais, an interior state of the Brazilian planalto. He began singing professionally at 19, but it was pop/bosso nova singer Elis Regina‘s recording of his tune “Canção do Sal” in 1966 that provided his big break.
Over almost a 50 year career, he has achieved international acclaim, but has also consistently pushed himself into new musical dimensions. “Anima” is from his 1982 album of the same name.
Milton’s music percolates with many of the traditional strains of Brazilian music, but he is an uncanny alchemist with these, while also incorporating a broad palette of international influences. His songs are collages of voices and instruments, multi-layered and resonant with emotion, and in his prime, his vocal range was extraordinary.
Nascimento fills stadiums in Brazil, but in Miami can at least annually be seen in more intimate venues, though the local expat community assures a sell-out crowd. From the 1994 Angelus, Milton’s cover of James Taylor’s “Only a Dream In Rio” with, of course, a little help from JT himself.
Alan Meerow works as a tropical plant research biologist in Florida and is the managing editor of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation blog pages.