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Brazzil - Music - August 2003

Johnny Alf: He Brought Cannibalism to Brazilian Music

Johnny Alf's elaborate, jazzy harmonies attracted musicians and
the public alike. One critic, however, remarked that "Johnny Alf
makes a kind of music nobody understands." Hidden in
this critique, however, is the acknowledgement that Alf
allows different styles to influence his own creations.

Kirsten Weinoldt


"At first I studied classical music with Geni Borges—that was already my musical taste at age 9—and it had little influence later. I think that in the first years of studying the piano, we followed the rhythm of traditional pieces—more Chopin than Debussy."

The 16th of May, 2003, at Bar do Tom, Plataforma, in the Leblon section of Rio de Janeiro, saw an appearance of Alfredo José da Silva, known for most of his life as Johnny Alf—now in the twilight of a career that stretches well over 50 years—a career that might never had happened, had it not been for circumstances and people with the foresight to educate the talented young son of their domestic employee.

The write-up in leading weekly magazine Veja Rio mentioned how Maestro Tom Jobim just called him `Genialf,' and that Alf's famous song "Rapaz de Bem" inspired Jobim to compose "Desafinado." On this occasion, Johnny Alf shared the stage with Idriss Boudrioua on saxophone, Rômulo Gomes on bass, and Erivelton on drums.

His parents were Antônio José da Silva and Inês Marina da Conceição from the colorful neighborhood of Vila Isabel, where little Alfredo was born on Rua Barão de São Francisco on May 19, 1929. Vila Isabel, of course, was home to famed composer, Noel Rosa, who died in 1937 and to whom Johnny Alf later paid homage. Alfredo was only a toddler when his father, a military man, passed away, leaving his mother to raise him, taking employment as a maid.

The family, for whom she worked, educated the young boy along with their own children. The entire family was one of eager musical amateurs. At 9, he started studying classical piano with a family friend, Geni Borges, but soon demonstrated an interest in composers of the American cinema, such as George Gershwin and Cole Porter. It was not long before he was making up songs of his own. Says Alf about himself:

"The impact of the American composers gave me another type of music. It was the American musical films with music by George Gershwin and Cole Porter, and all those people. This is what lit a fire in me to create something. Then, when I was studying, when I'd return from the movies, I'd go to the piano, invent a melody, and like that….

"I never worried about classifying the music I make, if it is samba-jazz, jazz, samba, or bossa nova. During an interview someone always says: this music has a name. Music doesn't have a name, my dear. Music is sound. That's where I always start out… I don't know how to classify it. But there is one thing I make a point of saying: I like jazz, and in my music the jazzy side is very strong, principally with respect to the musicians. I give them time to show what they can do with the instrument. That makes my music `cook.'

"I don't have rules for composing. Sometimes I come up with the lyrics first, then with the music. It's a spiritual thing. I can be here and suddenly get an inspiration in my head, I put it away, and at home I take it to the piano. One time I was sleeping and suddenly awakened and managed to put what I had heard in my dream on paper. These are the famous stages of the soul. As I live alone and dedicate myself quite a bit to my work, I have the facility for putting those moments down on paper.

"My deduction is that the emissaries of art are the intermediaries of messages coming from the Cosmos. Händel and Stravinsky had visions before composing the Hallelujah chorus and Le Sacré du Printemps. Without putting myself on their level, I affirm that at the instant of inspiration I dive into a complete detachment from everything in my proximity. But for every song I sing, I remember how and when I composed it. They are autographical."

At age 14, he gathered his first musical group with friends from Vila Isabel. They would play on weekends at Praça Sete, in Andaraí.

"One of the families had a boy who played pandeiro and a girl who sang. Another, too, had a pandeirista and a kid who played piano. And there was the group on a weekly trip from Vila Isabel to Praça Sete. One time, a girl came to sing with us, also an amateur, with a soft voice. Her name was Adelina. She was Dóris Monteiro, who was also rehearsing for the beginning of a career. Even though I was thinking of the freedom of my sounds, I wasn't yet planning for a musical career."

Soon after, he started to take part in the artistic activities promoted by Instituto Cultural Brasil-Estados Unidos, IBEU, which was close to the school he attended, the traditional Pedro II high school. There, at the suggestion of an American friend, he changed his name to Johnny Alf before appearing on Paulo Santos' jazz program on Radio M.E.C

"It was while I studied at Pedro II, I became friends with the people at Instituto Brasil-Estados Unidos English course, which was also at the center of the city. I already knew some of the language and a lot about American music, and therefore they invited me to participate in the artistic group of the institute. One of the teachers, with that mania they (Americans) have for simplifying everything, called me Alf, instead of Alfredo. And in a performance at Rádio Ministério da Educação, in Paula Santos' jazz program, an American girl suggested that I use the name Johnny to complete Alf because "it was a very popular name in her country."

He worked in the accounting office of the Leopoldina Railroad, where his `adopted family' at most expected him to be a well behaved and competent functionary but where young Johnny Alf realized that he wanted much more. Mixed with papers at work was sheet music full of notes and dreams written during working hours. When his "family" realized the double life he was leading, they told him to find his own place to live. To his dismay, his mother sided with the family.

"From time to time I used the office for scribbling things that only had value for me. The dreams and first notes were an expression of liberty."

With the group of the Instituto Brasil-Estados Unidos he founded a club for promotion and exchange of Brazilian and North American music, located on Rua Almirante Gonçalves Pereira, 53, which held weekly sessions to analyze orchestrations, solos, etc., as well as showing films, shows, and jazz concerts, among other activities.

When singer Farnésio Dutra, known as Dick Farney, already a professional and recently arrived from the U.S., became a member of the group in 1949, the club gained a certain image and began being called the Sinatra-Farney Fan Club featuring a brochure illustrated with a photo of the patron and the founder. Among the members were Tom Jobim, Nora Ney, and Luís Bonfá, to name a few. During that time, Alf played at the club at night and looked after his job as corporal in the military in the daytime.

In his book Historinha do Desafinado, Little History of Desafinado (famous bossa nova song), producer Ramalho Netto says the following: "The fan clubs of that time were different from the fan clubs that followed. At meetings, the members listened to records, analyzed orchestrations, and dissected solos. At the home of the club, modestly located in a basement, given up by the mother of one of the members, with an old piano and patched drums. Johnny Alf often sat down at the piano and surprised us. His compositions were different from we'd heard before. Those chords and harmonizations—his music came from a new style."

It was not a simple product but the result and sum of the way he felt about the first people he admired. In addition to musicals, Alf appreciated jazz: the trio of then pianist Nat "King" Cole (1917-1965), the piano of Lennie Tristano (1927), and the sax of Lee Konitz (1919): intimate sounds, of the cool generation—which followed elaborate, erudite influences within jazz. And his own erudite music since the first attempts as a composer:

"I even wrote music. I studied theory for about four months, without piano, in the beginning. My teacher, feeling that I had the inclination, taught me piano in a very rigorous manner, with musical dictation. When I resolved to become a professional, what I learned was sufficient for the formation of a trio, to write arrangements…."

Until he became a professional, meanwhile, the surprising Johnny Alf would spend some more time accommodating the dreams and explosion of a reality a lot less resonant.

At the time of Sinatra-Farney, Johnny began attracting major attention among his listeners. After all, Dick Farney was no beginner (he had recorded "Copacabana" by João Barro and Alberto Ribeiro, in 1946) and associates Nora Nei, Tom Jobim, and Luís Bonfá, who had started careers, were getting more in demand. Conceited to a certain degree by his nascent public, Alfredo José—who at that time was a corporal in the army—began little by little to exchange night for day, or rather, exchange sleep for the dream, spending long nights at the piano.

He began spending nights without sleeping. He would arrive from the barracks of the Escola de Sargentos das Armas de Realengo, at 9 in the evening, change his clothes and go to the club. From there he left, happy, at four in the morning, brought by actor Cyll, brother of Dick Farney, for a new change of clothes and environment: he returned to the barracks.

Through Dick Farney and Nora Ney, he was contracted in 1952 as pianist in the recently inaugurated Cantina do César, owned by radio personality and presenter César de Alencar giving start to his professional career. It was at this time that actress Mary Gonçalves, who had been the queen of radio in 1952 and was launching her singing career, chose three of his songs, "Estamos Sós," We are alone; "O que é Amar," What is it to love, and "Escuta," Listen, to include on her LP, Convite ao Romance, Invitation to Romance.

After that, he was invited to be a pianist in the group, which guitarist Fafá Lemos formed to play in the nightclub Monte Carlo. During this time, at the invitation of Ramalho Neto, he recorded—at Sinter—his first record, a 78 with jazz influenced instrumental music (piano, bass and guitar), with "Falsete," Falsetto—his composition—and "De Cigarro em Cigarro," From Cigarette to Cigarette, by Luís Bonfá.

Later, alternating with pianist Newton Mendonça, he played in the nightclub Mandarim, and from there moving on to Clube da Chave, Drink, and Plaza. Also, he performed frequently in the Beco das Garrafas, Bottle Alley, thus named because people used to throw bottles at the noisy musicians playing and disturbing the quiet of the carioca night.

Of his repertoire, two compositions began standing out, "Céu e Mar," Heaven and Sea, and "Rapaz de Bem," Nice Fellow, this written about 1953 and considered, in melodic and harmonic terms, as a revolutionary song and a precursor of the bossa nova.

In 1955, he went to São Paulo where he played at the Baiúca and at Bar Michel, in the latter with the founders, Paulinho Nogueira, Sabá, and Luís Chaves. On a trip to Rio de Janeiro, the same year, he recorded the first important 78 of his career, in Copacabana, with "Rapaz de Bem" and "O Tempo e o Vento," The time and the wind, also his composition. Six years later he recorded, with RCA, his first LP, Rapaz de Bem, which included "Ilusão à Toa," Simple Illusion, which also became a great success.

Still in 1961, he received an invitation from composer Chico Feitosa to play at Carnegie Hall in New York, but he stayed in São Paulo and did not go. The following year he returned to Rio de Janeiro, playing at Bottle's Bar, at which time he contributed to the group Tamba Trio with Sérgio Mendes, Luís Carlos Vinhas, and Sílvia Telles. He also formed a group with bass player Tião Neto and drummer Edison Machado, appearing in the interior of São Paulo.

He was also a professor of music at the Meireles Conservatory, in São Paulo. In 1967 he participated in the Third Festival da Música Popular Brasileira, on TV Record, in São Paulo with the song "Eu e a Brisa," I and the Breeze, interpreted by singer Márcia. The composition was eliminated in the initial rounds, and a month later, it became one of the great successes of his career. Following this song were "Decisão," Decision and "Garota da minha Cidade," Girl from my City, which represent the more externalized and uninhibited style of his work.

His composition "Rapaz de Bem" was recorded abroad by Lalo Schifrin. He recorded two LP's under his own name, Ele É Johnny Alf, He is Johnny Alf and Nós, We, on Odeon in 1974. The former included "Decisão" and "Garota da Minha Cidade" in addition to "Eh, O Mundo bom taí" and "Anabela" both of his own authorship. The latter included his compositions "O que é Amar," "Nós," "Plenilúnio," Full Moon, and the samba by Egberto Gismonti and Paulo César Pinheiro, "Saudações," Greetings.

The elaborate, jazzy harmonies attracted people at all levels, musicians and the public alike. Not all, however, were enthusiastic in the early years. One critic acidly remarked that "Johnny Alf makes a kind of music nobody understands." Hidden in this critique, however, is the acknowledgement that Alf open-mindedly listened and listens to all kinds of music and allows the different styles to influence his own creations, and this long before Tropicália's adoption of antropofagia, cannibalism, as a way of gathering inspiration from other styles of music and culture.

How is it that he managed to achieve that sound? All were astonished. Among them was critic Sylvio Túlio Cardoso, who wrote under the pseudonym Sérgio Lôbo. After speaking of the "spectacular variations of melody," "division of always unforeseen phrasing," and "technique of shading in determined words of verse," Sylvio blurted out: "Monkeys whip us if this LP is not among the five most important of Brazilian music in '64!" It did become one of the most important, but not among the most sold.

Johnny Alf says of his sometimes trying early years in music:

"Between one gig and another at a nightclub I had many highs and lows, I even slept in the sand at times—the term is this—disoriented. In those moments, principally the worst, I began to probe my dreams, and invited by friends I began frequenting spiritualistic sessions. At the beginning, I was not a believer. Later, a spiritual guide advised me to read about spiritualism, and another practically revealed the key to everything when he asked me the first question: "Where is your mother?"

"It was a problem that I'd carried with me since the beginning of my career, and he went straight to the subject, without asking more. He discovered, among other things, that she had, by mistake, given me a "left baptism," that is, she had taken me to a Macumba ceremony where bad spirits reigned, and that I was still under their influence. If it wasn't exactly my liberation (he said I still needed more work to free myself), it was the first time I saw hope, and a new phase:

"Come from Aruanda come, and bring/your protection which I want for peace/and on the day that Zumbi calls, suffering comes to an end,/ for evil in the world is too much for me" (Kaô Xangô); "It was at a ceremony/ when I sang for Xangô/Calunga bowed and spoke: You did not sing for me!" (promise to Calunga); "go out the front,/ let me burn the tuia (tree)/ to end demand (Song of demand)."

The advice and ceremonies must have worked. Johnny Alf has had a long and rich career as artist of record and guest artist with others—performances in Brazil and abroad, where he is loved. The large room at Plataforma in May was sold out at both shows with lots of young people in attendance.

A carioca at heart (carioca da gema)—some things never change—Johnny Alf has lived in São Paulo for the past 40 years since he, looking for work, left the marvelous city behind and missed the bossa nova wave.

One can only imagine the contribution he could have made to one of the most successful directions of music. Instead, he made his own contribution and stands alone, unique and unlike anyone else in Brazilian music. He is still touring Brazil and Europe—in fact, this fall he will start a European tour opening in Switzerland. He has also been busy in the studio, recording a CD in the United States with some of the big successes of his career, and a CD of previously un-recorded songs has been recorded for the Japanese market. He can still excite a room with his jazzy harmonies, his melodic songs, and his original lyrics, and one can only hope he will for a long time to come.


1952—Johnny Alf, first recording with the songs "De cigarro em cigarro, From cigarette to cigarette (Luís Bonfá) and "Falsete."

1952—Convite ao Romance, Invitation to Romancewith Mary Gonçalves.

1954—Johnny Alf

1955—Johnny Alf , the first LP entirely with his own songs.

1958—Johnny Alf

1961—Rapaz de Bem


1965—Johnny Alf with arrangements by José Briamonte

1968—Johnny Alf e Sexteto Contraponto

1971—Ele é Johnny Alf, He is Johnny Alf

1972—Johnny Alf - Compacto Duplo


1978—Desbunde Total

1986—Johnny Alf—Eu e a Brisa

1990—Olhos Negros

1997—Letra e Música—Noel Rosa

1998—Cult Alf—Johnny Alf

1999—As Sete Palavras de Cristo na Cruz com Dom Pedro Casaldáliga,

1999—Johnny Alf—Eu e a Bossa 40 Anos de Bossa Nova

In addition, Johnny Alf has contributed to countless other artists' albums as well as the Song Books produced by the late Almir Chediak.

The Songs

Ilusão à Toa

Eu acho engraçado
quando um certo alguém
se aproxima de mim
trazendo exuberância
que me extasia;
meus olhos sentem,
minhas mãos transpiram
é um amor que eu guardo há muito
dentro de mim
e é a voz do coração que canta assim,
Olha; somente um dia
longe dos teus olhos,
trouxe a saudade do amor tão perto
e o mundo inteiro fez-se tão tristonho.
Mas, embora agora eu te tenha perto,
eu acho graça do meu pensamento
a conduzir o nosso amor discreto;
sim, amor discreto pra uma só pessoa
pois nem de leve sabes que eu te quero
e me apraz essa ilusão à toa

Simple Illusion

I find it funny
when a certain somebody
comes near me
bringing exuberance
that puts me in ecstasy;
my eyes tear up
my hands sweat,
it is a love I've put away
for a while inside me
and it is the voice of the heart that sings like this,
like this:
Look; only a day
far from your eyes
brought the longing of love so near
and the whole world became so sad.
But, although now I have you close
I find it funny in my thought
conducting our discreet love;
yes, discreet for just one person
for not even vaguely do you know that I want you
and that simple illusion pleases me.


Nós que revidamos a tristeza juntos
a alimentamos a beleza juntos
pra progredirmos em fazer amor!
Nós que agradecemos à emoção traçada,
conjeturando em sensações caladas
pelos tributos do sorriso e dor.
Eu, que divulguei a minha mão na tua
Pra ter em ti a salvação tão nua
Que agasalha neste espanto a sós!
Tu, que respondestes ao que eu
tinha em mente
pra alimentar meu ar, meu ambiente
e me aceitou por completo a nós!


We, who respond to sadness together
to feed off the beauty together
to progress to making love!
We, who are grateful for the marked emotion
guessing at silent sensations
for the tributes of smile and pain
I, who put my hand in yours
to have in you the naked salvation
which envelops this amazement alone!
You, who respond to what I had in mind
to feed my air, my environment
and accepted me completely to us.

Rapaz de Bem

Você bem sabe, eu sou um
rapaz de bem
e a minha onda é do vai-e-vem
pois co'as pessoas que eu bem tratar
eu qualquer dia posso arrumar
vê mora!
No meu preparo inelectual
é o trabalho a pior moral;
o meu dinheiro, só de arrumação!
Eu tenho casa, tenho comida
não passo fome, graças a Deus
e no esporte eu sou de morte!
Tendo isso tudo, eu não preciso
De mais nada, é claro!
Se a luz do sol vem me trazer amor,
tudo de graça a natureza dá:
pra que que eu quero trabalhar?

Nice Fellow

You know well that I am
a nice fellow
and my wave is to go and come
'cause people I treat well
I can get rid of any day
get it!
In my intellectual preparation
the work is at its worst ethics
my money, only for cleaning out
I have a house, I have food
I'm not hungry, thank God
and in sports I'm impossible!
Having all that, I don't need anything else,
that's clear!
If the sunlight brings me love
all free and natural
why do I want to work?

Eu e a Brisa

Ah, se a juventude que essa brisa canta
ficasse aqui comigo mais um pouco,
eu poderia esquecer a dor
de ser tão só
pra ser um sonho
e aí então quem sabe alguém chegasse
buscando um sonho em forma de desejo
felicidade então pra nós seria!

E depois que a tarde
nos trouxesse a lua,
se o amor chegasse eu não resistiria
e a madrugada acalentaria a nossa paz!

Fica, oh brisa, fica
pois talvez quem sabe
o inesperado faça uma surpresa
e traga alguém que queira te escutar
e junto a mim queira ficar,
bem junto a mim
queira ficar…

I and the Breeze

Ah, if the youth that breeze sings
stayed here with me a little while longer,
I'd be able to forget the pain
of being so alone
to be a dream
and then who knows who would arrive
looking for a dream in the form of desire
happiness would then be for us.

And afterward when the afternoon
brought us the moon,
if love arrived, I wouldn't resist
and the dawn would cherish our peace

Stay, oh breeze, stay
for perhaps who knows
the unexpected brings a surprise
and brings someone who wanted to hear you
and wanted to stay next to me
wanted to stay
quite close to me.

O que é Amar

É só olhar, depois sorrir, depois gostar
você olhou, você sorriu—me fez gostar!
quis controlar meu coração
mas foi tão grande a emoção;
de sua boca ouvi dizer: quero você!

Quis responder, quis lhe abraçar
tudo falhou.
Porém você me segurou e me beijou.
Agora eu posso argumentar
se perguntarem o que é amar:
 É só olhar, depois sorrir,
depois gostar!

What is it to love

It is only to look, then to smile, then to like
you looked, you smiled—you made me like you!
I wanted to control my heart
but the emotion was so great
from your mouth I heard: I want you.

I wanted to respond, I wanted to embrace you
everything failed
however, you assured me and kissed me
now I can argue
if they ask what love is;
It is just to look, then to smile,
then to like.

Dois Corações

A diferença que existe entre nós
é coisa que o tempo arrumou;
eu já sabia da vida
quando você chegou!
Mas hoje em dia o que faz a emoção
unir esses dois corações
é a afinidade de tom
que o amor nos legou!
Tudo surgiu tão de repente
sem discutir antecedentes
você me aceita e diz pra mim:
seremos nós até o fim
Toda essa escolha que parte de nós
responde ao desejo
e dispensa senões;
deixemos tudo ao critério
de nossos dois corações!

Two Hearts

The difference that exists between us
is the thing that time cleared up;
I already knew of life
when you arrived!
But today on this day, what makes the emotion
unite those two hearts
is the affinity in the tone
that love left us!
Everything arose so suddenly
without discussing the preceding,
you accept me and say to me:
we will be us until then end
All that choice that comes from us
responds to the desire
and dispenses flaws;
we'll leave everything to the criterion
of our two hearts!

"Seu" Chopin, Desculpe

"Seu" Chopin, não vá ficar
zangado e ressentido
pela divertida união
que fiz de sua inspiração
a três tempos de um chorinho meu
"Seu" Chopin, não vá pensar
qu'estou me aproveitando
de seu nome e sua projeção,
mas sua cooperação
valiriza este chorinho meu!
Dizem que o próprio Liszt
ao seu valor não se renegou,
até a George Sand
os pontos entregou
Por isso eu quero uma vez mais
dizer que não é plágio
essa divertida união
que fiz de sua inspiração
ao compasso dois por quatro,
leve e sincopado
deste chorinho-canção.

Mr. Chopin, Excuse Me

Mr. Chopin, you won't stay
angry and resentful
for the entertaining union
which I made with your inspiration
my chorinho* in three movements
Mr. Chopin, don't think
that I'm taking advantage
of your name and your prominence,
but your cooperation
validates this, my chorinho!
They say that Liszt himself
to his merit did not renounce
George Sand
and gave up
Therefore I want, one more time,
to say this entertaining union
which I made at your inspiration
is not plagiarism
in two-four time,
light and syncopated,
in this chorinho-song.

Senhor Johnny Alf has graciously agreed to contribute to the following for the benefit of Brazzil's readers:

"É um prazer muito grande poder estar me comunicando com os leitores dessa revista. Sei que a música segue sempre por vários caminhos, muito mais rápido do que o artista pode acompanhar, mas fico muito feliz de saber que em vários cantos do mundo, muitos lugares aonde eu nunca me apresentei, tem alguém ouvindo um CD meu, conhecendo o meu trabalho. É muito gratificante para um artista, saber que as pessoas estão gostando de ouvir aquilo que você produz."

"It is a very great pleasure to be able to communicate with the readers of your magazine. I know the music always carries on along many roads, much more quickly than an artist can follow along, but I'm very happy to know that in various corners of the world, many places in which I have never performed, there is someone listening to a CD of mine, knowing my work. It is very gratifying to an artist knowing that people are enjoying what he produced."


Kirsten Weinoldt was born in Denmark and came to the U.S. in 1969. She fell in love with Brazil after seeing Black Orpheus many years ago and has lived immersed in Brazilian culture ever since. E-mail: kwracing@erols.com




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