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Brazzil - Music - March 2004

Brazil's Melgaço: The Music of Silence

Brazilian Otacílio Melgaço has a languid, caressing, quiet voice.
Like Chet Baker's or João Gilberto's singing, Melgaço's voice is
weightless, its depth infinite, it is haunting, haunted, insular. He
teaches us the sound of stillness. Autumnal, sensual, reflective,
intimate, sophisticated, elegant, summery. A lyrical hero.

William Frias

I've been talking about Otacílio Melgaço and his music all the time.

Otacílio Melgaço developed his style—singing quietly without vibrato to create his own tempo in relation to his violão or acoustic guitar (and viola caipira, sax, scaletta, piano, sitar, electric guitar, kalimba, bass and so forth), focusing on a cool, soft, and intimate style of singing.

(Historical Parenthesis)

The name Brazil comes from the Celtic word `bress', which means the blessed land. There is no doubt that Brazil is a blessed land whose inhabitants are known to be the most musical people in the world, and where anything and everything makes samba. This has been so since the 16th century, although up to the late 1800's blacks and mulattos, the progenitors of the genre, were still being persecuted by the police for playing it.

Samba was confined to the backyards then, and only played and enjoyed by the lower classes. Samba culture had its beginnings in Bahia, Brazil's first capital. It was brought there by African slaves that the Portuguese colonizers mercilessly exported to their newly found land. It was developed in Rio de Janeiro following the abolition of slavery in 1888.

In 1917, "Pelo Telefone" (By Phone) became a carnival hit of huge success and was first registered under a copyright by its author, Donga. From then on, samba became the Brazilian musical genre par excellence. From slum kids producing its rhythms on tins and match boxes to the sophistication of the clubs of Rio where in the forties Carmen Miranda enthralled the crowds with her Bando da Lua (Bunch from the Moon) band, samba crossed all frontiers.

It went to Hollywood and, on its developing path, produced the most ingenious composers from all backgrounds. During the hardest times of the military dictatorship in the 1960's, some of the most illustrious representatives of Brazilian music lent their contribution to a country which had lost its freedom of speech but not their unique ability to deal with its misfortunes.

They included Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and Gal Costa. These artists, whose musical work was seen as a threat to the military, were exiled by the hardliners. They had to compose under pseudonyms and were of paramount importance as conveyors of messages to a whole nation—protest songs, words of command. Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil became the ever political speakers of the masses.

The period of bossa nova began in the middle 20th century, also leaning on the existing Brazilian styles. This music was strongly supported by Ary Barroso, one of the greatest samba composers and played by Luiz Bonfá, Dorival Caymmi and others. But the best known name and probably the greatest Brazilian composers of all times, considered often as the inventor of this music was Antônio Carlos Jobim, better known as Tom Jobim.

Still Jobim would not have been what he is today if there were no João Gilberto, the greatest bossa player ever. Tom was strongly influenced by American jazz music, which is probably the reason why his music is often called jazz samba.

The second most important musician from that time is surely Baden Powell, composer and extraordinary guitar player. Still, to get the whole picture, one must mention the greatest poet, Vinicius de Moraes, the author of the words for the majority of the greatest songs written by Jobim, Powell, Lyra and others.

International popularity for this music came after French director Marcel Camus received the Grand Prix in Cannes in 1959 for the film Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus), which was filmed in Brazil, and also another equally important event: the first American recording of Jobim's, Barroso's and Baden's songs by jazz stars Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz in 1962.

Getz had by the end of his life been devoted to bossa nova and is by now probably best known by his bossa interpretations that he did with Jobim, Bonfá, Gilberto and his wife Astrud.

During the late 60's a new generation of musicians arose, lead by Chico Buarque de Hollanda, a man equally good in poetry and music. Collaborating with Jobim and Vinicius, his songs have been played often by Caetano Veloso, the man with the exquisite voice who, together with his sister Maria Bethânia and friend musicians Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa, founded the famous Tropicalismo movement, a reflection of 1968 and the hippy generation from other parts of the world.

Still, the picture of Brazil of all times wouldn't be complete without the women with a thousand voices, the master of all female singers, the fabulous Elis Regina. Together with other musicians, such as Edu Lobo, Toquinho, Jorge Ben, Milton Nascimento, Ivan Lins, Djavan and many others, she created an image of Brazilian music that is known today. This music is equally influenced by traditional Brazilian and other Latin American styles, old European and African roots, American jazz and rock music.

In Brazil, the dance is called samba too. The samba, to the purist, since it is the original word in Congo and Zambezi. Here also, like blues, the samba is an "invention" from black African prisoners interned in the huge South American plantations, the famous latifúndios. But if the blues is sad like a cotton field, samba is cheerful, furious, and sunny.

The Latin environment and a less fierce form of slavery then promoted a completely different Negro-American-expression, resulting from the same reasons but in completely different conditions. The samba grew, of course, in the most colonized regions, first, in Rio de Janeiro, but also in São Paulo and Bahia.

Europe took an interest in samba from 1920. Darius Milhaud included samba within some of his compositions. In fact, Villa-Lobos also wrote a classical samba at the beginning of the 50's. However, it seems that the predominance of rhythmical figures and their accentuation have not been adopted easily by the academic culture except on the occasion of exotic quotations—among others, by Milhaud in his Scaramouche.

No, the most brilliant offspring of samba was the bossa nova. The paternity is granted to Tom Jobim and João Gilberto, at the beginning of the 50's, when Brazil initiated a cultural and economic revolution, which was worth a new name: the New Wave—Nova Bossa. The movie Orfeu Negro—golden palm of the Cannes Film Festival—and the jazz saxophonist Stan Getz popularized bossa nova beyond its wildest dreams.

"My contemporaries and I learned a lot from the Brazilian composers who came before us," Tom Jobim, invulnerable to sophistic arguments or reasoning, once said. "People like Pixinguinha, Ary Barroso and Dorival Caymmi left a rastro, a track of beauty for us to follow. When bossa nova first appeared in Brazil, though, it had so many adversaries, so many puristas full of animosity. Yet the U.S. loved us. We received so many no's in Brazil, and so many yes's in the States.

"With hindsight, I can see that the more the U.S. said yes, the more Brazil said no. Our affinity for jazz was part of the problem, and it has come to dominate many people's thinking about our music. Instead of going into history as a branch of samba, which it is, bossa nova is viewed by the world as a branch of jazz.

"Of course, anything that swings today is called jazz; the term has become so encompassing. And the only countries that really swing in their music are the U.S., Cuba and Brazil."

Post-Bossa Otacílio

Otacílio Melgaço's music is complex melodically in ways that coincide with the other side of the bossa nova, "profound" bossa—lyric, enigmatic, soulful. Coincide with the very important post-bossa (hear Jobim's records Urubu, Matita Perê, for example). Coincide with the best writing from the 50's to the present, but his style goes ahead: unforgettable melodies are built on very challenging progressions that sound effortless, androgynous and ethereal.

Melgaço has a languid, caressing, quiet voice. Like Chet Baker's singing or João Gilberto's singing, Melgaço's voice is weightless, its depth infinite, it is haunting, haunted, insular. He teaches us the sound of stillness. As time goes by, like smooth velvet his voice knew no bounds and needed no embellishment. His seductive vocals caressed the ear as well as the soul. Autumnal, sensual, reflective, intimate, sophisticated, elegant, summery... He's a kind of lyrical hero today.

However, Melgaço's elaborate harmony is unwonted, instinctive, spiritual (Otacílio plays hypnotical songs!)—in other words: he's also a "bossanovaman" but his music is beyond. Far beyond. Music and folklore from mountainous Minas Gerais (for example—Zé Coco do Riachão, Ary Barroso, Ataulfo Alves, João Bosco, Djalma Correia, Milton Nascimento, "Clube da Esquina" and so on), samba (Cartola, Nelson Cavaquinho, Paulinho da Viola...), chorinho, Brazilian Popular Music (Dorival Caymmi, Elomar, Edu Lobo, Caetano Veloso, Tropicália...), cool jazz (Miles Davis, Gil and Bill Evans...), contemporary jazz (John McLaughlin, Pharoah Sanders, Ralph Towner, Weather Report...), world music (Ravi Shankar, Naná Vasconcelos, Cocteau Twins, Afro-sounds...) et cetera.

Syncretism? Miscegenation? Something "and" nothing! "The style is the man", said Novalis. The Melgaço's style is "this" man: Melgaço himself.

One more time, the master Tom Jobim confides: "I have those new harmonies coming from me only. I was always revolting against the establishment, against normal harmonies. It is a very personal thing. Sure, I heard Debussy and Ravel, but they didn't have this African beat we have here."

It's like Otacílio's consonance if we think about `harmonies,' but the Melgaço's beat is the silence! The result is an intimate atmosphere, suddenly, willingly—because the music moves us. Melgaço's sound is too beautiful, the seduction too irresistible, to resist reminiscing. "Less is more. Few notes, right notes."

Enchantingly sweet and angelic, sways slowly to the rhythms of a place where music is a way of life. I feel Otacílio "in a silent way" because he "re-invented the silence" every time he "played it" just as basilary Miles Davis with the horn. In fact, silence was the cornerstone of his entire performance; step by step Melgaço whispered the emotion.

His lyrics. Precisely Melgaço—like father, like son—the men of letters João Guimarães Rosa and Carlos Drummond de Andrade are from the same mysterious Brazilian region (Minas Gerais); they're from the same spiritual path, bypath, footpath. Spiritual family, ascendance. Ascension, essence.

Melgaço's poetry is endless, inexhaustible, original; his poetry employs condensed figures and unorthodox syntax therefore he knows that the point of a poem is the beauty of the language. The function of poetry in his songs is to preserve moments of extreme sensation and unique impressions. It is possible to make poetry (or music) out of anything, especially out of zero, which etymologically also signifies cipher.

"And I, truly, I am the center that doesn't exist except as a convention in the geometry of the abyss; I am the nothingness around which this movement spins... It is always a mistake not to close one's eyes, whether to forgive or to look better into oneself. I write and sing in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, English... because each poem is build around a central symbol, idea, or metaphor from my particular and imprisoning Babel!" he, in high spirits, said.

A complete contemporary artist, Melgaço crosses over all musical boundaries. From Belo Horizonte city, Minas Gerais state, Brazil—the composer, singer, multiple instrumentist, arranger, lyricist and symbolist poet possess an unusual depth; avant-garde tradition walking hand in hand with the indescribable. "Observing, and following along."

"You must not injure silence, for it is sacred," João Gilberto once said.

Otacílio Melgaço knows very well! And he goes ahead...

Melgaço's Official Site:


William Frias is a Brazilian freelance writer and can be reached at kissyoumindly@yahoo.com.br

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