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Brazzil - Music - May 2004

Brazil's Legend Ary

Ary Barroso was the dominant figure of Brazil's "Radio Era" (the
decades of the thirties, forties and fifties) but his immense
versatility overflowed from music to lead him into journalism,
humor, theater, sports writing and politics as well. He created
an original personality for himself, endowed with great humor.

Cecília Prada


Picture "I was not a spectator of the history of samba. I was a protagonist!"

It is impossible to separate the name of Ary Barroso from that of his most famous composition, considered to be "our other National Anthem": "Aquarela do Brasil" (Watercolor of Brazil).

Just as it is impossible to hear that music without plunging into the green-yellow (patriotic) atmosphere of the "Brazilian Brazil" that it recreates, sensual as the sultriness of the mulata from Bahia, luminous as a summer morning, lofty as an adjective unfurled in the wind of the world by the dictatorship of the Estado Novo—it is the prototype of the "samba of exaltation"—and eternal, because together with "Na baixa do sapateiro," also by Ary, it is one of the 20 most recorded songs on the planet.

Using a great variety of rhythms, from samba (in its various types) to Carnaval marches, waltzes, toadas and songs, batuques and cateretês, and taking advantage of foreign rhythms such as tangos, foxtrots, and even a mazurka, Ary Barroso is still among the ten greatest composers of MPB and one of its best interpreters as pianist.

And he left us a rich and varied repertoire, with a discography that spans a period of 34 years: from his first recording, of the samba "Vou à Penha" (I am going to Penha), sung by Mario Reis in 1928, to the samba-canção "Em Noite de Lua" (On a moonlit night), written in partnership with Vinicius de Moraes and interpreted by Angela Maria in 1962—two years before the death of the composer, at 60, of cirrhosis of the liver.

Ary Barroso was the dominant figure of our "Radio Era"—the decades of the thirties, forties and fifties—but his immense versatility overflowed from the domain of musical creation to lead him into journalism, humor, theater, sports writing and politics as well. He created an original personality for himself, endowed with great humor, and present in the daily life of the country.

His passion, besides music, was soccer—he was a Flamengo fanatic. And if as a sports announcer he completely changed radio broadcasts, emphasizing the goals with an ever-present harmonica, and introducing techniques that have lasted to the present day, his adoration for his team always excited him, preventing him from adopting an impartial attitude.

Elected representative for the National Democratic Union (UDN) in 1947, he stood out for his participation in the public life of Rio de Janeiro—among many other projects that he supported, he was one of the principals responsible for the construction of soccer stadium Maracanã. He was also unfailingly active in defense of the authorial rights of composers and artists, having been founder and president of the Brazilian Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers of Music (SBACEM).

Orphan—Poor and Rich

The childhood of Ary Evangelista Barroso, born Nov. 7, 1903, in Ubá (Minas Gerais state), was not easy. Orphaned of his parents at seven and a half—both victims of tuberculosis—he was brought up by his maternal grandmother and a widowed aunt.

Much loved by his nephew, Aunt Ritinha would be a great influence in his

career, but she was responsible for the "worst hours of my life", as the composer would say later, since she obliged him to study piano three hours at a stretch, daily, with the technique she had at her disposal: she used to put a saucer on the back of his hands, who had to do play scale without letting it fall off.

In a 1961 interview, Ary related: "She used to punish me with a switch of quince. I hated that. I never imagined that martyrdom would end up by giving me the means of earning a living." Because at 12 he was already taking turns with Aunt Ritinha at the piano of the Cine Ideal, accompanying the silent films.

The mischievous adolescent had a lot of difficulty in finishing his secondary school studies. He went to various schools, was expelled form some of them, until he ended up in the school at Cataguases, "where Antonio Amaro, the unforgettable teacher, managed to tame somewhat my excesses and my craziness."

In the memory of the little citizen of Ubá, one of these "crazinesses" was narrated by Sergio Cabral, in No Tempo de Ary Barroso (Lumiar Editora): leaving his house secretly, during the night, Ary joined a friend and they headed for the ruins of the Church of São José, thought to be haunted, and a horse used during the day in collecting trash was grazing.

Tying the animal's tail to the bell rope, they spread panic throughout the city, since every time the horse moved the bell would toll. When one of the more courageous citizens resolved to confront the ghosts, it was poor Zé do Chinelo, the owner of the animal and the trash wagon who was arrested. But he was released several hours later, when Ary decided to confess all. He was grounded for several days, unable to leave the house.

At 17 he had a stroke of luck: with the death of an uncle, the adolescent inherited a sum considered to be "fabulous" for the period, 40 contos de réis. In the opinion of the family, it was enough to support him through the end of his law school in Rio de Janeiro. A sad mistake: his bohemian habits and elegant nights on the town ran through the little fortune in three years.

It was then that the pedagogical thrashings of Aunt Ritinha were more valuable than ever. Ary used his immense talent and refined technique as a pianist to work in boîtes (night clubs), in revues, in cinemas, and thus was able to finish his schooling in the law. But music had already become a career: "One who is born to be a priest already has the tonsure in the cradle. It seems like I was filled with music from the day I gave my first wail. And it never left."

The Composer

Ary's first song had already been written in Ubá, in 1918—the cateretê "De longe," recorded by Carmen Miranda to a samba rhythm in 1932. From 1924 to 1928, when he was traveling with orchestras, he would fill his musical notebooks with all sorts of sambas.

On returning to Rio de Janeiro, in 1927, he looked up the Vitale brothers [now an important music publishing house], but they "had no resources"—a trumped-up excuse, well known to all young composers or writers, but a friendship began which, not much later, would pour a river of money to the publishers and composer.

In the two years following the "student" Ary battled with renewed fervor to stabilize his financial position. The reason: he had fallen madly in love and wanted to marry Ivone Arantes—Ivoninha—who he had met when she was 13 years old and he was 22. She was the youngest daughter of the owners of the boarding house where Ary lived and would become his companion for life.

Always on tour and busy with music, he began to make a name for himself. In an interview with Diário da Noite, about to turn 26, he said: "I came a cropper in the theater, where I made my debut in the revue Laranja da China, by Olegário Mariano." And he announced: "I intend to abandon this bittersweet profession. I will cultivate another field. Only God knows if this will be for good or bad."

But God was not willing. The other "field" was law, but Dr. Ary Barroso, after using connections to obtain a position as public prosecutor in a little city lost in Minas Gerais, could hang up his diploma and not give it another thought—his marchinha "Dá Nela," entered at the last minute, five minutes before midnight on Dec. 30, 1929, the deadline for the competition for Carnival songs promoted by Casa Édison, had won first place, with a royal prize: 5 contos de réis.

He would describe this moment in a 1956 interview: "When the decision was announced, applause burst forth from everywhere. I was overcome. They carried me. They acclaimed me. I got a prize of 5 contos de réis!...there, in the old Teatro Lírico, on that night in 1930, I got the courage to make my way forward in life…I was able to get married because of the prize money."

And he also did not leave the theater. Until the end of his life he would devote much time to musical revues, writing scores and entire shows, and even performing as a musician. In 1957, the producer Walter Machado would pay homage to him with a brilliant biographical show, Mr. Samba.


Ary was brought to radio by Renato Murce in 1933. He would make brief appearances in various programs, and participated in a famous polemic against Henrique Pongetti., on Radio Philips. Pongetti defended a fake maxixe, "Carioca," which RKO had created for the film Flying down to Rio, as "spectacular". For Ary and Murce, the film was nothing more than "a pile of foolishness filmed in a studio".

But the turning point of his career would not take place in Rio de Janeiro, but in São Paulo, where he arrived when his great friend and musical partner Luís Peixoto was invited to direct Radio Cosmos there in September 1935. Together they created a variety program which had an enormous impact, Hora H (H Hour). Four months later, Ary would write to Renato Murce telling him of their success. But he asked him, for the love of God, to call him back to Rio, because he was dying to see the sea again.

Murce invited him to work with him in Hora só—Rindo (Just an Hour- Laughing), on Rádio Transmissora. But Ary Barroso did not hesitate to abandon his friend, even on the first day of broadcast—he had signed a much more rewarding contract with Rádio Cruzeiro do Sul, where he was to have various duties from the start.

Replacing Paulo Roberto and Edmundo Maia, he became presenter of the program Calouros em Desfile (Freshmen on Parade), broadcast with an studio audience, which would soon become one of the most popular programs in Brazil.

The Personality

No one could better define the personality of Ary Barroso than his daughter Mariúza: "Restless, talkative, impetuous, bohemian, passionate, ironic, funny, caustic, amorous, a charismatic and controversial personality which left an impression".

He loved to have people talking about him, whether saying bad things or good, and thought that those rare days in which he was not mentioned in the press or other media were "sad days".

In his polemics he used all his biting humor to liquidate his "adversary"—usually faked, fabricated, and conniving. This was the case of his "enemy" Antônio Maria—renowned writer, radio broadcaster, and composer. They said horrible things about each other, kept up polemics in the newspapers, but in reality they were great friends. Just once did they spend some time without talking to each other.

In 1949, Ary invited him to broadcast soccer games together—they were generally in agreement. But on days when Vasco played Flamengo, Antônio Maria would only speak while Vasco had the ball, and Ary when Flamengo had the ball, to the enjoyment of the listeners.

On the legendary program Calouros em Desfile, on radio until 1951, and thereafter on television, many beginners that faced his gong became famous, such as Lúcio Alves, Ângela Maria, and Elza Soares. Elza Soares tells how she appeared before the composer, extremely thin, tousled, badly dressed, and was asked: "But what planet do you come from?" "From the planet Hunger, Mr. Ary," Elza replied, stamping her passport on the way to fame.

Aquarela do Brasil

In November 1997, a jury of 13 specialists gathered by the Brazilian Academy of Letters gave "Aquarela do Brasil" a definitive trophy, recognizing it as the Best Brazilian Song of the Century. There was an inquiry about the unanimity of the accolade: was the composition the result of a sudden and precious inspiration, as the composer always said, or did it represent, instead, an officious commission by the organs of the Estado Novo, interested in creating a brilliant image for a Brazil subjugated by the dictatorship?

Ary never hid from anyone that he was a devoted follower of Getúlio Vargas, since 1930. Soon after the revolution that brought Vargas to power, he participated, with other composers, in the revue O Barbado (The man with the beard)—yes, an entirely commissioned work—which sought to ridicule, in rather gross terms, the figure of Washington Luís.

The advent of the Estado Novo did not modify his attitude in relation to Getúlio, an attitude, moreover, that was common to the whole artistic class of the period—in which each one worked harder than the next to adulate the dictator and take advantage of the forced jingoism of the DIP, the well-known Department of Press and Propaganda, which censored and "oriented" all of the national cultural production.

On various occasions, however, Ary had problems in maintaining the integrity of his compositions. Already by 1932 the censors had suppressed an entire scene on the Constitutionalist Revolution of São Paulo from his spectacle Vai com Fé (Go with Faith). In 1939 he had to fight for the lyrics of "Aquarela do Brasil." It didn't seem right to the censors for the country to be defined as the "land of the samba and the tambourine". But the composer won out.

"Aquarela," according to what Ary used to say, was born on a rainy night in 1939, when he was having a relaxed conversation with his wife and his brother-in-law Antônio, in his house in Leme. Suddenly, he felt an impulse—moving to the piano, he composed, all at once, lyrics and music. It was a night blessed by the muses, since a little later, after drinking a whole bottle of wine, Ary returned to the piano to compose one of his classic sambas, "Três Lágrimas" (Three Tears).

Recorded in August of 1939 by Francisco Alves, with an arrangement by Radamés Gnatalli, "Aquarela" began a brilliant career. Two years later, Walt Disney, traveling to Brazil on a mission for the Good Neighbor Policy of President Franklin Roosevelt, would discover the song, which renamed "Brazil," would be launched internationally in the film Saludos Amigos with the character of the parrot Zé Carioca.

In the following years, Ary would spend long stretches in the United States, without his family, and always dying of saudades for Rio, but fascinated by the full recognition of his talent and rewarded with fabulous contracts—working in films and shows, supported by the immense popularity of Carmen Miranda, his great friend and performer, with whom it was even bandied about that he would marry.

During his first trip, in 1944, he described in a letter to his spouse his welcome in Hollywood: "I can guarantee that my name is recognized here. It is a big hit, as they say. When I am introduced as the author of Brazil, I am showered with hugs, and requests for autographs. I still haven't finished my contract with Republic Pictures and I have already visited various movie studios. They are already talking about a contract with Fox, with Metro, and especially with Disney. I believe that I have entered the gate of immortality and that we can make our fortune here. It is a matter of taking advantage of this opportunity."

Said, but not done. In spite of tempting offers and of his great prestige—in 1944 he received the Prize of Merit from the Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences in Hollywood for the samba Rio de Janeiro, which he had composed for the film Brazil—he did not manage to establish residence in the United States. Not even when, to widespread amazement, Walt Disney offered him the musical direction of his company. Ary refused, explaining in English to the stunned producer: "Because don't have Flamengo here."

At any rate, his fortune was made. Another song, "Na Baixa do Sapateiro," already renamed "Bahia" in 1945, made it into a list made in the United States of songs with more than two million performances, just in that country. Ary continued up to his last years, as his health allowed, to be intensely active, balancing various programs and obligations simultaneously and leaving a memory of his humor wherever he went.

In 1955, on being honored, together with Heitor Villa-Lobos, with the Order of Merit by the Café Filho administration, he punctuated the gesture of the nation's leader as he was pinning the medal to his lapel: "Samba has come up in the world, Mr. President".

This attitude of philosophical superiority in the face of life—which is humor—did not forsake him even in his last months. Confined to the Casa de Saúde São José in September 1963, he telephoned his friend and collaborator, David Nasser:

"I am saying goodbye. I am going to die."

"How do you know, Ary?"

"They are playing my songs on the radio."

But when his friend Father Góis was called to give extreme unction, he thought that the composer must not have been in such bad shape, since he was asking the result of the game between Flamengo and Bangu. His team had lost, 2 to 1, the priest informed him.

"Then it's not me who needs extreme unction, Father Góis, but Flamengo!" the patient shouted.

By a strange twist of fate, Ary Evangelista Barroso's star went out at the exact moment of his apotheosis as composer: at 9:50 pm on Feb. 9, 1964, on Sunday of Carnaval, when the Império Serrano Samba School was preparing to enter Avenida Presidente Vargas to parade with the theme "Aquarela do Brasil."

Cecília Prada is a well-known Brazilian journalist, fiction-writer and playwright. Her book O Caos na Sala de Jantar, (Chaos in the Dining-room), published in 1978, has been awarded three literary prizes. She is considered a stylist and several of her short stories have been published also in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden, in anthologies. Her career as a playwright began in the 60's, in New York City, where she worked with Joe Chaikin's The Open Theater. In 1964, her play Central Park Bench Number 33, Flight 207 was staged at the Judson Poets' Theater in New York. She is also a former diplomat. She is divorced, has two married sons and three grandchildren and lives now in São Paulo, Brazil. You can email her at revistapb@sescsp.org.br.
Translated from the Portuguese by Tom Moore. Moore has been fascinated by the language and culture of Brazil since 1994. He translates from Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and German, and is also active as a musician. He is the librarian for music, modern languages and media at The College of New Jersey. Comments welcome at mooret@tcnj.edu.
This article appeared originally in Portuguese, in the magazine Problemas Brasileiroshttp://www.sescsp.org.br/sesc/revistas/pb.

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