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Johnny Alf: He Brought Cannibalism to Brazilian Music


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.

by:
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.

 

Discography:


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
Romance—with Mary Gonçalves.

1954—Johnny Alf

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

1958—Johnny Alf

1961—Rapaz de Bem

1964—Diagonal

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

1974—Nós

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,

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

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

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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