Brazil’s Melgaço: The Music of Silence

 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
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.
by: William

I’ve been talking about Otacílio Melgaço and his music all the

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

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

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

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

William Frias is a Brazilian freelance writer and can be reached at

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