Brazil’s Musical Polyglots

Brazil's Musical Polyglots

My own vote for the
most absurd-sounding cover album ever
committed to disc by an established Brazilian artist has got to
go to Crooner by Milton Nascimento. The real "clinchers" are

the American numbers, delivered by Nascimento in absolutely
execrable English, particularly "Only You" and "Beat It."

by: Joe

Milton Nascimento

After reading regular Brazzil contributor John Fitzpatrick’s recent
article about A Foreign Sound, Caetano Veloso’s new album of English-language
covers, I was sufficiently motivated to put together this spur-of-the-moment
piece about other recorded efforts by some of Brazil’s and the entertainment
world’s past musical polyglots.

It’s interesting to note
that John’s lambasting of Caetano’s latest solo venture dwelled on his poor
English diction, and is regrettably right on the money. In fact, Veloso tries
a bit too hard to bridge the obvious cultural divide between current Brazilian
and American pop tastes—it clearly looks backward in time, not forward
(more on this aspect later).

Even the Bob Dylan cover,
"It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)," makes one long for those
halcyon days when the young and intellectually stimulated Mr. Veloso had once
been boldly touted as Bahia’s answer to the elliptical Mr. Dylan.

Also mentioned in the
same breath with Caetano were such popular native singers as Ed Motta, Roberto
Carlos and Marisa Monte. I have commented previously on "The King"
Roberto’s successful late-sixties sojourn as the winning contestant in an
Italian popular song festival. He went on to conquer the rest of Latin America,
before finally being dethroned by the fluttery tones of Spanish vocalist Julio

Although he’s definitely
got the African American blues-man style down pat, Ed Motta is still no linguist;
while in 1996, Marisa Monte performed her own, rather odd musical experiment
(with a simultaneous video tie-in, photographed in arty black and white) on
Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes’ wonderfully poetic ditty, "Águas
de Março" (The Waters of March), from the Red Hot & Rio
album for Polygram.

Scottish-American musician
and producer David Byrne, formerly of the group Talking Heads—and no
stranger himself to Brazilian influences (see his 1989 CD Rei Momo)—joined
forces with Marisa for this unusual vocal rendition.

Their version of the frequently
covered classic pop tune turned out to be an unintended yet striking homage
to the 1974 recording (made in Los Angeles for the Verve label) that featured
beloved MPB icon Elis Regina singing alongside composer Jobim.

At least, the musically
eclectic Byrne was wise enough not to try the song in Portuguese, preferring
instead to alternate his English verses with the original lyrics, sung beautifully,
of course, by Marisa. In all, it was a brave outing and considered by many
as stylistically acceptable (if not authentically accurate) bossa nova.

Nascimento’s Sin

My own vote for the most
absurd-sounding cover album ever committed to compact disc—and by an
established Brazilian artist almost as well-thought of in musical circles
as Caetano is—has got to go to Crooner by Milton Nascimento.

Recorded in 1998 and released
the following year by Warner Music Brazil Ltd., this spurious effort predates
Caetano’s own work by a good six years. In it are egregiously sung examples
of such pop favorites as the latino hit "Aquellos Oaw6kx Verdes"
by Nilo Menendez and Adolfo Ultrera (in Portuguese), "Certas Coisas"
by Lulu Santos and Nelson Motta, the sixties standard "Mas Que Nada"
by Jorge Ben, made famous by Sérgio Mendes and Brasil `66, and other
Brazilian compositions.

But the real "clinchers"
are the American numbers, delivered by the Mineiro singer in absolutely
execrable English, particularly the fifties torch ballad, "Only You"
(Buck Ram / Ande Rand), in addition to the Michael Jackson bad-boy anthem,
"Beat It."

You really haven’t lived
until you’ve heard the usually soft-spoken Mr. Nascimento, the owner of one
of world music’s most ethereal voices, spit out the words "You wanna
be tough, better do what you can so beat it."

What ultimately sinks
this offbeat production, though, is the schmaltzy and anachronistic string
accompaniment arranged by the disc’s musical director, noted composer-guitarist
Wagner Tiso, an old band-mate and ex-partner of Milton’s on so many of his
earlier seventies records—it’s all of a piece, and a most curious one
at that.

Despite the lushness of
the stereo ambience, listeners and critics alike greeted the whole mawkish
affair with noticeable shrugs and frigid reviews. In its defense, the work
came at a particularly patchy period for Milton, who had just gotten over
a serious illness.

He had also finished taping
a highly publicized (and ghastly) guest appearance on the popular Saturday-night
comedy program, Sai de Baixo (Get Out From Under It), on the Globo
network. The album was to be his musical "comeback" of sorts.

Whosever bright idea it
was of posing the avant-garde Nascimento in a tuxedo with black tie, and having
him dish out these timeless tunes in by-the-numbers fashion (à la Perry
Como) definitely needed to be sacked on the spot.

It must have been the
same mental midget that okayed the release of Rod Stewart’s misdirected Cole
Porter tribute—another idea that looked better on paper than in the actual
execution (then again, it probably looked just as bad on paper, too).

This is surprising because,
like Caetano, Milton has often rubbed elbows with talented American artists
and musicians for the better part of three decades, as witness his dalliances
with former Weather Report members Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, jazz pianist
Herbie Hancock, and guitarist Pat Metheny.

Even stranger than this
was his duet, "Only a Dream in Rio," written and performed by popular
singer-composer James Taylor (Portuguese lyrics by Fernando Brant), to be
found on Milton’s 1994 album Angelus, and on Taylor’s 1998 DVD/video
release, Live at the Beacon Theatre.

Portuguese Hazards

Who could forget the soulful
sound of the man who gave us such stadium classics as "Fire and Rain,"
"You’ve Got a Friend," "Handy Man," and "How Sweet
It Is," diving full-steam-ahead into the song’s spirited chorus, "O
lugar de onde eu vim brota no coração" (The place where
I came from springs from the heart), his mildly nasal twang struggling with
the unfathomable hazards of Brazilian Portuguese.

But like Milton Nascimento
and Caetano Veloso before him, James Taylor is an old hand at musical eclecticism;
no matter how laughable or naïve his attempts at singing Portuguese may
have seemed, his complete and total sincerity in putting this piece over more
than likely made up for any lapses in his linguistic abilities. Milton and
Taylor’s haunting voices miraculously combined overall, and the song owed
as much of its success to Gregorian chant as to the percussive rhythms of

On the same unforgettable
Angelus CD is a superb cover of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s "Hello
Goodbye," sung this time in fairly decent English and amazingly done
in Milton’s inimitable, three-octave tenor range.

Speaking of which, it’s
no secret that for the most part, and with good reason, opera singers have
generally been considered to be the one true musical polyglots of the entertainment
industry, often singing in a wide variety of languages in any number of foreign

Indeed, any lyric soprano
worth her salt would be wise to make it a point to familiarize herself with
the songs of Villa-Lobos, placing added emphasis on his lovely Bachianas
Brasileiras No. 5.

One of the few examples
around of Portuguese poetry entering the standard classical repertoire, this
thoroughly delightful air has been done to death by a host of supposed female
"stars," many of whom had no business tackling its linguistic (and
vocal) rigors without at least a modicum of knowledge as to how to pronounce
the difficult Romance language.

The most fluent modern
interpreter of them all, however, is tenor Plácido Domingo. The Spanish-born
opera singer has been performing professionally going on almost forty years
and has literally mastered, at last count, no less than seven different languages,
including such stylistic anomalies as German, liturgical Latin, Russian, and
Hebrew. Now that’s what I call versatility!

But even Plácido
was not immune to the occasional excursion outside his chosen field, as his
eighties pop partnership with the folksy John Denver, which resulted in the
lilting ballad "Perhaps Love," undoubtedly revealed. Domingo’s charming
Iberian enunciation lent a wistful touch of nostalgia to the proceedings,
as did his softy-modulated tone.

The song was no classic,
but it surely wasn’t the career killer it had been predicted to be by nearly
every other nervous music reviewer. For that, we must turn to The Three Tenors,
or more specifically to two of them, divo Domingo and fellow Spaniard Jose
Carreras, bawling out the unintelligible lyrics (were they singing in English,
or in Portuguese?) of the Ary Barroso theme, "Aquarela do Brasil,"
at the 1990 World Cup in Rome.

Astrud’s Contribution

Which brings me back to
bossa nova territory. If ever any singer lacked the goods to make it
in the music field, that person was undoubtedly Astrud Gilberto.

In hindsight, most Brazilians
still owe a profound debt of gratitude to her ingenuous language skills: she
built up a solid career footing on the flimsy foundations of one fortuitous
recording session—a session that eventually gave rise to an entire generation
of pop idols.

As luck would have it,
Astrud was asked by Verve Records to perform the verses of the songs "The
Girl from Ipanema" and "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars" (Corcovado)
in her patently awful American accent.

With her then husband
João Gilberto on acoustic guitar, starting off in Portuguese in his
typical rambling style, the legendary Stan Getz, as winsome as ever, on tenor
saxophone, and composer Tom Jobim in the background, strumming away on his
rhythm guitar, the tunes instantly caught the imagination of a hit-starved
world audience—and catapulted every one if its Brazilian participants,
including drummer Milton Banana, to the front ranks of jazz-pop artists, way
back in 1963.

It would do well for all
us fans of Música Popular Brasileira to remember, then, that if it
had not been for Astrud Gilberto’s allegedly "bad" American English,
many of the songs and composers we now honor and take for granted would never
have been recognized by anyone, let alone recorded, by such immortals as Frank
Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald, just to name a random few.

Therefore, Mr. Veloso,
my own sincerest and humblest apologies are in order for your adventurous
Foreign Sound—it’s really not so "foreign" sounding
after all.

Joe Lopes, a naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, was raised and
educated in New York, where he worked for many years in the financial sector.
In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his Brazilian wife and daughters. In January
2001, he returned to the U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his
family. He is a lover of all types of music, especially opera and jazz,
as well as an incurable fan of classic and contemporary films. You can email
your comments to

© 2004 by Josmar F. Lopes

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