If It Is Brazil, It Has to Be Music

Ary BarrosoIt is still time to remember both the first centenary of Ary Barroso’s birth (November 7, 1903) and the 182nd year of Brazil’s political independence from Portugal.

Curiously enough, music is the mightiest of the elements that coexist both within Ary’s life journey and Brazil’s sense of cultural sovereignty.

Music has arguably constituted the most prolific art form and cultural expression at large of Brazil for a long time. There are many signs of the relevance of music in our country.

Musicians there are the idols of millions, and their opinions on a variety of subjects are highly regarded by the populace.

As an example, we must recall the Brazilian musicians’ role in fighting the abuses of the military dictatorship and in bringing democracy back to the country through the Diretas-Já campaigns in the early ’80s.

Elsewhere in the world, it is not very common to see music as the subject of full-page newspaper reports, except, perhaps, in a Sunday section dedicated to arts and entertainment.

In turn, Folha de S Paulo, Estado de Minas and Jornal do Brasil (to cite but a few) carry full-scale articles and reports on that subject several days a week. This is another clear sign of what our newspaper-readers care about.

Brazilians also love to wash cars and bikes, drive taxis and buses, cook and clean their kitchens, browse the Internet or draw home blueprints listening to the radio.

And despite the heavy influence of American music in Brazil, statistics show that the country is one of the top two nations where most of the music broadcasting on the radio is national, rather than imported.

The same link of music and daily life exists through television as well. Apart from prime-time shows that host singers and songwriters just about every night,

Brazilian telenovelas‘ success is deeply dependent on the public’s appreciation of their soundtrack, which usually becomes a far-reaching springboard for new artists, new styles, and new tunes.

It is not a privilege of many cultures around the world to have such a powerful celebration like Carnaval, either. And beyond the tons of cold beer and the red-hot affairs, what is there to Carnaval that makes it last four to fourteen nights in a row, from Rio to Recife?

It’s music and more music, of course, and because of it, nearly endless dancing and collective singing entrance hundreds of thousands or, even, millions of souls, on special nights, throughout the country.

Ary Barroso

Well, since the early 1920s, all the way through the end of the 20th century and to our day, the art of Ary Barroso has played an enormous role in making that musical Brazil a great deal more musical and a lot better known abroad for its outstanding and unusual level of musicality.

However, there have been other remarkable ambassadors of our music (foreigners and Brazilians alike). As early as 1578, for instance, French Calvinist Jean de Léry (1534-1613) wrote the History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Otherwise Called America, which contains scores of Tupinambá ritualistic chanting traditions.

That French missionary most certainly became the first European to teach Europe about the musicality he had found among Brazilian Indians.

In the late 1700s Brazilian songwriter Domingos Caldas Barbosa (1738-1800) was an important name in the history of the modinha and lundu in Portugal.

The Portuguese moda had been deeply influenced by Afro-Brazilian rhythms and melodies. It then traveled back to Europe, somewhat Brazilianized and re-coined modinha, which in turn ended up changing Italian operettas.

Our next music ambassador was opera composer Antônio Carlos Gomes (1836-1896). He achieved an enormous fame within the European artistic world after an astonishing production of his best-known opera, O Guarany, in 1870.

The performance took place at Milan’s La Scala, one of Europe’s greatest theaters for lyrical spectacles. Upon hearing that piece, writes critic Cyrene Paparotti, even the cautious Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), spoke of the great Brazilian composer as a musical genius: “questo giovane comincia da dove finisco io” (this young man starts where I finish).” (1) 

In 1876, Gomes came to the United States for the first time. An orchestral piece commissioned by Emperor Dom Pedro II, Il Saluto del Brasile, was performed to a significant degree of critical and public acclaim during the official celebration of the first centennial of the American Independence, in Philadelphia.

Carlos Gomes would travel around the world in order to conduct, from country to country, his major operas and chamber music pieces. Since the mid-1800s his modinhas, arias, operas, fugues, and cantata continue to enchant students and other lovers of classical music with the same exuberant melodies and moods.


Another Brazilian with a remarkable record in the history of world music is undoubtedly Heitor Villa-Lobos (1857-1959), whose penchant for experimentation led him to blend a variety of musical traditions, such as Indigenous chants, folkloric compositions, melodies and rhythms of marginalized urban groups, classical music, and epic erudite pieces of national aggrandizement.

Villa-Lobos’ work includes more than 1,000 pieces. As an example of his high reputation, The Music Review chooses him, in February 1943, “as the most interesting modern composer of the Americas.” (2)

Two decades after Carlos Gomes’ death, it was Pixinguinha’s turn to bring Brazilian musical talents to Europe and beyond.

Alfredo da Rocha Vianna Filho (1898-1973), the real name of our choro genius, and the other members of his group, the Oito Batutas (The Magnificent Eight), traveled to Paris in January, 1922, where they performed for over six months of astounding success.

Later that year, the Oito Batutas played in Buenos Aires, with equal acclaim. Pixinguinha’s extraordinary achievements as a composer, instrumentalist, arranger, and conductor have urged Sérgio Cabral to claim: “Pixinguinha was the ‘founder’ of Brazilian music arrangements.” (3).  

Many of you may know that choro music is in today. Born in Rio de Janeiro in the late 19th Century, choro results from the rich combination of elements marking the styles known as waltz, mazurka, polka, and the Afro-Brazilian lundu.

Thanks to Pixinguinha and other masters that came after him, many cities around the world now (from Tokyo, to Sydney, to New York) have choro ensembles, clubs, and festivals.

Between the Pixinguinha of the 1920s and, let’s say, Bahians Rosa Passos and Caetano Veloso of today, the list of Brazilian musical ambassadors is just as long as distinct.

They have made quite a difference in the history of 20th century world music: from Carmen Miranda, a personal friend of Ary’s and the most famous interpreter of his music (who once was the best paid woman in the United States), to a Paulista pre-bossa nova guitar virtuoso, Laurindo Almeida  (1917-1995), the winner of two Oscars for music scores and five Grammies, including one in the category of jazz (1964), to legendary Antonio Carlos Jobim (1925-1994), the winner of four platinum discs, as opposed to the Beatles, with seven.

Ary’s place, even among this select group, is distinguished. Two of his songs, “Aquarela do Brasil” (1939) and “Na Baixa do Sapateiro” (1938), better known as “Brazil” and “Bahia,” respectively, stand among the twenty most widely recorded tunes on the face of the planet.(4) 

Other dignitary tunes are George Harrison’s “Something” (1969) and three of Jobim’s classics, “The Girl from Ipanema” (1962), “Meditation” (1959), and “Desafinado” (1958) (5). 

Unlike all other ambassadors’, Ary Barroso’s musical legacy goes far beyond the commercial success of multiple recordings. His journey on earth was a complex and entertaining tale of survival through music and its associations with a myriad of professions and trades.

He always fought for musicians’ copyrights, for instance, and he didn’t refrain from this battle even when radio stations started to boycott his music on that political account.

Back in the 1920s, when radio stopped being an exclusive medium of the elite, he was a scriptwriter, humorist, reporter, and producer, but, most importantly, he played the piano live on air and hosted very popular shows that, broadcasting nationwide, would allow a great number of new singers and songwriters to emerge.

Among them were Elizeth Cardoso, Elza Soares, Lúcio Alves and Luiz Gonzaga. Even when he narrated soccer games, he didn’t care to hide his passion and would use a harmonica to cheer when his own favorite team, Flamengo (but, not others), scored a goal.

On certain occasions, though, he would leave behind his harmonica, the microphone, and the press room altogether, and rush to the middle of the field in order to hug a player that had just kicked in another goal.

His very love for Flamengo had a significant impact on his music career, in turn, as he refused appealing job offers coming from Argentina and Mexico, and, most attractively of all, that one from the United States, to direct all music projects for the giant Disney Enterprises.

Ary Barroso had only one but mighty and passionate justification: he would not be able to watch and cheer for his soccer team in California or elsewhere outside Brazil.

Bohemian Life

Ary Barroso’s passionate self and Brazil indeed have many episodes in common.  As we all know, he also cared passionately for whiskey and the nightlife of Rio and São Paulo.

In the old capital he frequented bars of Lapa and Vila Isabel, as well as bakeries and coffee houses in downtown with Cartola, Noel Rosa, Lamartine Babo, Ismael Silva and other poor or low-middle-class bohemians.

Middle-class artists in general and samba-composers from the poorest corners of town had started to mingle in great number for the first time, but the subject of their compositions was soon to be affected by the new political leadership in the country.

Populist dictator Getúlio Vargas assumed power in 1930. Vargas would then urge, sponsor and coerce samba schools to stop releasing pieces that spoke of vagrancy and drinking binges, some of the favorite topics among sambistas of the previous decades.

The official alternatives were themes in honor of work and discipline, and the glorification of the country’s heroes and historical achievements, not to mention its natural beauties and gigantic resources.

“Aquarela do Brasil” is born in that era, but that doesn’t mean that Ary complied or even conspired with Vargas’ scheme to change the history of samba.

There are many arguments that support my reluctance to equate Ary’s writing of samba-exaltação (or samba of glorification) with Vargas’ regime of repression.

In a way it suffices to say that on that same year that “Aquarela” appeared, 1939, Ary also composed “Camisa Amarela,” a wonderful tale, from a woman’s perspective, on the trolls of substance abuse, adultery, and politically incorrect happiness on Carnaval.

In a nutshell, Ary Barroso was an all-round passionate, witty, and highly creative man who crafted passionate art. Much of it is dedicated to his and my own country, Brazil.

Despite so many medical warnings on his belligerent case of cirrhosis, he didn’t kill that one of his passions, drinking, and, it is probably fair to say that it didn’t kill him either. It was something else.

In February, 1964, the Império Serrano Samba School was going to present a samba-enredo and their entire show with hundreds of artists in honor of Ary Barroso’s music. 

Ready to start their parading in downtown Rio de Janeiro, the sambistas received a disconcerting telephone call that caused them to stall on the avenue and to loose valuable points on that year’s grand samba school contest.

Ary’s passion for Brazil and for his own art caused him a cardiac arrest that he could not survive. Yes, the man Ary Barroso had died, at the age of 60. His music, though, had become the beating heart of an entire nation and its musical tradition.


1. See “A. Carlos Gomes” at www.gounin.net/ACGUS/acgbious.htm#success.

2. See this other valuable pieces of information on Villa-Lobos through researcher Arnaly Arriaga’s site, www.geocities.com/Vienna/Opera/9223/index2.htm.

3. Sergio Cabral in Pixinguinha, Vida e Obra (Rio de Janeiro: Lumiar, 1997).

4. See “The Ary Barroso Discography,” by Daniella Thompson, at www.brazzil.com/daniv/Texts/Ary_Barroso/Ary.htm.

5.See this piece of information and an important assessment of Ary Barroso’s legacy in Arthur de Faria’s “Extraordin Ary” at www.brazzil.com/blajul97.htm.

Dario Borim is professor in Luso-Brazilian studies at U-Mass Dartmouth, Borim article was read at Harvard University and at his own school during two multimedia shows honoring Ary Barroso’s art and Brazil’s Independence Day. The shows also included Fernando Holz’s live performance of Ary Barroso’s music, a theatrical piece written and directed by Edel Holz (No Tabuleiro do Ary), and excerpts from Walt Disney cartoons, Saludos, Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944). You may contact the author at dborim@umassd.edu


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