Carmen Miranda is a hit again

Carmen Miranda not only translated the black samba for
a white audience, originated the Brazilian way of singing, and instigated
the new standard for Brazilian popular music; she defined the Carioca
woman. The rest of the world rediscovered her genius for close to a
decade now. Finally Brazil is doing the same, with a vengeance.

Bruce Gilman

In 1948, renowned composer Ary Barroso (he wrote Brazil included
in Disney’s Saludos Amigos) wanted to make Carmen Miranda a citizen
of Rio, but the city council turned down the request saying that she would
denigrate the image of the country. Nonetheless, in celebrations of Carmen
forty-one years after her death, there has been a jubilant campaign to
reissue her recordings and provide the public with documentaries and books
that attempt to tell her story with the perspective of forty-one years
hindsight. (Helena Solberg’s documentary “Carmen Miranda: Bananas
Is My Business” is one of the best.)

Finally the platform shoes have taken their revenge. Last February when
Carmen would have been 87 years old she was paid homage when the city of
Rio posthumously presented her with the lofty Pedro Ernesto decoration
and reverently celebrated her with a memorial performance on the beach.
In addition, “those in the know” are making the latest fashion
statements by wearing this seasons designer clothing, inspired by and reminiscent
of Carmen’s attire.

With ten years of delay in relation to record companies in other parts
of the world (including the former Czech Republic), Brazilian record companies
finally discovered that they have been sitting on top of a very rich collection
of popular music, are starting to release it in luxurious box sets, and
are not complaining about the investment. Artists that seemed to have nothing
more to offer have become good slices of profit.

This is true not only for the companies but for collectors and those
who simply want more information about an artist who may have died or whose
works were previously unavailable or marred by the poor recording quality
of another era’s technology. Thus, Carmen Miranda’s permanent restoration
will not depend on the multitude who for decades have imitated her. Carmen’s
voice has mandated an indisputable space for her immortality.

Carmen’s most successful and energetic recordings were made between
1935 and 1940, and it is exactly these recordings that EMI-Odeon Brazil
has compiled and reissued in a luxurious 5 CD box set that contains an
informative 72 page booklet with vast photographic material in both color
and black and white, all the lyrics, informative historical details from
the research of Abel Cardoso Junior, some very savory stories, and a biographic
summary of the star. There are six hours of music, and every minute of
this marathon entertains and instructs with classic Carmen Miranda.

This set of sambas and marchas was recorded in chronological
order and includes among others: “A Preta do Acarajé”
(Acarajé’s Black Woman), “Adeus Batucada” (Farewell, Percussion),
“Balancê” (Swing), “Cachorro” (Dog), “Camisa
Listrada”, (Striped Shirt), “Cantoras do Rádio” (Radio
Singers), “Disseram que Voltei Americanizada” (They Said That
I Came Back Americanized), “…E o Mundo Não Se Acabou”
(…And the World Hasn’t Ended), Eu Dei (I Gave), Fon-Fon (Beep Beep),
Ary Barroso’s “Na Baixa do Sapateiro” (In the Street of the Shoemaker),
“No Tabuleiro da Baiana” (On the Baiana’s Tray), Dorival Caymmi’s
“O que É que a Baiana Tem?” (What Does the Bahiana Have?),
“Tic-Tac do Meu Coração” (My Heart’s Tic-Tac),
“Vira-Lata” (Mongrel), and “Recenseamento” (Census).
All these tunes have passed time’s acid test and numerous recordings by
accomplished artists like Gal Costa, Chico Buarque, and Ney Matogrosso;
though, none outshines the original’s élan.

EMI-Odeon Brazil, was helped by three collectors who loaned and shipped
portions of their 78 rpm record collections to London in special wooden
boxes. At the Abbey Road Studios, where the Beatles recorded their best
albums, these sixty year old recordings were treated with an electronic
bath and went through the re-mastering process in three stages conducted
by a sophisticated computer program called Cedar. Surface noises, some
distortion, and those scratchy sounds one is accustomed to hearing on older
recordings were removed.

Fans who have the disposition to delve into Carmen’s career and music
at a visceral level are going to adore this project. The set has come to
Brazilian stores with a price tag of $110. A similar release in the United
States or Europe would cost approximately $80. Although the figure might
be a sacrifice for the audiophile, it is worthwhile. The results are impeccable,
and the work of the crew that conceived the project should be praised.
It is impossible to ignore the good humor conveyed by the singer in each
song. Listening to these discs one easily understands the reverence to
the myth surrounding Carmen Miranda, how she blew American minds, and why
Carmen Miranda was truly The Brazilian Bombshell .

The Pequena Notável (Notable Little One) was born Maria do Carmo
Miranda da Cunha in 1909 in Porto, Portugal. According to the legend, she
earned the nickname Carmen in salute to the heroine of Bizet’s opera. When
she was eight months old her
family moved to Brazil where her father opened a barber shop. The family
was middle class, and Carmen attended religious schools. Nonetheless, they
lived in Lapa, downtown Rio’s poorer district. It was here that Carmen
became fascinated by the music of neighborhood sambistas whose enthusiastic
style she absorbed.

Childhood pictures of Carmen in the book Carmen Miranda by Cássio
Emmanuel Barsante, released last year, show that Carmen always had something
special, something which could not be defined, a reckless abandon, a mischievous
way of enjoying life, an exuberance. The photos also show that before her
debut as a singer, Carmen took an obvious pleasure in being photographed
making comical poses.

The first indication that Carmen Miranda would become the Brazilian
Bombshell of the 1940s and 1950s was formed amidst the four walls of a
hat shop where she worked as an adolescent. When Carmen punched her time
card at the Femme Chic at 141 Ouvidor Street in Rio, the sharp little noise
echoed in Beverly Hills. It was a moment when history changed. A hat, a
turban, and hair ribbons became for Carmen Miranda what paint was for Picasso,
what a ball is for Pelé.

Carmen started recording in 1929 for Brunswick and appeared on stage
for the first time in 1930 at Praça Tiradentes in Rio (a second-rate
area of clubs and theaters). Her role was that of a foul-mouthed prostitute
who wore garish clothing. The second act was once interrupted by a revolver
shot to the ceiling from an indignant family man.

Carmen came after the great lyric sopranos of the nineteenth century.
There are no recordings by any singer before Carmen that deliver as much
humor and temerity. And when we talk about recordings before Carmen, we
are talking about those before February 1930, when she exploded with the
marcha “Taí — Eu Fiz Tudo Pra Você Gostar de
Mim” (It is Here – I Did Everything For You To Love Me). With this,
her third recording for RCA Victor, the twenty-one year old Miranda was
not only a singer and master of vocal antics, she was already a brilliant
artist. Selling 36,000 copies of “Taí,” Carmen beat Brazil’s
national sales record. By the time she left for New York in 1939, she had
already recorded 300 songs. Up until Elis Regina’s recording of “Arrastão”
(Dragging the Fish Net) in 1965, no female vocalist had sold as much as
Carmen Miranda.

Carmen’s gestures, facial expressions, outfits, and the way she never
remained in the same spot created an extravaganza on stage. Moreover, her
unique repertoire was blessed by the incredible musical harvest of the
1930s, a golden decade of Brazilian music which gave birth to the best
of Ary Barroso as well as the orchestra of Pixinguinha. She had great stage
presence. Winking and raising her eyebrows at male patrons, as well as
her conviction to engage the entire audience, established Carmen as the
unequivocal originator of the “Brazilian Way” of singing and
as the instigator of the new standard of performance practice for Brazilian
popular music.

Before 1938, when Carmen entered the stage wearing tons of costume jewelry,
platform shoes, a Baiana‘s lace skirt, and a crazy turban on her
head, no singer had dared to appear in such radically extravagant attire.
Generations of Brazilian performers followed her lead. Years later we hear
Carmen Miranda’s sense of humor reverberating of in the recordings of many
Brazilian singers: Elis Regina, Gal Costa, Rita Lee, Elba Ramalho, João
Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, and Ney Matogrosso among many others. Peeled
to the core, you discover deep within these artists, that familiar special
something that was Carmen Miranda.

There has for a long time been an assumption, albeit a misconception,
that Brazilian Popular Music was the product of the Estado Novo of Getúlio
Vargas and that this program was disseminated by Carmen Miranda. This is
simply not true. The Estado Novo attempted to deploy an appreciation for
Brazil and things Brazilian. Carmen had been extolling the wonders of everything
Brazilian well before the 1937 dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas and
his Estado Novo in songs like “Cor de Guiné” (Color of
Guinea) from 1935, “Terra Morena” (Brown Land) and Minha Terra
Tem Palmeiras (My Land Has Palm Trees) both from 1936, the latter title
comes from the 19th century poem by Gonçalves Dias.

This exaltation of one’s country was not a strictly Brazilian sin. All
the popular music of that period, including American and French, praised
national glories. People enjoyed these sorts of tunes. If the Brazilian’s
boasting seemed to be more pronounced, it was possibly because Ary Barroso’s
“Aquarela do Brasil” is a much better tune than Irving Berlin’s
“God Bless America.” A great part of Carmen’s praising referred
to Bahia. In the same vein, Ary Barroso, who was from Minas Gerais, composed
more about Bahia both for Carmen and in his film soundtracks for Walt Disney
Studios than he did about any other area of Brazil. Although she was born
in Portugal, no other singer was more Baiana than Carmen.

The Baiana phase of Carmen Miranda did not start with her recording
O que É que a Baiana Tem? composed by Dorival Caymmi in 1939. Actually
this was the seventh song of this genre that she recorded. Prior to that
she had recorded “No Tabuleiro da Baiana” (Ary Barroso, 1936),
“Baiana do Tabuleiro” (André Filho, 1937), “Quando
Eu Penso na Bahia” (When I Think About Bahia) — Ary e Luiz Peixoto
–, 1937), “Nas Cadeiras da Baiana” (On a Baiana‘s Hips)
— Portelo Juno and Léo Cardoso, 1938, — and Na Bahia (In Bahia)
— Herivelto Martins and Humberto Porto, 1938. Almost all the lyrics describe
the movement of the Baiana‘s hips and describe the cuisine on her
tray. The novelty of “O que É que a Baiana Tem?” was not
solely in the lyrics, which were similar to many of the others, but in
the rhythm that only Dorival Caymmi could create. Caymmi’s other contribution
was teaching Carmen the way to move her arms and hands in accompaniment
to the music — a way of moving that would ultimately enchant the Americans
and bring her to Hollywood. Unfortunately these movements became Carmen’s
caricatured trademark and often all that Americans in the 1940s associated
her with.

Carmen was a natural humorist and could make a joke out of anything.
She was a funny, not a romantic singer. Only a small fraction of her songs
can be thought of as romantic. Although she was a specialist in giving
a double meaning to the most innocent words, the listener cannot discern
sensuality in her voice. The lyrics do not overtly convey anything
hedonistic. Listeners in 1937 would have to have been sexual deviants to
be offended by the simple lyrics she sang. The tune by Ary Barroso Eu Dei
(I Gave) — performed often by Gal Costa and Caetano Veloso, both wearing
knowing smiles — reveals at its conclusion that what she gave was a kiss
and not her body. In “Fon-Fon” the exquisite samba duet with
Silvio Caldas written by João de Barro and Alberto Ribeiro, Carmen
pretends to resist a young man’s caress. The lyrics are clearly not offensive,
just frivolous.

Carmen Miranda not only translated the black samba for a white audience,
originated the Brazilian way of singing, and instigated the new standard
of performance practice for Brazilian popular music; she defined the Carioca
woman. The Brazilian women who opened the twentieth century were delicate,
susceptible, squeamish, always well dressed, and always fleeing from men.
Carmen created the seductive image of the Brazilian woman who meet men
joyously, legs and cleavage showing. Needless to say she would never have
been invited to the feminist congress in China.

At the end of the 1930s the American entrepreneur Lee Shubert watched
Carmen perform in Rio’s famous night club Cassino da Urca. Shubert was
fascinated by her performance and resolved to bring Carmen to New York.
His enthusiasm was checked by only two doubts: first, whether a North American
audience would appreciate so much passion coming from a brown-skinned,
Latina singer; second, whether he should concede to Carmen’s demand to
bring along her own back-up band, the legendary Bando da Lua (Band of the
Moon). At that time there were truly no musicians in the United States
capable of rhythmically supporting or harmonizing Brazilian music with
any stylistic integrity. Bando da Lua was the bedrock of her performances
in the United States.

Carmen arrived in New York in 1939 able to speak a half dozen English
words and moved to a stage on Broadhurst and Broadway where she received
sixth billing on a poster for the production The Streets of Paris.
On stage she wore platform shoes and the craziest hats in history (Napoleon
had nothing on Carmen Miranda). She was doing the same act she had done
at the Cassino da Urca. At only 5’2″ she was gigantic and attractive.
Always wishing to be first among the first, she lacked any sense of female
inferiority. Her confident disposition enabled her to chance an international
career, despite the obvious risks, and was an early demonstration of her
brilliance. The following week her name was moved to the top of the bill.
Leading the show biz world by its nose, Carmen modified its visual attitudes.
At the end of the year Saks released a line of jewelry inspired by Carmen.

After a year in the United States, Carmen returned to Rio but was punished
for her success. Her first performance at the Cassino da Urca initially
received the silent treatment and then boos. Brazilians were saying that
she had become Americanized, that she was acting like a vain American,
that she didn’t care any longer about samba or the people from the favelas

(shanty towns), and that her imitations made a mockery of her people.
Many felt that Carmen created no more than the image of Brazilians as a
scatterbrained people.

Her success in the United States, according to Tom Jobim, was a personal
offense to the Brazilian people. Despite winning popular acclaim in the
United States, her movements and outfits became stereotyped lampoons of
the Brazilian people as well as Latin Americans in general and ridiculed
their cultures. Vicente Paiva and Luiz Peixoto seized the opportunity and
composed “Disseram que Voltei Americanizada (They Said That I Came
Back Americanized), a dazzling chorinho which Carmen sang at her
second performance at the Cassino da Urca.

Upset with her reception she returned to the United States and put Hollywood
on its feet. From this juncture a new Carmen Miranda was concocted, much
more celebrated, but fundamentally inferior to the real Carmen Miranda
that was abandoned. Fox and the other studios invested solely in her comic
talents and in turbans of bananas rather than her vocal and dramatic potential.
She stopped recording in Portuguese. The world won a comedian, but Brazil
lost her singer. And the tide was not to turn. In 1941 Mickey Rooney lampooned
her attire, her arm movements, and her hand gestures in the film Babes
on Broadway
.

Under the supervision of an American director and placed opposite the
blond Alice Faye, who was always very cool-headed and demure, Carmen’s
outrageous clothes and the way she moved and made her eyes turn sent the
message that Brazilians are light-headed people. What country would like
to be recognized as the one where people carry bananas in turbans on their
heads? Many Americans still don’t think of literature, natural resources,
or architecture when trying to imagine what Brazil is like. Their image
is the sound of “chic-a chic-a boom,” inflamed hips, and the
crazy hats Carmen introduced. As proof that this inferiority complex has
remained intact, author Otto Lara Resende has referred to Brazilian inventor
Santos Dumont, the man who flew around the Eiffel Tower in Paris well before
the Wright brothers got off the ground, as the exclusive inventor of airplane
disasters.

Carmen made fourteen films in the United States. And contrary to popular
belief she was not helped by the politics of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good
Neighbor Policy. Carmen had been working in the United States for months
before the United States entered the Second World War. After their entry,
yes. She participated in some productions to exalt the American war effort
and help the allies. Her characters were named Dorita, Chiquita, Rosita,
Carmelita and other diminutives. These roles were unpleasant not only for
Argentina in Down Argentine Way (prohibited in Buenos Aires because
it did not represent the customs of the people), and to Brazilians in That
Night in Rio
(when she sang for the first time in English). Her role
in South American Way, which presented South American women as ignorant
and always ready for sex, was a slap in the face to all of Latin America.
We can only wonder what Cubans thought when she made Weekend in Havana.
Nonetheless, she taped her exotic and happy image in the gallery of famous
faces and is remembered with appreciation in the film This is Hollywood.

In one respect Brazilians had been correct, she was richer. By 1946
she was earning $210,000 a year and had become the artist who paid the
most income tax to the federal government. But her whole family had moved
to Los Angeles and was living with her. Her house in Beverly Hills became
the embassy for Brazilian musicians visiting the United States,
and Carmen was known as the Ambassador of Brazilian music. The title was
warranted. Her presence and scintillating presentations did more for Brazilian
music than did the actual ambassadors at the time who never promoted Brazil’s
music. If one day somebody makes the film This is Brazil, Carmen
Miranda will have to be recognized for bringing marchas and sambas
to the United States while the music of Glen Miller and Benny Goodman was
invading the beaches of Brazil.

Those who knew Carmen celebrated her for the manner in which she rebuffed
the half-naked Darryll Zanuck, cinema tycoon and womanizer, (something
seldom achieved by other women contracted to his studio) who pursued her
around the sofas and tables in his office demanding her “tropical
delicacies.” But not all of her battles concluded in victory. Carmen
suffered after her marriage to American studio assistant David Sebastian
who put her to work without rest. A little bag of medications accompanied
her comings and goings and was an obvious symptom of her relationship problems.
Half of the medications were stimulants in order to sustain the heavy work
load. The others were sedatives to help her sleep when she had the time.
Some intellectuals believe that Carmen inadvertently modeled for women
the idea that there was strength in appearing and performing buoyantly
even after being beaten by an abusive husband.

One can talk about the fairness of fate or wonder how history would
have treated the woman whose name was synonymous with her country’s music
and dance had she married well. She had had a seven year romance with an
oarsman from the Flamengo athletic club, and she always regretted not marrying
Aloysio de Oliveira, music director of Bando da Lua. We also know that
in despair over Carmen, composer Assis Valente, one of the most popular
songwriters of the 1930s and 1940s, committed suicide by drinking Guaraná
soft drink and insecticide. A singer who worked with her at the Copacabana
Palace related that Carmen cried all the time. In her last days she was
receiving electrical shocks to treat her depression.

The voice of Carmen Miranda carried with it a vivaciousness, that by
irony and contradiction to destiny, imprisoned her in successive bouts
of depression until on the evening of August 5, 1955 while holding a mirror
and putting on her make-up in her Hollywood mansion she suffered a terrible
fall. She was found dead the next morning by the maid, stricken by an acute
heart attack. She died the same night that five years later would bring
down Marilyn Monroe, another symbol of the glamorous, exploited, and ultimately
betrayed woman. It was clear that the Hollywood machinery had killed once
more. Carmen’s body was embalmed and taken back to Brazil where a priest
refused to entrust Carmen’s spirit to God because of her facial make-up.

 



 

Carmen’s sample

 

Disseram que Eu Voltei Americanizada

 

 

Vicente Paiva and Luiz Peixoto

 

Disseram que eu voltei americanizada

Com o “burro” do dinheiro

Que estou muito rica,

Que não suporto mais o breque do pandeiro

E fico arrepiada ouvindo uma cuíca.

Disseram que com as mãos estou preocupada

E corre por aí — que eu sei — um certo zum-zum

Que já não tenho molho, ritmo, nem nada

E dos balangandans, já não existe mais nenhum.

Mas prá cima de mim, prá que tanto veneno

Eu posso lá voltar americanizada

Eu que nasci com o samba, e vivo no terreiro

Tocando a noite inteira, a velha batucada.

Nas rodas de malandros, minhas preferidas

Eu digo mesmo que te amo, e nunca “I love you”

Enquanto houver Brasil,

Nas horas das comidas

Eu sou do camarão ensopadinho com “xuxu.”


 

They Said That I Came Back Americanized

 

They said that I came back Americanized

With that damn money

That I am very rich

That I can no longer stand the noise of the pandeiro

And I bristle when I hear a cuíca.

They told me that I am very busy with my hands

There is a rumor — I know — exactly bzzzz-bzzzzz

That I don’t have spice, rhythm, nothing else

And all the symbols of Bahia that I wore, don’t exist anymore, not even
one.

But why are you throwing so much poison at me?

How could I have come back Americanized?

I was born with the samba, and live where the samba school practices

Playing all night long, the old rhythms of the samba

Being with the people who play samba in the favelas is my preference

I always say “I love you” in Portuguese, and never in English

And when Brazil is alive

At meal time

I am addicted to shrimp stew with the vegetables of the Amazon .


Bruce Gilman plays cuíca for Mocidade Independente Los
Angeles, received his MA from California Institute of the Arts, and teaches
English and ESL in Long Beach, California.

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