Poster for one
of Earl's concerts in Brazil
In 1997, Earl was invited to contribute to BRITISH AIRWAYS' in-flight magazine, HIGH LIFE. The following article was the first to be published...in January 1998.
by Earl Okin.
The year was 1965. Maybe '66. I was a Philosophy undergraduate at a brand new university in Canterbury. More importantly, I was a pop singer-songwriter writing for the same company that had The Beatles and later Elton John on its books. Indeed, I was only one year from cutting my first single at Abbey Road Studios. However...
I'd been brought up on a diet of Puccini and Chopin and had discovered Duke Ellington. My favourite popular singer was Peggy Lee. So, as I leafed through my pocket Wittgenstein, it was HER new LP that spun on my battery-powered record deck.
I'd discovered Bossa Nova.
A year later and I saw a Jazz guitarist live playing a Bossa Nova song on a classical guitar, live, and I was mesmerized by those wonderfully soft, scrunchy chords. I knew I had to learn to play this stuff...somehow.
I'd been lucky. Among all the great American popular singers, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald included, Peggy Lee was the only one who ever had a real 'feel' for Bossa Nova. Nevertheless, it didn't take long to discover that the 'real' stuff came from Brazil and was, above all, the brainchild of one man; a shy genius called Joao Gilberto. Over the next decade, with much help from Brazilians I met in London, I began a long, fascinating voyage of exploration into the world of MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira) and its artists going back to 1900. Writers like Ernesto Nazareth, Pixinguinha, Noel Rosa and Ary Barroso who put together much of the pre-Bossa Nova Brazilian Songbook, Brazilian crooners like Francisco Alves and the great Orlando Silva, Mario Reis and the Jazz-influenced Dick Farney were all soon added to my swelling record collection. Dalva D'Oliveira was the wonderful Brazilian equivalent of Edith Piaf, while Zaccaria and Severino Araujo led big bands that could have held their own with Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw, no problem! This was no adjunct to the USA. This was a whole sound-world of its own...with the heart-beat of Samba at its core.
up-to-date, I was soon introduced to the great stars of the 60s and
70s Tropicalismo movement; the artists who dared to add electric
guitars to the traditional instrumentation of Brazilian music. Names
like Milton Nascimento, Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and,
most of all, the wonderfully talented but tragically short lived Elis
Regina all became as familiar to me as the British pop-groups of the
day. Today, new regional music, featuring artistes such as Daniela
Mercury, still ensures that US records, so dominant in the rest of
the world, take no more than a 10% share of the Brazilian
recognition in every day life, she generally pulls her hair back,
wears librarian-type glasses and is indeed, quite unlike her stage
personna. Nevertheless, I saw through her disguise when I found
myself at the next breakfast table on a trip to Sao Paulo in 1990.
She was very friendly, though. We exchanged CDs and she invited me to
her concert, which was GREAT!
The late wonderful ELIS REGINA.
I met her
through a mutual friend back in 1975. I had no idea, when I turned on
my little mono-Walkman to record us performing together in her living
room, her husband, Cesar Mariano, playing guitar, how historic that
recording was to be, nor how ironically tragic the name of the song I
requested, Edu Lobo's Pra Dizer Adeus (To Say Farewell)...
Nevertheless, it is still Bossa Nova and the twin names of Tom Jobim and Joao Gilberto that most inspire me. Significantly, all of the aforementioned Brazilian superstars worship them too.
Well, let's start with what it ISN'T. It is NOT a sort of Latin Jazz. Neither is it a dance. Literally 'Bossa Nova' means 'a new way of doing' something. The 'something' in this case is, of-course Samba! Joao Gilberto's Bossa Nova, may or may not have had incidental influences such as the cool Jazz guitar of Barney Kessel but, essentially, it was his OWN creation, a reflection of his own quiet, private personality as applied to Samba. It went on to conquer the world.
of Bossa Nova.
As I understand it, when he first came to Rio from his native Bahia to cut his first LP in the late 50s, the arranger that was asigned to the project was so impressed with what he was hearing that he started writing songs specifically for his new artist. The arranger's name was Antonio Carlos Jobim and the rest is history.
ANTONIO CARLOS (TOM) JOBIM
The finest of
Bossa Nova composers.
When Joao Gilberto plays Bossa Nova, the voice and guitar become one in a gentle sound-world that encompasses complexities of both rhythmic phrasing and chromatic harmony. But Bossa Nova is essentially a paradox for, despite all this sophistication, the result seems simple. Likewise, despite a surface of sensual pleasure, the melodies are, more often than not, filled with melancholy; the accompanying lyrics wistful and poetic, due to writers of class like Vinicius De Moraes. The combination is irresistible.
After a decade of attempts to play and write Bossa Nova, I first visited Brazil in 1975. Wow! There was music everywhere and far, far too many gorgeous unattached women, often wearing an excuse for a bikini known to locals as 'fio dental' or dental floss. Very distracting! All the same, Rio was far too hot and humid for my pathetic British metabolism, so it was Sao Paulo for which I fell hook, line and sinker. Not only was the climate more reasonable, but there was actually more chance of MEETING one or two of these ladies even if they were fully dressed.
Rio and Sao Paulo correspond crudely to LA and New York and you tend to prefer the beach culture or the city. Sao Paulo is a real CITY! It's bigger than either New York OR London. Now, there ARE bits of it that look like New York City. There are other bits that look like LA. There are a few suburbs where untouched older architecture reminds you of Brazil's Portuguese colonial past, complete with glorious old churches. Finally, there are areas where you feel you're in third world Latin America. To be honest, though, you don't go to Sao Paulo for its architectural beauty.
A central Sao
What I loved immediately was the high energy of a really big city combined with a natural friendliness, lack of aggression and AMAZING night-life. It's the sort of town where, for me at any rate, whenever I go out, I'm always expecting some wonderful surprize to happen. The strange thing is, it usually does! Just to begin with, Sao Paulo was officially voted Gastronomic Capital of the world recently, above even the more obvious European candidates such as Bruxelles.
That first time, surviving an admittedly terrifying trip (see song-lyric below) in a taxi, (increased traffic has toned down taxi-drivers' more ambitious activities these days), I soon got to see a truly kaleidoscopic variety of night-clubs from a quiet bar where unsung geniuses did wonderful things to a guitar in a dark corner for a knowledgeable clientele, through a touristy but exciting night-club where scantily clad 'mulatas' who could REALLY dance dazzled and then invited visiting foreigners to dance with them on stage, getting quite frustrated if the embarrassed male was reluctant to lay a finger on them......to a REAL Sambao, where ordinary Brazilians go to dance to a band that may consist of a one singer with a guitar or cavaquinho (a sort of cross between a ukulele and a mandolin) and five percussion players.
At one of these, I was asked to dance by a girl who was 70% covered in plaster-of-Paris following a motor-bike accident. The other 30% was certainly still moving, however! After my attempts at a Samba, she told me I moved like a black man. The ultimate compliment!
Samba-dancers in Brazil...
the man's NOT me!)
There were theatres starring most of the singers whose records I had; there were Jazz clubs featuring some of the older legends. There were amazing restaurants, there were plays, there were...but I could fill a book with what was and is on offer at night in Sao Paulo!
One of the
reasons I was getting to find some of these more obscure night-spots
was that, during the day, I kept making new friends. Brazil was and
remains one of the few countries where foreign tourists still
fascinate rather than repel them. Moreover, Britishers were an exotic
comparative rarity. Sporting a bowler hat, I knew I was BOUND to meet
new people and just TRY to speak a little Portuguese and they were
That first visit of five weeks ended on a high note, for, through one of my London friends, I actually got to visit Elis Regina herself and, after supper, actually sang together with her, while her husband, Cesar Mariano, accompanying us on guitar. Thank goodness I had my Walkman running. (See photo above).
It wasn't until 1990 until I managed to return, this time for only five days. I was to give a show myself at the hotel where I was staying. In the very same hotel were staying several legends of Brazilian music including singer-songwriter Johnny Alf and the now-legendary Gal Costa with whom I swapped records. I went to her show as her personal guest! (See photo above).
I also saw high tragedy. While I was there, Brazil was knocked out of the World Cup by Argentina. Celebration turned instantly to stunned grief. Amazingly, in a city this big, no traffic could be seen on the streets for the whole afternoon!
Which brings me to this year's trip, thanks to HIGH LIFE. Surely nothing could match my past experiences. Wrong! Flying Club Class (thankyou British Airways) with my glamorous photographer Cindy Marler, I watched films solidly from the UK to Brazil and was completely 'zonked' by the time I arrived at the InterContinental Hotel in the posh part of Sao Paulo, just a block from the main avenue, the Avenida Paulista, a broad, straight, proud thoroughfare, bristling with skyscrapers of all shapes and sizes punctuated with the odd pretty pink or blue church to remind you of the past.
We had only three days to complete our assignment, however, so, only a few hours later, off we set. We needed to find the best sights, the best clubs, the best music... One of my old friends from London, Sion Soares, came to our aid, first procuring for us a taxi-driver called Santos, now a grandfather but who once, a genuine 'Indian' had grown up in the forest wearing nothing but a 'tanga' or loincloth. He was willing to work for us at 10 Reais per hour, far less than the meter rate. Thanks to him, we found beautiful churches, some wonderful monuments, notably an impressive statue in the Parque De Ibirapuera to the first settlers of the city, Os Bandeirantes, AND a REAL Sambao called Birinite in Santana (a Northern suburb of Sao Paulo), where people danced 'forro' and 'pagode' to a GREAT cavaquinho Samba band so closely and erotically that it seemed barely legal. Nobody seemed to mind us foreigners turning up and taking pictures.
Birinite was an open corner cafe with people spilling out all over the pavement dancing to the cavaquinho band. I was amazed at the dance! you grab someone of the opposite sex by the buttocks and draw them so close to you that any closer and you'd be behind them! As the high-energy Samba plays, everything above the waist seems to stay motionless. You can discuss the weather or look around quite calmly or whatever. However, below the waist, everything is moving!
In Brazil, the bottom has a nickname; not obscene but childishly naughty...BUNDA!
Watching all the bundas girate around me made me think that they had a mind of their own. So I dubbed this dance A DANCA DAS BUNDAS - The Dance of the Bottoms. Next morning, I wrote the following Sambinha...
Finally, by contrast, we went to a show at a large theatre called Tom Brazil. Here, well-heeled Paulistos watched two legendary vocal groups the MPB4 (four men) and the Quarteto MC (four women) come together for a stunning hour and a half of eight-voice harmony and nostalgia. They went through the history of Brazilian Popular Music, including Jobim, (after whom the theatre is named, of-course), as well as their OWN history. A stunning climax was a piece wherein the eight became bells, chiming in counterpoint at one another!
After our three-day official duties for HIGH LIFE came to an end, I decided to stay on and try out my OWN Bossa Nova skills on Brazilians. Pretty dangerous strategy, I thought. What would we in the UK think of Brazilians singing The Beatles!? I needn't have worried. I was greeted like an international ambassador for Bossa Nova. I discovered more venues...an international standard Jazz club, Bourbon St., and, to me, an even more inviting club, a little out of the centre, that combines a club with a well-stocked CD shop, called All That Jazz, catering to ALL tastes from Dixieland through to post-Coltrane modernism, not forgetting Bossa Nova, of-course. Then there was another club called the Melograno... You get the picture? There are little clubs everywhere!!!
My week, however, had an amazing climax to it. After going to Rio for a couple of days, during which I actually wrote a new Bossa Nova song, 'Love and Roses', sitting on my hotel room balcony, looking at Copacabana Beach as the sun went down (pretty cool, eh!?), I was 'phoned to say I MUST come back to Sao Paulo because word had got around and I'd been invited on to the JO SOARES SHOW, Brazil's equivalent of David Letterman...
...and that's how I spent my last day in Brazil!
Much to my surprize the interview went swimmingly and the audience went wild! After an incredibly gorgeous woman sitting next to me told me how wonderful I was and wanted me to swap addresses and numbers with her, no wonder my swelled head hardly got through the 'plane door the next day for my return to London.
Spats Music Ltd.
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