Mônica Vasconcelos: Brazil Songs of Resistance

Duncan Heining By

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A tanned, beautiful young woman in a skimpy bikini walks through the lapping sea waters on the edge of a sun-soaked beach. Soft music plays, its shifting beat following her footsteps. It's a cliché, of course, but a powerful one when it comes to thoughts (male, mainly) of Brazil and its music.

UK-based Brazilian singer Monica Vasconcelos' new record, The São Paulo Tapes— Brazilian Resistance Songs tells a different tale. It may not shatter the fantasy but those who hear its stories will come to a deeper, more profound understanding of Brazil and it's musical culture.

Monica Vasconcelos was born in 1966, two years after the military coup that plunged Brazil into a dictatorship that lasted twenty-one years. The sunny optimism of bossa nova arose arisen during a time of great national optimism. It reflected a country finding its identity and embracing the world and brought Brazilian music to a wider global audience. The coup closed all that down but did not destroy the hopes and aspirations of the Brazilian people.

Vasconcelos grew up during those dark years but left home a couple of years after the restoration of democracy, preferring to seek her creative fortunes in Europe. One of the main reasons for her decision lay in her love of jazz and desire to bring Brazilian music and jazz closer together but in her own way.

"I came to London—officially to study English," she says. "That was what I told my family. But deep inside, I had already fallen in love with jazz and wanted to blend my musical experience and the heritage of Brazilian music with other things, particularly jazz."

The two decades plus that Vasconcelos has lived in London have seen a lot of changes. There have been great successes in her career as a musician and in her second career as a journalist for the BBC World Service. At the same time, the fortunes of jazz and musicians such as Vasconcelos have flowed and ebbed. She also lives with a degenerative eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa and has described this poignantly in a BBC World Service documentary—"Losing my Sight and Learning to Swim." Yet, good times or those less so, she remains positive, saying, "I feel the less I see, the more I focus on other things. Hermeto Pascoal, who has poor eyesight due to albinism, once told me, 'Sometimes, seeing too much can get in the way.'" Supported in part by an Arts Council grant, The São Paulo Tapes offer the latest and perhaps finest example of this highly talented singer's work and vision. The songs were chosen with great care to represent some of Brazil's finest songwriters and composers—people like Joao Bosco and Aldir Blanc, Chico Barque and Caetano Veloso. But, just as importantly, they were picked to reveal life under the dictators and the way that the poetic imagination evaded the censor's pen to describe what was happening in the country. These were times when a word could mean torture, imprisonment or exile. It is this which gives this labour of love its depth of feeling, its passion and its hope for a better world.

"Although nobody was actually involved in politics in my family," she tells me, "my paternal grandfather in Brazil in the thirties in Brazil was a sympathiser of a communist-leaning party. He was imprisoned and tortured by the fascists. Then, the coup came in '64. My grandfather had moved to a different place to protect his family. Thirty-four years later he was living in a different state and he was denounced as a communist by a local priest all over again. He was again taken into prison. He had no political involvement but the fact that he was tortured in the thirties and imprisoned again in '64, that affected the family very much."

The dictatorship cast a long shadow. Vasconcelos' younger brother was taught history by a woman whose daughter was taken by agents in the middle of the night in her pyjamas and never seen again. A friend of the Vasconcelos family lost a sister. Lays were interrupted and the actors beaten up. So many horrors emerged when the singer was researching the documentary Brazil: Confronting the Past, for the BBC World Service.

"There is a reason why I wanted to do The São Paulo Tapes," Vasconcelos explains. "These songs on the album are born out of these events. These singers and writers, they knew what was going on. It is such a heavy story to tell you. And none, not one of the people who committed these crimes have ever been judged and punished. In Chile and Argentina—yes. But not in Brazil."

Dark times and darker crimes, indeed. But these are songs of resistance and speak to the human spirit of resilience and survival. I speak no Portuguese but this is no handicap when it comes to music as rich and uplifting as this. David Treece, who teaches Brazilian culture and literature at King's College London, has provided excellent sleeve-notes and translations. As for the music, it is rich in the many colours of Brazil—of sambas, ballads, baião, ijexa and bossa nova.

The album opens with "Agnus Sei" ("Lamb that I am"), written by João Bosco and Aldir Blanc. It begins as a heart-stopping ballad but shifts into a faster-paced chorus section. Its title parodies the Catholic "Angus Dei" and uses the medieval crusades as a powerful metaphor for the CIA-backed coup and cold war rhetoric that brought an end to the left- leaning government of President João Goulart.

"Abre Alas," from Ivan Lins and Vitor Martins, is equally beautiful with its subtly complex bossa rhythms and some lovely guitar from long-time associate Brazilian Ife Tolentino and piano from Liam Noble. The song was recommended to Vasconcelos by Aldir Blanc and uses the metaphor of carnival to speak of liberation, a frequent theme in Brazilian song.

"London, London" was composed by Caetano Veloso in 1971 during his years of exile in the UK capital. Accompanied mainly by just acoustic guitar and Israeli-born bassist Yaron Stavi, it talks of the losses experienced by the banished and of the longed-for return home. But the lyrical ingenuity of Gonzaguinha's "Comportamento Geral" and of "O Mestre-sala dos Mares," by Bosco and Blanc, take the art of song-writing to new levels. The first tells of the personal degradation of enforced conformism imposed by the regime, while the second recalls a Afro-Brazilian naval uprising from 1910, a message that did not escape the censor. If anything, the contrast between the warmth and lightness of the music heightens rather than detracts from that message.

David Treece is an important figure in Vasconcelos' ongoing "São Paulo Tapes" project, which includes a series of workshops in association with Treece and King's College.
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