Brazil and South Africa (Two for the Summer)

July 10, 2012

It’s summer where I am – the French doors have opened and in comes the breeze. And I’m probably in one of the few places in North America that isn’t melting under a spate of equatorial heat and humidity right now. It’s true that I turn to specific musics in different seasons. These two tracks have nothing ostensibly similar about them at all – except I find them irresistible at the moment. They appear to be (deceptively) effortless in their execution. They’re catchy, smooth even…though original copies aren’t exactly growing on trees.

“A Tua Vida É Um Segredo” (Your Life Is A Secret) is a classic, easy-going Brazilian samba, recorded and pressed ca. 1932-1933 in Brazil by the Victor company. Victor was extremely active in South America, with major recording hubs and pressing plants in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. They were not the first to arrive, however – Columbia was recording in Brazil in the early years of the 20th century, and so was Odeon and Favorite, pressing loads of 10.5″ discs. What was recorded in the early days in Brazil, by and large, was not folkloric – it was military bands and operettas, and other music of elites. That said, there were incredible exceptions, such as the string band Grupo Bahianinho, featured on the excellent, now sadly out of print Portuguese String Music: 1908-31 CD on Heritage.

By the late 1920s, the Brazilian repertoire on 78 was beginning to change. Some of the leading artists who bridged the gap between traditional and popular music were just beginning to record. A number of renowned talents were involved in the production of this song, early in their careers. First, the lead vocal is by Mário Reis (1907-1981), the smooth-voiced samba pioneer who made his name performing with Carmen Miranda and Francesco Alves, among others. His soft-spoken vocal style was later an influence on João Gilberto. Second is the composer of the song, Lamartine Babo (1904-1963). Babo, originally from Rio, became one of the most important composers of Carnival music. Eventually, he became popular in radio and television production. Finally, there’s the man behind the Grupo da Guarda Velha (“The Old Guard”), Alfredo da Rocha Vianna, Jr., aka “Pixinguinha.” Pixinguinha, besides being a top choro musician (flute and saxophone were his specialties), was also a house conductor and arranger for RCA Victor during this period. His “Old Guard” at times featured guitarist and cavaquinho player Donga, Bonfiglio de Oliveira on trumpet, Luis Americano on clarinet, Vantuil de Carvalho on trombone, and João da Baiana on the pandeiro.

A mea culpa – this track also appears on an imported 3-CD, eponymous collection of Mário Reis’ work, although I have not heard the transfer or seen the set. I am accompanying it with a separate piece of music that’s all but disappeared…

The Winner label was one of many small, South African labels operating in the early 1960s, issuing all manner of popular styles of music across southern Africa – jive, jazz, guitar folk, concertina music, Malawian music, Mozambican music, etc. Winner had an impressive roster and beautifully clean pressings. This track, recorded ca. 1962, features an excellent vocal jive quartet and an acoustic backing band typical of jive bands before most had gone electric in the mid-1960s. I was introduced to the A- side of this record (titled “Vuka Lova”) some years ago by collector and friend Michael Kieffer, and instantly recognized an above-average jive band. When I had the chance to pick up my own copy, I jumped – lo and behold, I was equally enamored of this, the flip side. “Imbishi Mbishi” in Xhosa apparently is a nickname that means “the corpulent one”…though I believe the term is used metaphorically. The lyricist is a man named Gibson Kente (1934-2004), who was just on the cusp of becoming one of South Africa’s most revered writers of musical theater in the townships. Throughout his career, Kente was criticized as being overly saccharine in the face of the violence of apartheid, but various scholars consider his works important examples of township drama, and his works in the 1970s focus on the injustice of apartheid. This sweet number is an example of his early beginnings…

Grupo da Guarda Velha – A Tua Vida É Um Segredo

Four Sounds – Imbishi Mbishi

Technical Notes
Label: Victor
Issue Number: 33614-B
Matrix Number: n/a

Label: Winner
Issue Number: OK.126
Matrix Number: 13455

5 Responses to “Brazil and South Africa (Two for the Summer)”

  1. Padmasomu said

    Dear Music Master JW,
    Any thing you present is sheer music pleasure and these two also like that.Million thanks.The information you provide along with is so much valuable learning.May god bless you.

  2. JW said

    Thank you very much!

  3. Richard Henderson said

    Most deeply appreciated, Jonathan, especially when couched as a seasonally appropriate offering. Your efforts have, in part, inspired the revival of my own blog: http://permanentcondition.blogspot.com/

  4. JW said

    Thanks a lot, Richard!

  5. Mikey said

    The Mário Reis compilation is going for between £480 and £600 on amazon UK:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/offer-listing/B00029CSFE/ref=sr_1_2_olp?ie=UTF8&qid=1390389310&sr=8-2&keywords=mario+reis&condition=new

    Thanks goodness for blogs like yours otherwise we’d never get to hear artists like this.

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