However much the country changes, certain things about Brazil seem to remain immutable: the crisp, glorious sand of the Copacabana, the beautiful women, the abrasive poverty of the favela shanty towns. And then, of course, there’s the music, the gaudy samba, the sultry sway of the bossa nova, the cheesy brashness of funk carioca.
There’s music everywhere in Brazil, and over the last 40 years a lot of it has been made by Milton Nascimento. The singer-songwriter is a superstar in his homeland, one of the long-time mainstays of MPB, or Brazilian popular music, with his own ideas about composition that nod toward the country’s past, but often look far beyond, as he shows all too clearly on his later release, Pietá (Savoy). There he moves between the cascading beauty of “A Femina Voz Do Cantor” and an adventurous cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island,” with many stops along the way, all held together by his silky voice. The album, he explains, “is a payback to the women who taught me to sing, and the great influence they had on me.”
Born in Rio de Janeiro, Nascimento was raised by his white adoptive parents in the interior Minas Geraes. It was there, in the town of Tres Pontes, that he discovered music.
“It used to be a mixture of sounds,” he remembers. “There was music from Brazilian blacks, Indians and whites. That gave a unique character to the state of Minas. It’s the Brazilian state most similar to other countries in Latin America.”
His mother played accordion and sang, and exposed the boy to all manner of singers, especially jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
“When I was very small I only used to enjoy women singing,” Nascimento says. “I didn’t like male voices because I thought women could sing with their heart, and men only wanted to show strength and sing powerfully. And that taught me to sing with that female expression. I’d impersonate all the female singers, everyone you could mention, until one day I noticed my voice was beginning to change, when I was 13 or 14. I started running all over the place; I didn’t know what to do. I thought I was going to lose my heart. My parents didn’t say anything; they just wondered what was going on. It carried on until I was out in the backyard with my father, where he was repairing a car. The radio was playing, and I heard ‘Stella By Starlight,’ by Ray Charles. I kept running, but now it was because I was excited. Thank God, I thought, a man can sing with his heart!”
There never seemed to be a doubt that he’d become a musician. Taught to play the accordion by his mother, Nascimento began his apprenticeship, and once he turned 14, “I worked in clubs and bars in small towns. It was kind of like going to college for singing, learning in these small places. At the time people used to request songs from the crooner, so I learned music from everywhere. I was little different from everyone else, because there were a few songs I wouldn’t sing, even when they threatened to shoot me! Crooner (his 2000 Latin Grammy-winning album) was inspired by those times. In the beginning I couldn’t get into the clubs. I had to sneak in and arrange with people, stay in the background. Sometimes I had to give a little money to the police, but I managed it.”
At the age of 19 he moved to the state capital, Belo Horizonte, which proved to be a revelation for him. After the parochial surroundings of home, suddenly, “I was introduced to different musicians from different atmospheres, from samba, from jazz, from bossa nova, from pop music. It was only then that I found out that the things I sang and liked were completely different from everyone else. At one time I thought I was doing everything wrong.”
But he persisted, playing in clubs and continuing to write, slowly making a name for himself. A few tough years later he came to the attention of Elis Regina, then Brazil’s reigning<