Have You Seen My Nana? The Enduring Genius of Moacir Santos

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Yesterday, my eighty-eight year old mother and I were reminiscing as we often do when she visits, about, among other things, my father and his love for the music of the Northeast of Brasil. My stereo was waltzing to the rhythm of “Paraiso” when we became aware of a small dark man smiling in the corner of the room where the stereo rested. I was struck by his smile. Was this the Nana who I sought so often these days? I called out, “Nana… Is that you?” and as suddenly as he appeared, he was gone—not in the proverbial puff of smoke; just gone, as if he was never there. It was the Nana I had been pursuing, was the Moacir Santos of my heart’s dreams… I knew he was there; come to visit and tell me that he was happy that I had finally put pen to paper to sing of his music , lute in hand, so to speak, pretending I was the young David of Jerusalem. Yet I was distraught. I had so much to ask him, but it appeared that he was gone forever, so I decided to write instead what I knew of him, pursue the music by piercing the diaphanous veil that danced around that music, barely concealing the delight of its melodies… The music of Moacir Santos, beloved of many upon whom his loving stamp was impressed… Moacir, my Nana.

I hopped on to the slowly moving box-car of my mind as it made its way to Pernambuco, to find the baby Moacir and awoke in Serra Telhada. No trace of Moacir there, though. He was born the area in a small town in July, 1926. Even he does not know which one it was; it might have been Serra Telhada or Bon Nome… At any rate it did not matter, but in point of fact, it was in Flores do Pajeú; he did struggle out his mother’s womb in one of them and she, it appears, did not live long after to share in the joy of her special son. By the time he was 2 years old Moacir was already banging on cans with a posse of other children his age banging cans and sticks, imitating the local band, singing and dancing down the street—the world’s youngest samba and choro ensemble if ever there was one. The fare was standard but the improvisation through the shuffling beat was already precocious to a man.

Young Moacir was orphaned young and abandoned by his father who ran away from home to escape the violent agrarian politics of the dreaded leader, Virgulino Ferriera da Silva, alias, Lampião—thus losing the last member of the only family he ever had. Orphaned and abandoned as he was Moacir was sent to the town of Flores, not far away, to be fostered by a woman. Here he shared a home in a garage, with five other siblings and was beaten for no apparent reason, mercilessly and frequently. Hungry and helpless to a great extent, young Moacir Santos endured this life of abject misery until he was fourteen years old. But life was not so completely cruel that he did not begin to school himself in music. More than anything else, he absorbed the rhythms of the bare feet on the earth and the wind that rushed and swirled above it. He listened to the rush of air that was ushered by the flapping of the wings of the birds; to the clucking of chicken and the screaming and laughter of the children and adults around him. He listened to everything until it became etched in his soul. And he recorded every cry of abject misery and of soaring joy that escaped from his heart as well; all this “music” of the human condition he somehow, stored away in a distant chamber of his heart. And at eleven years of age the budding prodigy learned to play the clarinet, among a host of other instruments.

One day it all snapped and Santos hopped on a truck filled with produce and a handful of agricultural workers and ran away from Flores and his tyrannical foster-mother. He had hoped that he would not be recognized and returned to his chamber of horrors. But he was by one of the fellow travelers, who remembered seeing and hearing Santos play the clarinet. Busted? Not quite for Moacir Santos ended up visiting a slew of cities on an uninterrupted sojourn which lasted several years until he ended up playing, as usual, for food and shelter, in Logoa de Baixo.

After a brief stay here, Santos hopped a truck again and ended up in Rio Branco, Recife. Here he met with his earliest known teacher, Paixão. It was here that his fortunes changed somewhat. Santos first became conscious of the ocean and was profoundly affected by the ebb and flow of the tides that seemed to purify the soul of its hurt. The sound of the sea was also music to his ears and its hiss and roar became a symphony that also became embedded in his soul where the rest of the earth’s song resided. By all accounts Moacir Santos was like a sponge, absorbing everything he heard, including the intoxicated chatter of Paixão. Life was good to the young student until he was beaten on his head by Paixão in a drunken and drug-induced rage. Santos soon packed his meager belongings and high-tailed it on the back of another truck into the back country that he so longed for, stopping in Vila Bella, a small town. It was not long for the soul survivor to find work here, in perhaps, the environment that would change his life and his musical destiny forever. For it was here that Moacir Santos found work in a circus, where he was hired to accompany an act fronted by the singing and dancing, Miss Jani. At this time Santos was a mere sixteen years of age. It is here that Santos learned to relocate vivid visual acts to the interior landscape of music. Lyricism and melodicism also became second nature to him in a somewhat Federico Fellini-like manner. Soon Santos was inventing stories of his own and he embellished the ones told by Miss Jani with those of his own.

With racing heartbeat, the life of Moacir Santos changed forever. His playing became informed with all manner of exotic colors and textures that even he never knew that he had seen or heard. But it was a thrill; a rush to hear that music that emerged as if it was an out-of-body experience even for him. His music became imprinted on an invisible, billowing canvas like an exotic painting that was alive and dripping with wet paint. This canvas came to life with an ongoing narrative that never stopped evolving, like an epic story; the very thing that eventually became his life’s painting. Amid a series of haphazard events—these things—the singular life of Moacir Jose dos Santos began to unfold; the stuff of legend comparable in spirit and substance to that other genius across the continent, Woody Guthrie for in a life so closely parallel, Moacir Santos began to give the earth beneath his feet and the sky above his head a dramatic and epic song that became his beloved Hymn of the Universe.

Santos began to live life like few musicians—indeed like few boys—his age, for at this time he was just a mere sixteen. Rocketing on he had gone from Flores do Pajeú in Pernambuco to Bahia, where he met with all manner of musicians, with whom he played whenever he had a chance; and he met with the band maestros, from whom he learned much. Most of all he discovered the alto saxophone—his instrument of choice for practically all of his later life. The dulcet sound of the alto fascinated him, playing counterpoint to the horn-like baritone of his own voice. He acquired a bright silver or gold saxophone in each of the cities he visited, the best of which he got in Petrolina; then another in Bonfim and another in Salvador… It was as if he had experienced a shower of silver or gold. In the capital of Bahia he met several American musicians and band leaders. It was wartime—1942/1943—and many American Bands were visiting. At a club, the Tabaris Casino, he sneaked in to listen to the bands and was always fascinated by the saxophonist; the sound of the instrument began to become imprinted in his heart and soul. Santos was too young to play at the Casino, but a demo band used to be organized by the Salvador Brigade Director—another gentleman named Paixão—and this is how he was able to showcase his talents there, always mindful that he must earn a living; make enough to buy himself food and a ride on the back of a truck, if ever the wanderlust caught him like the wind in a sail.

In actual fact, the backwoods of Pernambuco always beckoned. It was that circus experience that fascinated him and always beckoned him back. So Santos set off again. From Ceara to Crato; cities he visited as he made his way hitch hiking across the sertão, its hot dry winds bring distant rhythms to his mind’s ear, making his heart palpitate with anticipation as he headed home to the land he missed most. In every city that he visited he first asked where the local band was—always answering an urge to play music—and to see what the band maestro had to offer. He was filled with renewed confidence as in Bahia Santos had played with a colorful local character named Joca Trumpet. The horn-player was one of the first to encourage Santos to pursue his dream of becoming a professional musician, pointing always to the extraordinary talent that Santos had shown when they played together.

Santos also admits that he learned to play out of a sense of “shame”. This, he says was an emotion he experienced playing with musicians more experienced than he was. A certain bitterness pushed him into playing with and exceeding the virtuosity that these musicians displayed until he was their equal and eventually exceeded them by miles. Soon he was an accomplished young musician and much in demand as well. He performed at the Carnival Ball in Juazeino, Bahia, where he remembered hearing “Nega do Cabelo Duro”. He played everywhere he went including at the Carnival in Crato. In that city he had many contracts and made enough money to buy himself a pair of shoes and new clothes. At this time he was missing Pernambuco desperately. And so, after a three-year sojourn he hopped onto the back of a truck once again and headed for home again.

Moacir Santos reached Recife in 1943, at which time he was something of a celebrity there. He was lionized by the local musicians and was even presented with a gleaming new silver saxophone. Soon Santos had a burgeoning freelance career here and even appeared on the ever-popular, “Vitrine” TV show on Channel 8. Santos had regular gigs at a club called Agua Fria and ended up playing at another venue, Paraiba. When he heard that the local Police band was looking for a maestro, he applied for the job and was summarily selected for the position. This extremely fruitful gig lasted six months and it was when he hears that the Severino Araujo Orchestra had left the Tabajara Radio for Rio de Janeiro, Santos joined the celebrated orchestra. Here he showed great ingenuity, establishing the band on a new level, infusing it with the rhythms that fibrillated in his heart; creating a palette of colors that was vast and in every conceivable hue. Santos had an extremely tactile manner of composing and arranging other material and he also infused the band with music that spoke in new ensemble voices, with textures that were brilliant and distinctive. Santos became a major celebrity in Recife as a result and earned enough money to marry the love of his life, Cleonice.

Taking his new bride, Moacir Santos moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1948. Now completely expert in infusing the art of song with the bronzy, viscous textures of brass and woodwinds melded in with the gentle ululations of strings chased by the thunder of all manner of local and national percussion, Moacir brought his special gifts the National Radio Orchestra in Rio. So powerful and vivid was his music that the Director soon promoted the still young Moacir to Maestro and Arranger. Here Santos was also introduced to other Brasilian composers and arrangers of considerable repute: men like Redamaes Gnattali, Alexandre Gnattali, Lyrio Panicalli, Guarana, Lazolli, Eduardo, Pathané, Zimbri and others. Not only did Moacir Santos stand alone as the only Afro-Brasilian in this August group, but he was singularly responsible for bringing the rhythm of the earth—the music of the indigenous people—to bear on the vast soundscape of Brasilian commercial music.

Despite his busy schedule and the fact that he was being lionized by the cognoscenti, Santos found the time to teach. His roster of students at that time included the great Nara Leão, Sergio Mendes, Roberto Menescal Carlos Lyra, Peruze, Nelson Gonçalves and others. Among his most celebrated pupils was the legendary guitarist Baden Powell. Santos also met and composed music with Vinicius De Moraes; the chart “Se Voce Disser que Zum” while he co-wrote another bit hit, “Menino Taverno” with Elizete Cardoso.

Yet it was seventeen long years before Moacir Santos recorded his first and greatest masterpiece; his Coisas was released on the Brasilian Universal Music label in 1965 and remains to this day a palimpsest for the greatest Brasilian Music of any age, along with the seminal world of Villa Lobos, Gismonti, Vasconcelos and later-Jobim as well. It is a world that influenced all of these musicians and legions of others. So powerful is the music of Coisas that it was as if the earth had poured out her primordial song through the heart and soul of her favorite son, Moacir Santos. Hidden within the music of Coisas was also the reason why Moacir Santos surpassed every living music of his day and thereafter. It is only because of his utter humility that he remained relatively unknown to but a few Brazilian and American musicians until the time of his death.

A sure sign of Moacir Santos’ resounding commercial success was the fact that the Bossa Nova movement embraced him as an advocate—no doubt, as much for his music as for his being touted as a genius by no less a figure than Vinicius de Moraes. Santos himself also stated that his most important work in Brasil was the soundtrack for the film, “Amor no Pacifico” a recording for which the maestro used 65 of the finest musicians in Brasil of that day. This soundtrack opened the doors to his music in both Brasil as well as in the United States. This prompted Brasil’s favorite some to move to the US in 1967. Sergio Mendes was one of those who helped Moacir Santos make up his mind and he an Cleonice soon left Brasil’s shores forever, to work in the movies in Hollywood.

Santos continued to be the musical sponge that he had always been, absorbing the minute whistles of the pacific air as he had the dusty wind of the sertão outside his beloved Pernambuco. It is at this time that he credits the musician and producer, Gary Foster with changing his life. It was Foster who helped him move to Pasadena. Here he was hooked up with Blue Note and made four seminal albums from 1974 onwards. The first of these was Saudade a wistful record that featured more than anything else the music of his heart’s longing for his beloved home in Pernambuco. Next came the beautifully colored and textured music of Carnival of Spirits, an album that combined Santos’ love for the earth with his devastating genius for tone, color and for mastery of the timbre of woodwinds and brass.

His third album for the great American label was Opus 3 No. 1. With this fine album, Santos combined the enigmatic meaning of his “Coisas” (Things) with the great sense of rhythmic invention, featuring pieces that rocked in 7/4, 9/4 and even 8/6. His chart “The Riddle” came to be one of the most mesmerizing pieces on that album. But it was his last album for Blue Note, simply entitledMaestro. Not only was this album nominated for a Grammy in that year, it also came to be the epitome of Santos’ philosophy about his own music as well as his sense of where he belonged in a history that straddled not only Brasil and the United States, but also the rest of the world.

Moacir Santos believed that there were three kinds of musicians that came out of Brasil. There was the regional folklorist; one who celebrated the art of the region to which he belonged and celebrated it in the grand manner. Then there was the national folklorist, who brought that regional appeal to the hearts and minds of the nation. Finally there was the Universal folklorist—something he knew he had become—an artist who celebrated his regional and national roots incorporating these into a cultural collision with the rest of the world. He cited Aram Khachaturian, the great Armenian composer as one, gracefully avoiding the obvious naming of himself as the other, but there can be no doubt that he belonged here along with Antonio Carlos Jobim, a musician he admired and respected greatly. Santos went on the celebrate the late romantics of Russia—Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev as well as the radically different Austrian composer Arnold Schonberg whose dodecaphonic theories greatly influenced some of the most important Brasilian composers of the day.

A few years before he died, Moacir Santos suffered a debilitating stroke that put an end to his playing, composing and arranging. But two of his greatest admirers persuaded him to come out of retirement in Pasadena to make two more significant albums for Adventure music. The two musicians were Mario Adnet, an ingenious composer in his own right as well as Zé Nogueira, another very special musician and human being. The first of these albums was the beguilingly beautiful Choros e Alegria (Adventure Music, 2005), which completely reimagined some well-known as well as some rare gems from the maestro. The album included the participation of some of the finest musicians from Brasil and the US, including the great percussionist Armando Marçal, the celebrated clarinetist, Nailor Proveta and the legendary trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis. This was preceded by a magnum opus Ouro Negro (Adventure Music, 2001).a double album that cast an even wider net as far as Santos’ music was concerned, yet found its roots in the seminal work by the maestro, Coisas. This last album celebrated the greatest aspects of Moacir Santos’ music through some of his most enduring songs: His love for the backlands of Pernambuco and his deeply felt African-ness—in “Ododua/What’s My Name?”; his loving relationship with the aboriginal peoples—in “Maracatu – Nação do Amor/April Child/Maracatu: Nation of Love” and “Nana/Coisa No. 5” perhaps the most beguiling song Santos has ever written.

A few years ago, Mark Levine, a pianist and advocate not only for Moacir Santos’ music, but a passionate advocate for all things Latin music brought together his Latin Tinge to make a remarkably beautiful tribute to Santos. Levine had played on Santos’ Blue Note album Saudade and now decided to celebrate his old boss with some fine repertory music. The album, Off and On (Left Coast Clave, Unknown) exquisitely presented not only the maestro’s most famous work but re-arranged his music in a most imaginative instrumental manner.

But it was an Adnet—the gorgeous voiced Muiza Adnet who celebrated the great Moacir Santos for the last time with a magnificent album Sings Moacir Santos. (Adventure Music, 2007) The album re-imagined many of Santos’ great works including a spectacular version of “Ciranda”. So thrilled was Santos with the results of the album that he said, upon its completion: “If I were an emperor, Muiza would be my exclusive singer.” Unfortunately the Great One did not live to enjoy the album’s success. Santos died in 2006, just after the completion of those sessions and the world lost not just one of its greatest artists, but the elusive Nana would now probably never be seen again.

Acknowledgements: Thank you Danilo Navas, my publisher, for your patience. A special thank you to Cary Goldberg for providing us with the Adventure recordings; extra special thank you to our dearest friend, Mark Levine, who provided me with the greatest gift of all: Moacir Santos’ Blue Note Recordings.

Dedicated to the spirit of the great maestro Moacir Santos… my Nana…
Raul da Gama – Milton ON – April 10, 2012

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