O Canto Livre de Nara
1965, Philips #632.748
CD reissue, 2002 Japan release (courtesy of Kung)
Nara Leão was a very busy woman in the 1960s. After all it is not easy being The Muse of Bossa Nova. By 1965, however, she was broadening the scope of her work to incorporate “musica engajada,” a type of protest folk music that was gaining momentum in the wake of the 1964 military coup and the dictatorship that followed and would endure for twenty years. The first song, Corisco, is from the film Deus e Diabo na Terra do Sol released the previous year, a film directed by Glauber Rocha, who co-wrote the song.. Probably the pinnacle of the Cinema Novo movement, and certainly its best-known offering, this song would have been an immediate cultural reference point to the students, artists, and intellectuals that were following Cinema Novo. The song was the main theme for the character of the same name, a lieutenant of the bandit Lampião. Lampião has honorary status as Brazil’s equivalent of Robin Hood, a bit of a hyperbolic comparison since Lampião wasn’t quite as discriminating in, um, dispensation of vigilante justice. In fact he was as feared by the rural poor as he was by the wealthy landowners of the northeast Brazilian backlands, and it was only during and after the Brazilian military pursued and hunted his gang that he became an icon of peasant resistance. Brazil had just changed from being a monarchy to a Republican government. For a variety of complicated reasons – including the fact that the monarchy ended slavery in Brazil (the last place in the Western Hemisphere to do so) as one of its last official acts – the fall of the monarchy was not quite the occasion to celebrate that one might imagine. In fact there was a growing sense among the rural poor that they were getting a raw deal, and the early years of the Republic saw an efflorescence of various kinds of protest, unrest, revolts, millenarian movements… Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol deals with all of this, including a direct reference to the “colony” of Canudos led by messianic itinerant preacher Antônio Conselheiro, a place which promised redemption to thousands of rural poor seeking a release from the stranglehold of sharecropping and other types of tenant arrangements left in the wake of slavery. Canudos grew to somewhere in the area of 35,000 people, and concerned the new government enough for them to send the military to put a stop to it — which, eventually and after several attempts where the army was embarrassingly beaten back — they eventually did. With a bloody and brutal massacre which became an emblem of the “order and progress” that was, no matter how you want to analyze it, built upon the blood, sweat, and brutality of a slavocratic system.
Why is this important to a Nara Leão album in 1965? Because the story of Canudos is known by all Brazilians. It is part of the curriculum of the school system. Euclides da Cunha immortalized it in his book Os Sertões, an instant classic that went into numerous reprintings almost immediately and was translated into English by the 1940s. The story of Lampião, his lover Maria Bonita, and their band of merry madmen is equally party of the cultural fabric. When Glauber Rocha made these two scenarios a central part of a film released in 1964, he was doing so for a reason. I am no film scholar, but his lens captures visually and narrates both the optimism for change and the anguish of seeing it thwarted. Repeatedly. Cyclically. In Rocha’s narrative, the cattle rustler Manuel is done wrong and taken advantage one time too many by a wealthy ‘coronel’ or rural boss, and he murders him during a fight over his pay. He flees with his wife to the “Holy Mountain”, the analog of Canudos mentioned above. That, well.. that doesn’t work out so well either, and he ends up seeking refuge once more, this time with what is left of Lampião’s band, now led by his lieutenant, the rather ill-tempered and erratic Corisco (also an actual historic figure). The song that follows Corisco’s character throughout the film is an unfolding variation on one musical theme, really. Also titled elsewhere, “Perseguição” (Persecution), the lyrics alternate between a coronel’s command to “deliver Corisco” to answer for his crimes and a peasant’s refusal to do so. The song contains the memorable lines of prophecy, repeated elsewhere in all manner of songs, films, books — “O sertão vai vira o mar, e o mar vai vira sertão” — The desert will turn into the sea, and the sea will turn to desert.
Nara Leão was not randomly choosing this song to open up her album. She had thrown in her lot with the “música engajada” crowd, best typified in the work of Geraldo Vandré, Zé Keti and João do Vale. She had participated in a show with Keti and João do Vale that was also released on record in 196, and their material dominates this record. This new protest music was drawing on the musical traditions of forró, xote, and baião. Deeply northeastern in melodic and rhythmic structure, and alongside the rather long ‘Fisherman’s Suite’ of Dorival Caymmi, the inclusion of this material in Nara Leão’s repertoire makes it pretty clear that we are no longer solely dealing with the beaches of Ipanema and Leblon here. The final song is an anonymously authored tune in the public domain, a song sung by holy men and women in the northeast who would make their livelihood from praying day and night , which Nara mixes with a stanza from the modernist-yet-archetypically-Northeastern poet João Cabral de Melo Netto.
Don’t believe me? The liner notes from Ferreira Gullar write of Nara consciously pursuing and deepening the road she had set out on with her ‘Opinão’ album, of augmenting her role as a singer with that of interpreting “the problems and aspirations of her people.” He writes of Nara wanting to use her voice to “bring… to the largest possible number of people, a contemporary undrestanding of the Brazilian reality, that she feels and identifies in the compositions of Caymmi, of João do Vola, of Zé Keti, of Edu Lobo, of Vinicius and of many others.” According to Gullar, Nara was interested in communicating through song a form of discussion, of dialog with a public. In 1965, the dreams of the post-Kubitschek Brazilian left for a more just society had not yet faded. Both the ideas of “dialog” and even of “a public” to have it with still seemed plausible.
“To sing of love and of life, the love that belongs to all as life does. To sing of solidarity, of peace, and of liberty. Nara discovered that it is possible and it is necessary to make into a reality the idea that all men are equal and that, as a singer, she can contribute to this. And Nara contributes to this as much when she sings of the suffering of the landless peasant, as when she interprets an old samba love-song. Because, to bring together these themes seemingly so different, she teaches us, in the knowledge of her youth, that love, peace, labor, and liberty are synonymous with life.”
Oh, and the music? Yes, well, that is pretty damn good too. The populist vanguardisms are tempered by lean ensemble work, laying out a jazz groove for Nara to carry on her work of conscientização. The band is led by the ubiquitous Luiz Eça, best known for being at the heart of the Tamba Trio. Also helping out with musical coordination is Dori Caymmi. The lineup looks like this:
Luiz Eça – piano
Bass – Bebeto
Drums – Ohana
Flute – Bebeto
Guitar – Dor
Backing vocals – Peter and his voice orchestra…
Nara Leão – O Canto Livre de Nara (1965)
in 320 kbs
in FLAC LOSSLESS