... your heart out
“Surprises crackle, like electric arcs, between the interfaces of culture. These interfaces are where history now seeks itself; they will be the historical sites of the future. You cannot remake the past in the name of affirmative action. But you can find narratives that haven‟t been written, histories of people and groups that have been distorted or ignored, and refresh history by bringing them in.” - Robert Hughes, Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America
I came across the astonishing beauty of Soledad Bravo‟s voice by chance. I had been randomly researching the popular music of Venezuela when I came across posts of vintage recordings of Soledad singing, and fell hopelessly in love.
The firs t collection of Soledad Bravo ‟s music I found was a CD compilation, Cantos Revolucionarios de America Latina: 21 songs nominally covering the period 1968 to 1973. On the rear of the jewel case Soledad is pictured, facing the camera, with a guitar slung over the shoulder like a rifle, looking like Bobbie Gentry striking a classic Phil Ochs stance.
The CD itself represents a canny piece of niche marketing, unashamedly aimed at people like me, irredeemably attracted to or fascinated by those turbulent times: the high ideals and crazy dreams; guerrilla warfare, enlightenment, fervour and ferment; the military coups, dictatorships, torture and torment; exile and disappearances; communism and socialism versus fascism and U.S. imperialism and interference.
On this compilation Soledad sings revolutionary songs fro m Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colu mbia, Cuba, Uruguay and Venezuela. It opens with Hasta Siempre, Carlos Puebla‟s song for Che, which is stunning, very simple, just Soledad and her guitar , but incredibly moving, particularly for anyone who has shed a tear on
reading The Story of Che Guevara by Lucía Álvarez de Toledo in recent years. Most of the performances on the record are similarly stark and generally acoustic.
The Spanish words of the songs are printed in the booklet that accompanies the CD. And it‟s easy enough to get the gist of what they are about. But while it is ironic that as a listener I am unable to understand fully what Soledad is singing, it doesn‟t diminish the emotional impact the perform ances have. In a strange kind of way, absorbing the suggested spirit of the songs, with the vocals becoming almost another instrument, not immediately being able to interpret the songs‟ meanings is not an issue.
I don‟t know how Soledad feels about bein g marketed as a singer of revolutionary songs. I gather there are some on the left in Latin America now who would raise their eyebrows at the concept. Soledad‟s first recordings in 1968, I believe, drew on traditional Venezuelan material and the poetry o f Federico García Lorca. After that her next three or four records drew heavily on the work of artists who were part of the La Nueva Canción movement throughout Latin America in the „60s and „70s .
Among the songs on the Cantos Revolucionarios compilation w ere ones by the old guard of the La Nue va Canción movement, like Violeta Parra, Carlos Puebla, Rolando Alarcón and Atahualpa Yupanqui. There were also compositions by the new wave of folk singers/writers like Alfredo Zitarrosa and Daniel Viglietti from Uruguay and the Nueva Trova performers from Cuba, Pablo Milanés and Silvio Rodriquez.
Soledad has been very much a singer, an interpreter of songs, rather than an actual composer. It‟s easy to see why she is often mentioned in connection with Joan Baez. Closer to home, the immortal Argentinean singer Mercedes Sosa must have been a massive inspiration to young singers throughout Latin America. And Soledad, despite her name, was not alone. Among other Nueva Canción or folk singers active in Venezuela, fo r example, there was Gloria Martin, Lilia Vera, and Cecilia Todd.
Falling in love with the voice of Soledad Bravo has helped to gradually reveal how much great music was made under the umbrella of Nueva Canción. Perhaps there is that lingering notion that if you had an acoustic guitar then it meant you were a protest singer, conjuring up images of earnest young people, dour and determined, but while the movement may have had its messages to communicate and its slogans to share there was at the heart of the songs very often poetic ambition and melodic invention. Or, as Phil Ochs said: “Beauty is the ultimate protest”.
The umbrella of Nueva Canción covered a variety of musical activity, and it can be great fun to explore the work of artists associated with the movement. The song, or the new song, may have been considered a weapon of the revolution, but it also takes us to unexpected places. Es largo el camino by the very young Columbian siblings Ana y Jaime, for example, is a 1968 folk rock debut that lovers of Wendy and Bonnie would adore. And the early recordings of Sonia Sil vestre from the Dominican Republic are particularly striking, some of which were recorded in Cuba,
and pitched very much as part of the Nueva Canción activity despite being more heavily orchestrated and rhythmically more complex than a lot of music.
The Soledad revolutionary songs collection draws heavily on the compositions of the Cuban Nueva Trova performers Pablo Milanés and Silvio Rodriquez. And in the 1970s Soledad recorded t wo LPs of songs from Nueva Trova writers. Soledad‟s interpretations of songs by Pablo and Silvio made me want to investigate Nueva Trova recordings, and I have little by little become particularly fascinated by some of the music made as part of that movem ent. The recordings were not at all what I was expecting, and anyone expecting a mesh of rugged, rough and ready protest songs and Cuban salsa or son sounds would be very confused, just as I was initially.
I found Pablo Milanés‟ work an acquired taste, and was initially shocked at how smooth and slick some of his 1970s recordings were. The arrangements were on some LPs far more sophisticated and softer than I had expected, and I found myself thinking of people like Labi Siffre and Andrew Gold as refere nce points. I, however, grew to love the idea that I could find myself thinking even momentarily of Christopher Cross on hearing songs like Cancion por la unidad latinoamericana and A Salvador Allende en su combate por la vida.
The highlight of Soledad‟s revolutionary songs collection is her version of Santiago de Chile by S ilvio Rodriguez. I think it‟s taken from her 1975 LP Canto la poesía de mis compañeros, and is more elaborate than most of the songs on the compilation. The song itself was recorded by Silvio on his debut LP Días y flore from 1975. The LP itself was a revelation when I first heard it. Again I found myself thinking of L abi Siffre‟s early works, or Robert Wyatt perhaps, with the lovely little jazzy touches and achingly gorgeous tunes.
The two LPs Silvio released at the end of the „70s, Rabo de Nube and Mujeres, are just as beautiful. Even when it‟s just Silvio and his acoustic guitar the songs sound melodically intricate , vulnerable even, and it‟s easy to gauge how he was influenced by The Beatles‟ ballads where they have classical leanings. Also it‟s understandable how Silvio‟s compositions are linked to those of
Caetano Veloso and Milton Nascimento. Milton, indeed, covered one of the songs from Silvio‟s debut, Sueno Con Serpientes, duetting with Mercedes Sosa.
It‟s tempting to see Silvio‟s success in Cuba and Latin America as Phil Ochs‟ dream coming alive: bringing art to the masses in a way that entertains and educates simultaneously. In a short piece, Notes for a Song to Yeyé , which Silvio wrote as a tribute to Haydée Santamaria, included in a lovely little book in the Rebel Lives series , he explains her role in taking the first wave of Nueva Trova singers under her wing : “When we came face to face with Haydée, we had not written m uch at all on themes like the war in Vietnam, racial discrimination and anti -imperialism. For his part the revolutionary singer of the time was – and always will be – Carlos Puebla. We were something else from the beginning. We fused everyday events with transcendental ones and did not avoid speaking out on the setbacks of the society in revolution. We sang like that because our life was like that, and real life usually puts the best words into song”.
As a recent convert to Silvio‟s work I was oddly unaw are that David Byrne had put together a compilation for his Luaka Bop label in 1990. If I had been smarter I would have had the Canciones Urgentes collection of Silvio‟s recordings neatly filed with other Luaka Bop classics by Tom Zé and Shuggie Otis. Wh at is striking now is how recent some of Silvio‟s recordings would have been when David put the collection out. The compilation itself is now over 20 years old. Some of the songs on the LP were only a few years old when it was first released.
The Canciones Urgentes collection is fascinating to have for its helpful translation of Silvio‟s lyrics, giving an insight into the way he used words in popular music, in love songs and in ones with a more direct political message. They are a world away from, say, the dullness and dourness we may associate with protest songs if we‟ve endured Lyceum bills of The Smiths, Redskins and Billy Bragg. Silvio‟s Nuestro Tema, from 1984, oddly, makes me think of one of Roddy Frame‟s early masterpieces, and I suspect the Postca rd poet would approve of this line, translated from O Melancolia: “Today, my daydream is like moss on the curbstone”. The song itself starts: “Hoy viene a mi la damisela Soledad”.
It is a little misleading to view Soledad Bravo‟s early recordings purely in the context of revolutionary songs and Latin America. By the time she had recorded her third LP in 1970 her repertoire included compositions by Dori Caymmi, Baden Powell and Vinicius, along with songs by exiled representatives of the European branch of Nueva Canción, Portugal‟s Luís Cília and Spain‟s Joan Manuel Serrat. Perhaps most intriguingly Soledad‟s third LP featured two songs composed by the French singer Barbara, and it is Soledad‟s exquisite performance of the song Göttingen that got me really interested in Barbara‟s songs.
I have been interested in what can b e loosely called French chanson for some time, and love Léo Ferré, Juliette Gréco, Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg, etc. But while I was vaguely aware of Barbara, I had not really explore d her work until I came across a lovely two-disc CD collection of the first LPs Barbara made singing her own songs, in 1964 and 1965, which I have grown to adore. And YouTube offers opportunities to see vintage performances by Barbara where she is nothing short of
mesmerising. The way she maintains a measured conversational tone, without resorting to dramatics, is really striking, and she is nothing short of captivating.
There is an irony in loving works of French chanson for the torrent of words and th e stories that are told while having a limited grasp of the language. But with Barbara it is possible to love her singing because of the mood that is conjured up. I don‟t know the story behind why or how Soledad chose to sing a couple of Barbara‟s songs in 1970. There is something appropriate in it, as one of Barbara‟s best known songs is La Solitude. How far did Barbara‟s influence stretch? Was Barbara popular in Latin America?
The two compositions of Barbara that Soledad recorded are Gare de Lyon and Göttingen. The latter is a wonderful song about the people of Göttingen being the same as anywhere else, a significant sentiment to be expressed by someone with a Jewish background. The former captures Barbara‟s way with words and ability to conjure up moods perfectly: “Je te telephone, pres du metro Rome. Paris, sous la pluie me lasse et m‟ennuie. La Seine est plus grise que la Tamise. Ce ciel de brouillard me fout le cafard”. The curious thing is that Soledad the chameleon when singing Barbara really does sound French.
Soledad‟s fourth LP, released in 1972, has the Brazilian -born singer and guitarist Manduka on a couple of tracks which he wrote. The same two songs feature on (Brasil 1500) the debut LP by Manduka, which was recorded in Chile in 1972. It‟s an extraordinarily beautiful LP, which features Soledad Bravo reciprocally providing vocal support. The music and the way Manduka‟s and Soledad‟s voices mesh reminds me of the Nelson Angelo e Joyce LP from that same year, with the layers of acoustic guitars, the percussion, flute and ghostly harmonies.
Manduka‟s debut, however, was made with the support of some of Chile‟s most important musical figures. At the time Manduka was living in Chile; his father the poet Thiago de Mello was exiled by the Brazilian authorities and was a friend of Pablo Neruda, so
Chile was a logical refuge. Another Brazilian in exile, living temporarily in Chile, was Geraldo Vandré, with whom Manduka wrote Patria Amada Idolatrada Salve Salve. The song as sung by Manduka is incredibly beautiful, with Soledad‟s eerie echoing vocal sounding like all the lament of all the lost souls ever exiled. This song appears on both Manduka‟s and Soledad‟s LPs of 1972.
The other track where this happens is Entra y sale, which is more of a scat, wordless vocal routine, which may well make perfect sense to someone, but in its mysterious enigmatic form it sounds fun, with Manduka and Soledad like two hummingbirds, their voices swooping and soaring, leaping and laughing, hovering then diving, flirting and hurting, cajoling and consoling. Both the Manduka and Soledad 1972 LPs feature a Violeta Parra song, Que dira el Santo Padre . Soledad‟s version features on her revolutionary songs collection, too.
One of the highlights of Manduka‟s debut is his version of a Peruvian folk song Naranjita. Just as exquisite is the song De un extranjero. A love song to Chile? I don‟t know. I am not sure I need to know. It‟s just such a gorgeous piece of music. And anyone who has melted listening to, say, Nick Drake‟s River Man or Tim Buckley‟s Blue Melody, perhaps, would fall instantly for this remarkable song.
Why would Manduka sing a love song to Chile at that time? Well, the LP was made during, and perhaps captures, the heyday of Salvador Allende‟s democratically elected Popular Unity revolutionary/progressive administration. Beyond the miracle of its politics that unique time allowed the creative impulse to flourish.
The musicians involved with Man duka‟s debut were among the vanguard of Chile‟s p rogressive music scene. Members of Los Jaivas, Congregacion and Los Amerindios played on the record. To generalise, these musicians, in their own compositions, were taking traditional instrumentation and folkloric elements and fusing these with progressi ve rock ideas and sounds. In this they were far from unique. Phoenix in Rumania, Pesnyary in the Soviet Union, Alpes in France were experimenting in much the same way, and of course there was Electric Eden. But in Chile this mix of sounds and traditions was a tricky balancing act, as there was a deep-rooted suspicion of USA/UK mass cultural influence.
Some of the groups in Chile during the Popular Unity era were spectacularly successful at what they were doing in terms of fusing ideas together in a pro gressive way. Los Jaivas could put together achingly beautiful melodies with improvisational passages, occasionally reminiscent of Syd Barrett -era Pink Floyd. There is a lovely piece of film that has survived from 1972 of Los Jaivas performing Mira niñit a from their superb second LP (known as Todos Juntos) which I think perfectly captures the spirit of the time.
And then there was the sole LP by Congregacion, from 1973, led by the extremely enigmatic Antonio Smith, which is incredible. You half suspect that it might have a credit for Joe Boyd or John Cameron hidden away somewhere on the sleeve. That suggestion is not entirely flippant, as the influence of people like the Incredible String Band and Donovan reached far and wide. In his book White Bicycles Joe Boyd mentions that “two of the world‟s greatest songwriters, the Brazilian Caetano Veloso and Silvio Rodriguez from Cuba, have told me how inspirational the ISB were to them.” It could be argued that the Congregacion LP, Viene, is the perfect mix o f Brazilian tropicalia and Electric Eden.
It is understandable, perhaps, if people think of Victor Jara when the music of the Popular Unity era is mentioned. And while we must always remember Victor and that Santiago stadium, his music may be overshadowed by the terrible things that happened. Victor‟s song for Che, El aparecido, featured on the motorway mix sadly associated with the death of Trish Keenan, and perhaps this got people interested in Victor‟s music. But t here is perhaps an enduring image of Victor and other Chilean groups of the time, like Quilapayún and Inti -Illimani, in ponchos playing the charango or pan pipes, taking their songs and messages out to the people. That‟s okay. As Haydée Santamaria said about Victor‟s work: “Some people only love their music, but others love the people ...”
As important as the protest songs and political activism were, I do think that Victor Jara does not get enough credit for his musical innovation or openness to new ideas. Joan Jara‟s memoir is accurately titled. His song was unfinished. It may well have developed in wonderful ways. This was someone Phil Ochs travelled a long way to meet when all his own songs were gone. This was a man who in 1965 directed a production of Ann Jellicoe‟s The Knack and lat er directed Joe Orton‟s Entertaining Mr Sloane. Musically he could be adventurous too and, for example, his 1971 LP El Derecho De Vivir En Paz featured electric guitar/organ from Los Blops, which Victor saw as “invading the cultural invasion”. Joan Jara puts it perfectly in her book: “It was a time when everybody was happy to work together in a spirit which was neither commercial nor competitive, encouraging and criticising one another without worries about relative status or importance”.
In Reflections, a collection of Graham Greene‟s essays and journalism, there is a feature from the Observer magazine, printed in January 1972, about his visit to Chile to see what he calls a revolution in difficult circumstances, the Popular Unity administration in acti on. He compares the politics and mood to the Prague Spring of 1968, but fears the counter -attack: “As an outsider I could indulge in pessimism, which is allied to timidity”. Despite being constantly assured that a right -wing army coup was psychologically impossible, Greene had his fears, and saw the warning signs. He, however, concludes by telling an old
Communist worker: “I think you have a sporting chance”. Sadly, we know what happened on 11 September 1973.
After the military coup, and the terrible events that followed, the progressive musical figures fled Chile. Some initially went to Argentina, including Manduka and Los Jaivas who joined together to make a record there, Los Sueños de América. This astonishing record features a wonderful mix of s tringed instruments, traditional pipes and flutes, percussion, chants, tenderly beautiful melodies, with surges of electricity, discordance and improvisation.
On first hearing the track Primer Encuentro Latinoamericano de la Soledad seemed strangely fami liar. It was only later I remembered that it formed the basis of a track by Ricardo Villalobos on his 2007 Fabric mix. Ricardo himself was born in Santiago, but his parents were forced to escape the military dictatorship, and moved to Germany when he was a very young child.
Manduka moved on to France for a few years, the home of exiles from all around the world. Paris, itself, hosted an incredible array of transitory musical talent at the time. While there Manduka made two more exquisitely beautiful LPs. The second of these, Caravana, released in 1978, featured the exiled Uruguayan musicians Jaime Roos and Jorge Trasante.
Jaime Roos also recorded a couple of LPs of his own while in exile. The second of these, released in 1978, Para Espantar El Sueno (which featured fellow exile Jorge Trasante on percussion), is a wonderful example of pop music mixed up with traditional rhythms and beats such as candombe, murga, milongon, and even samba. There are times too when it‟s tempting to think of John Martyn with the use of electric guitar effects and percussion, but the sound is far more exuberant and defiant.
Before moving to France Jorge Trasante had recorded an LP with the enigmatic singer/songwriter Eduardo Mateo which is considered to be the greatest or most unique record in the history of Uruguayan popular music. It is essentially voices, acoustic guitars and percussion, but there is so much going on. Melodically and rhythmically there are all sorts of influences percolating away. Eduardo was apparently p articularly interested in Arab sounds at the time. There are moments when the LP sounds like Caetano Veloso getting together with Count Ossie‟s drummers.
By 1979 Manduka had returned home to Brazil , where he made an LP which was at times pretty ornate co mpared to some of his earlier work. Célia Vaz was involved with the arrangements, and it‟s easy to see a link with her own debut, Mutação, which is along with Joyce‟s Feminina and Água E Luz one of the great Brazilian works of the early „80s. There are some wonderful moments on Manduka‟s 1979 LP, very sweet and intimate songs. But there are echoes of exile, particularly in the version of Violeta Parra‟s Maldigo del alto cielo, where he duets with Tânia Alves , and the sound is reassuringly harsh and the performance oddly reminiscent of Brigitte Fontaine and Areski. Manduka features on Tânia Alves ‟ own wonderfully curious and theatrical 1980 LP Bandeiro, as does Célia Vaz.
Manduka‟s 1976 LP featured his trademark performances of beautiful ballads, includ ing the Geraldo Vandré composition Emarena, and Assis Valente which I assume is a tribute to the samba composer. Ironically, for a record made so far from home, there is more of a pronounced Brazilian and specifically samba flavour to this record. I guess the nostalgic air, perhaps symbolic of exile, is reflected by the song about the great footballer Mané Garrincha. During the making of this LP Manduka was joined by Naná Vasconcelos on percussion, most strikingly on the fiery O farol dos encontros.
1n 1976 presumably around the same time Naná Vasconcelos was in Paris working with Manduka he also teamed up with fellow Brazilians Joyce and Mauricio Maestro to take part in the sessions which Far Out Recordings would release as the Visions of Dawn CD in 2009 . This was a fantastic piece of salvage work, offering a wonderful glimpse of some great artists playing together loosely, trying things out. There are fascinating glimpses into Joyce‟s compositional development, with early versions of perhaps her two mos t special songs, Banana and Clareana. There are also more experimental folk/jazz passages, which leave the listener yearning for more.
Joyce, Maurice Maestro and Naná had played together several years earlier as part of the Luiz Eça y La Familia Sagrada collective who made the superb La Nueva Onda de Brasil LP in Mexico in 1970. Joyce and Naná then joined with Nelson Angelo, Novelli and Toninho Horta to form A Tribo, a community where the participants experimented with blending progressive sounds. Naná left quite early to work with Gato Barbieri. A Tribo were
only together for a short time, but what has survived of their work is stunning.
There is in the recordings of A Tribo a lovely balance between open-ended psychedelia-inspired experimentation and very complex, intricate vocal pieces which have a similar devotional feel to some of David Axelrod‟s work from the same era. I think most of A Tribo featured on an EP Joyce made in 1971. The four tracks from this open the incredibly important Joyce C D compilation Mr Bongo put out in the UK in 1997, including the stunning Caqui which still makes me think, joyfully, of Josef K‟s Sorry For Laughing Crépescule single.
One song from that EP, The Man From The Avenue, recurs on the LP Joyce made with her then husband Nelson Angelo in 1972 . This is such a lovely album, capturing that loose, jazzy, hippy folk thing with wonderful vocal interplay , almost eerie at times, between the two performers . I have to confess to being completely biased, as I love anyth ing with Joyce involved, but even so this is a special record. Oddly it would be a very long before Nelson Angelo made another record under his own name.
Nelson did the following year team up with his old A Tribo colleagues Naná Vasconcelos and Novelli in Paris to record an LP, which is now paired with another Naná set of the same time and packaged as Africadeus. The Nelson, Naná, Novelli LP is another absolute classic, almost like a dub or x -ray music version of what Nelson and Joyce had recorded togethe r, as the musicians expand on melodic themes like great jazz improvisers. Some of Nelson‟s guitar playing has an almost classical flourish to it, which combined with the inventive percussion work would foreshadow some of Naná‟s later collaborations. Some of the tunes seem hauntingly familiar, like ghostly echoes of things we don't know we ‟now or don‟t know why we know. T he at times wordless singing fits perfectly with this sense of having been here before.
In my mind at least the name of Nelson Angelo i s most closely linked with Milton Nascimento‟s and the Clube de Esquina community, along with Lô Borges, Márcio Borges, Fernando
Brant, Ronaldo Bastos, Wagner Tiso, Beto Guedes, and Nelson‟s former A Tribo colleague Toninho Horta. The music they were part of continues to reveal such astonishing depths of grievous beauty that it seems more magic is unveiled on each listen and the 1972 LP can never be heard the same way twice. And there were records from the wider community around the same time, like the superb Lô Borges LP with the memorable Adidas trainers/baseball boots on the front, and the exquisitely beautiful 1973 album Beto Guedes, Danilo Caymmi, Novelli e Toninho Horta. Nelson Angelo was a vital part of these great recordings , too.
Nelson Angelo would be a vital part of most of Milton Nascimento‟s great 1970s recordings. On the wonderful 1973 LP Milagre dos Peixes Milton was joined by Nelson, Novelli and Naná Vasconcelos. And it‟s easy to see the link between the record the ex-Tribo trio made and the one they participated in with Milton. By Milton‟s standards, Milagre is pretty experimental, far more abstract than the Clube de Esquina set. This was partly in response to the censors‟ unreasonableness: if they won‟t allow words, there‟s no need for words. In other words, there are more inventive ways of communicating. Naná‟s percussion alone speaks volumes on this great record.
Nelson Angelo and Novelli both feature on Milton‟s 1975 LP, Minas, and have compositions of their own bookending the al bum. It is, I believe, one of Milton‟s most underrated works. There seems quite a melancholy air to the record, and the choral vocals work so well. Wagner Tiso‟s orchestral arrangements on this LP are particularly striking, especially on the Milton Nascimento/Caetano Veloso composition Paula e Bebeto, the refrain of which is used as a motif throughout the LP very neatly.
Nelson Angelo and Novelli also feature on Milton‟s 1976 LP, Geraes. Nelson‟s beautiful song Fazenda opens the album . Another of the highlights is the Violeta Parra song Volver a Los 17, which features Milton duett ing with Mercedes Sosa. Grupo Água from Chile play on a few of the tracks on the LP, and their own song Caldeira is included. What they were doing in terms of mixing traditional Andean folk sounds with progressive Brazilian and jazz forms was pretty similar to what Manduka was doing at that time. And their collaboration with Milton Nascimento is reminiscent of Manduka‟s collaboration with Los Jaivas.
In 1976 Milton Nascimen to and Fernando Brant wrote the soundtrack for a ballet, Maria Maria, about the legacy of slavery in Brazil. This was first performed by the dance company Grupo Corpo, but the actual soundtrack recording would not be released until 2004 when Far Out Recor dings released it as part of a double CD with another ballet soundtrack Milton composed in 1980, Ultimo Trem.
Nelson Angelo, Novelli and Naná Vasconcelos all feature on the soundtrack recording of Maria Maria, which contains a number of wonderful musical compositions, with additional narrative to tell the story, like the opening words: “Maria Maria, a woman‟s simple name. Dark body full of gentle secrets, lively eyes sliding through the night, strong arms working through the day. Memory of her race‟s long adversity, justice‟s physical intuition. Joy, sorrow, solidarity and solitude ...”
Maria Maria, the song itself, has taken on a lease of life way beyond the context of the ballet. Among many interpretations is a particularly fierce and feisty one by Sol edad Bravo, on her 1982 Caribe LP, which was recorded in New York with Willie Colon producing, and the cream of the Fania family taking part in proceedings. This was quite a dramatic departure for Soledad, but a singularly successful one nevertheless. Fo r a full-on salsa excursion, intriguingly most of the featured songs were Chico Buarque compositions. There was, however, one Silvio Rodriguez song featured as part of the project, Son Desangrado.
“Why does history have to be a story told by sensible pe ople and not the delirious raving of losers. If history – as appears to be the case – is just another literary genre, why take away the imagination, the foolishness, the indiscretion, the exaggeration, and the defeat that are raw material without which li terature is inconceivable.” - Tomás Eloy Martínez, Santa Evita
Soledad Bravo appears briefly in the final novel written by Tomás Eloy Martínez. Purgatory is Martinez‟s attempt to write a novel about the Argentinean military dictatorship of March 1976 onwards, and in particular the disappearances that happened during that time.
The central couple in the story are Emilia Dupuy and Simon Cardoso. They met in a basement where the rock group Almendra were playing their hits, courted and then married. Simon becomes one of the disappeared, missing presumed dead by pretty much everyone except Emilia who never gives up searching or believing.
Emilia‟s quest at one stage takes her to Venezuela: “In Oricao or Osma, I roamed wild untamed paths with the singer Sol edad Bravo, who would sing as the sun was sinking into the sea, in a voice as huge and golden as the papayas.” Music plays an important part in Purgatory, particularly the recurring motif of Keith Jarrett‟s Koln Concert on ECM which is a record so important to Emilia and Simon.
The story itself is told by an unspecified Argentinean writer, himself in exile from the generals‟ regime, just as Martinez was: “No one returns from exile. What you forsake, forsakes you.” Martinez writes wonderfully, and there are many memorable lines, like: “Solitude leaves you time for everything.” And one about Argentina itself: “This country is a wasteland. Everything fades, disappears.”
There is a great sub-plot in Purgatory, an absurd attempt at getting Orson Welles to direct a propaganda film for the 1978 World Cup which would whitewash the Argentinean dictatorship. Orson‟s presence is as Master of Illusion. And a central theme of the book is that nothing is real. At one point, neatly, Emilia is watching The Ghost & Mrs Muir, where Gene Tierney falls in love with a spectral presence. In Laura Gene Tierney is the ghostly presence that Dana Andrews falls for. And so it goes round. Purgatory is all about illusions, patterns, strange geometry, with the story becoming a labyrinth or maze.
I first came across the work of Tomás Eloy Martínez when I found a copy of his book The Tango Singer in a discount book shop. That book, too, is about patterns, and it has a delightful symmetry, beginning and ending in a New York unive rsity bookshop, where the narrator‟s intention is to buy a Walter Benjamin title. The story nominally is about the search for an elusive, ghostly tango singer Julio Martel, who has always resisted being recorded but is by all accounts even better than Car los Gardel.
The tango singer Martel only sings very occasionally, giving impromptu performances or solitary recitals, leaving no traces. The locations are specially chosen, and reveal a map of Argentina‟s secret history. Ironically, Emilia and Simon in Purgatory are map makers. This secret map being created by the tango singer allows the writer to create “an incantation against cruelty and injustice which were also infinite”. As for the narrator, who is in love with the idea of the tango singer, his elusive prey, he concedes: “What I‟ll remember is what I‟ve never heard”.
For many of us, I guess, tango, like fado and rebetika, is shorthand for drama, mystery, romance, longing, regret, etc. That‟s why I was attracted to The Tango Singer, initially. It ‟s, partly, why I was drawn to an edition of Heart of Tango by Elia Barceló, on the shelves of my local library. It may have had something to do with Josef K‟s Heart of Song: “There‟s so many pathways that lead to the heart”. Heart of Tango is exquisite. It‟s only 180 pages. But again it‟s made up of lovely geometric patterns, tricks of time and place, illusions and allusions, ghosts and dreams, lost stories, with music at the heart of the book, the story at the heart of tango.
My local library stocks a surprising amount of books by writers of Spanish or Latin American origin. Is there that much demand here for the work of Roberto Bolaño? I don‟t know. But I think it‟s great offering the opportunity to discover novels by authors who are unfamiliar, ra ther than have the critically-acclaimed forced upon us. Another Elia Barceló has appeared in the local library, a translation of an older, short novel called The Goldsmith‟s Secret. I really l ove the short novel format, works by writers like Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys and Shena Mackay, and the beauty of brevity. The Goldsmith‟s Secret starts and ends with
the “poisoned honey” of Leonard Cohen‟s voice, bookending a story of lost love which plays tricks with time and memory. Elia creates spirographic patte rns with words, weaving an intricate web of causes and consequences, with a small Spanish village at the heart of the tale.
Manuel Rivas‟ Books Burn Badly is another book that the local library has in stock, though selfishly I seem to have it on loan pretty often. It‟s a dense book, nearly 550 p ages in length, and translated from the Galician. There is a tango singer at the start, one “who sings like the sea rocked to sleep by the lighthouse”, a tango singer who disappeared, one who could have been greater than Gardel.
The book revolves around a specific incident, the burning of books by Falangists, at Coruña docks, on 19 August 1936, the same day that Federico Garcia Lorca was murdered. The book is made up of many, many mini-stories woven into a tapestry with invisible thread, finely done like a goldsmith‟s filigree. History ricochets back and forth, gradually revealing and concealing, so it becomes a mesmerising, addictive, intoxicating account of Galicia and Spain in the 20th century.
This was not the first Manuel Rivas book I had come across. I found his novel, The Carpenter‟s Pencil, some years ago in a discounted book store, and loved that tale of the Spanish Civil War, but it is a swift sketch compared to the intricacies and intrigue of the often surreal and so real Books Burn Badly, wh ich tied me up in knots more than any book I‟ve read since Life: A User‟s Manual. I got to the end and went straight back to the beginning, and could keep on doing so, mapping the events.
Books Burn Badly has an incredible cast of characters. There are some who stay in the mind: Luis Huici the tailor, Arturo the anarchist boxer, Polka the gravedigger, his wife Olinda the washerwoman, their daughter O, Chelo Vidal the painter about whom it is said “her realism had mystery”. Then there were the ones who burnt the books, and what became of them, the baleful influence of Carl Schmidt, his influence on Falangists‟ thinking.
One of the characters in the story, Hector Rios, a rational socialist, is engrossed in writing A Dramatic History of Culture. It could be a good description of what Manuel Rivas has created. I can‟t remember if it was Rios in the book that refers to Galicia, asking: “When will we stop exporting sadness?” It‟s the sort of niggling thing that will keep driving me back to the book. It may be the only one I‟ll need.
There are times when it seems as if the only records I may need are those Brigitte Fontaine and Areski made together for Pierre Barouh‟s Saravah label. There always seems to be something new to discover in these remarkable re cordings, and the partnership between the two is so perfect. Together they created some incredibly beautiful and strange music. And Saravah seems to have been a perfect outlet for their work. I also really like the fact that Brigitte‟s background was in cabaret/night clubs and she is like a link between Barbara and the global folk music.
Naná Vasconcelos also made a couple of LPs for Barouh‟s Saravah label. One of these was with Nelson Angelo and Novelli. The trio also played on Pierre Akendengué‟s Nan dipo LP which came out on Saravah in 1974. The pairing of the Gabon -born singer with the Brazilian musicians was an inspired move, presumably on the part of Pierre Barouh. The resulting LP is a beguiling mix of what seem to be African melodies, Amazonian percussion, and suggestions of Cuban and French chanson traditions. Many years later Naná and Pierre Akendengué participated together with Hughes de Courson on a 1993 LP which curiously successfully mixed Bach with traditional sounds from Gabon, as a tri bute to Albert Schweitzer.
Akendengué made another LP for Saravah in 1976, the excellent Afrika Obota,, and then in 1978 made the Owende LP for the Le Chant du Monde label, as part of its Le Nouveau Chansonnier International series. Le Chant du Monde is a label that fascinates me. I have to confess I don‟t know nearly enough about the way it worked as a record company, but I understand it was funded by the French Communist Party (PCF). Much of what I know about the label‟s history has been gleaned from a recent academic
article, Le Chant du monde : une firme discographique au service du progressisme (1945-1980), written by Michèle Alten for the ILCEA journal:
“During the Thirty Glorious Years, post -war France gains acce ss to the consumer society and music gets a new audience through improvement of vinyl records. The ideological fight of the Communist Party makes this cultural vector its own in or der to set music closely linked to political engagement and French progressivism against an entertaining musica l culture representing the essence of capitalism. Consequently the control exerted on the record label Le Chant du Monde enables the communist party to assert its difference.
“An analysis of production and release of this music company unveils an ambitious cultural project characterized by wide ranging and varied choices. French contemporary or ancient poets as well as traditional music from the five continents feature with militant songs, conformist or avant -garde songs. These three different repertoires are the ground of musical progressivism, which takes root in the concept of revolution, nation and internationalism. A demanding musical counterculture is thus offered to militants and leftist sympathizers. But this cultural voluntarism is somehow limited t o the actual popular tastes and to the reality of a declining soviet model. This engagement, h o w e v e r , o p e n e d u n s u s p e ct e d c u l t u r a l h o r i z o n s f o r t h o s e w a n t i n g to reach personal development through art, beyond militant involvement.”
Le Chant du Monde seems to have concentrated on releases of classical and folk music in a variety of forms. In this way it is similar to Mo Asch‟s Folkways label and Teresa Sterne‟s tenure at Nonesuch. Le Chant du Monde because of its PCF links had access to classical releases from the Soviet label Melodiya. And, naturally, the artists who released records through Le Chant du Monde tended to have Communist/left -wing connections. Among the Latin American Nueva Canción artists who had titles released by Le Chant du Monde were Inti-Illimani, Angel Parra, Isabel Parra, Silvio Rodriguez, Pablo Milanés, Daniel Viglietti, and Atahualpa Yupanqui.
One of the series the label ran in the 1970s was the Le Nouveau Chansonnier International one. I have no idea who was behind the series, and I would not even begin to claim to know all the titles in the series. I would, however, dearly love to know more about Le Nouveau Chansonnier International, as what I have been able to unravel is incredibly exciting and endlessly fascinating. I think it‟s particularly important because it demonstrates folk music, in its many forms, was at the time very much alive.
The two LPs that Manduka made while in exile in France form part of this series. Other artists featured are the Soviet bards Vladimir Vysotsky and Bulat Okudzhava , and the Portuguese singers Luís Cília and José Afonso. The Angolan performer Bonga released in 1980 what must have been one of the last in the series, the superb Kandandu. In many cases these were performers who were persona non gratis in their own country on account of their political views and general outspokenness. In many cases, too, these were uncompromising performers from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia who might not ordinarily be heard or have r ecords released in the West. But it is incredibly exciting investigating recordings by Fawzi Al-Aiedy, Marcel Khalifé, and Le Cheikh Imam performing the poetry of Ahmed Fouad Negm , and piecing together some of the stories of struggle and resistance behind this vivid music. And some of the music, detached from its original context still sounds stunning.
Among the records of Spanish origin in the Nouveau Chansonnier International series are titles by Imanol and Elisa Serna . Both were recorded while in ex ile in France, being viewed as politically dangerous or immoral by the Spanish authorities in the last days of the Franco regime. Imanol was in exile, having previously been imprisoned in Spain for his suppor t of the Basque separatist group ETA. He made the Herriak ez du barkatuko LP for Le Chant du Monde in 1974 with members of the progressive group Gwendal, who were part of the Brittany folk tradition. The effect is quite astonishing, with Imanol‟s rough and very emotional vocals mixed with some pretty experimental music. The martial percussion and use of violin are peculiarly effective and incredibly moving, and would definitely appeal to fans of C.O.B. or the Velvets.
The Quejido LP Elisa Serna made for Le Chant du Monde, in I think late 1972, similarly was recorded with French progressive folk and jazz musicians, to devastating effect. The double bass playing of Pätrice Karatini is particularly stunning, to an almost Astral Weeks Richard Davis degree , especially on the exceptional performance of Pablo Milanés‟ Pobre del Cantor, which must have been one of the early European covers of the new Cuban songs. But it is the voice of Elisa that is so incredibly striking, like Catherine Ribeiro, like a Nico who really could care passionately about the human condition. It is no wonder the Spanish authorities were keen to quieten Elisa. I have to confess I have only heard this LP in its later Spanish edition, Este Tiempo Ha de Acabar, with a slightly different track listing. Listening to Elisa‟s astonishing voice it is tempting to think of the old fascists in Books Burn Badly railing against “degenerate, existentialist Bohemians”.
Among the French titles in the Chansonnier International series were a couple of LPs featuring the haunting voice of Maripol with suitably atmospheric Celtic/Brittany folk accompaniment. And then there was the remarkable work of Colette Magny , about
whom the words radical and unprecedented perhaps can be used correctly. Oddly she may be best known for featuring on the infamous Nurse With Wound list. Colette had a long relationship with Le Chant du Monde, and her â€ž70s LPs are genuinely astonishing. These seem to be out of circulation, officially, but any opportunity should be seized to hear sets such as Repression and Transit.
Coletteâ€&#x;s music could encompass free jazz, the folk and blues traditions, and French chanson. And some top musicians were involved in the making of her records, such as the bassist Barre Phillips. But it is her singing that grabs the attention. She could sing the blues and ballads beautifully, but she was more inclined to howl and holler, in rage , railing against injustice and oppression around the world. At times her singing seems to consist of collages of political slogans, declaimed and chanted, with an impact akin to Mark Stewartâ€&#x;s delivery during the last days of The Pop Group.
1n 1976 presumably around the same time Naná Vasconcelos was in Paris working with Manduka he also teamed up with another Brazilian, the guitarist/pianist/composer Egberto Gismonti. Egberto had been invited to record an LP for ECM, but the musicians he had planned to use on the record were not able to leave Brazil. Passing through Paris, en route for Oslo, Egberto came across his old friend Naná whom he invited to play with him on the LP sessions. Afte r a couple of days rehearsing, they went to Oslo to make the Dança das Cabeças LP, attempting successfully to cast themselves as two young Indians out walking in the Amazon rainforest, in the music conjuring up the atmosphere and environment to capture the tableaux for posterity. So successful was the experiment that the pair would make a series of LPs for ECM over the next few years or so, either together, solo, or in the company of kindred spirits.
Dança Das Cabeças is a wonderful record, and the inter play between Egberto‟s ornate guitar and flute flourishes and beautiful piano pieces and Naná‟s percussion and trademark berimbau is sublime. But it is a very different record to the one w here I first heard Egberto play, which was his debut for the Elenco label, a far more lush affair. On Dança Egberto and Naná explore a musical territory that is beyond the boundaries of jazz, folk, classical, and I guess it‟s a terrain ECM could claim as its own. What‟s fascinating about the record is its ability to tra nsport the listener to a magical place far away. Many musicians have attempted something similar, but have come nowhere near creating anything as vivid. Elements of the Milton Nascimento/Ronaldo Bastos song Fé Cega Faca Amolada (from Minas) are used beau tifully on the record.
A follow-up, Sol Do Meio Dia, was recorded by Egberto and Naná for ECM in November 1977. Egberto has been a prolific artist, and there is on occasions overlap between tracks on his recordings. The Dança Solitária motif recurs f rom the previous set, and the song Café reappears from his Brazilian release Carmo. The Sol version of Café features Jan Garbarek on saxophone, playing the melody in a beautifully restrained way. The elegance of the composition inspired Norma Winstone to add words of her own and cover it exquisitely on her own ECM title Somewhere Called Home.
One of the most beautiful things by Egberto I‟ve come across is the Solo set he recorded for ECM in Novem ber 1978. It‟s odd. I had no concept at all of this rec ord existing until recently. I doubt I would have appreciated it as a teenager when it was first released. But now it‟s a perfect soundtrack for more meditative moments. It‟s funny how musical needs change as we progress through life. It‟s funny how we change.
The absolute classic masterpiece Egberto and Naná made together is Saudades, issued under Naná‟s name on ECM in 1980. It also features the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, with arrangements by Egberto. These orchestral pieces provide a perfect complement to the largely percussion -based pieces. And then there are the disorientating voices and strings used to incredible effect on Vozes (Saudades). Egberto‟s guitar playing on Cego Aderaldo is mesmerising. Oddly this record sounds incredibly contemporary, whereas something like My Life in the Bush of Ghosts sounds particularly dated now.
Naná was also involved in a very special trilogy, recorded for ECM, with Don Cherry and Collin Walcott as Codona. The three LPs they made together between 1978 and 1982 are exceptional. Naná‟s percussion playing, Collin‟s collection of stringed instruments, and Don‟s perhaps surprisingly melodic playing of trumpets, flutes, melodica, and so on, fuse together uniquely with the accompanying chants, drones an d murmured incantations . The tropical Amazonian influence is certainly very much present, but there are influences drawn from all over the world, particularly the east, though Don‟s Clicky Clacky evokes ghosts of the old railroad earth. Perhaps it‟s just my personal take on proceedings, but the Codona recordings exude a certain melancholy, an elegiac style, perhaps suggestive of exile, enforced or voluntary.
Again I had no concept at all of these records existing until recently. I was certainly aware of Don Cherry at the start of the „80s through his daughter Neneh and some of his own collaborations, for example with Ian Dury. But I suspect the idea of Don Cherry as a pioneer, a symbol to be admired, was what was appealing then. I don‟t remember being u rged to investigate what were his then contemporary recordings. And yet what Codona were doing was not far removed from some of the ideas, say, 23 Skidoo , Jah Wobble or the On -U Sound organisation were working on. For example, Don‟s use of melodica on Ma linye is particularly suggestive of Augustus Pablo in his prime , but the
song develops into something else altogether, summoning up the spirits of lost tribes from around the world, allowing them to find peace ultimately.
Egberto Gismonti was also involved in a very special trio, recording for ECM, with Charlie Haden and Jan Garbarek. The two LPs they made together in 1979, Magico and Folk Songs, are exceptionally beautiful, and their sombre elegance perhaps disguises their sense of adventure. If the LP s work best as meditative background music that is testament to their ability to create and sustain a mood, rather than a judgement on the music‟s emotional impact.
When I think of Charlie Haden I tend to think of the Liberation Music Orchestra. That 1970 debut seemed to open out onto a whole load of new possibilities when it was released on CD as part of the Impulse! back catalogue in 1996. I particularly liked the fact that at the end of the „60s and during a period of considerable tumult around the world, in Vietnam etc., Charlie chose to look back to the Spanish Civil War to provide some historical context and inspiration. He took some of the Republicans‟ stirring songs, asked Carla Bley to provide some new arrangements, hired some of the most extraordinary jazz musicians around, and made a remarkable record.
Charlie‟s composition, Song For Ché, from that first Liberation Orchestra record, has taken on a life of its own, thanks to Robert Wyatt‟s cover version on Ruth is Stranger Than Richard. The original Liberation Music Orchestra version featured elements of Carlos Pueblo singing Hasta Siempre. Robert would record his own (very Afro -Cuban) version of Hasta Siempre to close his 2007 LP Comicopera. Around that time in an interview with David Toop for The Wire Robert would memorably say: “Song and dance, they‟re so biologically wired in to what humans do. People have been dancing on a Saturday night for a long time. But there is a Sunday morning, when you have to listen to church music. That‟s why they invented Saturday and Sunday”.
The recording of Carlos Puebla which Charlie Haden used on Song For Ché was made by Barbara Dane, on one of he r pioneering visits to Cuba. Barbara‟s story is as remarkable as any in popular music, and she is one of the great enlightened Americans. She is also a fantastic folk/blues singer, with a revolutionary spirit and a fighter‟s determination. Notably, with Irwin Sibler she ran the Paredon label for many years, releasing fifty odd titles from a left -wing/revolutionary songs perspective. In some ways the label‟s activities mirror those of Le Chant du Monde. And among the label‟s releases were Daniel Vigliet ti, Marcel Khalifé, Carlos Puebla, Quilapayun, Suni Paz, and collections reflecting ongoing struggles in countries such as the Dominican Republic, Ireland , Angola and Nicaragua. There were also Barbara‟s own recordings such as I Hate the Capitalist System .
Charlie Haden and Carla Bley reconvened the Liberation Orchestra in late 1982 to record The Ballad of the Fallen for ECM . The title track is a reimagining of a folk song from El Salvador, which at the time was the setting for a civil war with strong US interference to stop left -wing influences gaining ground. There are references, too, to Chile , Angola and to Portugal, with a cover of José Afonso‟s Grandola Vila Morena, the song which served as the signal for the Carnation Revolution in April 1974. T here is also a beautiful Charlie Haden composition, a tribute to Dolores Ibárruri, La Pasionaria, the inspirational Spanish republican leader of ¡No Pasarán! fame.
Soledad Bravo sang songs from the Spanish Civil War, including tributes to The Fifth Regiment and The Fifteenth Brigade, on a live LP she recorded in 1972. This also featured performances of poems by Spanish poets Rafael Alberti, Gabriel Celaya and León Felipe. Soledad herself was born in Spain, and as her father was a Republican her family left for Venezuela when she was still very young. In the late „70s after Franco‟s death Soledad spent some years living and recording in Spain. Her work from that time includes an LP of Rafael Alberti‟s poetry set to music by Soledad, with some involvement from the poet himself, who had recently returned to Spain from exile after nearly 40 years , his words having been outla wed, and brave souls like Elisa Serna had landed in trouble for singing his poems only a few years earlier .
Another record Soledad made while in Madrid was a stunningly beautiful collection of very old Sephardic songs. These were Judeo-Spanish or Ladino folk songs that dated back to before the Spanish Jewish community was banished from the Iberian Peninsular in 1492. Since that time the Sephardim have spread far and wide, and the songs have absorbed influences from around the world: South America, North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey,
Greece, the Balkans, and so on. Hence , when these songs are sung now, there seem to be all sorts of musical elements mixed up in the melodies and delivery.
Many singers have tackled Sephardic songs, but Soledad‟s interpretations are particularly beautiful. It is this set that makes Soledad a singer of the very finest quality, worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Maria Farantouri, Amália Rodriguez, and Fairuz. There is something about such singers who can take on the magnitude of what they are singing, and be transformed by the music. And in turn they can take the listener to somewhere unique and incredibly personal. There is a lovely film about the fado singer Amália Rodriguez which features David Byrne at the beginning talking about hearing her sing and being amazed by this explosion of emotion, as if she was singing about the sadness of the universe, not only a personal sadness or tragedy but a sadness of existence. I think that captures the great singers like Maria, Amália, Fairuz and Soledad perfectly.
I recognised one of the Se phardic songs Soledad sang, Una Matica De Ruda, from a beautiful version I‟d heard Esther Ofarim sing. And being curious about other interpretations of these songs that originated in medieval Spain I followed a trail that led to a 1958 LP of Sephardic Folk Songs on the Folkways label by Gloria Levy (a.k.a. the writer Gloria DeVidas Kirchheimer , whose works include Goodbye, Evil Eye, a book of short stories about Sephardic family life). The (Smithsonian) Folkways archive is an invaluable resource, and could create financial chaos if one were to delve too deeply into its digital catalogue, which includes Barbara Dane‟s Paredon label.
Gloria‟s recording of these folk songs has an incredible sense of intimacy, and feels at times like a young lady singing for her own amusement in the back yard while performing some routine chore, or accompanying herself on a lute-like instrument bought for next-to-nothing in a secondhand shop with money she doesn‟t really have, with any utensils to hand used as impromptu percussion instruments . Somehow the singer knows the words, even understands the sentiments. But the listener, now, lost in the sound, has ideas of their own ...
“The effect of the song, even though she understood a few words, was to complicate everything. The future was a mystery but this blazing melancholy ex tended the mystery to the past” - Manuel Rivas, Books Burn Badly