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by Chuck Reider, RJO Music Director

Let’s take a trip to Brazil by focusing on one arrangement to be featured on the Reno Jazz Orchestra’s (RJO) Earth, Wind, and Fire recording project.   It is actually two Brazilian songs put together into one piece “Ponta de Areia” and “Zanzibar”.   Though EWF is world renowned for their funk and soul they had jazz roots starting with leader Maurice White performing with jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis.  White and the band have had a life-long love for Brazilian music and the songs above were featured on two different albums.  First let me introduce you to Brazilian music and then the composers.

The samba is probably the most familiar to all of us.  It became popular in Brazil when in 1929 the first radio station in Rio de Janeiro introduced it to a large audience.  In it’s early days most samba singers were male, however the most famous samba singer was Carmen Miranda who moved to Hollywood and became a movie star.  Today the samba is an integral of Carnaval with its driving beat and as popular today world-wide as it was in the 1930s in Brazil.  A very unique Brazilian samba drum, the cuica, is a tunable “talking drum” and is named after the grey four-eyed opossum known for its high-pitched cry.  Jazz fans are familiar with the bossa nova that was made famous by Antonio Carlos Jobim in the early sixties.  It is smoother and usually slower than a samba and incorporates more jazz harmonies.  MPB (Musica popular brasileira) or popular Brazilian music evolved from the bossa nova in the sixties and includes artists such as Ivan Lins, Gilberto Gil, and Milton Nascimento (composer of “Ponta de Areia”).  One of the oldest Brazilian music styles is Capoeira, performed as a backdrop to the sport of capoeira.  The sport was developed by enslaved Africans in Brazil as a dance to disguise that they were in fact practicing fighting techniques and is now a recognized martial art.  The music is traditional, passed on orally, and invokes a connection to the spiritual world to inspire to the martial artists.  It employs a uniquely Brazilian instrument the berimbau, a single string attached to a bow with a gourd at the bottom.  The faster the berimbau is played the faster martial artist’s movements.  Never heard one?  You are in luck because our bassist Hans Halt performs it on the intro to our Brazilian arrangement.  Can’t wait?  I guess you will have to Google it!  I have only touched the surface of all the great Brazilian music available to us, but it is time to move on to the composers.

The samba “Zanzibar” was composed by Brazilian singer, guitarist, and composer Edu Lobo.  I was not familiar with his work until I began researching this column.  He was a part of the 1960’s bossa nova movement where he gained notoriety.  His first album was released in 1964 with his latest album released in 2017.  Over thirty albums.  His music has been performed by such artists as Sergio Mendes, Sara Vaughn, Toots Thielman, and of course EWF.  Lobo recorded “Zanzibar” in 1970 and EWF recorded it in 1973 and can be found on their Head to the Sky album.  This song has been recorded seventeen times with latest released in 2018.  Before this column, the only version I had ever heard was EWF’s and I was very pleasantly surprised to learn about all the versions and to hear them.  

Milton Nascimento has been one of my music heroes dating back to Wayne Shorter’s 1974 album “Native Dancer” where five of the nine pieces were composed by Nascimento.  This is a must have album for any jazz fan.  He was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1942.  His mother, a maid, died when he was eighteen months old and was adopted by the couple who had employed his mother.  The husband a math teacher and radio man and the wife sang and played the piano learning music from Hector Villa-Lobos.  The family moved to Tres Pontas where he grew up.  He noted “My first companion was the echo of the Minas Mountains.  When I was a kid, I used to have a lot of fun with it. That was when I discovered my musicality. And that echo is an element that is still present today in my singing.” In Tres Pontas he met pianist Wagner Tiso who lived on the same street and who forged a life-long friendship.  There they listened to everything they could find on the radio.  Sambas, bossa nova, boleros, early rock and roll, even French popular songs.  Both of them moved to the big city of Belo Horizonte where Nascimento was to study economics.  At first overwhelmed, both settled into the music scene where they help found the group Clube da Esquina (street corner club) which helped define the MPB music style.  Nascimento recorded several albums prior to the 1972 Clube da Esquina, but it was this release that put him in Brazil’s national spotlight.  The group created a modern popular music style with a strong Beatles influence.  Note, if you can find it get this album it is as interesting and relevant now as it was in 1972.  As noted above it was “Native Dancer” that introduced Nascimento to jazz, a collaboration that continues today.  The list of artists who have worked with him is a who’s who of jazz and popular music from Sarah Vaughn to Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Paul Simon, and Sting.  “Ponta de Areia”, recorded by EWF on the 1977 album All ‘n All, is a sweet/nostalgic remembrance of the Minas Gerais railroad line that once ran through his hometown.  Nascimento has recorded over forty albums and I hope I have encouraged you to take a listen and you enjoy it as much as I have!

It’s time for a shout out to all our supporters who have made the EWF recording project possible.  Thank you!!!

Chuck Reider is the executive director of the Reno Jazz Orchestra

For more information on the Earth, Wind, and Fire recording project visit the RJO's EWF Project page.

How to play the berimbau:

A deeper dive into Capoeira and the berimbau:

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