Midweek Music Break: Melodía Pegadiza, Part 3 (“Mas Que Nada,” and the Bossa Nova in General)

[Video: “Bim-Bom,” by João Gilberto: generally understood to be the first bossa nova song written (although not the first recorded). The lyrics repeat those two syllables in various combinations, along with phrases whose English translation (per Wikipedia) simply say, “This is all of my song / And there’s nothing more / My heart has asked that it be this way.” If you’d prefer to listen to all nine of the songs featured in this post at one go, you can jump over all the background, right to the full playlist at the bottom.]

New York City has its “Swing Street,” a block of W. 52nd so named because of the profusion of jazz clubs which once lined the sidewalks there. Even if you’ve never been to Manhattan, you might have heard the name.

Lesser known is Rio de Janeiro’s counterpart: Beco das Garrafas (“Bottles Alley”). Like Swing Street, it’s “grown up” now, apparently with a Mercedes-Benz dealership on the corner and other upscale shops on either side. But in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Beco das Garrafas hosted the birth of the bossa nova.

While researching this post, I found one source which said the term “Bottles Alley” referred to the habit of residents, of hurling beer bottles into the street to silence the noise of the “Bohemians” who frequented the nightclubs there.

The Portuguese phrase doesn’t quite lack meaning, but the straight-up English translation — “new trend” or “new wave” — doesn’t exactly speak volumes, either. A better way to regard the term: recognizing that Brazilian Portuguese has its own slangy usages, and that as far back as the 1930s, as Wikipedia notes, bossa represented “old-fashioned slang for something that is done with particular charm, natural flair or innate ability.”

Ruy Castro’s book Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World (first published in 1990) traces its origin as a term for this particular musical genre to an entertainment journalist named Moysés Fuks. Fuks was also “artistic director” for a musical group called Grupo Universitario Hebraico do Brasil, or GUHB: the (yes) University Hebrew Group of Brazil. Fuks had a colleague, one Ronaldo Bôscoli, to whom he offered GUHB’s auditorium for use in promoting some kind of concert. Apparently Fuks didn’t care exactly who was on the bill, other than GUHB; “He merely suggested they include someone ‘who had made a name of sorts.'”

Bôscoli’s first choice was a local street-and-club performer (one source describes him as “one of the biggest slackers in the business”) named João Gilberto. Gilberto himself wasn’t available on the chosen night, so they chose a solid alternative vocalist: Sylvinha Telles, who was familiar with GUHB’s music.

Fuks’s role in this? He printed up a program with the set list, and copied it for the band members. In it, “he promised a bossa nova evening.” He later insisted he had no idea why he’d used the term; whatever its significance to Moysés Fuks, it stuck to the music.

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Midweek Music Break: Melodía Pegadiza, Part 2 (Pérez Prado’s “Patricia,” and the Mambo in General)

Perez Prado, per Mexican cartoonist Saul Herrera, a/k/a 'Qucho'

[Image: Pérez Prado, in the imaginative eyes of the Mexican cartoonist (Saul Herrera) calling himself “Qucho.” I found the image on the Web right away; Qucho, only with some hunting. And I’m not sure this image appears even there, on his blog.]

It’s been a few months now since I posted the first of these Midweek Music Breaks on Latin-music earwigs from the 1950s. That post dealt with “Blue Tango,” by decidedly non-Hispanic classical composer Leroy Anderson. This week, we take a look at one of this genre’s hits penned by the self-styled “Mambo King,” bandleader Dámaso Pérez Prado.

First, an (apologetically pedantic) aside about that name: Dámaso was his given name; Pérez, his paternal surname; Prado, his maternal surname. Thus you’ll find many references to him as simply “Pérez Prado” — which “feels,” at least to a native English speaker, like a first/last name combination. For all I know, this was common during his lifetime. Maybe he even got used to it: when someone shouted out “Pérez!” on a street corner, maybe he turned his head more readily than when they called for Dámaso. But really, it’s never quite correct to refer to him as plain-old Prado — like the Spanish national art museum. Speaking from experience, this is harder than it sounds. Nevertheless “Pérez Prado” is right — just like the dark-and-stormy-night author is never called simply Lytton but always Bulwer-Lytton.

Pérez Prado cut something of an exotic figure on the mid-20th century American musical landscape. Born in Matanzas, Cuba, in 1916, he started out studying classical piano. By the 1940s, he had moved entirely into popular Cuban genres, specializing in the rhythm called the mambo.

What exactly is mambo, anyhow? Unfortunately, most of the descriptions of it are cast in terms of other styles which — presumably — you already do know enough about to discuss intelligently. One Joseph Levy, about whom I can report pretty much nothing at all, seems to have taken a special interest in Pérez Prado. At his site, he says of the mambo:

Prado’s conception of the mambo began to develop in 1943. He later said that four, five, and sometimes six musicians would often play after hours jam sessions on the tres (a small Cuban guitar) and the resultant cross rhythms and syncopation give him the idea. Jazz writer and critic Ralph J. Gleason reported that “Prez” talked to him about the mambo as being an Afro-Cuban rhythm with a dash of American swing. According to Prado, the mambo is “more musical and swingier than the rhumba. It has more beat.” He also explained, “I am a collector of cries and noises, elemental ones like seagulls on the shore, winds through the trees, men at work in a foundry. Mambo is a movement back to nature, by means of rhythms based on such cries and noises, and on simple joys.”

…The mambo as we know it today is actually a rhythm whose tempo may be slow or fast, and almost any standard tune can be set to its tempo. The saxophone usually sets the rhythm pattern and the brass carries the melody.

That reference to “cries and noises” and the squawks of seagulls may allude to Pérez Prado’s own style of band leadership. Often, you can hear him grunting aloud as though to punctuate the rhythm; sometimes these grunts are actually exultant variations of the imperative “Dilo!” (“Say it!”) and sometimes they seem — at least to me — just, well, grunts.*

Pérez Prado’s departure from Cuba is sometimes described as though he’d been ridden out of town on a rail, for tainting the purer strains of local music with foreign jazz elements. Well, maybe. Maybe the musical establishment of mid-twentieth-century Cuba was fiery, conservative, nativist; maybe people really did (still do) work themselves up into a frenzy of distaste over such matters, and not just in Cuba. What seems more likely, given what we could later tell of Pérez Prado’s ambitions: he just felt too constrained by a narrow — oh, say, island-sized — popularity, and left on his own. Whatever the case may be, when he left, he left for Mexico. And except for his big but fairly brief success in the US, from then on he seemed to present himself as a citizen of Mexico rather than Cuba.

His first introduction to US audiences came via across-the-border radio broadcasts from Mexico. He had a big hit there with a number called “Que Rico del Mambo,” which was repackaged and -recorded by American bandleader Sonny Burke as “Mambo Jambo.” That song’s success first brought Pérez Prado to the US.

“Patricia,” in 1958, was the last of Pérez Prado’s releases to reach #1 on US charts. To characterize it as infectious (as I, at least, am tempted to do) is to gloss over the recording’s supreme oddness. The orchestra’s swing is punctuated not so much by its leader’s vocal cries — it doesn’t seem to feature any of them — as by weird little bursts of horns and percussion which almost suggest to me a burp, or the compressed-lips Pppppbbbfffflllt! of a raspberry/”Bronx cheer.” But the tune itself seems to pinpoint a moment in time, in pop culture, captured by Federico Fellini in La Dolce Vita:

In [1960], even the composer Nino Rota would turn to mambo, reworking “Patricia” (Perez Prado) for the La Dolce Vita soundtrack. The song is used on several occasions, including in the “orgy” scene… As [the character of Nadia] prepares to take it all off, an inebriated guest calls for some “Middle Eastern music.” But in a truly exotica moment, the hi-fi needle falls into the groove of “Patricia.”


If you’re not familiar with that scene in the film, here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

To celebrate her recent divorce from Riccardo, Nadia performs a striptease to Pérez Prado’s cha-cha [JES: ???] “Patricia.” The drunken Marcello attempts to provoke the other partygoers into an orgy. Due to their inebriated states, however, the party descends into mayhem with Marcello throwing pillow feathers around the room as he rides a young woman crawling on her hands and knees.

(Ah, the early Sixties…) Of course, you can see this scene on YouTube, starting at around 3:55 into that seven-plus-minute clip.

Anyhow, here’s “Patricia,” as recorded by Pérez Prado’s own orchestra in 1958:

[Below, click Play button to begin Patricia. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 2:05 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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Midweek Music Break: Melodía Pegadiza, Part 1 (1951-52)

For weeks recently, intermittently, I had been musically fixated on a song which I’d known for, well, decades. And I probably hadn’t heard it in decades, either. Even worse: my normal solution to the problem of an earworm is to simply listen to the song several times. Couldn’t do that in this case because… well, I didn’t know the name of the song, or on what album (if any) I might have heard it. I didn’t know who performed it. It was an instrumental, so I couldn’t seize on the lyrics to simply do a search. All I knew, apparently intimately, was the sound.

Which really made me crazy. The melody and rhythm and performance were not unpleasant, by any means; in fact, they swung smoothly, sweet-dreamily, with heavy doses of strings and woodwinds accented here and there by percussion and horn. They felt… Latin.

Yes, I know: whole Web sites and smartphone apps exist to help in cases like this. You hold an iPod or MP3 player up to a microphone, say, and the software analyzes the tune to guess at the song (and sometimes the artist). Or you can play a piano, guitar, or harmonica (or — I guess — a trumpet! even a Mellotron, or a Novachord!) into the mike. In some cases, you can simply sing into the mike, or hum, or even just plain whistle; this would require one of those rare solutions (since I didn’t actually have a copy of the song to play). But I’ve gone the perform-it-yourself route before. Maybe your singing, humming, whistling is up to snuff. Mine? Put it this way: Can you imagine the humiliation of running software which all but stares at you, gimlet-eyed, in disbelief and frank confusion?

So then one Monday night a few weeks ago The Missus and I succumbed to the allure of a PBS pledge drive. We’ve donated before, separately and together, but never at the level required to get one of their premium “gifts”: a DVD, say, or a large-format coffee-table book, or a collection of CDs. On this occasion, what pushed us over the edge was a sort of vicarious nostalgia for music of some other generation: we sprang for a six-CD collection of pop and “easy listening” music of the 1950s. Back then, we were both too young really to know this music. But the gods knew we’d heard plenty of it, coming from the speakers of record player, transistor radio, and hi-fi system…

Think Patti Page and Perry Como, Mantovani and the McGuire Sisters, all the guy-group vocalists (many of them named to identify their number, usually four: the Four Lads, the Four Aces, the Four Coins).

Think, oh, say, Leroy Anderson, and “Blue Tango.”

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