August 12: The birthdate of one of Brazil’s greatest singers, Clara Nunes; the artist would have turned 78
Note from Black Brazil Today: In numerous past posts, I’ve discussed a number of Brazilian singers and musicians who would become some of my favorite artists in the world of music. I can’t honestly say that I love all Brazilian music, but the songs and artists that I DO like will remain in my musical memory for as long as I am alive.
In my journey through Brazilian music, I’ve come across some gems that I believe, if this music had the same cultural and structural power and influence as well as being sung in a global language, I think some of this music would be loved and admired as much as anything by internationally known artists such as the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Chicago, Nat King Cole or Earth, Wind and Fire. Well, this is how some of this music hit me at least.
Some of these artists I became of aware through Brazilian music compilation CDs, others I was able to hear samples of on some Brazilian music sites, while still others I came to know by just taking chances in the international sections of record stores, including the sebos, used record stores in Brazil. Between the year 2000 and maybe up to about 2011, my Brazilian music collection of LPs and CDs came to be maybe about 20-25 percent of my entire music collection. That’s saying a lot considering I had amassed a music collection of maybe two thousand records, tapes and CDs.
After having immersed myself in Brazilian music for about a decade, two artists stuck out as my favorites. My favorite male singer was and remains Jorge Ben. A musician and songwriter known for composing some of the country’s biggest hits, Ben’s music from 1963 to 1978 was groundbreaking, innovative and belongs in the collection of any serious fan of Brazilian Popular Music.
My favorite female artist is the one and only Clara Nunes. In past posts, I discussed my introduction to Brazilian music being through the Putumayo CD entitled Brasileiro. That disc featured a song each by Ben and Nunes. The Ben song ‘’Namorado Da Viúva’’ was taken from his 1974 album A Tábua de Esmeralda and featured the classic rhythmic acoustic guitar strumming of Ben that would make him famous. I like this song, but as I began to dig into his music catalog deeper, I would find that it was just the tip of iceberg of a treasure chest of jams and grooves.
On the other hand, the Nunes track from that CD, ‘’Canto das Três Raças’’ was one of those songs that sealed my conviction that I needed to visit the country where this music came from. Other songs that struck me that way were ‘’Milagre dos Peixes’’ by Milton Nascimento, ‘’Corcovado’’ by João Gilberto, ‘’Casa Forte’’ by Banda Black Rio, and ‘’Nereci’’ by Djavan.
After numerous visits to Brazil in that first decade of the 21st century, I would come to discover that the Nunes classic, ‘’Canto’’, was a favorite that you could hear at almost any get together in which samba musicians and everyday Brazilians would sing at house parties or bars.
The melody, rhythms and refrain of the song by themselves are enough to make the song stick in your brain but then when you understand the lyrics, you come to know that the song composed by Paulo César Pinheiro, who Nunes was married to, and Mauro Duarte, describe the formation of the Brazilian people from ‘’tres raças’’, meaning three races: the white, the black, and the Indian.
Indians were plundered, blacks were kidnapped, both being enslaved by white Europeans. A very timely discussion considering the recent burning of the Manuel de Borba Gato statue in São Paulo. The resistance of the fugitive slave maroon societies known as quilombos, the extermination of the Indian population and the “sobbing of pain” which was the historical responsibility of the white colonizers. The very roots of the song are black, the samba, and feature African percussion instruments.
Like Ben’s music, after hearing this first song, I would soon come to discover that the Nunes catalog was a must have. I didn’t really care much for her first four albums, but for the next years, from 1972-1982, when Nunes devoted herself to classic sambas, her albums featured some of the best of what Brazilian Popular Music had to offer. For me, all of her albums in that 10-year period had something that made any one of the albums worth buying. I don’t think any of those records fall below a solid seven stars out of ten with my personal favorites being Alvorecer from 1974, Canto das Três Raças from 1976, Guerreira from 1978.
If you listen to Brazilian music enough, you will notice that there are many songs from the Brazilian songbook that have numerous cover versions by several artists. What I love about Nunes’ catalog is that her record label seemed to reserve the best songs, musicians and arrangements for her albums. There are songs in her collection that I didn’t like when done by other artists, but that I loved after hearing her version.
For example, try as I might, I don’t really like the Brazilian rhythm known as forro too much. Sure, there are a few songs here and there that I can get into, but in general, I’ll pass on it, even though I respect the genre. Luiz Gonzaga, a black musician from the northeastern state of Pernambuco, is perhaps the most famous musician of the style. His song ‘’Pau de Arara’’ is ok, but I heard Clara’s version of the song first, so when I heard his version, I felt that the Nunes remake was simply better.
This is also the case of the song ‘’O Bem e o Mal’’, a song written by legendary songwriter-guitarist Nelson Cavaquinho and Guilherme Brito. Cavaquinho’s version is a raw, basic samba that you could imagine four or five-member samba groups singing in unison. Nunes’ version with its lovely flutes, walking bass line and percussion give the song a certain groove that are fully fleshed out in a manner that the version by Cavaquinho is not.
Another Cavaquinho song covered by Nunes, ‘’Juízo Final’’, also receives a superior arrangement, including a string arrangement. Another improvement on the song can be equated to Nunes’ wonderful singing tone. For someone who grew up hearing 1970s grooves played on my parents record player as well as black radio stations, the difference between Nunes’ covers of original versions of these sambas as well as her original songs is almost equal to the transition made between blues, jump blues to modern rhythm and blues.
My memories of the Nunes catalog started with my purchase of all of her vinyl albums in a small used record store in Salvador, Bahia, on my first trip to Brazil in the summer of 2000. In that sebo located near Avenida Sete de Setembro, I bought about 50 albums for about BRL 150, which worth about 86 US Dollars at the time. Out of those 50 albums, at least 12 were albums by Nunes. I still remember the mixed tape I made of my favorite songs of those albums. It was such a strange juxtaposition listening to these tropical grooves that reminded me of that first trip to Brazil in the frigid, snow and ice environment of winter time Detroit.
In 2003, on a trip to the capital city of Minas Gerais, I happened come across a great record store that had an incredible selection of Brazilian music and as fate would have it, they had a one copy remaining of the recently released Clara Nunes box set that included all of the albums in her discography. Any music connoisseur understands what it means to be able to hear some of your favorite songs without the snap, crackle, pops and scratches that come with listening to used vinyl.
There are several other aspects of Clara Nunes the person and artist that I need to explore, such as her connection to the Umbanda religion, her trips to Africa and elements of Afro-Brazilian culture and struggle in both her lyrics and attire. Then there is how she is seen in terms of race. In my research, I’ve seen Nunes referred to as black, white and mestiça. I have never seen Nunes as white but in Brazil, given her extremely fair skin, I can see how she could be classified as such.
Some time in the 1970s at the height of career, Nunes stopped straightening her hair which would seem to signify a willingness to display a stronger connection to a black identity. As with millions of Brazilians, how Nunes should be remembered in terms of race may never be resolved, but she is another famous personality whose blackness I’ve seen the black Brazilian community attempt to redeem. Showing photos of Nunes to my own family, there was no confusion: she’s black. I still remember one of my aunts asking me if I had any doubt about this.
That’s a brief introduction into my experience with Clara Nunes, the artist, but let’s explore this further. So exactly who was the artist known as Clara Nunes? I’ve been wanting to do an article on Nunes for years but kept putting it off. Yesterday, I came across an article announcing that singer Vanessa da Mata, another light-skinned singer, would portray Nunes in a musical about the artist called “Clara Nunes – A Tal Guerreira”. The timing couldn’t have more perfect. Yesterday, August 12th, was actually Nunes’ birthday. If she were still alive, she would have turned 78 years old.
The article below is a brief piece I translated from the Além da Imginação website.
Obituário da Fama: Clara Nunes
Courtesy of Além da Imaginação
Clara Francisca Gonçalves Pinheiro, known as Clara Nunes, was a famous Brazilian singer, who was born in Paraopeba, in the interior of Minas Gerais state on August 12, 1943, and is considered one of the greatest interpreters in the country.
A researcher of Brazilian popular music, its rhythms, and folklore, Clara also traveled several times to Africa, representing Brazil. A connoisseur of Afro-Brazilian dances and traditions, she converted to the religion of Umbanda.
Clara Nunes would be one of the singers who would record most songs by the composers of the Portela samba school, the school close to her heart. She was also the first female Brazilian singer to sell more than 100 thousand copies, breaking a taboo according to which women didn’t sell records.
In fact, over Nunes’ career, according to some sources, several of her original albums sold between 300,000 to 1.2 million copies, while at least six of her greatest hits collections sold between 400-575,000 copies, incredible numbers in a Brazil in which platinum status is awarded to albums that reach the 100,000 sales mark.
Clara Nunes, the youngest of seven children of the couple Manuel Ferreira de Araújo and Amélia Gonçalves Nunes, was born in the countryside of Minas Gerais, in the Cedro district – at the time belonging to the municipality of Paraopeba and later this district became a city and was renamed Caetanópolis, where she lived until she was 16.
A carpenter in the Cedro & Cachoeira textile factory, Clara’s father was known as Mané Serrador and was also a guitar player and a participant in the Folia de Reis festivities. But Manuel died in 1944, and soon after Clara would also become a motherless child and would end up being raised by her sister Dindinha (Maria Gonçalves) and brother José (known as Zé Chilau). At that time, Clara participated in catechism classes at the headquarters of the Eucharistic Crusade.
There she also sang Latin litanies in the church choir. According to her own words, she grew up listening to singers Carmem Costa, Ângela Maria, and, mainly, Elizeth Cardoso and Dalva de Oliveira, from whom she always had much influence, maintaining, however, her own style.
In 1952, still a girl, Clara won her first singing contest organized in her city, singing the song “Recuerdos de Ypacaraí”. As a prize, she won a blue dress. At 14, Clara entered in the Cedro & Cachoeira factory as a weaver in the same one where her father worked.
She had to move to Belo Horizonte, the capital city of Minas Gerais, going to live with her sister Vicentina and her brother Joaquim, because of the murder of a boyfriend, committed in 1957 by her brother Zé Chilau.
In the capital of Minas Gerais, Clara worked as a weaver during the day and attended school at night. On weekends, she participated in the rehearsals of the Coral Renascença, in the neighborhood church where she lived. At that time, she met the guitarist Jadir Ambrósio, known for having composed the Cruzeiro hymn).
At the beginning of the 1960s, Clara also met Aurino Araújo (brother of singer Eduardo Araújo), who took her to meet many artists. Aurino would also be her boyfriend for ten years. Under the influence of music producer Cid Carvalho, she changed her name to Clara Nunes, using her mother’s last name.
When she was single, she was called Clara Francisca Gonçalves de Araújo, and after she got married she adopted Pinheiro as her last name. In 1960, already under the name Clara Nunes and still working as a weaver, she won the Minas Gerais stage of the “ABC Golden Voice” contest, with the song “Serenata do Adeus”, composed by famed songwriter Vinicius de Moraes and previously recorded by Elizeth Cardoso.
In the national final of the contest held in São Paulo, Clara Nunes came in third with the song “Só Adeus” (by Jair Amorim and Evaldo Gouveia). From then on, Clara Nunes began singing at Rádio Inconfidência, in Belo Horizonte. For three years in a row, she was considered the best singer in Minas Gerais.
She also began to perform as a crooner in clubs and nightclubs in the capital of Minas Gerais and even worked with the then-bass player Milton Nascimento – at that time known as Bituca. At that time, she made her first appearance on television, on host Hebe Camargo’s program in Belo Horizonte.
In 1963 Clara Nunes had an exclusive program on TV Itacolomi, called “Clara Nunes Presents” and aired for a year and a half. The program featured artists of national recognition, among them Altemar Dutra and Ângela Maria.
She lived in Belo Horizonte until 1965, when she moved to Rio de Janeiro, more specifically to the neighborhood of Copacabana. Already in Rio de Janeiro, Clara Nunes performed in several television programs, such as José Messias, Chacrinha, Almoço com as Estrelas, and Programa de Jair do Taumaturgo.
Before turning to samba, Clara sang mostly boleros. Besides radio and television stations, she also toured samba schools, clubs, and nightclubs in Rio’s suburbs. Still in 1965, she took auditioned as a singer at the Odeon record company, where she registered her voice for the first time on an LP.
The record was released by Rádio Inconfidência (where Clara worked when she lived in Belo Horizonte) and included the participation of other artists, all from the Odeon label. The following year Clara was contracted by this record company, the first and only one in her entire career. That same year, the singer’s first official LP, A Voz Adorável de Clara Nunes, was released.
Because of the record company’s insistence that she interpret romantic songs, on this album, Clara presented a repertoire of boleros and samba-canções, but the LP was a commercial failure.
In 1968, Clara Nunes recorded Você Passa e Eu Acho Graça, her second album in her career and the first where she sang sambas. The title track (by Ataulfo Alves and Carlos Imperial) was her first big radio hit. In the following year, Odeon released A Beleza Que Canta, an LP in which the singer interpreted “Casinha Pequena”, a public domain song.
Still in 1969, Clara Nunes won first place in the “I Festival da Canção Jovem de Três Rios” with the song “Pra Que Obedecer” (by Paulinho da Viola and Luís Sérgio Bilheri) and also placed third with the song “Encontro” (by Elton Medeiros and Luís Sérgio Bilheri). Clara Nunes performed in Luanda, capital of Angola, invited by Ivon Curi.
In the following year, the singer recorded her fourth LP, in which she interpreted “É Baiana” (by Fabrício da Silva, Baianinho, Ênio Santos Ribeiro and Miguel Pancrácio), a song that obtained considerable success in the 1971 carnival, and “Ilu Ayê”, Portela’s samba-enredo (written by Norival Reis and Silvestre Davi da Silva).
On the album cover, the singer from Minas Gerais had her hair permed and dyed red, and from then on, she started to dress in clothes that reminded her of Afro-Brazilian religions.
In 1972, Clara established herself as a samba singer with the release of the album “Clara Clarice Clara”. Odeon released the album “Clara Nunes” in 1973. In that same year, the singer made her debut with the popular duo Vinicius de Moraes and Toquinho in the show “O poeta, a moça e o violão”, at Castro Alves Theater, in Salvador. Also in 1973, Clara was invited by the Portuguese Radiotelevision to do a season in Lisbon.
Later, she toured some other European countries, such as Sweden, where she recorded a special with the Stockholm Symphony Orchestra for the local TV. Clara Nunes was part of the commission that represented Brazil in the “Midem Festival”, in Cannes, in 1974. There, Odeon only released to the European public the album Brasília, which was the basis for the LP Alvorecer.
This album had great hits such as “Contos de Areia” (by Romildo S. Bastos and Toninho Nascimento), “Menino Deus” (by Mauro Duarte and Paulo César Pinheiro), and “Meu Sapato Já Furou” (by Mauro Duarte and Elton Medeiros). The LP broke sales records for Brazilian female singers, with more than 300 thousand copies sold, a feat never before registered in Brazil.
In 1979, Clara participated in Clementina de Jesus’ LP Clementina. That same year, the singer from Minas Gerais was undergoing a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus), after suffering three miscarriages due to myomas in her uterus. She had also carried problems of this type since childhood. She tried all kinds of methods and didn’t get any solutions.
Because she was obsessed with motherhood, the impossibility of being a mother made her suffer a lot, causing Clara Nunes strong emotional jolts, which were overcome by her absolute dedication to her artistic career, making her compose beautiful and emotionally charged songs.
In 1980, Clara Nunes recorded the album Brasil Mestiço, which was a success in radio stations all over the country with “Morena de Angola” (composed by Chico Buarque in her honor), “Brasil Mestiço, Santuário da Fé” (written by the duo of Mauro Duarte and Paulo César Pinheiro).
Cause of Death:
Clara Nunes died in the early morning of April 2, 1983, prematurely, at the age of 40, after twenty-eight days in a coma: in early March, she checked into Clínica São Vicente, in the Gávea neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, where she underwent a simple operation for varicose veins in her left leg, due to strong pains she felt when dancing. She suffered cardiac arrest and paralyzed brain activity, due to lack of oxygenation, victim of an anaphylactic shock or medical error. Her body was mourned at the Portela Samba School – one of her passions – and buried at São João Batista Cemetery, amid much emotion from fans, singers and relatives, in a collective sadness rarely seen in Brazil.
Clara Nunes’ body was buried at São João Batista Cemetery.
R General Polidoro, s/n – Botafogo.
City of Rio de Janeiro, RJ – Brazil
Source: Além da Imginação