Bossa Nova and white fear: Subtle mechanisms of racism erased Johnny Alf as the “Father” of one of the most important musical movements in Brazil

Note from BBT: It’s hard to really say what my true introduction to Brazilian Music was. Maybe it was the 1964 Miles Davis album Quiet Nights. Or perhaps the George Shearing version of “Girl from Ipanema”. Maybe it was the Pharcyde song “Runnin'” that was based on a sample of the Stan Getz/Luiz Bonfá song “Saudade Vem Correndo”. If I really want to go back, I could claim it was one of the songs of the background music to that outrageously campy Batman TV series I used to watch as a child. In some of the scenes from that series, I remember a really cool, sophisticated type groove that I always liked.

In 1989, with the release of the first in the classic Batman film series, that old Batman TV series started being re-run again on TV and everything associated with Batman was being re-issued to cash in on the Caped Crusader craze. I happened to find a cassette of the music composed by Nelson Riddle for the TV series and finally I was able to get that cool song in a version I could listen to whenever I wanted. They called the song “Holy Hole In The Doughnut” and it featured the Robin character of the TV series saying some of his most ridiculous “holy this/holy that” exclamations. Oh well, the song was still cool. I would later learn that the feel of the song was influenced by Bossa Nova, a Brazilian invention that mixed Samba and Jazz with slight touches of Classical Music for a sound that took the world by storm in the early 1960s.

As I usually do when I get into a certain genre of music, I immediately started to expose myself to artists from that style. When I plunged into the “Brazilian thing” in the year 2000, I started crate digging in some of the great record stores in the suburban Detroit area. What I found was that, in terms of Brazilian music, there were really only a handful of Brazilian artists that were available in music stores that sold CDs and vinyl albums. So, like many Americans who started to explore Brazilian Music, some of the first artists I learned about were musicians from the Bossa Nova genre or MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) artists who managed to reach an international audience.

Antonio Carlos Jobim 1967 album ‘Wave’

Some of those artists included early stars of Bossa Nova such as Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim, João Gilberto and Luiz Bonfá. In my father’s old Jazz album collection, there was a copy of the Jobim 1967 album Wave. In the stores, there was a select group of MPB artists such as Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, Veloso’s sister, Maria Bethânia, Tom Zé and the Brazilian Tropicalia musical movement as a whole. Then there were those compilation CDs that offered an exposure to more artists, some whose individual albums were more accessible along with others who weren’t such as Ivan Lins, Edu Lobo, and even Carlinhos Brown.

Artists of the Tropicalia music movement

It’s funny, I actually knew Ivan Lins without even knowing I knew him. Again, in my parents music collection, I remember seeing the B-side of the 1980 George Benson 45 of the hit single “Give Me The Night” being a song called “Dinorah, Dinorah”, written by Ivan Lins. So as it was, between the 70s and 90s, the Batman tape, the Miles album, the Pharcyde and Benson, I knew a little about Brazilian music without even having fully explored it.

After catching the ‘Brazil bug’ at the end of 1999, with the arrival of the year 2000, I started buying Brazilian music. On one of those cheap compilation CDs put out by an unknown record label, I heard the João Gilberto classic “Corcovado” and was immediately enchanted with the sound. The acoustic guitar chords, the string arrangement, and Gilberto’s subtle, almost whisper like vocals. Hearing that smooth song lead to not only wanting to know more about the sound, but also wanting to know what he was singing about, so I knew I would eventually have to learn some Portuguese.

At that time, the internet was just beginning to take off, which was perfect timing for me as I found an endless source of information about this Brazilian sound that I wanted to know more about. In those first few years of the 2000s, I snapped up LPs and CDs by the aforementioned Jobim, Gilberto, Bonfá (including his collaboration with Jazz saxophonist Stan Getz which included the song “Saudade Vem Correndo” sampled by The Pharcyde in 1995) and others. By 2004, I had discovered a great record store in Chicago called Dusty Groove that sold music via online orders.

Dusty Groove had an enormous collection of Jazz, classic Soul and so-called World Music. Through Dusty Groove, I was able to explore Brazilian music as much as I wanted. I bought all sorts of Brazilian music genres: classic Samba, MPB, Brazilian Rock and Soul and, of course, Bossa Nova. As my mailman would deliver CDs from Dusty Groove at least once a week, I soon started to notice something about the Bossa Nova CDs and artists.

Although I was happy to discover classic Bossa sounds of artists such as Roberto Menescal, Carlos Lyra, Ronaldo Bôscoli, Oscar Castro Neves, Milton Banana, Sérgio Mendes, João Donato and groups such as Bossa Três, MPB4, Bossa Rio, Copa 5, Tamba Trio and Sambalanço Trio, I started to notice that it seemed that there hardly any black artists that recorded in the Bossa Nova style. Well, there were artists such as singers Elizeth Cardoso and Alaíde Costa, guitarist Baden Powell and drummer Wilson das Neves, but, for the most part, the most well-known singers, musicians and composers were generally white. Hmmm….wonder why that was.

As the Dusty Groove site always included great notes and descriptions about the albums and CDs they sold, that was how I came across the music of the piano player Johnny Alf. Alf’s sound clearly fit into the Bossa Nova style. The soft vocals, light percussion, horn and string arrangements were all there, plus Alf played piano, an instrument that was noticeably absent in the music of most black Brazilian artists. I would later come to discover that having a piano on one’s album gave a Brazilian artist’s repertoire a type of sophistication that separated him or her from other Brazilian music, particularly Samba, which is the genre where most black Brazilian musicians were to be found.

There were a few Afro-Brazilian artists who were able to explore music beyond the Samba, but as I started visiting Brazilian used record stores, I started to notice that when I looked in music categories such as MPB, Bossa Nova, Rock or Brazilian Instrumental Music, the rarer it was was to find black artists. On the other hand, the Samba bins were overflowing with black Samba singers and groups. Of course, as mentioned previously, Bossa Nova was actually based on a cool mixture between Samba, Jazz and Classical Music, but I found it strange that I didn’t find many well-known black musicians in the category.

New York Times headlines about Johnny Alf

Johnny Alf died in 2010 at the age of 80, and although his death was reported in top Brazilian newspapers such as Folha de São Paulo and Estadão and even The New York Times, they all mentioned how the artist had died relatively forgotten among Brazilian music fans. But then something else caught my eye. ALL of these articles that paid homage to Alf credited him as being either the “father” of Bossa Nova, the pioneer, a precursor to the style or one of the most important artists in the development of the genre that would enchant the world of music and catch on around the world starting in the late 1950s.

Various reports on Alf’s death in Brazilian media recognize him as “precursor”, “pioneer”, who “helped give birth to Bossa Nova” but that his “story is never told”

Hold it, pump the brakes. “The Father of Bossa Nova”? How is it that Alf was considered the “father” of a genre that captured the hearts of music fans around the world but his name wasn’t as well-known as that of Jobim, Gilberto, Mendes, Bonfá and some of the other artists I previously mentioned? Well, that’s where it gets interesting.

In the piece below, Joice Berth shares her take on the question. In an upcoming article, I will explore this question again.

Bossa Nova and white fear: How subtle mechanisms of racism ended up erasing Johnny Alf as the “Father” of the style of one of the most important musical movements in Brazil

By Joice Berth

On July 6, 2019 Brazil said goodbye to one of its greatest artists: João Gilberto. No doubt about the immense gap in Brazilian culture, as well as about João’s undeniable talent as an exponent of our music. All the media reported that “the father” of bossa nova had died. This musical paternity he shared with the equally legendary Tom Jobim. At the time, this massive reference to the great João Gilberto as the father of bossa nova called me for a more in-depth reflection on this historic moment of birth of what is still today one of the most important musical movements in this country – inside and outside of it, because bossa nova is one of the most heard rhythms worldwide.

In dictionaries, as well as, roughly speaking, in biology, a father is one who fertilizes an egg to be gestated. So far so good, I mean, more or less.

I find it very difficult that someone in this country has not heard, at least once, the whispered singing of João Gilberto, as well as the skillful mastery of Tom Jobim’s fingers caressing the piano. The media landmark of bossa nova was the composition “Chega de Saudade”, from 1958, written by the consecrated partnership between Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes and recorded first by the diva Elizeth Cardoso, and later by João Gilberto, who played the guitar in both versions. And there we have a problem. We actually have “the” problem, which is more common in Brazil than our emblematic “Garota de Ipanema” (Girl from Ipanema) would judge.

Through personal research, I discovered that almost a decade before the famous recording that would give João Gilberto the paternity of bossa nova, this acclaimed and sophisticated sonority and musical format had already emerged from the piano through the skillful fingers of Mr. Alfredo José da Silva, or Johnny Alf, a brilliant pianist, composer and performer. A historical figure that is less revered than his competence and importance demand, as we can conclude by the words of the journalist Ruy Castro for the Folha de São Paulo newspaper in 2016: “Johnny Alf, without a doubt, was a great precursor of bossa nova, in the 1950’s. It is a process that has been going on since the 1940s, at least, bossa nova was just an innovation on top of a Brazilian bossa that already existed, the conclusion of an evolutionary process. And Johnny Alf, like João Donato, was already quite evolved within this whole process, that is, he was already a bossa nova ten years before bossa nova.”

For many music critics and historians, Johnny Alf was the ‘father’ and ‘precursor’ of Brazilian Bossa Nova

Born on May 19, 1929, in Rio de Janeiro, Alfredo José da Silva lost his father, Antonio, a military fighter of the 1932 revolution, when he was just 3 years old, which forced his mother Inês Marina da Conceição to work as domestic to support him. In the house where her mother worked, he had the precious opportunity of having a good school education and still studying piano and classical music at the age of 9. His penchant for black American popular music, jazz, especially for the charming songs that adorned the sound of cinema at the time, led him to admire geniuses like Nat King Cole and Cole Porter. In 1949, he entered the artistic world through the hands of Dick Farney and, in 1952, he came to know in the musical nights of Rio de Janeiro who would become one of his illustrious pupils, Tom Jobim. About 1 year later, in 1953, he would record two songs that would mark his contribution to MPB: “Céu e mar” and “Rapaz de bem”, the latter being considered a precursor to bossa nova.

But where is the problem? It’s in this musical paternity displaced from Johnny Alf to João Gilberto. More precisely, it’s the reason for the displacement of this paternity: racism. But not naked and raw racism, one that kills a George Floyd in the daylight or lets a Miguel fall from the ninth floor of a building. I speak of racism in its camouflaged, unnoticed forms, which are therefore lethal. One of the minutiae of racism is subtle exclusion or symbolic death, as Abdias Nascimento wrote in O Genocídio do Negro Brasileiro (The genocide of the black Brazilian), the one that ends up convincing the black person himself that his relevance is null or its relevance in the most important issues is limited.

Alf was black, homosexual, of poor origin and introspective, despite being nice. In a report on the true father of bossa nova, made by Nilton Corazza, musician, journalist and editor of the digital magazine Teclas & Afins, I recovered a comment by Alf justifying his little adherence to the movement and the little repercussion of his first official work, the album “Rapaz de bem”, released in 1961, when the bossa was already formalized (and whitened): “This may have been a result of my temperament. I’ve always been away from the crowd, because I’m very suspicious of people. The problems I had in life created relationship difficulties. In a group, I was never secure.”

In a report by The New York Times (Aug./20), Nelson Valença, who was his producer for over 20 years, said: “There was a movement to promote Tom Jobim, who was rich, white, young, handsome. Maybe he was someone who could outshine Tom Jobim.”

In addition to this media promotion movement that the privileged had, there was also white fear, which manifests itself in the presence of black people who demonstrate autonomy and independent personality, as Johnny insisted on maintaining his musical freedom, experimenting and always trying to innovate and not letting himself fall into the common sense of the record labels of the time, who saw in bossa nova the opportunity to confront the American rock’n’roll that dominated the world music market.

It is clear that Johnny Alf had his talent recognized and in his career counts more than 80 compositions recorded by big names such as Chico Buarque and Roberto Menescal. But not as he should be, since it was the source where all white bossa nova musicians drank, such as Carlos Lyra, Sergio Ricardo and Vinicius de Moraes. For the one who was a master not only of the great Tom Jobim, who nicknamed him “Genialf”, but of João Gilberto himself, the part that was reserved for him in the history of MPB and, especially, of bossa nova is very small. We can safely say that if it weren’t for “Rapaz de Bem” the story of Bossa Nova might not have achieved the international respect it has achieved. Unlike the white father acclaimed by the media, João Gilberto, the death of Johnny Alf in 2010 was not so commented on and few remembered that he was the true precursor of Bossa Nova.

The plan to make this movement a landmark in the country’s musical arts, whitening samba and bringing a white, university student and happy Brazil to the world, distant from the reality of Rio’s slums, continues today. If you ask the Beyoncé or Rihanna fan club about bossa nova, you will hear from the overwhelming majority, “É coisa de branco!” (“It’s a white thing!”), even in the midst of the demand for representation.

In the Brazilian racial issue, there are gaps and invisibilities that we don’t know, but that we feel. The real paternity of bossa nova, for example, is one of them. As Racionais MC’s said in the song “Da ponte aqui”: It’s a lot of mayhem for (famed composer) Vinicius de Morais.

Source: Elle

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

1 Comment

  1. This is precisely why I don’t just keep the flames of my own American black history alive.

    I delve into the world’s black history.

    We share the world’s most similar pain.

    Nobody on Earth has the same backstory like black people globally.

    We share a heartbeat. A similar song about life.

    …And then the rest of the world takes it as their own.

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