Note from BBT: An article about one of Brazil’s most important musicians, Pixinguinha, has been a long time coming, just like a recently released film about the legendary composer and multi-instrumentalist. Ever since I learned about the man who was born Alfredo da Rocha Viana Filho, I have believed that his genius should be as well known as Jazz giants such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Besides being their equals in terms of musical innovations, Pixinguinha probably has several things in common with the aforementioned giants of American music.
In terms of birth years, the three musicians are separated by four years, with Pixinguinha being born in 1897, Satchmo in 1899 and Sir Duke in 1901. All three men died in the 1970s, 1973, 1971 and 1974, respectively. In fact, both Pixinguinha and Ellington were born in April. Both Armstrong and Pixinguinha were born in the birthplaces of the two countries’ signature rhythms, Jazz and Samba. Both Pixinguinha and Ellington were born in the capital cities of their countries at the time, Rio de Janeiro and Washington DC. Of course, by 1960, Brasília would become Brazil’s capital city.
I don’t know if Pixinguinha ever came to meet Ellington, but there are several photos of him taken with Armstrong. I’m not the only one who has thought of the parallels between these master musicians and in 1999, musicians Paulo Moura & Cliff Korman released a CD entitled Mood Ingenuo: Pixinguinha Meets Duke Ellington. I could go on with the comparisons, but while the world is familiar with both Armstrong and Ellington due to their association with a global power such as the United States, I would say only a small fraction of music lovers outside of Brazil have ever heard of Pixinguinha.
If you’ve never heard of the man that has been called the ‘Father of Brazilian Popular Music’, you’re in luck. Let the piece below act as an introduction to a true musical genius.
Pixinguinha, one of the Batutas (batons) of modern art
By Tania Regina Pinto
The first conductor hired by a recording company in the country, he created arrangements for the main hits of the so-called golden era of MPB, from carnival marches to choros. He mastered all rhythms.
Pixinguinha was the first maestro-arranger hired by a recording company in Brazil, RCA Victor. It was the 1930s and Pixinguinha created arrangements for the main hits of the so-called golden era of Brazilian Popular Music, or MPB, celebrated in the voice of singers like Francisco Alves and Mário Reis. He orchestrated carnival marches. He directly contributed to the choro finding a definitive musical form.
An exceptional arranger, composer and instrumentalist, he mastered African rhythms, European styles and black American music. And he is considered, even today, one of the most fertile composers of our music. He is the author of about two thousand songs, such as ”Carinhoso”, from 1916-1917, his best-known work.
He was born in the rhythm
Pixinguinha was born Alfredo da Rocha Viana Filho, on April 23, 1897, in the district of Piedade, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. From a large family and a music lover, he would soon get to know several instruments. At the age of 11, he was already playing the cavaquinho with his relatives and, later, he also excelled on the flute and saxophone. It’s as a flutist, one of the best in Brazilian music, that he is recognized until today.
The nickname Pixinguinha was already spelled in his first composition, registered in 1914. This was how he was called since he was a child, a derivation of the word pizindin, originally from the language of his African grandmother. The nickname could mean “good boy”, but the best known interpretation, according to Nei Lopes, means “glutton”.
Very early on he started working with his brothers in nightclubs in Rio de Janeiro. He started his career as a flautist and ended it as a saxophonist. It is said that he had problems with the mouthpiece of his flute.
Despite numerous setbacks, Pixinguinha moved on and became one of the most inventive and important composers of MPB. Pixinguinha’s importance for chorinho is the same as Tom Jobim’s for bossa nova, i.e., he systematized the rhythm and gave it new contours, very advanced for the time. He took part in several groups and marked an era with Os Oito Batutas, of which his friend Donga was also a member.
A student of the traditional Colégio São Bento, he used to run away, according to Sérgio Cabral, to play in what would be his first job, the beer house La Concha. Later, his music invaded casinos, cabarets, and bars, quickly making him very well known in the nights of Lapa, a stronghold of Rio bohemia.
On the big screen
In 1919, the manager of the Palais Cinema, Isaac Frankel, hired Pixinguinha and his group Oito Batutas to play in the movie theater’s waiting room. The band fell in the public’s taste, despite some restrictions from the press, which made racist criticisms. The repertoire was composed in the genres of modinhas, choros, regional songs, desafios sertanejos, maxixes, lundus, corta-jacas, batuques and cateretês.
With their success, the group traveled around Brazil until 1921. Back in Rio, they played at the Cabaré Assírio, in the basement of the Teatro Municipal. There, they met the millionaire Arnaldo Guinle, who sponsored the Oito Batutas’ European tour. The tour, which was supposed to last one month, ended up lasting six months, and the group returned very influenced by jazz.
In the decades following the Abolition of Slavery and since the beginning of the 20th century, black Brazilians faced immense difficulties in all fields of life, including music. They were labeled as “rascals”, “bums”, among other insults. The title of this article in honor of Pixinguinha for all his work came from two events.
First, from a comment made by Vermelho reader Beatriz Helena Souza about an article I wrote with the title Against prejudice, knowledge. She said: “I find it impressive that even today being black is so complicated in this country”. And she added that “we are still looked at as other and not as a part”.
The other fact that led to the title is directly connected with something that happened to the musician himself in the 1920s, as told by flutist Altamiro Carrilho in the book Os sorriso do choro (The smile of choro). Pixinguinha told him the story of the song ”Lamento”: In 1928 Os Oito Batutas were a huge success in France and, for this reason, they were honored in an important hotel in Rio de Janeiro upon their return. But they were forced, by the racism in force, to enter through the back door, since blacks were not allowed to enter through the main door.
Pixinguinha’s reaction was to repeat the word “lament” a few times, and Donga, his group mate, suggested he compose a song with this title, to which, thirty years later, Vinicius de Moraes composed the lyrics.
Several songs by the musician from Rio de Janeiro would receive lyrics later, such as ”Carinhoso” (lyrics by Braguinha) and ”Isso que é viver” (lyrics by Hermínio Belo de Carvalho). He also performed in movie theaters, with the orchestras that played during the projection of silent movies, and in theater plays.
Pixinguinha’s songs pour out their Brazilianness and reach the core of the Brazilian soul, affirming his blackness. Songs like ”A vida é um buraco”, ”Benguelê”, ”Cafezal em flor” (co-written with Eugênio Fonseca), ”Conversa de crioulo”, ”Festa de branco” (with Baiano), ”Patrão prenda seu gado” (with Donga and João da Baiana), ”Vou vivendo”, ”Fala baixinho”, ”No elevador, Rosa” (with Otávio de Souza), among countless others that are part of the history of our popular song.
The strength of Pixinguinha’s music resists time and marks Brazilian life. Just sing ”Carinhoso” or ”Lamento”.
A City Hall employee since 1930, in 1951 he became professor of music and choral singing, appointed by then mayor João Carlos Vital. Until he retired, he was a teacher in several schools, besides being the conductor of the Companhia Negra de Revista, where he met the girl who would become his companion for life.
Pixinguinha took part in the celebration of the Centennial of Independence in 1922 and of the Fourth Centennial of São Paulo, in 1954. His musical genius was recognized in his lifetime – the street where he lived in Ramos, Rio de Janeiro, was named after him and, at Juscelino Kubitschek’s invitation, he had lunch with Louis Armstrong.
Pixinguinha and Louis Armstrong
On February 17, 1973, Pixinguinha had his second heart attack, during a baptism for which he was godfather. In spite of being rushed to the hospital, he died at the age of 74. As a tribute to his genius, his birthday became the National Day of Choro.
Source: Primeiros Negros