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Nara Leao, Brazil's poetess of modern song.

"When I was an adolescent, I lived next to the cinema Metro Copacabana," the singer recalled in the liner notes of her 1987 album My Golden Dreams. "One day, after seeing Singing in the Rain for the eighth time, it was raining when I left the theatre. I left singing and dancing in the rain. I was wet from my head to my feet, but happy with life."

It was that ability to find joy in the commonplace and translate it into song that earned Nara Leao a secure place in her country's rich popular music culture. By the time complications from a brain tumor claimed her life at the age of 47 in 1989, Nara had survived the sway of public taste and the evolution of several distinct schools of popular music in Brazil. Through it all, she remained an artist above the fray, beyond the beckon of overt commercialism, winning her audience through style and substance.

Nara was just a little girl when her family moved to Rio from Vitoria in the state of Espirito Santo. By the age of 11, guitar already in hand, she embarked on the path that led to 23 albums and international acclaim. An early friend, soon-to-be-famous composer Roberto Menescal, taught her guitar and remained a guiding force throughout her career. Fittingly, two remarkable mid-80s recordings--among the best of the singer's career--reunited the two, featuring Menescal both in his customary producer's role and as a guest guitarist.

Her appellation "Muse of the Bossa Nova," reveals Nara's singular importance in modern Brazilian music. While a teenager in the late 1950s, her parents' apartment was a frequent meeting place for Menescal and other young musicians like guitarist Baden Powell and singer Joao Gilberto, who were casually developing a new musical style. Taking cues from the improvisational quality of North American jazz and stripping the traditional samba to its rhythmic bare bones, this small cadre of young musicians and poets produced a style that set off a national rage and gained instant international currency.

While other established singers quickly co-opted the new style, it was Nara who was the legitimate child of the movement. Just as singer-guitarist Joao Gilberto set the new sound's stylistic parameters for male vocalists, Nara became the most important reference point for female singers. "She was the essence of the Bossa Nova," says Lee Jeske, jazz critic of the New York Post and Cashbox, a music industry trade publication. "Almost a female Joao--it's amazing she never became more well-known in the U.S."

"She had a very pretty voice," echoes Terri Hinte, a Berkeley, California record producer and authority on Brazilian music. "But under the prettiness, there was a very real strength," Hinte adds, noting the multi-dimensional quality of Nara's voice. Like an exotic tropical fruit, initially sweet to the taste, but ultimately yielding a parade of subtle sensations, Nara conveyed a complex variety of emotions. "She was one of the rare Brazilian singers who didn't become ground up by the machinations of the business," wrote the Sao Paulo-based news magazine Veja at the time of her death. "Nara was beyond fashion because her singing was instantly personal."

When the child of the Bossa Nova grew up, she ventured confidently into other emerging styles. As Brazilian critic Luis Anonio Giron points out, "Curiously, she participated in the only two movements that ruptured the national song tradition--Bossa Nova and Tropicalismo." The latter came into vogue in the late 1960s, and sought to redefine Brazilian music through the introduction of both elements of foreign rock and obscure native traditions, principally from Afro-Brazilian northeastern states like Bahia.

Nara was one of the "Tropicalistas" who went into voluntary exile in Europe in the late 1960s to protest the harsh measures imposed on artists and others by the military regime of that time. In 1971 Nara returned from exile in Paris to resume her career in Brazil. Embarking on a broad survey of contemporary Brazilian sounds, she interpreted the work of composers as varied as Ary Barroso and jazz pianist Joao Donato. Chico Buarque, the songwriter highly regarded for his proving, double-edged lyrics, was a primary collaborator (his song, "A Banda" had been her first big hit in 1966).

Admittedly outside the main current of popular music in recent years, "her smooth singing," as one critic put it, continued to "rescue the listener from the hell of the contemporary world." It was that pacific, tonal quality that insures Nara Leao will be an important touchstone of modern Brazilian popular music for decades to come.
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Author:Holston, Mark
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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