Printer Friendly

Playing the heartstrings.

"I must warn you about one thing," the voice on the telephone cautioned while extending an invitation to drop by for a visit: "I'm not living in a grand style these days. My former wives got most of my money and my homes in Rio! And please, let me give the directions to your cab driver or you'll never find me!"

So began my quest to meet the musical genius whose haunting melodies and remarkable abilities as a guitarist have left an indelible imprint on the soul of modern Brazilian music. With the astonished cab driver still trying to make sense of the complicated directions Luiz Bonfa had given us, we inched through Rio de Janeiro's chaotic midday traffic and headed south along the coastal highway to the beach-side community of Barra de Tijuca where the famed composer lives in self-imposed seclusion on a steep hill overlooking the sea. At the end of a rutted dirt street, Bonfa's home closely resembles the musical refuge detailed on his long-forgotten album from the mid-1970s called Sanctuary. "Away and apart," the recording's liner notes described, "a relief from the usual, the ordinary."

Today, at the age of 71 with his 50th album winning rave reviews around the world, the man who has created some of the most listened to popular music of the twentieth century lives a life of relaxed introspection surrounded by the natural beauty of the Brazilian countryside, the mementos from a career that has spanned over five decades, and secret passions like the rusting collection of vintage automobiles that overflows from his garage. Best known for the award-winning theme music he penned for the 1959 film Black Orpheus, the story of Bonfa's life contains the romantic flair and sense of serendipity he has woven into the dozens of hit songs he's authored since the late 1940s.

A Carioca, born in Rio in 1922, young Luiz began study of the guitar with his father before graduating to formal lessons at the age of eleven with the noted Uruguayan master Isaias Savio. The budding guitarist had just reached the age of thirteen when Savio moved to Sao Paulo. "I was a little lost when he left," Bonfa confides today. "Everyone is lost when they lose a good teacher." Recognized as one of Latin America's most influential classical guitarists of his day, Savio had helped Bonfa build a solid foundation of classical techniques, but the fledgling artist soon discovered another musical mistress with more appeal. "Years later, I met him in Sao Paulo," Bonfa recalls. "I told him of my dilemma: my father loved classical music but I liked popular music. I told Savio that I wanted to create something in the popular style. He was encouraging, telling me, 'Why not? Do it!'"

What soon followed was a time of prolific writing and performing with one of the most popular groups of the day, the Quitandinha Serenaders. It was in the post World War II era in Brazil, before television began to dictate popular styles, that Bonfa established himself in Rio's nightclub circuit and through live performances on the nation's powerful radio networks. Even in a country noted for its superb guitarists, the public and critics alike soon recognized that Bonfa's talent was something extraordinary. His marriage of the technical perfection demanded in the classical world and dramatic, wholly personal innovations resulted in a stylistic hybrid that would become an essential model for succeeding generations of guitarists.

Following the lead of classical composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, Bonfa explored the realm of folk and native rhythms, further expanding the interest of Brazil's cosmopolitan city dwellers in the rich musical traditions of their country's hinterland. But more importantly, he vastly expanded the personality of the guitar itself, perfecting a new repertoire of effects that mesmerized even the most jaded observers.

"The tambourines and tamtams actually are achieved by Bonfa simultaneously with the sounds of the guitar strings," marveled critic Estephania d'Almeida in the notes to the guitarist's first United States release, the mid 1950s Brazilian Guitar. "Again, only the guitar is employed on this delicate una voce solo," she wrote, "the drums are by Bonfa. Only he can explain how these astounding effects are achieved."

By 1957, his reputation firmly established in his native land, Bonfa ventured to the musical capital of the world, New York. There, after a period of sporadic engagements in local clubs, he experienced what he today says was the most important day of his life. Having been heard by the president of the Cartier jewelry firm, Bonfa was invited to perform at a private party. "There were about fifty celebrities there," he recollects, "and after I played, one of them came over, put her arm around me and said, 'Luiz, I'd like to talk to you.'" The new fan turned out to be the well-known singer and actress Mary Martin. For two years Bonfa toured the world with Martin, being spotlighted in every concert and attracting growing international recognition.

By the time the opportunity came along to write music for a French-Brazilian film co-production that would transport the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to the setting of Rio's favelas during the explosion of passion and energy known as carnaval, Bonfa had achieved the status of a major artist. Aided by his matinee-idol good looks and disarming personality, the guitarist had emerged as the most important figure in Brazilian music in the transitional 1950s, bridging the chic of Carmen Miranda's stylized samba of the preceding decade to the soon-to-evolve jazzy sophistication of the bossa nova.

A pivotal moment for both Bonfa and modern Brazilian music was the release of Black Orpheus. The motion picture would go on to win the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival while its soundtrack--with original music by both Bonfa and countryman Antonio Carlos Jobim--served notice to the world-at-large of the dawning of a new era of Brazilian song. Ironically, the movie's trademark theme, the magnificent "Manha de Carnaval," came close to never being heard. It was initially rejected by the film's producer, who ordered Bonfa to write an alternate piece. It was only through the composer's persistence that his original work survived and went on to become one of the most recognizable popular songs of its day. Bonfa notes with justifiable pride that for many years the tune ranked as the second most performed song in the world, yielding only to The Beatles' "Yesterday" in the popularity sweepstakes.

Black Orpheus led to other opportunities to score film soundtracks, tallying ten movie projects in Italy, France, Brazil and the United States and yet another of Bonfa's most requested songs, the wistful "Gentle Rain," a frequently recorded jazz standard. During the peak of his popularity in the United States, the guitarist recorded with bossa nova popularizer Stan Getz, the legendary jazz saxophonist; appeared regularly on network television programs like The Tonight Show; and wrote dozens of new songs, one of which, "Almost In Love," was recorded by none other than the legendary Elvis Presley.

A complex man whose many interests include photography (he once won third prize in a nationwide photo contest that drew thousands of entries), Bonfa captures a lifetime of memories in his latest recording, The Bonfa Magic, his first album recorded in Brazil in thirty years. This landmark project involved Bonfa's talented guitarist nephew Tavio and an array of Brazil's most talented young instrumentalists, including bassist Nilson Matta, keyboardist Jota Moraes and drummer Pascoal Meirelles.

At home in his hillside retreat Bonfa putters with his beloved old cars, picks fresh cambuca and jambo fruit in his garden and surveys the project of a lifetime--the comfortable, two story house that he has fashioned out of materials collected from building demolition sites around the greater Rio area. Surveying all he has accomplished, it is difficult to take seriously his claim that the biggest problem in his life is "being lazy."

After listening to an impromptu concert that reaffirms the singular quality of Bonfa's touch and tone, it is much easier to agree with his humble assessment of his talent. "You have to play your heart," Bonfa says quietly. "And--I don't want to say this to give the impression that I'm great, because I'm not--but I believe in something superior. Sometimes a melody comes to me that I've never though of. Yes, I did it, but I have to say 'Thank you.' It's something that you cannot explain."

Mark Holston, a lifetime musician, writes about jazz and Latin music for a variety of publications.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Organization of American States
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Music; Brazilian composer Luiz Bonfa
Author:Holston, Mark
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Staying on course with law.
Next Article:Magic Eyes: Scenes from an Andean Girlhood.

Related Articles
Saying good-bye to Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Luciana Souza: serving the song. (Music).
New tracks for old maestros. (Music Notes).
Sao Paulo's counterculture. (Ojo!).
Noteworthy guardian of Brazil's music.
Liduino Pitombeira named MTNA-Shepherd Distinguished Composer of the Year.
Meet the 2003 MTNA-Shepherd: Distinguished Composer of the Year.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters