Native Brazilian Music: 80th anniversary

The history behind one of Brazilian music's most iconic albums

Capa do disco "Native Brazilian Music" (1942) by Columbia RecordsMuseum Villa-Lobos

Uncle Sam wants to hear our beats...

The album 'Native Brazilian Music' was recorded in the early hours of a day in 1940 aboard the deck of the S. S. Uruguay, while the ship was harboured in the port of Rio de Janeiro. The idea behind the initiative to record the 'legitimate' Brazilian popular music came from Leopold Stokowski, one of the most famous conductors in the western world at the time, during a tour he did with the All-American Youth Orchestra throughout South America. But to fully grasp the context of the album's recording, we need to go back to the previous decade.

Heitor Villa-Lobos e Walt Disney (de costas) (1941-08)Museum Villa-Lobos

It happened during the time of the 'Good Neighbour Policy' (1933-1945), which intended to replace old continental disagreements for a new diplomacy based on cultural, scientific and economic exchanges.

Heitor Villa-Lobos, Bidu Sayão (à direita) e não identificados (1945) by Não identificadoMuseum Villa-Lobos

On the musical side, during the 1930's and 1940's, the comings and goings of Brazilian and North-American musicians were incessant. It was by that time that lyrical soprano Bidu Sayão's (right) career took off in New York...

Aaron Copland, Heitor Villa-Lobos e Oscar Correia (1945) by Não identificadoMuseum Villa-Lobos

... and composers Aaron Copland (left) and Heitor Villa-Lobos (center) met each other for the first time in Brazil (1941), and later in New York (1945).

Heitor Villa-Lobos e Leopold Stokowski (1945-02-13)Museum Villa-Lobos

It was this policy that enabled the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos to reencounter the British conductor Leopold Stokowski, then living in the USA.

By Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

Stokowski was known in the music world for his free hand style for conducting orchestras, that is, without the use of a baton...

Walt Disney Studios (1938-11) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

... and, in cinema, for conducting the soundtrack to the animated film 'Fantasia' (1940) by Walt Disney Studios.

Carta de Leopold Stokowski para Heitor Villa-Lobos (1940-07-03) by Leopold StokowskiMuseum Villa-Lobos

On July 3rd, Stokowski wrote to his old friend showing interest in recording some authentic Brazilian music...

... "derived from old indigenous roots and spanish (sic) origins, as well as the typical popular music of today".

Carta de Leopold Stokowski para Heitor Villa-Lobos (1940-07-16) by Heitor Villa-LobosMuseum Villa-Lobos

On the 16th, Villa-Lobos responded in french, keen on helping him.

Villa-Lobos, who was, at the time, head of a municipal agency for public policies regarding musical education in Rio de Janeiro, selected popular musicians from the city to record the album.

Carta de Donga para Heitor Villa-Lobos (1940-07-29) by Donga (Ernesto dos Santos)Museum Villa-Lobos

His main ally in selecting musicians and producing the event was the composer Ernesto dos Santos, the famous Donga (1890-1974).

In this letter, he brings forward the project's costs along the musical genres that should be featured.

Villa-Lobos com máscaras e instrumentos do bloco Sodade do Cordão (1940) by Não identificadoMuseum Villa-Lobos

Batuques and batucadas

The story behind the album fuses itself with that of the carnival block 'Sodade do Cordão', one of many initiatives created in the scope of Villa-Lobos's musical education program in Rio. The group - a reimagining of the carnival groups from the beginning of the 20th century - paraded through the city streets several months before Stokowski's arrival. The assembling of the 'Sodade do Cordão' was part of a large effort by the Brazilian State in its invention of a national past.

Anita Otero (1940) by Não identificadoMuseum Villa-Lobos

Several art forms – such as music, visual arts and dance – were used to recreate the Carnaval groups of old times, which had been prohibited by the police from parading throughout the streets during the first decades of the 20th century.

Dois homens dançam em ensaio do bloco carnavalesco Sodade do Cordão (1940) by Não IdentificadoMuseum Villa-Lobos

Different elements of Brazilian culture were chosen as icons, capable of representing and stimulating the feeling of belonging, something fundamental to the idea of nation as a construct.

Máscaras (1940) by Maria Margarida SoutelloMuseum Villa-Lobos

The sketches for the banners and masks were made by Dimitri Ismailovich and Maria Margarida Sotello. Costumes were designed by Di Cavalcanti and ballet dancer Anita Otero featured as the flag-bearer.

Ensaio do bloco Sodade do Cordão (1940) by Não identificadoMuseum Villa-Lobos

Many of composers and musicians that were recorded on the deck of the S. S. Uruguay - Donga and Zé Espinguela (crouched, left) - also took part in organising the 'Sodade do Cordão'.

Heitor Villa-Lobos, Arminda e equipe da SEMA (c. 1935 - c. 1940) by Não identificadoMuseum Villa-Lobos

Among them, members of the "Orfeão de Professores do Distrito Federal", a choir made up of students and teachers tied to the musical education program developed by the Rio de Janeiro City Hall.

"Lá vem a Boa Vizinhança" (2020-05-02) by Thomaz AmbrósioMuseum Villa-Lobos

Aboard the same ship which, only a year before, had taken Carmen Miranda and "O Bando da Lua" to the USA, Stokowski disembarked in Rio at 18h30 on August 7th.

Leopold Stokowski é destaque do jornal carioca "A Noite" (1940-08-06) by Jornal "A Noite" (Rio de Janeiro)Museum Villa-Lobos

He came along with 109 North-American musicians, each between 16 to 25 years old, who were part of the All-American Youth Orchestra, as well as NBC and RCA technicians. They were on tour throughout several Latin American countries.

"Música do morro para Stokowski ouvir" (1940-08-08) by Jornal "Diário da Noite"Museum Villa-Lobos

It is not exactly known how many tracks were recorded: some newspapers report more than 40; others, more than one hundred. Speaking to Time Magazine, Stokowski said more than 300 tracks were recorded.

"Música do morro para Stokowski ouvir" (foto) (1940-08-08) by Jornal "Diário da Noite"Museum Villa-Lobos

The harbour was crowded with simple folk, such as women dressed as 'baianas', in their colorful and exuberant skirts, which contrasted with the exquisite and aseptic environment of the ship.

Região portuária do Rio de Janeiro (c. 1930 - c. 1940) by Instituto de Expansão Comercial - Acervo Biblioteca NacionalMuseum Villa-Lobos

"Cuícas and tamborines for Stokowski to listen!"

The ship, docked at Praça Mauá (picture), was filled with dozens of musicians: Pixinguinha, Donga, Zé Espinguela, the duo Jararaca and Ratinho, Luiz Americano, Augusto Calheiros, Zé da Zilda, Mauro Cesar, João da Baiana, Janyr Martins (the only female soloist), Aluísio Dias, Neuma Gonçalves Silva, Paulo da Portela, Donga's regional music group, a male quartet from the "Orfeão de professores", members of 'Estação Primeira de Mangueira', composer David Nasser and others. Some wore carnival costumes, since part of the press reported there would be filming. The crew and passengers, musicians of the All American Youth Orchestra and members of the press were invited to watch the performances.

Pixinguinha (c. 1963 - c. 1973) by Não identificadoMuseum Villa-Lobos

Zé Barbino (Pixinguinha/Jararaca)

Those who lived back then might not have known, but there in Praça Mauá, some of Brazilian music's greatest were reunited. The track "Zé Barbino" features a rare recording of the genius composer Pixinguinha singing.

Os Oito Batutas (1919/1922) by Não identificadoMuseum Villa-Lobos

Pelo Telefone (Donga/Mauro de Almeida)

Donga (third form right to left), composer and one of the great names in samba, sang his most famous song, "Pelo telefone", from 1916 - accompanied by Pixinguinha on the flute.

Cartola (ilustração) (2020-05-06) by Thomaz AmbrosioMuseum Villa-Lobos

Quem me vê sorrir (Cartola/Carlos Cachaça)

Cartola, 31 at the time, recorded – the first recording of his voice! - "Quem me vê sorrir", by Carlos Cachaça, who didn't show up to record the song because of his day job at the 'Central do Brasil' train station.

Detalhe do álbum "Native Brazilian Music" (1942) by Columbia RecordsMuseum Villa-Lobos

Sapo no saco (Jararaca)

The duo Jararaca and Ratinho - famous composers, singers and comedians - sang challenging 'emboladas' (a popular form of artistic expression from the Brazilian Northeast) like "Bambo no bambu" and "Sapo no saco".

Detalhe do disco "Native Brazilian Music" (1942) by Columbia RecordsMuseum Villa-Lobos

Macumba de Iansã (Donga/Zé Espinguela)

Artistic expressions included 'macumba', 'embolada', 'candomblé', 'maracatu', 'desafio' and 'toada'.

Orfeão de Professores do Distrito Federal (RJ) (c. 1932 - c. 1936) by Não identificadoMuseum Villa-Lobos

Teiru; Nozani-Ná (canto indígena/amb. Heitor Villa-Lobos)

A male quartet from the "Orfeão de professores" (pictured) sang songs from amerindian tribes, which were stylised by Villa-Lobos. That night, the North-American S.S. Uruguay was a synthesis of Brazilian music.

"Lá vem a Boa Vizinhança" (capa) (2020-05-02) by Thomaz AmbrosioMuseum Villa-Lobos

Suspicious Narcissus

In an interview with Time Magazine, Stokowski insinuated that 150 completely naked Brazilian Indians came in buses for the recording. Even though it was an absurdly fanciful remark, the news piece generated a heated debate about the image the country was conveying to the outside world. The 'Native Brazilian Music' incident became one of the biggest cultural controversies of the year. It took place at the pinnacle of the Estado Novo (1937-1945), Getúlio Vargas's dictatorial and autocratic regime which, since 1930, established nationalism as a State policy. Throughout debates surrounding the role of popular music in the construction of a national identity, samba was selected as the nation's most representative musical genre. But there were opposing views to this: among the critics there were those who thought that Brazil should boast its European side, "white" and so-called "civilized".

Carta de Michael Myerberg para Heitor Villa-Lobos (1941-01-21) by Michael MyerbergMuseum Villa-Lobos

Two months after the recordings on the S. S. Uruguay, Villa-Lobos negotiated with Stokowski's manager the possibility of a tour through the USA with the musicians which had participated in the making of Native Brazilian Music. The negotiations didn't thrive, however.

The payment requested by Villa-Lobos - which in today's figures would equal US$ 40,000 a week - was rejected. That which could have been an epic trip, with Donga, Cartola and Pixinguinha playing throughout the USA never happened.

Capa do disco "Native Brazilian Music" (1942) by Columbia RecordsMuseum Villa-Lobos

In 1942, Columbia Records released an album containing a small part of the recordings made aboard the Uruguay. Of all the recordings made, only 17 were featured on two albums - each containing four 78 rpm records.

According to researcher Daniella Thompson, some of the musicians featured died without ever having listened to the recordings. Cartola received only 1,500 réis, enough to buy just three packs of cheap cigarettes.

In an interview with Ségio Cabral in 1974, Cartola said he had finally listened to 'Quem me vê sorrir' "(...) some twenty years later".

"Lá vem a Boa Vizinhança" (2020-05-02) by Thomaz AmbrósioMuseum Villa-Lobos

Despite its unquestionable importance, 'Native' remained unknown by the majority of Brazilians. In 1987, it was re-released in the form of an LP by Museu Villa-Lobos, on the occasion of the composer's 100th birthday.

Eighty years later, we still have no knowledge of the original phonograms. Could they be lost, or, perhaps, kept in a forgotten shelf in the USA?

Credits: Story

Realização: Equipe técnica do Museu Villa-Lobos
Álea Almeida
Juliana Amado
Márcia Ladeira
Pedro Belchior

Márcia Ladeira
Pedro Belchior

Thomaz Ambrosio

Versão em inglês:
Eduardo Seabra

Acervos consultados:
Museu Villa-Lobos
Hemeroteca Digital - Biblioteca Nacional
The New York Times
O Globo

Fotografia da Praça Mauá na década de 1940:
Acervo Biblioteca Nacional

Referências bibliográficas:
Daniella Thompson, "Caçando Stokowski.

Versão em português (tradução de Alexandre Dias):
English version:

Márcia Ladeira Monteiro, "Música e canto orfeônico no projeto educacional brasileiro: institucionalização e difusão (1930-1946)"

Pedro Belchior, "Cuícas e pandeiros para Stokowski ouvir!":

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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