Let’s mix things up a little bit today. Here’s an excerpt from an essay I wrote about how music in Brazil has mirrored the historical and cultural changes which it has experienced in the modern era. In this excerpt, I highlight the influence of the talented vocalist and musician Milton Nascimento.
Milton Nascimento is universally hailed as one of the most gifted vocalists not only of Brazil but also of his generation. He is from a small town in Minas Gerais, a large Brazilian state just off the southwest coast. Milton’s music is eclectic, ranging from jazz to folk to many genres which are difficult to classify. Milton’s songs are a collaborative effort as he worked with many talented musicians and lyricists over the years who would help him define his music. Perhaps his passion, above all else, was to create a lyrical bank of music which epitomizes life in Minas Gerais and by extension Brazil itself. Charles Perrone says of Milton that he “… crafts melodies that harbor the soul of Minas Gerais, the spirit of Brazil, and fundamental human passions” (“Milton” 162). One of the most common themes in his work about Minas Gerais is the theme of arriving and departing with the railroad being a common thread that weaves the theme together (Perrone, “Milton” 138). When thinking of this theme, it is natural, I assume, to think about home – a place you often want to be, but a place you often find yourself away from. It is this nostalgic, folksy look at his homeland which gives his music its authenticity and potency. His music was often referred to as “oxcart music” (Perrone, “Milton” 140) which gives one the impression that you are going back in time to a place like childhood, where life moved at a slower pace and where the simple pleasures and hardships of life seemed to come together in a heart-wrenching crescendo which overwhelmed you with regret, loss, peace and love.
In his song “Tres Pontas”, which is the name of a city in Minas Gerais, Milton starts the song with flute and acoustic guitar, and then adds a conga beat with chant like vocals coming in like they were paying homage to something – or meditating on Minas Gerais itself. Milton’s voice then comes in clear and strong but the chant-like background continues. Not content to ride one style the whole way, Milton turns the middle of the song into a sentimental crescendo of strings and stirring vocals whose slow pace perhaps echoes the cadences of Tres Pontas city-life. Likewise, in his song “Itamarandiba”, the name of another Minas Gerais municipality, Milton sings in the style of a solemn love song with piano, guitar, and strings comfortably blended together in a song paying homage to his beloved homeland.
Milton’s music is not only nostalgic views of Minas Gerais; it also tells us a great deal about Brazil. Milton’s band called the Corner Club replicates the communal nature of traditional Brazilian society. The naming of his band the Corner Club references a street corner where society meets for social and recreational purposes (Perrone, “Milton” 133), almost like a social club where locals get together to ‘chew over’ the latest gossip or political scandal. And that is how Milton made music – in collaboration with a social group of peers. Perrone says he adopted a “communal approach to composition and recording and touches upon essential needs and concerns” (“Milton” 157).
This communal approach shows off the diverse and eclectic styles which typify his musical expression while at the same time showing off the diversity of Brazilian life. The following three songs illustrate why Milton is so difficult to pigeonhole and often times defies description. “Simples” starts with a jazzy prelude of keys, strings, and a powerful horn section. Then Milton’s vocals emerge in a very operatic, powerful manner followed by strings which add a theatrical flair to the whole piece. Another song of Milton’s that confounds comparison and description is “Saidas and Banderais”. It has an unexpected start with the sound of a piercing stringed instrument being plucked in a style surprisingly reminiscent of Asian folk music. His vocals are powerful with a perfectly pitched controlled falsetto which one would have difficulty finding an equal. Lastly, “Grand Circus” (“Gran Circo”) starts with a powerful, dramatic horn section peppered with flute. It brings to mind someone making a grand entrance with all the pomp and pageantry of a king or queen. It reminds me of an early 1970s progressive style with its theatrical flair. The song builds to a crescendo of flute versus trumpet with prolific drumming underneath. The flurry of action quickly dissipates as the song ends in a mellow jaunt of solemn piano.
Milton Nascimento displays an impressive array of musical prowess which puts Brazil and especially his home state of Minas Gerais on display. He has created a strong cultural expression which celebrates the pride of Brazil in much the same way as the samba is danced and celebrated on the streets of Carnival. It is this complex mixture of rural life versus urban life and of upper class society versus lower class black majority that typifies the unique cultural identity of Brazil. Brazilian music of the twentieth century has continually displayed this tension in creative and influential ways which have made the world take notice. Brazilians will no doubt continue to express their protests, political ideals, and cultural identity through their music.
(Complete list of Works Cited available upon request.)