Milton Nascimento was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1942. He was adopted by white parents, who moved to Três Pontas, a small town in the state of Minas Gerais, a place far removed from what most people associate with the country. But Brazil is a vast, similar in scale to the United States. And like the U.S., its various regions are characterized by different musical styles.
In Milton’s music, we find a rich brew of elements such as Portuguese fado, Andean music, classical, jazz, and even Gregorian chant. As a child, Milton was exposed to early influences like Nat King Cole and Ray Charles because his father worked at a radio station in Três Pontas, in the southern part of Minas. Later, he heard the soft, gentle voice of a young João Gilberto, who would forever change the sound of bossa nova. By age 15, Milton himself worked as a deejay at the station, spinning sambas, foxtrots, classical music, and jazz. Hence, the eclecticism we hear in his music.
Encyclopedia.com continues his story:
Nascimento traveled to Sao Paulo in 1965, and as an unknown bass player struggled to find work in a saturated club scene. His compositions began to gain recognition, however, and the famous Brazilian singer Elis Regina, who recorded several of his songs, secured him a performance on the national television music program, Fino da Bossa. His big break came in 1967, however, when three of his songs were showcased at the prestigious First International Pop Song Festival in Rio de Janeiro. Unknown to Nascimento, who was wary of competitions and the egoism involved, a singer-friend entered the songs for him. After his impressive showing in the song festival, he became highly sought-after by recording companies in Rio. Nascimento’s first two albums, Travessia (1967) and Milton Nascimento (1969) established him as a major new talent in Brazil, and with his 1969 A & M album Courage, he was touted to American musical audiences as the successor to bossa nova stars such as Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Take a listen to his breakthrough song “Travessia (Bridges).” from the album of the same name, cowritten with Fernando Brant. English lyrics were added by Gene Lees in 1969.
I have crossed a thousand bridges
In my search for something real
There are great suspension brigdes
Made like spider webs of steel
There are tiny wooden trestles
And there are bridges made of stone
I have always been a stranger
And I’ve always been alone
There’s a bridge to tomorrow
There’s a bridge from the past
There’s a bridge made of sorrow
That I pray will not last
There’s a bridge made of colors
In the sky high above
And I think that there must be
Bridges made out of love
“Travessia” would go on to be covered by a long list of artists from around the globe, including Sarah Vaughan.
One of my favorite music writers is poet and teacher Kalamu ya Salaam, whose former blog, Breath of Life, is still archived online. He wrote about Milton’s extraordinary 1973 album, Milagro Dos Peixes, starting with Nascimento’s own words.
This album was a cry against the violence against our lives and it was conceived at the worst point in my life. We lived under a very cruel dictatorship and many artists were forced to leave the country. I decided to stay and that was very hard to deal with. I just received a copy of some footage from two concerts we did in Sao Paulo for a live version of this album in 1974. One night I played with a symphonic orchestra and the next day I played for 50,000 students. It was magic.
The legend is that when Milton first released Milagre Dos Peixes, he stripped off most of the lyrics as a protest against government censorship. What was left was mostly pure sounds, sounds that unmistakably declared opposition to government death and oppression. Is it any wonder that Milton was regarded as Brazil’s most important artist of his era? Milton’s voice was literally Brazil’s cry. Listen again to “A Chamada,” which first appeared on Milagro Dos Peixes; listen and understand what Milton meant when he told writer Pamela Bloom in an interview published in Musician magazine that the Nascimento solution to government censorship was to “tranform my voice into an instrument. We’d write something, the censors would send it back, stamped No Way. We’d have to write the same thing in a way that the censors wouldn’t notice but the people would understand.”
The silence of slaves, the muteness of the downpressed is not consent to their conditions but rather an unuttered cry for release, for freedom. Milton’s voice expresses that. At the core of jazz is the freedom of spontaneous creation. I think it is this freedom, more than any particular musical element, that Wayne Shorter and many other jazz musicians empathize with in Nascimento’s music. If you understand the freedom principal then there is no surprise in Milton’s jazz connection.
As ya Salaam entreats us, listen to Nascimento’s “A Chamada,” and see all his voice was capable of.
Jazz audiences in the United States learned about Nascimento via his contribution to Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer—one of the jazz albums on my all-time most-played list.
As Stuart Nicholson commented for Jazzwise:
Shorter wanted to give full reign to Nascimento’s talent and it’s his voice that opens the album with ‘Ponta de Areia’, a folkloric-like melody in 9/8. On ‘Lilia’ he uses wordless vocals while on ‘Tarde’, Nascimento’s falsetto voice sounds like a continuation of Shorter’s soprano sax solo.
Here’s “Miracle of the Fishes.”
New York Times music critic Stephen Holden profiled Nascimento in 1988.
Mr. Nascimento’s position in Brazilian pop is roughly comparable to that of Stevie Wonder or Quincy Jones in the United States. An assimilator of American, European and Latin American traditions, he conveys through his songs and vocal delivery a passionate, anguished humanism in music that lushly interweaves bossa-nova rhythms, jazz-fusion instrumentation and soaring pop melody.
”I grew up with the folkloric music, the working songs and the songs once sung by slaves in my home state of Minas Gerais,” Mr. Nascimento said. ”Because it is enclosed by mountains, Minas Gerais is a land of echoes. In my hometown of Tres Tontas, it was difficult to receive popular music on the radio stations from the main cities in Brazil. We used to huddle around the radio, listening to the tunes and trying to remember them. One person would copy the lyrics of a song and another the music. The parts we couldn’t remember we would invent. When I went to Sao Paulo years later, people said I was starting a new sound.”
Mr. Nascimento recently completed and recorded ”Missa dos Quilombos,” a large-scale oratorio that traces the story of black Brazilians from slavery to the present. The work, which involves a large chorus and orchestra, an augmented percussion ensemble and dancers, is one hour 45 minutes long. And beginning next year, Mr. Nascimento hopes to begin performing it around the world.”It was a difficult job to complete, because the documents related to slavery in Brazil had been burned” by Government officials, he said, ”to eliminate the black spot on Brazil’s history.” ”To gather the information,” he added, ”I had to travel all over the country interviewing people.”
Here’s 52 minutes of “Missa dos Quilombos.”
In 2014, Nascimento underwent a heart procedure related to his diabetes. Weakened and appearing frail, he continued to perform. The União Brasileira de Compositores (Brazilian Union of Composers) declared the year 2019 to be “the year of Milton Nascimento,” as shown in this short documentary.
Though the film has no English subtitles available, I think you’ll “get it” as you watch Brazilian musicians pay tribute to Nascimento’s legacy.
Over the decades of his long career, Nascimento has been nominated for four GRAMMY awards, winning for Best World Music Album in 1997. I hope you’ll explore his full discography, since I can’t possibly post as many songs as I’d like here.
Before I close, I’d like to alert you about another rising Afro-Brazilian artist from Nascimento’s hometown of Minas Gerais, profiled in 2020 by Beatriz Miranda at Okay Africa.
Sérgio Pererê is like an alchemist that transmutes the sounds of nature into something never heard before. Combining unique percussive arrangements (which includes instruments like djembé and mbira) with a majestic vocal timbre, the music of Pererê has a sort of sacred aura that is hard to explain in words. With progressive rock and blues being his early influences, the singer, composer, and multi-percussionist from Minas Gerais experiments with a myriad of Afro-Brazilian and African musicalities to tell stories about life, memory, affection, and the African ancestry. Despite the pandemic, Pererê has planned to release five new albums in 2020. Two of them, Maurício Tizumba and Sérgio Pererê Ao Vivo and Revivências, are already available on streaming platforms.
Below, Sérgio Pererê sings to the hunter Oxossi, an Afro-Brazilian Candomblé orixá.
I have lots more music to share, so I hope you will join me in the comments; please post some of your favorite sounds from Afro-Brazil!