In September 2018, Milton Nascimento released A Festa (Universal Music). "One of the great ambitions of my life has always been to launch a project where my songs are re-interpreted with more of an acoustic emphasis. The moment has finally arrived.”
The vocals deployed on this EP are unfailingly soft at the same time as giving off a natural robustness–eternally marked, of course, by his Minas Gerais (Southeastern Brazilian) accent. Here, the septuagenarian singer sounds all the more poignant thanks to the accompaniment of Wilson Lopes, his faithful guitarist since 1993 and the current musical director of his arrangements. In addition to the previously unreleased “A Festa,” stripped back versions of these five standards testify to the Brazilian’s melodic genius and poetic power: “O Cio da Terra,” “Maria Maria,” “Beco do Mota,” “Cuitelinho” and “Canção da América.” The tender delivery of these tracks belies social as well as political underpinnings.
“O Cio da Terra”
Milton Nascimento and Chico Buarque had previously reinterpreted “O que será?” together on Mineiro’s 1976 album, Geraes. They collaborated again in 1977, composing two pieces for the May Day celebrations which were set against a backdrop of dictatorship. The trade union processions that took place were led by a young metalworker named Lula, who would one day become the president of the Republic. At the time, “O Cio da Terra” was the B-side to Milton and Chico’s single “Primeiro de Maio”. An “agricultural working song,” as Chico Buarque would describe it, its lyrics implore us to: “Caress the earth / Know the desires of the earth / The earth in the heat, the ideal season / And fertilize the soil.” It was rural life presented as an act of resistance and it is no coincidence that Chico and Milton invited the percussionist Naná Vasconcelos to play it with them–he embodies the music of Nordeste, the region of Brazil that Lula is native to.
2018 marks the 40th anniversary of “Maria Maria,” an emblematic title that first appeared in 1978 on the album Clube da Esquina 2. It was originally written with the poet, Fernando Brant (1946–2015), for a show that was to be performed by the dance and theatre company Grupo Corpo. Since then, the song has become a feminist symbol (as with “Idolatrada”) because it champions the strength and courage of Maria, a woman who really existed. She was penniless, lived by a railway line and struggled against adversity so that her three children could go to school. The anniversary of “Maria, Maria” has coincided with the rise of Jair Bolsonaro, a misogynist candidate for the presidency of the Republic. In parallel to the “Ele Não” (Not Him) movement, prompted by Brazilian women and activists, the song’s message seems more pertinent than ever. Appropriately, Milton has paired his new acoustic version with a video featuring famous Brazilian actresses.
“Beco do Mota”
Because of their links to Belo Horizonte, Milton Nascimento and Clube da Esquina, have often traveled the 300 km to Diamantina, an historic city of the Minas Gerais region that the former president Juscelino Kubitschek called home. Milton and Fernando brant knew him well and at the end of the 1960s, their most politically-driven period, they reinterpreted “Beco do Mota” for him. The song is named after an alley in Diamantina which housed prostitutes and marginalised citizens, just two steps from the cathedral, until they were dislodged by a reactionary archbishop. Kubitschek, then persecuted by the military dictatorship, immediately understood the subversive double meaning of the lyrics: “Diamantina is Beco do Mota / Minas Gerais is Beco do Mota / Brazil is Beco do Mota.” But it evaded the censors and “Beco do Mota” appeared on the superb Milton Nascimento (1969).
Cuitelinho is another way of saying beija-flor (“kiss-flower”), which is the Brazilian name for the hummingbird. “I arrived at the edge of the port / Where the waves spread / Herons turn around / And sit at the edge of the beach / And the Cuitelinho does not like / That the rosebud falls”–the lyrics of this folk song, from the Mato Grosso region, evoke the saudade of a Brazilian soldier during the Paraguayan war in the nineteenth century. Paul Vazolini later added a final stanza to the lyrics when Antônio Carlos Xandó introduced him to the song, himself having heard it from an old fisherman of the río Paraná. With vocals performed by Nara Leão and Renato Teixeira, the “Cuitelinho” entered Milton’s concert repertoire in the early 1980s … and it has remained there ever since.
“Canção da América”
The English version of “Canção da América,” (“Unencounter”), had already appeared on the album Journey To Down in 1979. In 1980, however, Milton Nascimento set a composition over Fernando Brant’s version of the lyrics, for the album Sentinela. He dedicated the song to the South African musician Ricky Fataar. It presents itself as a hymn to friendship: “A friend must be kept / Under seven padlocks / In the heart / So spoke this song / What I heard in America / But the one who sang was crying / To see his friend leave.” “Canção da América” has since become a Brazilian classic, many versions of which also becoming standards in their own right, notably Elis Regina’s rendition. But it was Milton’s version played in 1994 during the funeral of the legend Ayrton Senna after his terrible Formula 1 accident.
Milton Nascimento, A festa