‘I was very rebellious,’ says Sérgio Ricardo, his Brazilian accent a growl of colliding consonants. ‘When I first came to Rio, I went through all of the nightclubs,’ he continues, with a gesture to the window behind him. He sits in an armchair with his back to the view: one of Ipanema’s warm June sands, with the Ilhas Cagarras moored in the Atlantic beyond.
It’s a Sunday afternoon, and Ricardo is at his home in Rio de Janeiro’s Vidigal neighbourhood – a seaside favela at the foot of Morro Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers Hill), where he has lived for forty years. Lots of people there know him, and lots more people know who he is.
‘I was one of the most important composers and singers in Brazil,’ he explains, recalling his earlier career, during which he became one of the leading voices of bossa nova – the languid, febrile sound of modernist 1960s Brazil. He fetches a small, totemic wooden ornament, carved by his father.
‘My parents were from a small Syrian village called Saidnaya,’ he says. ‘All of my family in Syria were related to the arts – architects, musicians,’ he continues. ‘My father was a sculptor, though he started to work in commerce when he came to Brazil, selling fake jewellery in the streets.’
Ricardo, né João Lutfi, grew up the son of Syrian émigrés in Marília, a town northwest of São Paulo, during the 1930s. ‘My parents spoke Arabic around the house,’ he recalls. ‘I would speak a few words, but they didn’t force me to, it wasn’t obligatory.’
At night, he says, his father, Abdalla, would play the oud and his mother, Maria, would sing Syrian songs. ‘We would go to sleep with my parents singing, playing music or having parties – all in Arabic, of course.’ With hindsight, he says, his legacy, which is still popular today, would draw influence from this early exposure to Middle Eastern music.
‘My uncle had a radio station in Santos, another town by the beach, and I started working as a radio presenter,’ he says, describing the time he left home. ‘I was 18, it was around the 1950s. I had access to all of the music around the world and would hear all kinds of Arabic music at that time. Another uncle of mine worked at a station in Rio, and he invited me to present my own programme, about Arabic music. I would select the track list – Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Oum Kalthoum, etc. – and present the show. I called it “Programa Sírio-Libanês”.’
While working his way through the rhythms of Copacabana’s nightclub circuit as a pianist around the same time, Ricardo acquainted himself with Antônio ‘Tom’ Carlos Jobim – the musician who would later compose ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, a song that would become emblematic of bossa nova, and the romance of Rio itself.
‘Jobim was also playing piano in the bars at night, and I became very close friends with João Gilberto, too,’ he says, crediting the two musicians as ‘the people who started bossa nova.’ ‘We would get together and play – I was there when bossa nova was born.’
Over the following years, before it became a preset rhythm on Yamaha keyboards, bossa nova became synonymous with a laid-back, cosmopolitan vision of Brazilian high life. ‘It was all about the beach, and the city,’ he says. Ricardo released his LP ‘A Bossa Romântica de Sérgio Ricardo’ – its popular tracks, such as ‘Zelão’, placing him, the son of Syrian émigrés, among the elite of Brazil’s highest art form.
Bossa nova’s cool, breezy lyrics, however, obscured the reality of the streets, along which tanks were rolling in ahead of the 1964 coup d’état that would see the end of João Goulart’s presidency and the demise of the genre. Musicians, including Ricardo, migrated away from bossa nova’s ‘middle class’ preoccupations and towards songs of protest.
‘I started to talk about the life in the favelas, which was the opposite of bossa nova,’ he says of his songs such as ‘Enquanto A Tristeza Não Vem’. Ricardo even smashed up his guitar in an act of defiance on stage at the Festival de Música Popular Brasileira in 1967. ‘No regrets,’ he muses, now. ‘Jimi Hendrix did the same thing a week later.’
Ricardo continued to make music over the following decades. ‘With my voice and my composition, I was in a very important position,’ he says. He moved into filmmaking too, directing five in total. In 1964, after the showing of one of his features at a film festival in Lebanon, he was invited by the Syrian government to make a film that would take him to Saidnaya, his parents’ hometown – no longer a small village. ‘I did “O Pássaro da Aldeia” in honour of my parents,’ he says. ‘My father had never been back, which frustrated him.’
‘It was the only time I ever went – not before, or after. It was very important to me, to find out about my origins. I could see there was a lot in common with my artistic work – the singing, especially the emotion. It wasn’t something conscious, but in my songs I could see there was something of an Arab melody there. I related to the people too, the way they acted and their physical appearance. They looked like my family.’
Now 81, and nursing a broken leg, Ricardo spends his days overlooking Ipanema – the sunstruck beach that inspired the swinging sound of bossa nova, the genre that made his name. He keeps busy, having just tied up a short film. ‘I’m always either writing, painting or doing art work. Come over to my house and you’ll find I’m always doing something.’
His Syrian origins, he says, still weave their way into his daily life and work. ‘Arabness was born with me. It’s something that comes subconsciously,’ he says. ‘Everything I do has an Arab connotation.’
This article can be found in Brownbook’s July/August 2014 Issue.
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