Carlos Lyra, a Pioneer of Bossa Nova, Reintroduces Himself
By JAMES GAVINMAY 15, 2015
RIO DE JANEIRO — Nearly 60 years has passed since the bossa nova sprang out of this city. For most of the world, that cool, minimalist sound, with its insinuating pulse, still defines Brazil. Inside the country, though, the music is a respected but quaint form of nostalgia. Tourists who seek it out tend to leave disappointed.
But to Carlos Lyra, who wrote and sang many of its most famous songs, bossa remains a zenith of elegance and finesse, symbolic, he feels, of a time when those things mattered in Brazil. Now 82, Mr. Lyra still lives here, as do bossa’s two other surviving pioneers, the guitarist and singer João Gilberto and the songwriter Roberto Menescal. Mr. Lyra’s lilting tunes, including “Primavera“ (Spring) and “Você e Eu“ (You and I), inspired bossa’s most famous composer, Antônio Carlos Jobim, to once call him “a great melodist, harmonist, king of rhythm, of syncopation, of swing” and “singular, without equal.”
But unlike Jobim, whose “The Girl From Ipanema“ brought him and bossa worldwide fame in 1964, Mr. Lyra had no comparable breakthrough. It’s been 50 years since his last appearances in the United States, on tour with Stan Getz, the saxophonist who helped turn “The Girl From Ipanema” into an American smash.
Now Mr. Lyra is finally coming back. From May 26 to 30, the producers Pat Philips and Ettore Stratta will showcase him in “Bossabrasil,” their ongoing series at the Manhattan jazz club Birdland. Joined by a second-generation bossa star, Marcos Valle, Mr. Lyra will sing his classics and share insider stories about bossa’s creators, like the lyricist Vinicius de Moraes, the hard-drinking, much-married poet, diplomat and die-hard romantic. “He was in favor of pain,” said Mr. Lyra. “He said in many of his lyrics that if you don’t suffer you don’t know anything about love.”
Not even de Moraes at his saddest could sink the breezy sophistication of bossa, a music made by the middle class for the middle class. But Mr. Lyra was a socialist, which made him a contradictory figure in his set. As he noted recently with a smile: “I consider myself politically proletariat. I consider myself economically bourgeois. And artistically I consider myself an aristocrat.”
Manners and restraint, he added, are “very important for me in everything.” But that doesn’t stop him from gleefully dishing on his old cronies and critiquing even close friends. He speaks passionately in near-perfect English, and his candid opinions about politics, art and culture hold the confidence of a man who feels he has earned the last word.
Mr. Lyra and his second wife, Magda Botafogo, live in a simple apartment in Ipanema, to him the only part of Rio that truly counts. With the Birdland engagement just weeks away, the composer had taken a nasty fall at home and dislocated a shoulder. Arm in a sling, he feared he might not be able to play his guitar in New York; just singing with the band might have to do. His life in general has slowed to a tranquil pace; he composes and performs when he feels the urge.
He looks back on his youth as an oasis, reigned over by Juscelino Kubitschek, a democratic president who fostered culture. “Everything was beautiful,” he said. “There was no suffering, only suffering for love. We had the best movies, the best theater, the best literature, music.” Like bossa’s other originators, he was born of privilege. His family included amateur classical musicians and a poet; his father was a naval officer. Ensconced in Rio’s fashionable Zona Sul (South Zone), Mr. Lyra studied classical guitar and enjoyed Debussy, Ravel, Villa-Lobos and American film.
His friends were a like-minded group of budding musicians and songwriters who wanted to break from the past, particularly from the hammy emoting of the Brazilian radio singers and the blunt rhythms of samba. Mr. Lyra’s circle much preferred the white jazz of the American West Coast, with its aloof hipness. Gilberto was devising ways to streamline samba into a syncopated, featherweight beat. Mr. Lyra, the handsome lady-killer of his set, contributed his melodic gift and a classically derived sense of form. He had a real baritone voice but kept his delivery casual, like conversation.
In 1958, bossa was born. Most of its songs dealt with the Carioca good life, carefree romance and the sweetness of despair. Mr. Lyra’s did, too, but they also explored more serious issues, like the hardships of life in the slums and the indomitability of Brazilian womanhood. On Nov. 21, 1962, he joined a sprawling summit of bossa’s founders at Carnegie Hall. That now-fabled concert launched the music as Brazil’s proudest homegrown export. Mr. Lyra’s songs, starting with his first hit, “Maria Ninguém” (Maria No One), showed up on countless albums, including his own. A budding great of the next generation, the singer Elis Regina (who died in 1982), was paying attention. “Elis told me that she considered Carlos Lyra the best melody-maker in Brazil,” said Zuza Homem de Mello, one of the country’s most respected musical authorities. “To me, his melodies are absolutely on a par with Jobim’s.”
Politically, however, Mr. Lyra was treading on dangerous ground. He had joined the Communist party — a risky move, for Brazil now had a socialist president, João Goulart, whose suspected Communist ties had sparked deep political tension. “Lenin and Stalin were never important to me,” explained Mr. Lyra. “I was with the socialists, who wanted everybody to have education and culture.” According to him, most of the privileged middle class — including his bossa colleagues — clung to the right. ”Menescal is a right-winger to this day,” he said. “Jobim was right-wing. He didn’t have any political problems. He was selling records; he was famous all over the world.”
As musical director of the Centro Popular de Cultura, a socially conscious arts center in Rio, Mr. Lyra sought to take samba from the slums to the city, thus forming a bridge between the rich and the poor. Under his direction, Nara Leão, the Ipanema girl who had become bossa’s singing muse, famously recorded the work of black samba composers. But on the political scene, chill winds were blowing. “The CPC was known as a Communist center,” Mr. Lyra said, and one day a guerrilla group burst in firing warning shots. On March 31, 1964, a military coup overthrew Goulart and launched a dictatorship. Mr. Lyra was among the first artists to flee.
He moved to New York with unexpectedly good timing: Getz wanted another Brazilian to replace his departed singer Astrud Gilberto, and he chose Mr. Lyra. In 1966 their touring took them to Mexico, where a lot of Mr. Lyra’s Brazilian peers now lived. He stayed for five years. “Bossa nova was very popular there,” he said. “And they would pay me for it. But I was missing Brazil terribly.”
By the time he moved back with the American wife he had met in Mexico, Katherine Riddell (a TV actress known in Brazil as Kate Lyra), a new wave of edgy pop rebels had swept bossa aside. Mr. Lyra still had much to say politically, but censorship had a stranglehold on the arts. When he released an album of coded protest songs, called “Heroí do Medo“ (Hero of Fear), a censor had it yanked.
Disgusted with Brazil in the mid-70s, Mr. Lyra took his wife and their daughter, Kay (now a New York-based bossa singer), to live in Los Angeles, where he joined a program of primal scream therapy. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were among the members, he recalled. “You screamed, cried, just vomited everything out,” he said, “until you were tired of screaming and crying.”
After a couple of years, he was back in Brazil. The dictatorship ceased in 1985, but for Mr. Lyra, the damage was done. ”Brazil never rose again,” he said. “It’s been down, down, down. Culture now is so without depth. The other day they were playing my songs in an elevator. In today’s musical scene, I’d rather hear music in elevators than on the radio.”
Unlike the more experimental Jobim, Mr. Lyra stayed wedded to bossa; for him it still represents a dreamlike ideal. In 2008 he published a memoir whose title, in English, reads: “Me and Bossa: A Story of the Bossa Nova.” Happily for him, that music has never lost its glow in the United States. The Birdland engagement “seems like more of a debut than a comeback,” he said. “After 50 years, the public and my friends from that era are practically gone. I’m going to celebrate this jubilee with the hope of pleasing the audience as if they were hearing my music for the first time.”
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