Keeping It Rio

In the small bars and cafés of mid-1950s Rio de Janeiro, cool jazz-inspired samba musicians were experimenting. The result: the mellow mix known as bossa nova music, which literally means the new wave in Portuguese. The bohemian fusion of sweet melodies over a gentle rhythm with smooth vocals has become recognized internationally, making superstars of its chief exponents Antonio Carlos (“Tom”) Jobim, João Gilberto, and Vinícius de Moraes.

But back in Brazil, beyond the scope of the well-traveled jet set, many more rare birds sing. Aquiles, Magro, Miltinho, and Ruy are four of them. The mono-monikered musicians make up MPB-4, a group whose status is legendary at home yet has never played before an American audience. Until now, that is. These men bring their four-part harmonies to the United States for the first time next Wednesday as part of the FLA/BRA festival. In fact they'll perform at the Colony Theater, just down the road from where Tom Jobim's son and grandson performed last month, and they'll interpret some of Jobim's works, as well as other classic bossa nova and traditional samba songs.

“We are known as bossa nova singers, but we really just sing MPB [musica popular Brasileira],” Aquiles notes. “To us that simply means Brazilian music of good quality, regardless of how it may be categorized.” MPB of the 1960s offered politically charged tunes that combined regional Brazilian music with rock-and-roll influences. In 1963, as musicians for the National Union of Students, the quartet commenced playing what they consider MPB.

The harmonious beginnings unfortunately soured: The musical schoolboys got a quick lesson in reality when a right-wing military coup in 1964 changed everything. The student union was dissolved, and the new ruling regime mandated strict review and censorship for all artistic endeavors. The foursome did not take to this kindly. MPB-4 became wholly committed to stopping the oppression in Brazil.

Although never downright revolutionaries, they used their music as a means to address injustices. Their concerts became a public platform to denounce the rulers. They brought this music to the people of the favelas (slums). They sang to the disgruntled farm workers who lost their land. They stoked the intellectuals at the university where they used to study. They mobilized people to resume control of what was theirs.

Many musicians who railed against the government, which in 1968 became an outright dictatorship, were persecuted. Popular performers Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were exiled to London. Others fled to various places in South America. But MPB-4 stayed behind and continued fighting, remaining somehow unscathed. “We always felt that we had to stay, that there were things that had to be done in Brazil,” Aquiles says. “And we now can see how our efforts contributed to the redemocratization of Brazil and the fall of the military leaders.”

When the regime toppled in 1985, the quartet returned to music for music's sake, and now they're ready, if not a bit uncertain, for the United States. “We have absolutely no idea what our public will be like in Miami,” Aquiles says, “so we've prepared for our audience our own aquarela (watercolor) with a variety of many types of Brazilian colors.”

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Maya Ibars