Milton Nascimento speaks the universal language no matter what may be against him
Here in modern-day America, the music censors deal with controversial lyrical content by slapping warning labels on albums and/or axing swear words from the radio versions of songs. One memorable example of this came early this year, when U.S. radio stations made Britney Spears change the title of her single “If U Seek Amy” (which, not so coincidentally, sounds an awful lot like “F-U-C-K me” when sung) to the less inflammatory “If U See Amy.”
During the period of military dictatorship in Brazil from 1964 to 1985, the censors had slightly more drastic tactics. Just ask singer/guitarist/songwriter Milton Nascimento, often hailed as Brazil’s greatest musician: In 1973, just a few days before Nascimento’s deadline to get his new album, Milagre dos Peixes, to his record company, the musician received word from the Brazilian government that all of Peixes’ lyrics, which expressed outrage over the violence and injustice being perpetrated by the dictatorship, had been censored. Rather than rewriting the words, Nascimento responded by simply removing the lyrics from the album as a gesture of protest. “We decided to improvise with sounds imitating birds, my falsettos, sounds from the jungle, animals, percussion … everything,” he notes. “And it turned out great.” With these sounds, Nascimento unambiguously decried governmental corruption without singing a word. (The singer subsequently released a live version of the album called Milagre dos Peixes ao Vivo, which reintroduced some of Peixes’ original lyrics.)
The singer recalls that during the days of the Brazilian dictatorship, he was not allowed to sing for the larger crowds in major cities. Instead, he stayed afloat by playing at universities in smaller Brazilian cities. “I sang to the students, and they helped to pay my bills with the money we collected at these gatherings,” he explains. “To this day, I am very grateful to these people. I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for them.”
Milagro Dos Peixes wasn’t the last of Nascimento’s works to attract unwanted attention from people in high places. In the early ’80s, he received bomb threats after releasing Missa dos Quilombos, a mass that endorsed racial equality by celebrating the resurrection of black people through the resurrection of Christ. (Quilombos were settlements founded by escaped slaves during the Portuguese Colonial Period.) At first the mass was banned by the Vatican, but as Nascimento explains, “That prohibition didn’t sound good to modern theologists that had a broader view, so after a while the Church accepted it, thank God.” He adds that Missa dos Quilombos is “one of the first religious and artistic manifestations that was partly accepted by the Catholic Church since slavery was abolished.”
Nascimento will be permitted full range of expression here in Santa Cruz on Monday, Nov. 9, when he performs at The Rio Theatre, backed by keyboardist Kiko Continentino, bassist Gastão Franco Villeroy, drummer Lincoln Cheib and guitarist Wilson Lopes Cançado. Chilean singer/songwriter Claudia Acuña opens the show.
Don’t let your lack of Portuguese-speaking skills hold you back from attending Monday’s concert—Nascimento’s expansive vocal range and trademark falsetto speak to audiences of all cultures. “I think that the audience always knows best how to interpret lyrics that they cannot understand,” the vocalist comments. “Most of the time, when I get to talk to these people backstage after the concerts, they give me wonderful explanations to how the music and the lyrics touched them and what it meant to them. To listen and to respect this, coming from my audience, is a very important part of my job as an artist.”
Milton Nascimento plays at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 9 at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Claudia Acuña opens. Tickets are $52 Gold Circle, $37 General Admission. For more information, call 423-8209 or go to kuumbwajazz.org and pulseproductions.net.