This is the second post in a sporadic series here at w&w, an ongoing excavation, digitization, and interpretation of my wife’s grandparents’ record collection — i.e., the historico-musical profile of Seymour & Bernice. See here for the previous entry, and here for a note remembering Seymour.
Of the many delights I’ve come across in Seymour and Bernice’s record collection, perhaps none is outweighed by the substantial number of kitschy, exotica-tinged, midcentury dance records. They reflect a time in American life when Afro-Latin forms such as mambo, rumba, samba became ballroom and parlor staples. The fact that these words all look and sound similarly is probably no accident. As Ned Sublette notes in Cuba and its Music –
The largest number of African words that have come into the common Cuban vocabulary are of Bantu origin. Phonologically its legacy is instantly recognizable. Okra in Cuba is called quimbombó. That intervocalic “mb” cluster — the one that turns up in countless words like tumbao, mambo, bemba, bombo — is often (though not necessarily) a Bantu touch… (179)
But despite their semi-exotic origins (Cuba is not Long Island, though New York City was pretty Cuban by mid-century) and the way these dances and genres were marketed as ’spicy’ and ‘flavorful’ — terms which continue to narrate the circulation of Latin-Caribbean sounds — what is particularly striking about their appearance in the record collection of a Jewish family in Rockville Center is their simultaneous mundanity, their utter familiarity, their almost unremarkable commonplaceness. Already by the mid-50s, these styles had been carefully and pretty thoroughly domesticated and popularized — i.e., successfully marketed to a non-Latin/Caribbean audience — under the direction of the Fred Astaire Dance Studios (and, no doubt, companies of its ilk), which issued a series of Perfect for Dancing compilations via RCA/Victor, complete with how-to instructions and steps. Bernice and Seymour ended up with several –
Despite their somewhat campy and squarish presentation, the music collected on these discs is pretty damn good. The bands who popularized these styles were, after all, often led and staffed by seasoned performers from across the Afro/Latin/Caribbean diaspora. As you can see, the tracklist for the SAMBAS record features such renowned midcentury Brazilian musicians as violinist Fafa Lemos and singer Carlos Galhardo, as well as the likes of New York-based Cuban bandleader, José Curbelo. Not to mention — que nome! — the Carioca Swingtette (!), who may or may not be Brazilian; far as I can tell, this is their only recording.
I could choose lots of tracks to share from this odd but rad compilation, but for this particular post — and for reasons that will become clear below — I’m going to highlight Fafa Lemos & co.’s version of “Brazil,” aka “Aquarela do Brasil” (“Watercolor of Brazil”) — a song composed by Ary Barroso back in 1939, and no doubt a song familiar to many, whether due to Terry Gilliam, or Walt Disney, or any number of other eruptions in popular culture (just take a glance at all these “notable versions” and appearances in film of the tune). But it’s not simply beloved abroad: in 1997, it was named “Best Brazilian Song of the Century” by a jury of 13 “experts” convened by the Brazilian Academy of Letters.
As with the rest of the Astaire collection, the arrangement here is on the schmaltzy side. But there’s a rather satisfying richness in rendered chicken fat, isn’t there? For one, you’ve gotta love that moony french horn (?) in the opening, and Fafa’s violin work is quite fun throughout, playing around the melody without straying too far. Also delightful are all the little details in the orchestration, offering sweet little responses to the soloists’ calls.
But I should be more frank: there’s an unexplainable personal affinity motivating this Brazil-ian excursion. Like certain friends (check the only comment on that post), I’ve long had a softspot for the song — I love the plaintive melody over the softly chugging samba rhythms — and I was thrilled to find it a recurring theme across Seymour’s and Bernice’s record stash.
// .. Digesting the World .. //
A similar treatment to the Fred Astaire / Fafa Lemos recording, for example, can be found on volume 8, side 2 (Latin Rhythms for Dancing) of an amazing/amusing 10 record collection called Popular Music THAT WILL LIVE FOREVER published by Reader’s Digest sometime in the early 1960s, I’m guessing. (Someone has taken the trouble of rapidsharing the entire boxed set, if you’re interested).
This being Reader’s Digest, the long-reigning “best-selling consumer magazine in the United States” before finally being unseated by Better Homes and Gardens in 2009, the packaging nods toward the (lightly) informative –
A closer look, however, reveals some pretty telling tropes, including a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too deployment of “culture” and “tribe” that primitivizes certain forms of dance music and elevating others while implicitly erasing the African heritage embodied by so many of the genres on display:
Dancing is a vital part of the lives of every culture. There are rain dances, fertility dances, war dances, marriage dances, death dances, harvest dances, and a few enlightened (or naïve) tribes even have dances with no purpose other than the pleasure of the dance itself.
The more primitive the tribe, the more primitive the music. It may only be a man beating two sticks together in rhythmic cadences. If his job is to provide an accompaniment for dancers, he is creating dance music.
Today’s dance music is considerably more sophisticated, but its essential quality is still the best — the rhythm. Underneath the melody of the mambo, the waltz, the fox trot, there is the drum — the direct descendant of the man beating two sticks together.
Nevermind that forms like mambo (elsewhere called “a musical half-breed“), included on this record, still often feature a man “beating” two sticks together (i.e., clave), or that the drum as we know it — and as it figures in this music — is basically African. The editors here draw a squiggly line from cavemen to sophisticates.
It’s not the only oddity in the notes. Ironically, for all the information proffered, the names of the musicians involved only appear in small print on the records themselves. Perhaps it’s because bandleaders like Martin Slavin, a British music director who worked in Hollywood for many years, don’t quite cut the right cloth for this sort of slighty salacious contextualization? At any rate, he whipped up a pretty entertaining version with “his orchestra” (whoever they were) –
This recording is actually a medley, beginning — and mostly concerned — with “Brazil” but then moving into two other Brazilian standards of the day, “Tico Tico” and “Copacabana” (incidentally, if you’ve never seen Ethel Smith tearing up “Tico Tico” on a Hammond organ, supported by a gaggle of percussion playing
kiddies ladies “hot” for some “South American jive,” it’s not to be missed). Whoever the musicians are, they smoke, and the arrangement is surprisingly whimsical. I love the piano tinkles, the ever-present and fairly foregrounded percussion, the unexpected and repeated quotation of that ol’ circus theme song, the jazzy guitar lead, and so on. The segues are pretty damn smooth too.
I’ve wondered about what made “Brazil” so popular that it seems almost ubiquitous at the historical moment during which Seymour’s and Bernice’s record collection coalesced. Of course, there’s a strong romantic nationalism at the heart of the song, and, related to my thoughts in the previous post, I think there’s a very interesting way that such dreamy visions of foreign nationalism could serve simultaneously to shore up postwar US (not to mention US Jews’) notions of national attachment and belonging and identititity. It’s not too surprising that such a compelling portrait of another country would resonate elsewhere too. For some, conjuring a sense of national unity out of diversity and inequity is what the mystery of samba is all about.
…while the cartoon might well have served as a tourism promotion tool, it was actually part of much larger geopolitical machinations. Disney traveled to South America and received government backing to produce films lauding our new South American friends, products of the “Good Neighbor Policy” designed to keep them under the Allies’ sphere of influence. In addition to Saludos Amigos, the American viewing public also got 1944’s The Three Caballeros. In a disappointing linguistic blunder, both chose Spanish titles even though the Portuguese-speaking Zé Carioca was a main character in both and Carmen Miranda’s younger sister features in the latter. Carmen Miranda, meanwhile, was an in-the-flesh Latin promotion effort, a story told probingly in the documentary Bananas is my Business. The symbolism and imagery of these efforts to promote Brazil to the American public were naturally one-dimensional, especially having a lily white (and Portugal-born) chanteuse singing samba, which a scant generation earlier was derided as too African.
Of course, the kind of samba being promoted was itself far from the spontaneous, impromptu tradition from which the music sprang. “Aquarela do Brasil” was a samba-exaltação (exaltation samba), patriotic in purpose and serving the interests of the dictatorial and quasi-fascist Vargas regime. It was Vargas who had institutionalized the samba parade in Rio during the 1930s, turning it into a tool of nationalist pride, making it rigid, orderly, an almost military processional. The state, in essence, co-opted a cultural form — or at least one major manifestation of it — steeped in resistance to the dominant order.
// .. Italians do it .. //
The final example brings things back home in a funny but apt sort of way, as Hollywood nationalism, Ausländisch stereotypes, and American exceptionalism all seem to congeal in Dick Contino’s swingin’ romp through the tune’s familiar strains:
The Latin-ate percussion is here subsumed into jazzster kit drumming, and, in contrast to the other ensemble versions above, this one seems arranged more principally as a showcase for a supposedly showboat soloist. Contino’s relatively understated performance, however, hardly rises to the level of the liner notes’ incredible superlatives –
“ever heard anywhere” … “never been matched” !!! — then again, even on his own current website, Contino is called “The World’s Greatest Accordionist” — & he does seem to inspire a certain admiration, strange story and all:
Dick Contino is an icon of cool. Dick Contino plays the accordion. These are not contradictory statements.
It helps that he is probably the best-looking guy to ever play the accordion for a living, handsome enough to have had his own groupies back when hardly anyone except Sinatra had groupies, handsome enough to have appeared in a few movies–and without an accordion. It also helps that he had enough scandals and brush-ups in his career to earn his tough guy merit badge. And it helped to have crime writer James Ellroy come along and mythologize Contino just about the time when he might otherwise have become a forgotten nostalgic act.
Contino’s father bought him his first accordion when he was seven, but he didn’t really take it seriously until he was 12. Within a few years, he had become so proficient, he was travelling to San Francisco, 180 miles away, for regular lessons. His big break came in 1946, when he competed on bandleader Horace Heidt’s “Youth Opportunity Talent Show.” Contino gyrated around while his fingers flew through “Lady of Spain” (condemning that song to accordion hell forever after) and won the night’s show. He returned to win the show’s grand prize for the season, and soon, he was a star in his own right, with his own string of fan clubs around the country.
Unfortunately, a couple of years later as his career was hitting full-stride, he received notice that he was being drafted to serve in the Korean War. For reasons he’s never fully explained, he ignored the notice and wound up being jailed for six months. Although he did eventually enlist and serve honorably in Korea, the “draft dodger” label hung over him for years and knocked him out of the ranks of the top stars for good. It also later provided Ellroy with the raw material for his story, “Dick Contino’s Blues,” which appears in the collection, Hollywood Nocturnes.
Contino lost his movie and recording contracts with Paramount and RCA Victor, and although he was picked up by Mercury within a year or so, his movie career dropped down to the realm of B-movies. Ironically, this raised his tough guy status significantly, for one of the few roles he got after his discharge was the cult B-movie, “Daddy-O.” Playing a badass rock ‘n’ roller and part time drug smuggler, Contino did his own driving for one of the earliest showcase car chases, doing a little Evel Knievel number to get past a roadblock. “Daddy-O” is certainly not great cinema (“That thing was like a class Z picture,” Contino said), but it ranks up there with “The Wild One” as piece of 50s rebel iconography.
This places his recording of “Brazil” — which I believe was made in the late 50s — in the second-wind of Contino’s career. And I have to say, while I wouldn’t apply such superlatives myself, I find his playing perfectly passable, tasteful even (to commit a revealing Bourdieuian sin), and the arrangement sure keeps up with the other big bands we’ve heard above. It’s pretty darn brash, really — peppy even, offering a nice contrast to the more stately, “exalted” march of other interpretations.
But beyond the inflated prose and other obvious points of interest in the liner notes — e.g., the array of (European, if incl “gypsy”) peoples who are, ahem, “doing it” — I want to call attention to the twice-used italicized phrase all yours. That sentiment, of course, is a central myth of the midcentury recording industry: that the music encoded on this slab of vinyl can in fact be possessed by the owner. This claim is distinct from earlier attempts to sell musical commodities. As Tim Taylor outlines in his excellent article, “The Commodification of Music at the Dawn of the Era of ‘Mechanical Music’,” the makers of player-pianos and player-piano rolls initially took great pains to assure consumers that they were in fact still the players of the music, that they retained control and power, that they remained central to the process of filling one’s home with music. We see by this point, however, that the rhetoric has firmly shifted: it’s not about possessing the ability to make music, it’s about possessing the music itself.
By extension, we might wonder what it means for a song like “Brazil” to become one’s possession by virtue of buying a somewhat schlocky dance record by a had-been like Dick Contino. Listening to these three instances of “Brazil” in Seymour’s and Bernice’s collection, I have to surmise that the song must have felt, in some way, as if it was all theirs, at least as long as it could also be made one’s own by their friends and neighbors and others in the (imagined) communities or various publics created/addressed by widely-circulating records like these — no doubt, markers of a certain sort of cultural distinction, an everyday worldliness available even to a modest middle-class family living out on Long Island.
At least, that’s how it sounds in my imagination. We’ll see what my daughter’s daughter’s son-in-law, should he ever exist, thinks of that.