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(For those of you not familiar with Arara, she's our correspondent in Brazil...able to squawk in flawless Portuguese and capable of ingratiating herself with all our potential interviewees, the bird's a tremendous asset to Maria-Brazil.)

Interview with Sérgio Cabral


After admiring Sérgio's work (and envying his close personal relationships with the likes of Elis Regina, Elisete Cardoso, Cartola, and just about everybody who was ever anybody in Brazilian popular music) for about thirty years, we managed, through a friend of a friend, to get ourselves invited to his apartment in the neighborhood of Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro. We spent a couple of hours in his comfortable dining-room, with the telephone ringing off the hook - it seems every reporter in Rio has a question for him around carnaval time - while Sérgio patiently answered my (totally unprepared) questions and I tried desperately not to sound stupid. I found him charming and generous. As I was leaving, Sérgio gave me his biography of his dear friend Elisete and autographed the book I had brought along (about the escolas de samba of Rio). He now owes me - and the rest of the world - his autobiography.

When I visited him again in October of 1997, Sérgio was awaiting the publication of his biography of Antonio Carlos Jobim. 

Sérgio continues to write, teach, and in the summer of 2006 he and Rosa Maria Araújo produced the musical Sassaricando, starring Eduardo Dussek and Soraya Ravenle, among others. The absolutely infectious music (all carnaval marchinhas) is on this two-CD set, a Biscoito Fino release. He's, of course, also known as the father of Rio's governor, Sérgio Cabral Filho.

Arara - Sérgio, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, you're sooo busy...we've been adoring you from a distance for the past 30 years or so...To begin at the beginning, where are you from, are you a Carioca?

Sérgio - Yes, my full name is Sérgio Cabral Santos and I was born on May 27, 1937, in Cascadura, but I grew up in a neighborhood called Cavalcanti, which is a middle-class neighborhood in the northern part of Rio, and I stayed there until I was 24...but at 19, I was studying for my college entrance exam, to study Journalism, when I met a famous reporter called Ubiratã de Lemos, who came there to do a story on a healer. I told him "I want to be a journalist, what should I do?" He told me to show up at his paper, Diário da Noite, and he would introduce me, I could get an internship and if they liked me, I could stay...So I did, and fell in love with the newspaper, I never left there, I slept there on the desk, it was winter in Rio, I was cold, I covered myself with newsprint...

Arara - And you became a reporter?

Sérgio - Yes...for the police page...Then one day, at the end of the day, they were all sitting around a desk, trying to come up with headlines, and I realized that the editor was having trouble with a headline...they were all very tired, they all had several jobs, in those days journalism was something one did because of love for the profession...no money...So I went and typed a headline on my typewriter and left it on his desk...he saw it and asked "Hey, who wrote this?" I said "I did it." Then he told the paper's administrative assistant to sign me up as an employee. And that's how I became a journalist, in those days you didn't need a degree, so I never went to college. I worked there for two years and then went to work for Jornal do Brasil also...Jornal do Brasil was the most modern of Brazilian newspapers, it was innovative, intelligent, the people who worked there were passionate about it, everybody wanted to work for Jornal do Brasil. That's when they created the Caderno B...My job there as a reporter was to cover carnaval, it was a tradition in Rio papers, one or two reporters would work exclusively with carnaval stories for two, three months...It was me and another reporter, Luiz Gutemberg, who's a very famous political analyst today, he's in Brasília...we did a great job...this was 1959-1960...Then the year after, I tried to do a better job, and for the first time, tried to tell the history of the escolas de samba...I wrote 26 stories...

Arara - And this was the origin of the book (The Escolas de Samba of Rio de Janeiro)?

Sérgio - Yes, it was.Then in April of that year, the editor of Caderno B asked me if I wanted to write about Brazilian music for them, I would have a weekly page...so I continued to be a reporter, but had that page where I did interviews, stories, I became a music critic...Actually, in the preface to Ari Barroso's biography I tell a little about those days, because that's when I interviewed Ari for the first time...that's how I met him. Then I was fired in 1962, because of a strike...I'm the only journalist in Brazil who was fired twice because of a strike...in 1986 I was fired from the O Globo, where I wrote about soccer...

Arara - So you managed to combine the two great passions...music and soccer...

Sérgio - Right...I wrote about soccer for a long time, for two newspapers...O Globo and then O Dia...and then I stopped...I was on the city council and they elected me to the Tribunal de Contas, and working there I cannot have another job...

Arara - This gives you peace and quiet to write then?

Sérgio - Yes, because it's organized, the people I work with are very capable...as a councilman, the phone was ringing at six in the morning already...it was crazy...Yes, my life is much more tranquil now...

Arara - And how many books have you written?

Sérgio - Well, the first was that one about the escolas de samba...and I tell in the preface to the new edition (1996) how it came about...then I did that series of booklets with the records for Editora Globo, then in 1978, I won a prize from Funarte for my biography of Pixinguinha...

Arara - I haven't seen that one...is it out of print?

Sérgio - Yes...for a long time, but that's just what I'm working on right now...I'm writing a biography of Pixinguinha, for the 100th anniversary of his birth...my editor has just called...he wants to know how big a book, because we're running out of time...So that was Pixinguinha, Vida e Obra...then right after that...I'm one of the founders of the alternative paper O Pasquim...

Arara - Yes, I remember that, that's when I became your fan...

Sérgio - Yes, I was editor, president...then we were arrested (During the military dictatorship. Persecution by the military and the ensuing financial problems caused the paper's demise, much to the chagrin of a whole generation of Brazilians, who loved its biting humor and political views.)...Then O Pasquim started publishing books and they published a volume of stories I had written for different papers and called it ABC do Sérgio Cabral...that was the title of my column in O Pasquim...Then I wrote a biography of Tom Jobim, it was going to be a promotional Christmas gift for clients of a big company from Bahia, Oderbrecht, with a record...actually, this record was rereleased after he died, it's called Tom Jobim Inédito, it's very good, by the way...Tom liked it very much...Then I wrote Almirante (No Tempo de Almirante, uma história do Rádio e da MPB...we love this one!), Ari Barroso, Elisete, Uma Vida...then I was writing Tom Jobim, rewriting that book, when Tom's sister published her book...so I decided it was too much...in spite of the fact that my book is very different from hers...hers is a sister's story, very beautiful, emotional...but not the kind of biography I was writing...so I stopped, but I'm still going to finish it...

Arara - I think I'd like to read it...

Sérgio - Yeah...So, I stopped and started Pixinguinha's biography, but when I finish, I'm going back and we'll see if I can publish it by the end of 1997...But I have other plans, several...including a biography of Villa-Lobos...I would love to write a biography of Villa-Lobos...

Arara - I would LOVE that one...Please DO!

Sérgio - Yeah...Turíbio Santos, the guitarist and Director of the Museum Villa-Lobos keeps telling me I should start...instead of Tom's biography, but that's a big project...

Arara - Sérgio, how about your memoirs, the stories that YOU have to tell?

Sérgio - You know, I've thought about that, other people have suggested that...Enio Silveira, the great publisher, who died already, every time he saw me he said "write your memoirs"...yes, it's in my plans...the people I knew, you know...so many interesting people...

Arara - The times also...

Sérgio - Yes, dramatic times...I started in the 50's...the days of Juscelino (Juscelino Kubitschek, the Brazilian president who built Brasília)...Yes, I was working then for Diário da Noite and Jornal do Brasil, but on this day I was on assignment for Diário da Noite, it was April 20, 1960, the day before the official transfer of the government from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília, I went to the Palácio do Catete for Juscelino's last day in Rio. When I arrived, there were a lot reporters waiting for him to arrive, he arrived and greeted us and went directly to the elevator...it was very small, for two people only...so when he walked in, I did too, and went up with him, and he started opening drawers and showing me around...everything was almost empty...gone to Brasília...well, this was a historical moment and I would like to write about it...

Arara - Sérgio, coming back to Brazilian music, after working all your life with the great names...some of the greatest composers and singers of all times...who's your favorite among the new generation?

Sérgio - Well, the 60's generation was truly great...Chico Buarque and all...Aldir Blanc, João Bosco...but today...the great musician now, in my opinion, is Guinga...he's a musician...very sophisticated...Leila Pinheiro recorded his songs and he has three CDs out...he's from Madureira (a neighborhood of Rio)...I thinks he's the most interesting thing that happened in Brazilian popular music in the last ten years...Actually, I wrote that he's the most talented songwriter to appear anywhere in the world, in the last ten years...But Guinga is fantastic...when you listen for the first time, you may not like him...but then, the more you listen, the more you like his music...I wrote that his CDs turn out to be less expensive than others, because other CDs you listen to two, three times, then you don't listen anymore...but Guinga's, you'll listen to more and more...(laughter)...you discover more and more things about his music...The impression you get from his music is that he likes to play with the listener...like, you thought I was going in this direction...no, I went that direction...And I like (Carlinhos) Brown's rhythm...he's very interesting...excellent...(BY THE WAY, HERMETO PASCHOAL AGREES WITH SÉRGIO COMPLETELY!!)

Arara - And in general, how's Brazilian music doing?

Sérgio - In terms of what the radio stations play, terribly...It's not that there's an invasion of American music...Brazilian music sells more records...and plays more...

Arara - I would say there's a Bahian invasion of the airwaves...

Sérgio - Yeah, and it's bad...it's not the music of Caetano...and bad Brazilian country music...fake...I think what's on the radio is very bad...I don't listen to the radio...

Arara - But people are getting together to play good Brazilian music, choros, great sambas, more and more...getting together with the composers themselves, sometimes, aren't they?

Sérgio - Yes, that's good...and it's interesting...it's the white middle-class...they love old sambas, choros...that's very good...I like the old stuff...but it's because it's good...it's always new...

Arara - To conclude, how is carnaval doing, in Rio...in Brazil?

Sérgio - Well, carnaval...I think it's a pity that all the attention goes to the escolas de samba...the media, they focus on the escolas and forget the rest...the carnaval of the people...Simpatia, Banda de Ipanema, Bola Preta...Carnaval in Madureira...The escolas are obsessed with the visual spectacle and the music is the big loser...The sambas are very bad...And I think it's terrible that people come to parade with the escolas...I think it doesn't help the samba, the parade...these people come from Belgium, or whatever, they can't samba...The travel agencies, of course, promote that...

Arara - I stopped buying their records several years ago...Got just one: Marçal singing the greatest sambas de enredo of all times...

Sérgio - That's a good one...but that was Marçal...

Arara - I was very sad to read in your book that he died in 1994...I met his son, Marçalzinho, in 1991...

Sérgio - Yes, it's sad...we were very good friends...he was a great friend. Every time I speak about the son, I say he comes from the most illustrious samba dynasty...He's a great percussionist too.

Arara - Sérgio, speaking of escolas de samba, I have a question, something that I've wondered about for many years...is there any truth in the story that they used to kill cats to use the skins for tamborins? Mestre Marçal says in your book that that's a myth...

Sérgio - I believe him, if he says it's not true, then it's not true...But it's part of the folklore...I can't verify the story...because only very old people would know if it ever happened...There's even a samba, it goes like this (singing) "Fala couro de gato, fala meu tamborim..." But I never saw anyone doing it, never knew of anyone who did it...

Arara - I have the impression that the best thing about Brazilian music is that it's constantly changing, incorporating the old into the new...

Sérgio - Yes, it's the richness...it's unbelievable.

PS - Sérgio wrote a very beautiful samba with Rildo Hora in 1976, called "Os Meninos da Mangueira."

When I took this photo of him, Sérgio was hard at work finishing his bio of Pixinguinha...

Music & Folklore

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