The Instrument of Discord

Image: Carlos Fajardo (Jornal de Resenhas)
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By DANIEL BRAZIL*

Sergio Ricardo repudiated the Anglo-American influence of rock and opposed the use of the guitar in Brazilian music

The death of the great composer Sérgio Ricardo (1932/2020), a few days ago, provoked a series of comments about his work and also his political militancy. A man of multiple talents, film director, composer, musician, writer, actor, painter and producer, he was also known for his uncompromising position in defense of his ideals, which made him persecuted by the dictatorship, suffering censorship and boycotts.

But Sérgio Ricardo, author of the soundtracks for Glauber Rocha's most outstanding films, was also uncompromising in music. He fiercely defended his Brazilian, rural, popular roots, even though he was classically trained (he was a pianist at the beginning of his career, in the 1950s, and even recorded as an instrumentalist) and composed his first songs under the influence of bossa nova. He repudiated the Anglo-American influence of rock and opposed the use of the guitar in Brazilian music.

At Record's famous Festival de Música Brasileira da Record, in 67, where the image of SR breaking his guitar and throwing it into the audience was immortalized, the ideological dispute over how Brazilian music should sound reached the point of provoking an unusual march, led by Elis Regina, “against the electric guitar”. Elis ran a program on the station called Frente Única, which had just premiered, and was facing the growing audience ratings of Jovem Guarda, led by Roberto and Erasmo Carlos.

On July 17, 1967, he went up Avenida Brigadeiro Luiz Antônio, towards the Paramount Theater, in a march in which Elis, Gilberto Gil, Geraldo Vandré, Jair Rodrigues, Edu Lobo, Zé Keti, the MPB-4 boys and others participated, with a track where it was written “Frente Única – Música Popular Brasileira”. Other artists were already waiting at the theater, such as Juca Chaves and Ataulfo ​​Alves, according to the meticulous record of Zuza Homem de Mello, in “A Era dos Festivais, uma Parábola” (Editora 34, 2003). Sergio Ricardo was in Rio, but he was certainly one of the movement's supporters.

Why was the electric guitar arousing so much controversy? Emerged with the bluesmen Americans, was an instrument linked to the popular, working classes. It gained the status of symbol-instrument of American youth rebellion in the 50s, by the hands of Chuck Berry, with the nascent rock n Roll. It gained such popularity that it was quickly assimilated by the “cultural industry”, being part of the soundtrack of the following generations, through bands like Beatles and Rolling Stones and myths like Jimi Hendrix. Ironically, smashing guitars onstage has even become part of the show, in bands like The Who and Clash.

What reasons would Brazilian musicians have to repudiate an instrument that emerged as “black”, poor and rebellious? “A market dispute” might be a simplistic answer. The strong ideological debate at the time propitiated an anti-imperialist discourse, and the guitar became a symbol. Can we detect Luddist echoes in the speech of Sérgio Ricardo and his traveling companions?

Away from the festivals, in the 1940s, the Bahians Dodô and Osmar had already electrified their string instruments, with massive bodies, and had the people jumping behind the electric trio. It was no coincidence that Caetano and Gil, used to this sound, introduced the electric guitar to the historic festival, accompanied respectively by the Beat Boys and the Mutantes. It is notable the ambiguity of Gil, who participated in the march and days later performed on the Paramount stage accompanied by the guitar of the mutant Sérgio Dias. Married at the time to Nana Caymmi, Gil was aesthetically deeply divided between Luiz Gonzaga and the Beatles. But, as we know, shortly afterwards he surrendered to the charms of the accursed instrument.

Not Sergio Ricardo. With some other fighters, increasingly isolated, he defended the acoustic guitar, the acoustic piano, the music that he believed to be truly “Brazilian”. Oswaldian anthropophagy did not suit him. Not even Ben, the future Benjor, a visionary rhythm guitar player who shortly after joined the electric guitar, was his style. Discreet, he participated in many acts for democracy, listened to and advised several young artists, maintaining coherence. The São Paulo musician Kiko Dinucci, in a recent comment on the artist's death, said that SR praised the songs of his group MetáMetá, but "only the ones that didn't have guitars".

It is curious to imagine why other instruments, such as the piano and the double bass, did not become so controversial when they were electrified. Any “pure” MPB artist, including Elis, soon realized the versatility of the electric bass. Even a sambista like Paulinho da Viola, for many years, recorded albums and performed accompanied by the electric bass of Dininho, son of the great guitarist Dino. Artists like Egberto Gismonti recorded entire albums with synthesizers and electronic keyboards, without being slighted for it. Programmed batteries are used ad nauseam, and only wind instruments escaped the controversy because, well, they depend on the human breath.

But the guitar, ah, the guitar... symbol of an imperialist, universalist culture, oppressor of local values, it went through the clash unscathed, as the victory was inexorable. Today we can easily talk about an African, Asian, Latin guitar, and even remember phrasing of Brazilian songs marked by their sound. From that historic festival, not forgetting the Jovem Guarda, the musicians were assimilating, adapting, definitively incorporating their timbres to a music in permanent transformation.

Can you imagine a song as remarkable as “Ovelha Negra”, by Rita Lee, without the famous guitar solo? Or “Anunciação”, by Alceu Valença, without the luminous guitar of Paulo Rafael? “Magrelinha”, by Luiz Melodia? Gal dueling with the guitar in “Meu Nome é Gal”? The work of Caetano, Gil and the tropicalist movement would not exist without the guitar. The examples are many, the reader can add an almost infinite list from memory. Try to imagine music from Pará, with the famous guitar playing, without the fetish instrument…

Militant of an idealistic and illusory cause, musically speaking, Sérgio Ricardo has in his favor his own work, great, honest and full of beauty. Yes, it is possible to compose without a guitar. Strictly speaking, even without an instrument. But electing technology as an enemy is a centuries-old problem, which still seems not to be completely resolved.

* Daniel Brazil is a writer, author of the novel suit of kings (Penalux), screenwriter and TV director, music and literary critic.

 

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