Roberto Mendes: translation and poetic wisdom

Image: João Nitsche
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By HENRY BURNETT*

Commentary on the Bahian musician and the samba of the recôncavo

Time often needs to act, only then do some people and works show themselves in their entirety, illuminating our lives and acting as an engine of renewal. In these times we are going through, these people and their works arrive with increased strength, bringing vital energy to our tired and hopeless daily life.

The first time I saw and heard Roberto Mendes was in the documentary king time (Andrucha Waddington, 1996). Gil presented his “guitarist, violated” style to the world and made clear the influence of that guitar on, for example, “Expresso 2222”, performed in a duo by them in a memorable scene of the film.

I thought it incredible when I watched it, but my impression had captured almost nothing about what was behind his somewhat shy figure, that man withdrawn into the environment from which his music has always emanated, Santo Amaro da Purificação, in the Bahian recôncavo, without ever out there. His image was silently engraved in my memory.

Cut to 2020, this fateful year that insists on not ending. I see another ad live on the SESC YouTube channel; A bit bored, I look like almost every day the attraction of the time – which not infrequently saves us the dead day. It was Roberto Mendes' day, playing straight from the Recôncavo, with his son João Mendes on guitar along with drummer and percussionist Tedy Santana. With 10 minutes of delay I give the play, I follow until the end, enraptured and regretting not having heard Gil's touch, not having followed that work more closely.

I spent the next 24 hours unable to do anything but listen to her music, which is available on her YouTube channel and on streaming platforms. streaming. I continue like this, as if this belated discovery were now urgent and somehow irrecoverable. Two productions caught my immediate attention: 1. SESC 24 de Maio made a documentary available in three parts, fundamental for those who don't know who he is or have never heard of this composer from Bahia (available here: http://tiny.cc/sea1tz). But there is also 2. a new independent album, called At the base of the cabal, from 2019. The album was released at this SESC unit shortly before everything closed. The productions were therefore interconnected in some way. I dove into both obsessively.

I start with the documentary. Engraved in what looks like a backyard, perhaps his backyard, what we find is, without any concessions to the word, a wise man; rare thing. The official description is accurate: “Samba before samba is a project that aims to bring to a wide audience the vast knowledge about the origin of samba in Bahia and share the passion of the musician, composer and researcher Roberto Mendes for his people, his land and his culture”. A passionate class, or an explicit passion.

If I had read the summary before seeing the films, perhaps I would have expected to find something didactic, another way of telling a reasonably well-known story: the migration of the famous aunts Ciata, Preciliana and Amélia from the Recôncavo to Rio de Janeiro, their penetration Carioca musicians, the origin of samba and its development, etc. No. Unlike entering into the stupid quarrel about the “true birth of samba”, Roberto reconstructs his “translation” of Santamarense orality, explaining this path that goes from foul language to samba without any hint of affectation or arrogance; that, simply that, is what I call wisdom here. It is so rare today that it draws immediate attention.

The viewer receives a lesson, no doubt, but one of the lightest and most profound lessons I have ever heard. It is not rare for this teacher, today with white hair and beard, to choke with a heartfelt cry, as when he remembers his first experience as a mathematics teacher in Acupe (BA). It is not for describing, it is necessary to watch and follow the description of his meeting with another teacher and his first guitar master, Seu Tuni, and how the connections were formed with the music of that region of Santo Amaro as a background. Roberto Mendes says that his guitar is “wounded percussion”, “close to the drum”. It takes a while to understand, but I soon realized that, by not considering himself a guitarist, he helps us understand why he is one of the most original guitarists in activity.

“In orality, the melody is loose”. “Unity can only exist if each variant respects the others”. Lapidary phrases full of knowledge nourished throughout a lifetime like these totally deconstruct the idea that he tries to convey to us in a humble and uncompromising way, or that his guitar would not be professional, etc. The truth is that the webseries lends a renewed interpretation to the history of samba and its roots, in a unique way that needs to be carefully assimilated.

From there to his new album, recorded only with guitar and voice, At the base of the cabal, explained by him with yet another model sentence, “the frequencies after the impact return to the point of impact”, closes the cycle and illuminates an almost hidden work, like so many that Brazil ignores. It is the second moment in which emotion dominates his extremely cohesive speech, when he speaks of the album as a return to the beginnings, produced by his two sons, “the album of the comeback”. The return of someone who never was, that is to say, the return to the ordering principle of his life.

At a certain point in the documentary he explains: “My function as an artist is to translate”, to transpose that music into his particular universe. Everything always in your backyard, literally and organically. Life studies that result in a superb guitar in its dominant rhythm. The end of this text is unavoidable, a theoretical obligation. If João Gilberto systematized the samba school on his guitar and thus became the modernizer of Brazilian music in the XNUMXth century, and if Roberto Mendes did the same with samba from the Recôncavo, which forms the oral and secular basis of that other, then, so it is…

*Henry Burnett is a professor of philosophy at Unifesp. Author, among other books, of Nietzsche, Adorno and a bit of Brazil (Unifesp Publisher).

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