Zuza Homem de Melo (1933-2000)

Image: João Nitsche


Commentary on the Recently Deceased Music Historian and Critic

This very cruel year took away on October 4th one of the most beloved people in the Brazilian music scene: music producer, sound engineer, critic, festival organizer, historian and journalist Zuza Homem de Melo.

His brief biography is available on the internet: young man interested in music, who started playing bass in the 50's, traveled to the United States, studied and started to write articles on jazz and popular music. From 1959 he works at TV Record, and becomes a central figure in the organization of what he later called, in one of his best known books, The Age of Festivals (Publisher 34). In the following decades, he curated jazz and MPB festivals, produced records and concerts, presented TV programs (Jazz Brasil, on TV Cultura), had radio programs, wrote essential books to know the popular music of our time.

Fleeing from academic coldness, from the mere alignment of facts and names, Zuza was not ashamed to place herself as an eyewitness (and auditory) of the facts she narrated. In fact, she did it with the understated elegance that always characterized her backstage performance. Stimulating new values, guiding established artists, seeking to open spaces for the renewal of music, without ever losing sight of the historical, cultural and artistic importance of the facts he related.

He left so many essential works that it is difficult to choose the most representative. The Song in Time (co-authorship with Jairo Severiano), Behold the Bossa Nova, Music with Z(collection of articles), Brazilian Popular Music Sung and Told.

Before he died, aged 87, he had just put the end to his biography of João Gilberto. His last published book was Copacabana – the trajectory of the samba-canção (1929-1958), co-edition of Editora 34 with Sesc, from 2017. It is on him that we will dwell a little more, attentive to the master's lesson.

The work begins with a tasty contextualization of Rio de Janeiro in the 50s, from the perspective of a “Paulistano in Rio” (title of the first chapter). Zuza talks about arriving in the Federal Capital, the dissonance between the North and South zones, the Leme tunnel, the social environment of the time, fashion, cinemas, nightclubs, boiling hormones. Describing the setting and given the climate, he describes the passage of samba from the revue theaters of the Center to the chic nightclubs of Copacabana, becoming more intimate and softening the drumming, absorbing North American (foxtrote) and Latin (bolero) influences.

As he describes the process, Zuza interpolates the protagonists of the story: composers and performers who built the sonic texture of the genre. With abundant iconography, which includes portraits, album covers, records of shows and parties, programs, newspapers, scores and even menus, we are involved and even invited to hum the songs mentioned.

In more than 500 pages, Zuza Homem de Mello achieves the admirable feat of wisely dosing his personal preferences, without hiding them, and providing the reader with all the information necessary to understand the meaning of the expression samba-canção. From Ary Barroso to Chico Buarque, from Lupicínio to Cartola, from Aracy Cortes to Maysa, passing by Noel, Adelino Moreira, Nelson Gonçalves, Braguinha, Dick Farney, Cauby Peixoto, Ângela Maria, Dorival Caymmi, Elizeth Cardoso, Dolores Duran, Tom Jobim , Dalva de Oliveira, Herivelto and many others, you will want to stop reading each page to listen to the songs mentioned. And Zuza generously compiles the cited recordings, in a precious appendix at the end of the book.

The author confesses, in the preface, to having taken almost 13 years to write the book. Other works followed, books were commissioned and published, concerts were produced. But for him, “what was created in the 1950s was decisive in giving Brazil recognition for its song as an outstanding art form in the genesis of popular music. At the first sign of its rhythmic and melodic touch, thoughts fly, evoking nostalgia for the land, recognizing musical talent and distinguishing the affection of ordinary Brazilians.”

From samba-canção comes bossa-nova, and in the 60s everything precipitates, mixes and reconfigures itself, without losing its genetic heritage. And Zuza Homem de Mello, always attentive to the new signs that appeared in the middle of the festival era, never failed to point out the importance of the matrix genres of modern Brazilian popular music. With the enthusiasm of a boy and the wisdom of someone who has lived intensely, he has become one of the key authors in understanding and loving the best that Brazilian culture has produced: our music.

* 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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