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The freedom of the bohemian

Paulo Vanzolini did not revolutionize popular music, but he helped establish São Paulo urban samba

Francisca do Val's watercolors made for the cover of Vanzolini's CD Acerto de contas

Francisca do ValFrancisca do Val’s watercolors made for the cover of Vanzolini’s CD Acerto de contasFrancisca do Val

When asked in an interview, about his dual role as scientist and composer, Paulo Vanzolini (1924-2013), who died last month, irritatedly explained that no one could do just zoology or just music full time. But the journalist insisted, asking to which of the two he devoted more time. He replied “How do you think I make a living? As a zoologist.” “In fact, he really liked his lizards. Composing was something done late at night, for fun, as a hobby. He was never a musician to forge a new path ahead of others. He said that university knowledge was enough,” says Luiz Tatit, professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of São Paulo (USP).

Researchers should not look for a samba revolutionary in Vanzolini. “He adapted the samba from Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo, similar to what the famous samba composers Adoniran Barbosa or Geraldo Filme did. Since he never needed to make a living through music, and composing was not his main concern, he ignored all of the musical movements that passed by, and the crises that samba faced. His universe was free and very specific,” notes Tatit. According to Regina Machado, professor at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) Art Institute, Vanzolini helped establish the urban samba of São Paulo.

“At the time that he started, there was no São Paulo samba, just samba breaking out of Rio de Janeiro and reaching São Paulo and, with this first generation, of which Vanzolini was a part, São Paulo samba took on some unique characteristics,” says Machado, author of A voz na canção popular brasileira (The Voice in Brazilian popular song) (Ateliê). One of the characteristics was not the notes, but rather the debate the São Paulo sambistas participated in, affirming their local cultural differences. In addition to pride in the progress in São Paulo, its samba highlighted the inequalities and other ills of urbanization.

Francisca do Val's watercolors made for the cover of Vanzolini's CD Acerto de contas

Francisca do VaFrancisca do Val’s watercolors made for the cover of Vanzolini’s CD Acerto de contasFrancisca do Va

“This appears in Barbosa’s lyrics, which mention immigration, or Vanzolini’s more biographical lyrics on his experience with bar owners or friends in “dives,” themes that did not appear in Rio de Janeiro samba,” notes Tatit. Unlike the effervescence of Rio, samba jazz sessions in Sao Paulo were exclusively at night, in bars and nightclubs. “Vanzolini, however, grew up listening to samba on the radio, especially Noel Rosa, with whom he identified. After all, Noel left medicine for music. But Vanzolini graduated and became a scientist and composer. For him, a sambista did not need to be a scoundrel, and that word was never used in his songs. He liked to say he was hardworking and a bohemian,” says Sonia Marrach, author of Música e universidade na cidade de São Paulo: do samba de Vanzolini à vanguarda paulista (Music and the university in the city of São Paulo: from Vanzolini’s samba to the São Paulo vanguard) (Unesp Press).

“A product of the middle class, literate and with a privileged, stable occupation, he did not fit stereotypes and simplistic generalizations. The case of Vanzolini clearly demonstrates how samba ascended socially and was accepted and consumed not only by those making the music, but also by the middle classes and elites, largely thanks to the media,” notes Marcos Virgílio da Silva, of the Laboratory of Fundamentals of Architecture and Urban Planning (LabFAU), of the USP School of Architecture and Urban Planning (FAU-USP), who researched the subject in his PhD dissertation Debaixo do “pogréssio”: urbanização, cultura e experiência popular (Under “progression of the common people,” urbanization, culture and popular experience).

Francisca do Val's watercolors made for the cover of Vanzolini's CD Acerto de contas

Francisca do ValFrancisca do Val’s watercolors made for the cover of Vanzolini’s CD Acerto de contasFrancisca do Val

Still, Vanzolini never wanted to become a professional musician. He loved to tell a story. In a show, after much applause, his partner, Paulinho Nogueira, would turn to the audience and say: “You’re good people, but I disagree with your clapping for the only person who does not know the difference between a major and a minor key.” He was “musically illiterate” by choice, and not for lack of opportunities. While a student at the School of Medicine in the 1940s, he participated in student shows, but was forbidden to sing because he sang off-key or did not follow the rhythm. He recited monologues for the audience. “On the program Ensaio, when he sang Ronda, he took off, without even thinking about the rhythm or tone, leaving the guitarist accompanying him desperately trying to follow him,” recalls Tatit.

“On the one hand, he was evidence of the intuitive side of the popular musician. On the other, his erudition enabled him to create very elaborate songs. His greatest contribution lies precisely in that combination of the popular universe with an intellectual bias. This influenced the works of Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso a lot,” says Regina Machado.

“As a scientist, he participated in the bohemian scene and became an observer of the night, with poetic portraits of characters from the bars in the middle of the night. He did this without idealism or utopia, but took a humorous approach,” notes Sonia Marrach. To her, Vanzolini’s lyrics show his best side: brief, with great verbal choices, using and overusing implied ideas, and with economic, concentrated language. In his presentation of the record collection Acerto de contas (Settlement of accounts), Professor Antonio Candido, a critic and essayist notes that Vanzolini gets maximum yield out of minimum work by, using expressive words to create true poetic portraits of late night São Paulo.

“What distinguishes Vanzolini in the panorama of Brazilian popular music is that his musical thinking is based on contradiction. For him, the essential character of life in its various aspects is the movement and the change that comes from denial and the transformative conflicts that are both subjective and objective,” says Marrach. What is remarkable is that this contradiction is presented with good humor, with a comic outlook and a willingness to see everything with a light touch. “He is ironic, transforming the loser into the winner, and thus makes us reflect in new ways. The comic viewpoint inverts meanings, and what prevails is regenerating laughter,” notes the author.

It would be like saying that this world, which makes us suffer, is insignificant compared to a song, a joke, or a beer with friends. “At the last show we did in 2012, it was clear that he was happiest just hanging around, waiting for his time to sing, listening to friends and drinking his beer. He had no worries,” recalls Tatit. This is why he composed “only” 50 songs in 50 years; music as relaxation was an ideal that ceased to exist after the bossa nova movement. “His was a hobbyist in professional terms, not from an artistic viewpoint. He wrote like a craftsman. Lyrics and music came into being together and were created slowly, from the first sentence, and then, without the pressure from the culture industry, the songs were produced in a conscious, patient way taking years, without worrying about the quantity,” says Marrach.

Legend has it that it took him six months to decide between “shows” or “reveals” in the song Boca da noite (Early evening). But, melodically, the result was samba. “His sambas were like mine. But they were not the same. The themes he addresses are different, mine are those of common folk, whereas his were more intellectual, because he is a professor, a zoologist, you know, a smart guy. But they are all sambas,” said Adoniran Barbosa. And Vanzolini’s sambas continued along the same vein, thanks precisely to what Tatit called “his lizards,” his work at the university. Writing between 1940 and 1990, he did not ignore bossa nova, which was a turning point in Brazilian popular music, nor other musical movements, but did not stray far from his samba roots. His friend Adoniran, for example, was forced to rant against the Brazilian rock of the sixties.

“Also different from impressionist bossa nova, which was contained and intimate, Vanzolini’s songs are expressionistic, strong, and playful; they demand a more open and vital style of singing, a rawer interpretation, without dismissing the importance of the singer’s unique contribution and vitality,” says Marrach. He hated the almost talking style of singing used in bossa nova, and also disliked songs with exaggerated emotion; his sambas were sophisticated, far from the sensorial realities of Caymmi, with his fishermen and the sea. “Vanzolini is cerebral, intellectual. His lyrics represent elaborate thoughts and bridges between the erudite and popular cultures,” says the researcher.

Italo Peron, the producer and musical arranger of the collection entitled Acerto de Contas, who knew Vanzolini for many years, says that he never wanted to be and never saw himself as a watershed of “anything.” “He never intended to be a professional composer. Much of his fame is due to his wide and continuing acceptance among students—it is quite impressive—and also to his wide network of relationships,” he says. According to Peron, Vanzolini’s music is simple, and he used to say, “my best influences were songs from the radio in the 1930s and 1940s.” “Vanzolini’s greatest talent is his poetic lyrics. He is able to represent a complex emotional situation in four verses. In São Paulo, there was a need for this and he filled it,” he says.

According to Peron, and Vanzolini agreed, the musician only became “the face of São Paulo” because the audience identified with him and adopted him. “For example, he did not like Ronda, which he thought was unambitious. Even worse, he thought it absurd that the city adopted as its “anthem” a song that spoke of prostitutes and a villain who wants to shoot them,” reveals Peron. So Vanzolini supposedly became a model “despite” his wishes, his music and his intentions, by an audience seeking a representative. According to the producer, his success owed much to “word of mouth,” to his role at the university and during the dictatorship. “That in no way detracts from his music, nor from his genius as a writer, but he did not recognize himself in all this enthusiasm and even thought—honestly and without trying to distinguish himself—that everything was a bit pointless,” says Peron.

Read the article A sharp eye on biodiversity about Paulo Vanzolini’s scientific research.