The composer and conductor Arthur Verocai. Photo: Publicity / Backpack

We are tired of knowing that Brazilian cultural memory has unforgivable gaps. Musicians such as Luiz Bonfá, Eumir Deodato, Dom Salvador, Sergio Mendes, Raul de Souza, Astrud Gilberto, Airto Moreira and his wife, Flora Purim, went into artistic exile in other countries, established careers of commercial success or of great respect, but for here are anonymous. If the country owes this debt to its own artists, a worse fate would befall those who did not sign works, but were instrumental in raising their quality. Great arrangers and producers, such as Lyrio Panicali, Rogério Duprat and Waltel Branco, who since the end of the 1950s have been disputed by composers and performers, and the carioca Arthur Verocai who, almost 40 years later, had his authorial album – a little pearl, released without the slightest repercussion, in 1972 -, presented for the first time in the country in two concerts, which took place in April, at SESC Pinheiros, in São Paulo.

As a valuable secret, Verocai's eponymous album traveled in global circles of Brazilian music researchers, until it was reissued in the American market, in 2003. The growing cult around it meant that, in 2009, the maestro performed for an audience 1.200 people at the Los Angeles Theater Center, accompanied by a group of almost 40 musicians who reproduced, with maximum fidelity, the original arrangements of the album. The show was filmed and released on DVD in the American market, as one of the titles of the series Timeless, by the production company Mochilla, dedicated to the memory of great forgotten arrangers around the world, such as Ethiopian Mulatu Astatke, who recently also made two memorable performances in São Paulo.

For those over 35 today, it's practically impossible to say they've never heard of Verocai's work. His great art is in the affective memory of many Brazilians. Suffice it to say that Ivan Lins, Jorge Ben Jor, Elizeth Cardoso, Luiz Melodia, Gal Costa, Tim Maia, Erasmo Carlos, Quarteto em Cy, MPB-4, Nelson Gonçalves and Marcos Valle had arrangements signed by him. Hours before the first of two exciting performances, with the flavor of settling scores, at Teatro Paulo Autran, we met with Verocai for a serene and good-natured chat about his background, the music industry in the 1960s and 1970s, the talent Luiz Melodia and an acute perception of the importance of believing in his ideals and not making concessions.

Brazilians - Arthur, tell us a little about your origins. Did you have musical influences at home?
Arthur Verocai –
I am the son of miners, but my paternal grandfather, Florentino Verocai, was born in Rio de Janeiro. He was the son of Italians and, like my parents, his also migrated from Minas to Rio. My grandfather grew up in Rio and embodied the roguish and bohemian carioca, he liked to play the guitar and, under his influence, my father always liked music a lot. I grew up in an environment where we listened to records from orchestras and American music. We were connected to Rádio Nacional all the time. At the age of four, I would put the records I wanted to listen to on the turntable myself.

Brasileiros – Your sister also had a great influence on your learning…
Yes, in the late 1950s, when bossa nova was emerging, my sister was studying guitar. We lived in Urca, and I was around 8, 9 years old. She took classes with these little teachers who, at the end of the course, gave a recital. That poor little guitar, a little “tchacundum” beat, kind of folkloric, almost like an ox. When I ended up at boarding school, at age 10, I got a harmonica that I played by ear and I don't forget that there was a pipe organ in the chapel. We would go to mass and the organ would fill the room with that powerful sound. Something very ecstatic for me.

Brasileiros – After that, your sister went to study with Carlos Lyra…
Yes, years later, she started studying guitar with Carlinhos Lyra. Then, I would line up her notebook and her guitar and try to learn to play on my own. I spent hours listening to Baden Powell, Paulinho Nogueira and Luiz Bonfá's records, trying to hear songs by ear, because I always had a very good ear. In 1962, I started taking classes with Roberto Menescal and he introduced me to the great bossa nova composers. I started to like the work of Johnny Alf, Tom Jobim and others. I started to study a lot of bossa and, in 1963, I started teaching at Menescal's academy.

Brazilian - In parallel to this interest in music, came the training in civil engineering. Did you really intend to pursue a career in this area?
No, not really. We come from a bourgeois background, and being a musician is always associated with a very uncertain future. A spooky prospect for some parents and mine, despite loving music, didn't think otherwise.

Brazilian - A formal profession was inevitable…
Yes, it was something he would inevitably have to do. I graduated, and the ceremony took place at Copacabana Palace. Who delivered the diploma was General Arthur da Costa e Silva – then president, and my namesake. I was the first to receive. He handed me the straw, I went down the stairs of the Golden Hall of Copacabana and gave it to my mother – who managed to like Chico Buarque and Costa e Silva at the same time!

Brazilian - And did you get to work as an engineer?
I only worked two months. I saw that it really wasn't what I wanted out of life. I couldn't bear to leave the house every day at eight in the morning and not come back until eight at night. Having to work Saturday, Sunday and, by the way, a boring job.

Brazilian - And, at this point, how did you give vent to Arthur the musician?
At that time, many music groups appeared in my class. Me, Paulinho Tapajós, Antônio Adolfo, Danilo Caymmi. We got together every Saturday to play and, more and more, I realized that was what I wanted. I formed a bossa nova group in 1963 – a quartet that didn't even have a name – and when Sunday came, we'd do some jam sessions at the Little Club's happy hour, where, at night, the big names would play. Raul de Souza, Sergio Mendes, Maestro Cipó, Ed Maciel.

Brazilian - And what gave you the security to throw everything up and turn the tables?
Elis defended a song of mine (A New Direction) at the 1968 Rio de Janeiro University Festival, and I was in another mood. I dove into music and started taking a functional harmony course, which gave me a lot of practice writing arrangements. I researched some books and tried to have a class with maestro Erlon Chaves, who came up with this one: “Arthur, I can't teach you, because I'm self-taught”. So I concluded: “Okay, if he's self-taught, I can be too. Here we go!". I was writing and practicing my arrangements with some ensembles from Além Paraíba, my mother's land. At the time, they just played iê-iê-iê, and I wrote arrangements of Wave, Corcovado, Tom's most popular stuff, for sax, trumpet and trombone.

Brazilian - And how did you, who came from this empirical experience, end up in an environment as formal as the music industry?
There were a lot of festivals going on and I started signing up some of my songs and making arrangements for them. I was able to show my work to other composers. I met Ivan Lins at that time and took him to Polygram, because Paulinho Tapajós, who was a great friend of mine, worked there as an artistic director.

Brazilian - And was he also the one who took you to Polygram?
A little after that. My first recorded arrangement was a song sung by the Golden Boys, The Girl and the Fountain, composed by me and Arnoldo Medeiros. I did this work for Odeon and ended up at Polygram, which had the Forma label, where I was invited to make Ivan Lins's first album. The record sold a lot and, out of nowhere, I became a kind of fashionable guy. Everyone wanted to have my arrangement. I ended up making many other records, musical programs on TV, soap operas. The career took off from there.

Brazilian - You did a lot of work for TV Globo during this period…
I made several musicals for Globo, and I was the conductor of the program Free Sound Export, which was presented by Elis Regina and Ivan. I had the opportunity to make arrangements for a lot of good people, even for Nelson Gonçalves, who was invited to sing foolishness e Corcovado. Those “geniuses” thought they had to get Nelson to sing bossa nova. Just him, with that tremendous booming voice! A great nonsense, bossa has always been intimate, whispered.

Brazilian - Speaking of great performers, what was it like working with Luiz Melodia?
I'm a big fan of Melodia. I was writing the arrangements for Everyday present, the one that says: “It's all loose on the air platform / it's all there...“. This song is a three-beat marchinha, but he sang one bar in three and another in four: “Who will want to buy bananas…”. Then, I asked myself: “Is this song in three or in four? If I do so, the way it is, I will say that I am crazy! ”. But he didn't care if it was three, four, or seven. He did it without thinking. He didn't have that to say: “I'm going to make a song in three by four!”. It just happened, due to the guy's intuitive strength.

Brazilian - And all that respect you've gained has given you the freedom to, in a short time, make your record the way you want...
Continental suggested making the record. I agreed, promptly, but I demanded: “Let's do it, but let's do it my way and the way I want”. They opened the door to everything. I used 12 violins, four violas, four celos. I recorded where I wanted, and with the best musicians I could muster. A great personal accomplishment, because who were my idols? Guys like Wes Montgomery, Tom Jobim and Eumir Deodato. Extremely musical guys, but not necessarily big sellers. I didn't give a damn about the disk failure. I wanted to make music, not sell records. I was an idealist.

Listen to Arthur Verocai's 1972 album in full


Brazilian - And how was the work of composing the lyrics with Vitor Martins?
I really liked Vitor's lyrics, he was a very left-wing guy. As censorship was at its height and the bar was very heavy, he wrote very metaphorical lyrics like by the shadows, that said "Who travels in the shadows/behind your shoulders/behind that wool sweater“, or Greek Gift, which was exactly what dictatorship meant to the Brazilian people, a Greek gift “… Leaning over ancient Greece / the ruins of men or tribes / I hear a cry of two thousand years... behind the soaked beards / an eye for an eye / a stone for a stone / a bill for an account…”. Nobody understood what he meant – not even the censorship, which released everything! And a piece like that, which no one understood, could not even be sold. But that's what he meant, he agreed with everything and, for me, it was fine.

Brazilian - What were you listening to during this period?
He listened to everything and was very open-minded. He liked Frank Zappa, Stan Kenton. I listened to folk, country, I really liked Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – I loved the vocals of the four of them and I listened to the album a lot Deja vu. My disc also has some textures from Minas, after all, son of a miner, a miner is! I had a lot of affinity with Toninho Horta and Milton. I mixed this mineirice with funk, soul, jazz, a little bossa nova and I made a free work. From the first minute to the last, the record was made exactly the way I wanted it.

Brazilian - Then you move to advertising. Did that decision only have to do with the failure of the record?
I started making jingles in 1973, and I had many good clients in Rio. He negotiated very high prices and often received in advance. I was earning in a jingle what I would earn to arrange an entire album in one, two months of work. When I recorded Ivan's second record for Polygram, they were starting to call me crazy. After I made my first record, they came to the conclusion that I was really crazy! My ideas fit less and less in the market, and if I had to do things the way they wanted, I'd rather not do it at all. I'm tired of turning down arrangements. I'm not going to name names here, but I've heard from big stars things like: “Look, Arthur, it doesn't get too complicated, see?”. I was forced to reply, in the can: “Then call another one. I'd rather not!”

Brazilian - Was it resistant to impositions and concessions?
I had this attitude because I was worried about the record not having happened. I was quite frustrated. Days and nights wondering, “Am I doing everything wrong? Am I on the outside and they're on the inside? Am I really going crazy?” I came to the wise conclusion that music was not quite that. Music was something else, much higher and more important than the market. If the business was commerce, I went to make jingles. At least I supported my children in a good way. The market and its impositions to stay there.

Brazilian - And how did this recent hype around the record come about?
Kassin (the carioca producer Alexandre Kassin), a very good friend of my son Ricardo, would sometimes appear in the studio: “Wow, Arthur, your record is being talked about in Europe. The press there has been talking about him.” And the disc shelved for decades, at home. This started to happen in the late 1990s, and I thought: “Nonsense, it's a tiny little audience”. In 2002, I decided to open a website and, through it, Ubiquity, an American independent record label, started looking for me, and re-released the album the following year. Gradually, it was spread in the hip hop scene, which is driven by DJs, the guys who make the beats, the bases of the songs.

Brazilian - And what was it like to present this repertoire for the first time outside your country and 37 years later?
It was unbelievable. For one night I was “The Dude” in Los Angeles. When I looked at that sea of ​​empty chairs, I thought to myself, “No one here knows me. How will that fill?”. I was in the wings when I heard my name being announced and a tremendous uproar took over the place. An absurd ovation and a packed house! A very diverse audience. Many young people. People who went from New York to Los Angeles, others who traveled more than 500 km, coming from the interior of the United States, just to see the show. It was exciting and at the same time it was like stepping into uncharted territory as I have always worked behind the scenes. The orchestra musicians were great. They came to talk to me about the enormous pleasure they had in playing my songs. They enjoyed it a lot, because even though that was a rare dish for most, they recognized American matrices, such as soul and funk. My friend Airto Moreira, who lives there, made the percussion a piece of cake. I came back with the ego in the stratosphere and thinking, "Back then when everyone thought I was crazy, I was right, very right!"

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