Sometime, in the winter of 1971, a young Nara Leao is being besieged by certain elements. Walking through streets and bridges with fellow Carioca photographer Nei Sroulevich, not far from her home, by the river, they are not disturbed by the cold or the snowfall. Enjoying a bit of freedom and space provided by nature, now, Nei realizes, would be the perfect time to take photos for the album she just finished recording in Paris. Nei snapping away with his black and white camera, captures Nara’s genuine expressions of joy and surprise to her current state in life. What you don’t see hiding behind the cover to Dez Anos Depois, and behind Nara’s heavy winter coat, is why she’s so happy.
Only two years ago, Nara was fearful for her life. In August of 1969, while traveling to London, she had announced the end of her music career. Just a few months earlier she had recorded and released Coisas do Mundo, and starred in a film Os Herdeiros with fellow exiled musician Caetano Veloso. By now, she knew the reason she was here but few else did. Nara had heard rumblings of common citizens being jailed for rebelling against the dictatorship ruling Brazil at the time. In 1967 censorship laws, like the Lei de Imprensa and Lei de Segurança Nacional had been expanded. Now they made speaking out openly about the government a security risk. Most artists played little mind to those laws, and found ways to skirt or mock them. Initially, the laws focused on the common man but not the artist, the artist (who wasn’t openly nationalist) was held with contempt by the government but largely ignored. However, then, in late 1968, the rumblings were becoming ground swells. Now she was experiencing firsthand what she wasn’t ready for.
Friends of her, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, both flat mates, were awaken on a December night, that same year, to the urgent knocking of some unknown visitor. Opening their doors, they welcomed members of the Rio de Janeiro police force. Both leading lights of the Tropicalismo movement, now lay prone, handcuffed, waiting to be taken to the precinct as other enemies of the state. In jail, after forcibly getting all of their hair buzzed off, they were questioned. Why were they making fun of their own people and disrespecting the national anthem? Why were they disobeying unwritten laws against playing electric guitars? Why were the Tropicalists not writing songs about the greatness of this new Brazil? Why did they have all this wealth at the expense of the nation? All questions laughably trumped up, if they weren’t dangerously implying something else. That something, was that if both didn’t stop writing songs that criticized the new, Estado Novo, they could face something worse than a beating in a military jail.
For three or so months they languished in jail, Caetano taking time out of his day to read The Stranger by Albert Camus, wisely ignoring the other book (Rosemary’s Baby) his friend had given him. That same friend told him about prison “Whoever is imprisoned, is imprisoned forever”. Now in there, Caetano was reading about a person jailed for being emotionally detached from his environment. The irony of ironies struck Caetano as well. He so loved his country (whatever its environment), that his own music had unwillingly driven him to prison for it. He was young enough to navigate through 1964 military overthrow, and brash enough to skirt its worst in 1967 when he rose to fame, but this was something new to him. It was something that scarred him. When Gilberto and Caetano were finally let go in February 1969, they were forced to move to Salvador, Bahia and placed under house arrest. Forbidden from performing live, they asked to leave the country. In July of that year, they all did.
In 1969, for Nara, her public protest had turned private. A year before she had willingly included a cover of Caetano’s “Atrás do Trio Elétrico”, alongside other boldly progressive protest songs like a cover of Jacques Brel “La Colombe” on her album Coisas do Mundo. With that move, the dictatorship saw her as a turncoat of the highest order. A few years earlier, in 1964, Nara had been instrumental in the promotion and the development of a new kind of music called bossanova. That music was supposed to be the urbane, cosmopolitan face of a new Brazilian generation. Rather than conform, though, Nara had rapidly moved beyond it, and begun promoting of a new, different kind of popular Brazilian music. In the end, she was no Astrud Gilberto. Nara would openly at the growing hypernationalism and would actively encourage, through her own music, TV shows, or concerts, a more arresting set of music than the Anglophilic Jovem Guarda pop artists like Roberto Carlos or Ronnie Von.
Artists like Edu Lobo, Chico Buarque, and Caetano, all in some form or fashion got a start at the tail end of her path. Warts and all, her music was closer to the kind that the people outside the high-rises listened to and a reason why she was venerated as the “Muse of the Bossanova” — regardless of whether she cared for the style anymore. And as public her face was for the opposition in Brazil, all of it made her believe she had enough clout to live free from reprisals. However, by the end of the year a short trip back to Brazil let her know better. Unless she stopped recording anti-dictatorship songs and her husband film polemic movies, she and her husband were going to jail. If two of her most public friends weren’t in jail already, real-life authoritative measures put the rubber stamp on her choice altogether.
In France, was where she chose to settle in and get used to a life in domesticity. As much as she cared about her homeland, life’s stresses had come to be too much to bare. Living her life peacefully with her husband was what mattered to her now. Only a few months after she arrives in Paris, Nara discovers that she’s pregnant, stirring something new in her to rekindle. For nearly two years, before Isabel was born, she had resigned to make anymore music. Maybe it was homesickness or something to later show to her grown daughter, but she thoroughly absorbed by the music of her past. That’s what informed her Dez Anos Depois album, one of the first milestones in the break from Tropicalia and bossanova into this new otherness called Musica Popular Brasileira.
In 1959, she made waves by going to Samba festivals with to perform more sophisticated, stripped-down version of samba others were calling her covers of Tom Jobim’s or Ruy Guerra’s as Bossanova. By the time the dictatorship took power, in 1964, she was the glowing face that the government wanted to promote as this new type of Brazilian they were ushering in. Her first album, Nara Leao (1964) displays the cosmopolitan, aspirational sound that Bossanova was striving for. Unlike the rebellious rock that was slowly creeping in, here was a sound that was tempered by jazz-y modalities. Her music and image, was all logical expressions of what a young Brazilian should strive for, not like the uncontrollable sound of western rock-n-roll. However, the lyricism and artists herself was nothing like the person they expected her to be.
The tale of tape shows that she was in tune with a new movement advancing underground. Songs by Vinicius de Moraes, Edu Lobo, and Baden Powell, were from performers trying to take the bossanova further from the chi-chi or jet-set crowd that favored that sound. As popular as she was, she would run into the likes of Caetano or Maria Bethania, and find in them a common cause. Other musicians like Sergio Mendes or Edson Machado were trying hard to break into the foreign market by promoting a watered-down version of the original bossanova she was performing. She would be not be someone else’s Astrud Gilberto. By the end of 1964, she openly made headlines by declaring that she wanted to do nothing with bossanova and berating those who used it as a tool for conformity.
When she obtained her own show, Opinão, a year later, she used it as a pedestal to launch criticism against the military government and having open discussions of the changing Brazilian cultural landscape. A spell with throat problems, gave the government a welcome break to both remove Nara from the program, and for her focus to shift elsewhere.
Little by little, she was gathering righteous steam. Her next releases like O Canto Livre de Nara, and Manha de Liberdade started and engaged with her audience topics of poverty, class inequality, and disappointment with the state of the country. Introducing her audience to the compositional work of future MPB stars like Edu Lobo, Chico Buarque, and Jards Macale. All a new lineage of musicians who saw something dangerous in a competing style, Jovem Guarda, or Young Guard. Jovem Guarda artists like Roberto Carlos or Ronnie Von, openly took their cues and style from America and Britain. Simple refrains of Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, were transformed to Iê, iê, iê chants and the youth had a new watered-down style to entertain them. Using a new show she co-hosted with fellow “despondent”, Chico Buarque, called A Banda, she’d introduce new composers like Jards Macalé, Sidnei Miller, and a young Caetano Veloso, who wanted to escape from pure Anglophilic mimicry.
As her notoriety closed the walls of fame around her, Nara understood her open disdain and participation in protesting the military junta had run its course. Creatively, she’d put on record her statement, a cover of Caetano’s “Lindonéia”, in the groundbreaking collaborative album Tropicália ou Panis et Circensis and her own, self-titled 1968 release (with even more songs written by Veloso). Physically and mentally, her mind was already elsewhere, though.
Looking towards Europe for a holistic escape, a brief tour in Portugal, had solidified a new influence Nara had been toying with: Gallic music. At that moment, in her last Brazilian-recorded album, Coisas Do Mundo, songs by Bertolt Brecht and Jacques Brel had been spun into her own imaginings. Orchestrations and arrangements speaking to a far less Brazilian style started to creep in. By 1970, when she fully embraced the idea of starting anew, Paris became her newfound homeland.
In Paris, Nara, together with her husband, filmmaker Cacá Diegues, for once, are able to enjoy the trappings of anonymity. In the beginning, Nara would sparingly offer Brazilian rewrites of French songs to singers like Françoise Hardy or Jeanne Moreau. At that moment, for her, music was the last thing on her mind. Pregnant with her first child, Isabel, Nara devoted herself wholesale to motherhood, only performing sparingly when the mood suited her. With time, she came across the realization that music still had something to speak to her child. For that reason alone, she had to leave a statement for her.
Creating a songbook for her daughter to get an understanding of the Brazilian music she left behind, Nara chose 24 songs from spanning from largely known bossanova standards, to hidden, tucked-away gems of choro or early samba origins, Dez Anos Depois would encapsulate ten years later everything, including the promise, bossanova held for her. Music from worldly-known greats like Tom Jobim, João Gilberto, Vinícius de Moraes, and Baden Powell, would come together with lesser known, but impactful, works by Johnny Alf, Edu Lobo, and Chico Buarque. Nara would reimagine them in a way no one had realized, in a way that showed both the essence right below the tracks and the promise they still could hold for others.
Dez Anos Depois began with recording sessions in Paris, led by the mercurial Tuca and nearly bereft of any accompaniment. Largely played on dueling acoustic guitars with the barest of percussion accompaniment, bookended by Jobim’s “Insensatez” and “Estrada Do Sol” the first disc, of the double LP, was devoted to bare reinterpretations of the masterpieces of bossanova. In the ears, and hands of these two, songs like “Samba De Una Nota So”, “Retrato Em Branco E Preto” learned a different atmosphere that was largely lingering underneath their surface. Spacious, vibrating, and supremely personal, the sonic shapes created by the two read both as otherworldly and infinite. Vocals would sink in echo, guitars would knock into reverberating alleyways, emotions had never run this high, on such songs, as they’d do in these versions. Try listening to a song like “Fotografia”, “Voce E Eu”, or “Bonita”, and see if you can hear the breath of music constantly beckoning to sweep you away. Just a voice and a guitar, sounding exactly like the orchestra of feeling, João strived for in each of his own supreme, solo interpretations. Holy warbles, pitched-perfect, to hit you exactly, without the need for an explanation.
When the album goes to the second LP, Nara moves away from the minimalism of the first half and leaves others to add to the purity of vision she saw to put on tape. Taking acoustic demos sent from Paris, to Rio, Nara left, to the master hands of Luiz Eça, Roberto Menescal, and Rogério Duprat, freedom for them to stamp their own orchestration and sonic ideas onto her base. One example, “Vou Por Ai”, an unheralded Baden Powell gem, gaining the spiritualism of Nordeste music via mere flute arrangements. Carlos Lyras’ “Primavera” gaining through Rogério Duprat’s arrangement something closer to the Baroque orchestration of Old Europe, giving it the gravitas largely hidden underneath the original. Then, you go back to “Desafinado”, the track that cemented bossanova’s off-kilter, modal newness. And here, you see it experience a new awakening — spectral and deeply conflicted — deeply rooted in the pining emotion still willing to show even more layers, within its contrasted gradients.
Will you ever hear bossanova the same after hearing Dez Anos Depois? My belief is that it will show you everything you’ve been missing, and it will be an album, that lives with you for the rest of your life. It is that special. There are no magic words to properly capture this landmark album. You have to hear it. You have to come back to it. Like a soft, evasive mist, it always seems to fly away, when love is new…