“Music is my journey”: Brazilian Milton Nascimento bids farewell to the stage | Music
His otherworldly falsetto has led many to describe Milton Nascimento’s music in witty terms.
“[My mom once said that] if God had a voice, it would be Milton’s – and she’s absolutely right,” said Brazilian singer Maria Rita, the daughter of one of her closest musical collaborators, the late song legend. Elis Regina.
Yet even the voice of God must rest. As Nascimento approaches his ninth decade of life, the inimitable Afro-Brazilian singer prepares to retire from the scenes that made him one of South America’s most revered troubadours.
“I say goodbye to the stage but I don’t say goodbye to the music. I refuse to say goodbye to music,” the 79-year-old singer-songwriter insisted at the peaceful hillside villa where he is preparing for the final tour of his six-decade, 43-album career.
“Music is my journey. It’s the most beautiful thing that exists in my soul,” said Nascimento, whose Visit “Last session” will take her to the UK and Europe next month, before a series of emotional farewell concerts in Brazil.
The years leading up to Nascimento’s final act were a melancholy time, both for the singer and for his homeland.
As the coronavirus ravaged Brazil, killing more than 665,000 people, the Grammy-winning artist retreated to the hills of Minas Gerais, the state where the Rio-born artist was raised after death of his biological mother from tuberculosis when he was a toddler.
“I went three years without speaking or seeing anyone and that made me want to quit,” Nascimento said in a rare face-to-face interview at the Rio home he shares with his adopted son. Augusto. and two Cane Corso dogs named after Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
Politically, Brazil sank into the doldrums after the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right radical who celebrates the 1964-85 dictatorship that once hounded musicians like Nascimento. “It makes me so sad,” Nascimento said of Bolsonaro’s attacks on democracy that his ethereal tenor voice helped reclaim and cement.
“I hope our young people don’t get sucked into this dictatorship because they don’t understand what it was,” said the singer, who was tracked down by agents from the notorious law enforcement department political and social. as his career took off in the 1960s. “Every time we were going to release a song, we had to send it to them for them to censor.”
A Classic Album – 1973 Milagre dos Peixes – featured eight instrumental tracks because the censors vetoed the words. “Instead of lyrics, I was just vocalizing,” Nascimento said.
Nascimento also lamented the Bolsonaro-era assault on Brazil’s environment and indigenous communities, whose singer defended the cause since first visiting the Amazon to perform in Werner Herzog’s jungle epic Fitzcarraldo in 1982. “The natives are the Buddhists of the forest,” said the musician, whose recordings feature the languages of indigenous peoples, including the yanomami and Kaxinawa.
Nascimento – whose distaste for the Brazilian leader was evident in his refusal to utter Bolsonaro’s name, as if he didn’t want to pollute his angelic voice with a name that many Brazilians consider blasphemy – believed artists had the duty to challenge such outrages, despite government pressure. “They may attack us…but they will never silence our voices or our music,” the singer swore, writing her first songabout the railroad passing through his small hometown exactly 60 years ago.
Nascimento recalled how as a child he had become obsessed with female singers and became discouraged when his voice began to break. Only after hearing a Ray Charles recording of Stella By Starlight 13 years old did he grasp the beauty of the male voice. “He healed me that day,” he said.
The news of Nascimento’s retirement sparked a wave of nostalgia, a box office rush and a celebration of his amazing vocal cords and vision.
“[His voice] is strong at the same time as it is delicate and fragile. It’s precious… something that can convey such contradictory ideas at the same time. It’s unique,” said Maria Rita, shedding tears as she described her affection for a man who took her under his wing after her mother’s untimely death. “It seems to come from the soul…from a place that is familiar to us, but we don’t know it yet – and I think that’s what my mother meant when she said that if God had a voice [it would be Milton’s].”
Ronaldo Bastos, the composer with whom Nascimento wrote some his most famous songs, nicknamed his friend “music incarnate”. “He is the most modern and original artist that Brazil has ever produced,” said the composer, pointing out that Nascimento’s influences ranged from bossa nova and the Beatles to the baroque music of Minas Gerais. International fans include Björk and jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, after whom an amphitheater in Nascimento’s garden is named.
Bastos said Nascimento’s relentless commitment to using music to fight political, social and racial injustice – forged during the dictatorship and from his own experience of discrimination – is evident in his decision to champion young black and LGBTQ+ artists: “Milton was born aware of the sad disparities that mark Brazil and has always taken sides.
Maria Rita praised Nascimento’s efforts to reach new audiences – exemplified by the decision to sell tickets for his tour’s opening show as NFTs (non-fungible tokens). “He’s not writing music for people who listened to him in the 70s…He’s constantly establishing conversations with young people and he’s a huge example and inspiration to all of us.”
Singer-songwriter Lô Borges recalls hearing the divine voice of “Brazil’s most singular artist” for the first time in the early 1960s as he left the building where their families lived in Belo Horizonte. “I was spellbound…I had never heard anything so beautiful,” recalls Borges, then 10 years old.
Nascimento was a decade older, but the age gap didn’t stop them from forming a historic musical partnership. In 1971 Nascimento invited his teenage friend to Rio where they produced what was recently voted the greatest Brazilian album of all time, Esquina Club (Corner club).
Borges said his mother opposed the idea of him moving in with the older composer and a handful of fellow musicians: “It was a brutal time in the military dictatorship. People disappeared, were killed, arrested. There was repression in the streets. The anti-Communist mood meant that disheveled artists struggled to find a home, with building managers viewing them as a crowd of dope-smoking idlers. “We lived in five different neighborhoods in a single year,” Borges recalls.
Eventually, Nascimento’s manager rented a secluded beach house where musicians were free to compose the record of their lives. “It was wonderful…just us and the waves rolling right to our front door,” Borges said. “We didn’t expect to sell millions of records or be the next big hit of the summer. We just wanted to make art.
Nascimento smiles as he recalls how this legendary album was conceived half a century ago, far from the prying eyes of the dictatorship. “It was a record made only by friends… We spent all day composing, from the time we woke up with the fishermen hauling in their nets until the time we went to bed.”
These friendships and his unwavering faith in Brazil’s youth encouraged Nascimento as his homeland faced a deeply uncertain presidential election and he prepared to step down.
“If I didn’t have hope, I wouldn’t even be sitting here talking to you, I wouldn’t even be talking to myself,” said Nascimento, whose walls are adorned with gold discs and platinum testifying to his extraordinary life. “Despite everything, I feel hope.”