By Sérgio Cabral
Musicians, musicologists and lovers of our music may disagree on one thing or another. After all, as Nélson Rodrigues fat and foolish neighbor would say, each to his own taste. But if there is a name above all individual preferences, it is certainly Pixinguinha. Music critic and historian Ari Vasconcelos brilliantly summarized the importance of this fantastic instrumentalist, composer, orchestrator, and maestro: “If you have 15 volumes available to speak about all types of Brazilian music, you can be sure it won’t be enough. But if have room for only one word, then it’s not all doom and gloom; write quickly: Pixinguinha.”
A quick look over his life and work would be enough to confirm that he is responsible for astonishing achievements, such as releasing his début record at 13, bringing about a radical change in the interpretation of choro. At that time (1911) the recording of an album was still taking its first steps in Brazil, and instrumentalists, even some of the most experienced choro players, seemed intimidated by the novelty, and would be very self-conscious about playing, scared of making mistakes. Pixinguinha started with great self-confidence and improvised in the flute feeling the same peacefulness he felt when playing in the choro jam sessions with his father and siblings, also musicians, and the many instrumentalists that formed the musical elite of the early 20th century. Pixinguinha was only not efficient in relation to certain aspects of practical life. In 1968, for instance, the Brazilian popular music, the journalists, his friends and the government itself of the then State of Guanabara got together for a series of events that celebrated his 70th birthday, on April 23. Aware that the proof of birth most used at the end of the 19th century was the Christening Certificate, the musician and researcher Jacob Bittencourt, the great Jacob do Bandolim, went to the church of Santana, in downtown Rio, to get a copy of Pixinguinha’s Christening Certificate, and found out that he was not turning 70, but 71, since he had not been born in 1898 as he had always reported, but in 1897. The oversight had been “officially” formalized in 1933, when Pixinguinha went to the Notary Public to have his first Birth Certificate issued. But he not only misreported the year. He registered himself with the same name of his father, Alfredo da Rocha Viana, forgot to add ‘Filho,’ (Junior), and misinformed his mother full name: Raimunda Rocha Viana instead of Raimunda Maria da Conceição. What we know for sure is that he had many siblings: Eugênio, Mário, Oldemar, and Alice, from Raimunda’s first marriage, and Otávio, Henrique, Léo, Cristodolina, Hemengarda, Jandira, Hermínia, and Edith, from her marriage to Alfredo da Rocha Viana. He was the youngest of them all.
The flute and choro jam sessions did not prevent him from having a childhood just like the other kids: he would play marbles and fly kites in the first districts he lived, Piedade and Catumbi. His father, a flutist, not only gave him the first flute, but also guided him to his first teachers of music, among whom was the great musician and composer Irineu de Almeida, a.k.a. Irineu Batina (Cassock). His first instrument was the cavaquinho, but soon he moved on to the flute. His first composition, still as a young boy, was Lata de leite, a choro in three parts – as it was practically mandatory at the time. It was also in 1911 that he joined the orchestra of the carnival group Filhas da Jardineira, in which he met Donga and João da Baiana, who became his friends for the rest of his life. His father was also concerned about the curriculum studies of the boy, who, before going to a regular school, had some private teachers. But what the boy really wanted was music. So much so that, enrolled as he was in Colégio São Bento, which was famous for its strictness, he would cut class to play where he got his first job, the beer house A Concha, in the bohemian district of Lapa. “Sometimes I would go there with the school uniform,” recalled Pixinguinha in his statement made to the Museu da Imagem e do Som (Image and Sound Museum). All that before turning 15, when he even worked as a musician with the Teatro Rio Branco Orchestra. All that before turning 15, when he even worked as a musician with the Teatro Rio Branco Orchestra. In 1914, at 17, he had his first composition published, Dominante. In the publication released by Casa Editora Carlos Wehrs, his nickname was registered as Pinzindim. Actually, the musician nickname still did not have a definitive spelling, since it had been created by his African grandmother. The meaning of Pinzindim had many interpretations. For the broadcaster and researcher Almirante, it meant “good boy” in an African dialect, but the best interpretation is certainly that given by Nei Lopes, a great composer and researcher of the black culture, who found the word psi-di in a Mozambican language, meaning a good eater or glutton. Since Pixinguinha already had the home nickname of Carne Assada (Roasted Beef), for having been caught unduly taking a piece of roasted beef before lunch could be served by the family to several guests, it is likely that the definition found by Nei Lopes is the most correct.
In 1917, he recorded an album of the so called Grupo do Pechinguinha [sic] for the Odeon label, with two classics of his work as a composer, the choro Sofres porque queres and the waltz Rosa. The latter became more popular in 1937, when it was recorded by Orlando Silva. By then he was already a famous composer, not only because of his talent as a composer and flutist, but also for other initiatives, among which his participation in the Grupo do Caxangá, which had been performing during Carnival celebrations since 1914, and was formed by important musicians, such as João Pernambuco, Donga, and Jaime Ovale. He was also one of the major participants in the choro jam sessions that used to take place at the famous Aunt Ciata place (Hilária Batista de Almeida), where choro would be played in the living room, and samba in the backyard. It was there that the widely known samba Pelo telefone was born, composed by Donga and Mauro de Almeida, which is considered the first samba ever recorded. In 1918, Pixinguinha and Donga were called by Isaac Frankel, who was the owner of the elegant movie theater called Palais, on Avenida Rio Branco, to form a small orchestra that would play in the waiting area. That is how the group Oito Batutas was born, composed of Pixinguinha (flute), Donga (guitar), China, Pixinguinha’s brother (guitar and vocal), Nélson Alves (cavaquinho), Raul Palmieri (guitar), Jacob Palmieri (bandola [a small pear-shape string instrument] and reco-reco [a Brazilian percussion instrument]), and José Alves de Lima, a.k.a. Zezé (mandolin and ganzá [a Brazilian percussion instrument]). “The only orchestra that speaks right to the Brazilian heart,” said the billboard placed at the movie theater entrance. It was a success, despite some restrictions imposed by racist remarks of the press. In 1919, Pixinguinha recorded his Um a zero, composed as a tribute to the Brazilian national soccer team’s victory over the Uruguayan, which brought the first international title to the country, as South American champions. The modernism of this choro is amazing, even when compared to so many other works composed more than a half century later.
The Oito Batutas traveled throughout Brazil and, late in 1921, received an invitation impossible to be declined: a season in Paris sponsored by the millionaire Arnaldo Guinle. On January 29, 1922, they set off for France, where they remained until August playing for different night clubs, but most of the time for the elegant cabaret Sherazade. It was in Paris that Arnaldo Guinle gave Pixinguinha the saxophone that would replace his flute in early 1940, and Donga the banjo that would accompany him in so many recordings. Back from France, the group performed several times in Rio de Janeiro (including at the exhibition that celebrated the country’s 100th independence anniversary) and, in November 1922, the Oito Batutas traveled once again, this time to Argentina, playing for five months around the country and recording several albums for the Victor label. Back to Brazil, the word Pixinguinha had already come to its final spelling in the records and the press. New shows in theaters and many events took place, as well as many recordings with his group, which was identified by several names: Pixinguinha e Conjunto, Orquestra Típica Pixinguinha, Orquestra Típica Pixinguinha-Donga, and Orquestra Típica Oito Batutas.
The arrangements written for his ensembles attracted the attention of recording companies, which then were having a hard time with the squareness of maestros available, nearly all foreigners unable to write arrangements with the swing required by samba and carnival music. Hired by the Victor label he radically changed everything, dressing our music with the brasilianess it missed so much. During the years he worked as orchestrator for Brazilian recording companies he wrote countless arrangements. Based on that, it is not an overstatement to ensure that Pixinguinha was the great creator of Brazilian musical arrangement. In the 1930s, he also recorded many albums as an instrumentalist, as well as several of his own compositions (among which the fantastic recordings made by Orlando Silva of Rosa and Carinhoso), but the most remarkable of that time (including more than half of the 1940s) was the role he played as arranger.
In 1942, he made his last recording as a flutist in an álbum with two of his choros: Chorei and Cinco companheiros. He never really explained his decision to exchange the flute for the sax, although rumor has it that the real reason was excessive drinking. But the Brazilian music was enriched by the counterpoints he used to create on the sax and the release of tens of records he produced in his partnership with flutist Benedito Lacerda, certainly one of the highest moments registered in the history of Choro recordings. Late in 1945, Pixinguinha took part in the début of the show “O pessoal da Velha Guarda,” (The Old-Timers) directed and hosted by broadcaster Almirante, with the participation of Benedito Lacerda. In July 1950, an uncommon initiative taken by Pixinguinha: he recorded another of his songs, the lundu (lyrics by Gastão Viana) Yaô africano, which had been recorded in 1938. In 1951, he was appointed professor of music and group-singing by the mayor of Rio, João Carlos Vital (he had been working as a civil servant since the 1930s). Up to his retirement he taught in various Rio de Janeiro schools. As of 1953, he started to go to Bar Gouveia with unfailing regularity, only interrupted by health problems. He was eventually rewarded with a permanent chair with his name engraved, where only he could sit.
A great event was the Festival da Velha Guarda (Old-timers Festival), which celebrated the 400th anniversary of the city of São Paulo, in 1954. Pixinguinha gathered his old-time fellows (once more hosted by Almirante) and made various shows on the radio, television and in public, cheered by tens of thousands of people. Before going back to Rio, Almirante received a letter from the head of the São Paulo Journalists Union, stating, among other points, that “among all the extraordinary festivities that celebrated the city’s 400th anniversary, none had greater repercussion in São Paulo, or was able to touch deeper the heart of its people.” In 1955, the 2nd Old-Timers Festival was held, without the success of the first, though. The most important fact in 1955, for Pixinguinha, was the recording of his first long-play, with the participation of both his musicians and Almirante. The LP received the name “Velha Guarda.” In the same year, the whole group took part in the show called O samba nasce no coração (Samba comes from the heart), at the elegant night club Casablanca. In the following year, the street where he lived, in the district of Ramos, called Berlamino Barreto, was officially changed to Pixinguinha, thanks to a bill submitted by Councilman Odilon Braga, and approved by then mayor Negrão de Lima. The mayor and several musicians attended the opening ceremony, which was celebrated with a 24-hour party, lots of music and plenty of liquor. In November 1957, he was one of the persons invited by President Juscelino Kubitschek to have lunch with the great trumpeter Louis Armstrong at the Catete Presidential Office. In 1958, after having lunch at the Marimbás Club, he felt a sudden pain. In the same year, his Velha Guarda ensemble was selected by the then famous magazine O Cruzeiro to receive the players of the Brazilian national soccer team, who were coming back from Sweden after having won the FIFA World Cup. In 1961, he composed several songs together with the poet Vinícius de Moraes for the movie Sol sobre a lama, directed by Alex Viany. In June 1963, he had the heart attack that forced him to spend several weeks in a hospital. In 1968, his 70 years of age (which, as we have seen, were actually, 71) were celebrated with a show held at the Municipal Theater, later transformed into an LP, an exhibition at the Image and Sound Museum, a solemn session held at the State of Rio de Janeiro Legislative Assembly and celebrated with a lunch that gathered hundreds of people at a barbecue place in the district of Tijuca. In 1971, Hermínio Belo de Carvalho produced a record called Som Pixinguinha, with orchestra and solos by Altamiro Carrilho and his flute. In 1971, one of those moments that would make his friends regard him as a saint: his wife Beti was suddenly taken ill and rushed to a hospital. Days after that, Pixinguinha himself had another heart problem, and was also taken to the same hospital, but to prevent her from learning that he was also sick, he would put on a suit on visiting days and go to her room to see her as if coming from home. For this and other reasons Vinícius de Moraes used to say that were he not Vinícius, he would like to be Pixinguinha. Beti passed away on June 7, 1972, at 74. On February 17, 1973, when he was getting dressed to be the godparent of a child at the Church of Nossa Senhora da Paz, in Ipanema, he had the last and definitive heart attack. The Ipanema Band, which at that moment was performing one of its most cheerful parades, immediately dispersed with the bad news. Nobody wanted to hear about Carnival.
By André Diniz and Diogo Cunha
1897 – Alfredo da Rocha Viana Filho is born on April 23.
1911 – Pixinguinha starts to have classes with Irineu de Almeida, or Irineu Batina (Cassock), and starts playing professionally.
1914 – His first composition, the tango “Dominante,” (Dominant) is published by Casa Carlos Wehrs; along with João Pernambuco, Donga, Caninha, and other musicians he forms the Grupo do Caxangá.
1915 – His first songs are recorded: the tango “Dominante” by Bloco dos Parafusos, Odeon label, and the songs “Carne Assada” (Roasted Beef) and “Não Tem Nome,” (It has no name) by Grupo Choro Carioca, Phoenix label.
1917 – Pixinguinha composes “Carinhoso” (Affectionate).
1919 – Together with Donga, China, and other musicians, he creates the group called Os Oito Batutas, and composes “Um a Zero” (1-0); the samba “Já Te Digo” (I’ll tell you in a moment) (Pixinguinha and China) becomes a great Carnival hit.
1922 – The Batutas go to France and Argentina.
1923 – Along with the Oito Batutas he records thirteen songs for the Victor label, of Buenos Aires.
1926 – Pixinguinha debuts as orchestrator and conductor of the Companhia Negra de Revista.
1928 – He forms the Orquestra Típica Pixinguinha-Donga and composes “Lamentos” (Laments).
1932 – Along with Donga, João Pernambuco, and other musicians, he creates the Grupo da Velha Guarda.
1936 – Braguinha, or João de Barro, writes the lyrics to “Carinhoso.”
1937 – Orlando Silva records “Carinhoso” (Pixinguinha and João de Barro) and “Rosa” (Rose) (Pixinguinha and Otávio de Souza).
1946 – Pixinguinha begins his partnership with flutist Benedito Lacerda.
1956 – The bill creating Rua Pixinguinha is approved, in the district of Olaria, Rio de Janeiro.
1973 – Pixinguinha dies from heart problems during the christening ceremony of Rodrigo Otávio, son of his friend Euclides de Souza Lima, which was being held at the Church Nossa Senhora da Paz, in Ipanema, on a Carnival Sunday.