Saturday, September 30, 2017

A Praia Mais Famosa

While watching the marvelous movie Landfill Harmonic (more on this in a later post), I noticed that a pivotal moment in the lives of the young musicians from the margins of Asunción was the opportunity to bring their music to another country. That the country was Brazil -- and no less an iconic locale than Ipanema Beach in Rio -- made it even more exhilarating for these young people.
Photo: Ipanema Inn
Until that moment in the film, I had not really thought about what it means to live in a land-locked country. The Western Hemisphere has only two -- Paraguay and Bolivia -- and I had thought about the disadvantages only in terms of economic and military limitations. But of course it also means that these entire countries are populated by people who can only go to a real beach if they travel internationally. Since most people never leave their home countries, this means that the landlocked might pass their entire lives without the deeply profound experience of standing on the edge of land and sea.

In the film, this is expressed in very simple terms, as the teens, many of them wearing swimsuits purchased just for the occasion, run and skip, chanting "Vamos a la playa! Vamos a la playa!"

Their simple song reminded me of one of the twentieth century's great songs, named for the same beach. A professor of Brazilian history once told our class, "If your grandparents were sophisticated, they probably owned an album of bossa nova music." In my case, it was my great-grandparents who came to mind. Though I do not remember hearing the music in their home, I am certain they had at least one example, and it would be "Garota de Ipanema."

"The Girl from Ipanema" -- as it is known in English -- is the perfect bridge between American jazz and Brazilian bossa nova, as the definitive recording was made by musicians who were well established in both genres -- Stan Getz and João Gilberto. Just seven weeks before I was born, these three were in New York City working on what would become -- for me -- the definitive recording of the song.

As described in Lydia Hutchinson's informative account on Performing Songwriter, they decided to record one verse in English, and also realized that João's wife Astrud was best qualified to perform it. I still prefer that original recording, in both languages, but Hutchinson's article includes this fully English version with only Astrud singing. Recorded in 1964, it has has over 18,000,000 views since uploaded to YouTube in 2009. On average, 10 people are listening to this particular recording all the time.

Hutchinson's reporting dispels a misimpression I had, which was that the young woman -- the "garota" or "girl" -- who inspired the song was languishing somewhere in obscurity, perhaps unaware of what she had started. This is far from the case. Though Helô Pinheiro was unable to collect any royalties from the song itself, she did win legal battles that have allowed her and even her daughter to parlay the fame into success in modeling and other professions.
Image: HeloPinheiro.com.br
The song has been covered by more artists than any other song, except for McCartney's "Yesterday." A quick Google search, in fact, might lead one to believe that "The Girl from Ipanema" is mainly a Frank Sinatra song.

And I almost forgot: Ipanema is a place, so we need a map. Immediately to the west of Ipanema is the favela of Rocinha -- one of the most notorious neighborhoods on the planet. When I took a private tour of the city a number of years ago, I could barely convince my driver to go there mid-day. As a geographer, I was equally happy to visit both neighborhoods.

*For the title of this post, I use the Portuguese phrase for "The Most Famous Beach," which in Spanish would be "La Playa Más Famosa."

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