Pablo-Picasso-Girl-Before-A Mirror-1932-Aganju

Aganjú ~ Music and Spirituality

 

Pablo-Picasso-Girl-Before-A Mirror-1932-Aganju
Pablo Picasso, Girl Before A Mirror, 1932

Aganjú was the last song we worked on yesterday in the studio for my new album Ipanema Lounge. I had actually gone through a bit a of a crisis with it and I think this was our third studio session working on the song. The rhythm section, Sandro Feliciano (percussion) and Isaias Elpes (electric bass), also from Brazil, had created some amazing grooves and my vocal track was in a complementary, nicely contrasting sultry style. But I still thought it was plainly boring and that we didn’t “own” the song.

I was actually close to taking the song off the record.

I first heard the song Aganjú on Bebel Gilberto’s album Tanto Tempo. It was written by the Brazilian musician, songwriter and record producer Carlinhos Brown, whose musical style blends tropicália, reggae, and traditional Brazilian percussion. Later, especially the Latin remix by Thievery Corporation, caught my attention. It expresses my love of a Brazilian and European Nu jazz style that never quite took a foothold in America the way it did in Europe. It was a movement derived from drum & bass that started in the early 1990’s.

Always seeking new material and ideas, I thought Aganjú would be a nice tune to play live, which we still do. Even with a very sparse instrumentation as a trio; with voice, bass and guitar, it works very well as a groovy, atmospheric lounge style song.

When it comes to recording a song that has already been recorded before, you have to make it your own. I absolutely did not want it to sound like a cover version. Or, like Billie Holiday said,

You can’t copy anybody and end with anything. If you copy, it means you’re working without any real feeling. No two people on earth are alike, and it’s got to be that way in music or it isn’t music.

I had already contemplated horn arrangements but thought it would be too costly and time consuming. But then I thought of simply asking one of my favourite saxophone and flute players to add some movement and interest with some horn tracks in a very last recording session. I booked a three hour session, which was supposed to give us enough time for recording horns, an additional vocal track, some last mixes and mastering. I admit, I did wonder whether it was a bit daunting with so little time…

 

A Track with Veteran Jazz Musicians

Robert Kyle, a multi-instrumentalist and composer, who also just released a new album himself, came in to the studio. I was thrilled with my co-producer’s idea of creating some friction and dissonances, which was ultimately the direction in which I had planned on going with the vocals. Robert played and improvised multiple amazing tracks on tenor and soprano saxophone and some beautiful and haunting parts on the alto flute that you will recognize in the intro of the song. I added another vocal track, the mix was done – et voilà! The track became a wonderful conversation between the vocals and the wood winds over a very infectious Nu jazz groove.

 

Listen and download the track here:

This is exactly where not only excellent players, who can sight read and improvise on the spot, but a production team like Greg and Nolan Shaheed are crucial for any record to sound as good as Ipanema Lounge simply does. Nolan, whose studio I have been recording in for years, is a veteran trumpet player who has toured with greats like Stevie Wonder and recorded with many others. You can hear him on two songs of the album too. He played Flügelhorn on One Note Samba and on Sway you can hear his sassy trumpet ad libs that add a flair very reminiscent of Cuban Mambo bands of the 1950’s.

 

Magical Connections

Suddenly, sitting there in the studio, while the end mix was being done, my thoughts started to drift. I think the fact that Nolan is also a world class, medal-winning runner made me think of the current 2016 summer Olympics. They were being held in Rio de Janeiro – the very place the song Aganjú stems from. Athletes, like any performer won’t survive if he or she is not dedicated to their craft by striving for continuous improvement and stamina. It occurred to me that this was occurring at the same time we were recording those last fragments. It all seemed magically connected and suddenly I realized, that’s exactly what the song is about.

Despite the Portuguese lyrics being really hard to translate, the essence of the song and the name “Aganjú” is that of the African deity of volcanoes and deserts, who spreads magic and protection from Brazil, whose religious culture was originally brought to the country by the African slaves. In an interview Bebel Gilberto, said about the phrase:

‘Aganjú’ ‘Aganjú’ is everywhere, in San Francisco, in New York. People get so hypnotized by this song, so maybe that is a good thing, they see the religion in my music.

Music has always had a place in the history and practice of all religions of the world through the meditative use of chant and hymns during liturgical celebrations. In his book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, the British neurologist Oliver Sacks underscores the power of music to console, nourish and even save us from despair. In the song Aganjú this devotion to the saints for protection, good health and a better life is expressed in both the song’s lyrics and in its trance like mood, which was ultimately, what I was looking to reinterpret.

aganjuI suddenly remembered another interesting link. The origins of the Olympic games in ancient Greece were deeply rooted in mythology, and attributed to the gods. The athletes believed their training honoured these gods, and that victory was a sign of favour from a deity.

 

Musical Dedication & Inspiration

I finally felt it was all coming together but not only musically. I was suddenly so aware of the principle of dedication and inspiration, of how deeply connected they are, that one doesn’t exist without the other. Olympians were performing at their highest skill level in Rio de Janeiro, after decades of practice, determination, and sacrifice, in the same way as musicians do at recording sessions or live shows. And during that session, the god Aganjú had seemed to have blessed us with that magical spark that even, when the most virtuous musicians record or play together, can be missing. That magical spark, the essence of spirituality was created for that song, that very link that connects us humans to music and something larger, divinity.

 

DOWNLOAD your copy of Aganjú here

 

Or – if you liked this post, why not simply…

Franz Marc In the Rain 1012 Painting Lenbachhaus Waters of March

Waters of March and the Circle of Life

Zur deutschen Version hier klicken:

Franz Marc John Constable Rain Storm Score Tom Jobim

 

Waters of March is a magical, world-famous Brazilian jazz song, written by Antônio Carlos Jobim. The very first time I performed it live was at a Sunday show in Los Angeles. I was nervous. It’s one of these songs you know you have to connect with as a musician. Otherwise the audience won’t stay with you. Besides, it’s such a famous song, you almost have the obligation to take listeners on a musical and emotional journey. So whether live or in the studio – and this is valid for all songs – the challenge lies in finding and interpreting the essence of that specific song. And yes, sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t. Interestingly, at my debut of Waters of March not only I, but the whole band connected with it.

Moreover, it took me on a journey, on a quite unexpected journey – into the deep waters of March!

I’ll go back a bit: Waters of March (in Portuguese, Águas de Março) had been a song request from a friend and jazz lover after attending a prior show of mine. Like other songs in my repertoire, it was written by the Brazilian songwriter Antônio Carlos Jobim. My friend handed me a CD, so on my next early morning dog walk, I listened to the enticing version he had given me a copy of. I indulged into delightful notes by no one less than Art Garfunkel – a recording on his 1975 album Breakaway. During the course of the next few days, I dug up and listened to many others, like the original by Jobim and by contemporary female jazz artists like Cassandra Wilson. I immediately loved the flow of the song in combination with such interesting lyrics. He was right. It was a perfect fit for Ipanema Lounge, a musical band project I had founded and later the title of my 2016 album. After all, I had been originally inspired by Jobim – which is why the word Ipanema – from his biggest hit song, The Girl From Ipanema – is in the title. I decided to yet again look deeper into Jobim’s catalogue and to play with some of the songs.

Waters of March in Five Languages

Águas de Março was first released in 1972. Jobim wrote the original lyrics in Brazilian Portuguese and a second version a year later in English. Then, in 1973, another favourite songwriter of mine, the Egyptian-French troubador Georges Moustaki, released a recording. It was titled Les Eaux de Mars with French lyrics that he had penned. An Italian version, La Pioggia di Marzo followed in the same year written by Giorgio Calabrese, an Italian songwriter and frequent collaborator with French pop star Charles Aznavour. Many years later, in 2007, a further adaptation called Solen i maj was written in Swedish by Anders Lundin. The Spanish-French singer-songwriter Sole Giménez penned a version in Spanish in 2009, titled Aguas de marzo.

Waters of March – All Time Best Brazilian Song

Almost 30 years after Jobim had written Waters of March, Brazil’s leading daily newspaper, Folha de São Paulo conducted a poll including more than 200 Brazilian journalists, musicians and other artists. In 2001 Waters of March was named the all-time best Brazilian song. The lasting effects of Águas de Março is also discussed in The Atlantic, including suggestions, comments and videos from many readersListening to many of these versions I once again understood that it was a very magical and philosophical song. But the more I listened, the more impossible it seemed to memorize the lyrics for a live performance…

For Jobim Songwriting was like Psychotherapy

The words of none of the versions – whether in English, Portuguese or French – are constructed to create a logical narrative. There are no recognizable stanza patterns or traceable rhymes either. The lyrics consist of strings of free associations, of singular objects broken out of their original context and then assembled to a collage – moreover, since they are in motion, literally, figuratively and musically, it’s really a montage. It was not unusual for Jobim to write in this kind of stream of consciousness. The composer-guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves recalled that Jobim had told him, that was his version of therapy, which had saved him thousands in psychoanalysis bills. It had indeed been the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who, at the end of the 19th century, had developed the technique of “free association” as a clinical method for his patients undergoing psychoanalysis.

Waters of March et l’objects trouvés

In the song nearly every line starts in Portuguese with “É…” (“[It] is…”) and in English with “a”. “It” is a stick, a stone, a sliver of glass, a scratch, a cliff, a knot in the wood, a fish, a pin, the end of the road, and many other things. This technique of listing trivial objects reminds me very much of the art movement “l’objects trouvés”, originally founded by Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. As early as 1912, Picasso began to incorporate actual pieces of newspapers and other domestic items like matchboxes into his cubist collages. The word collage is derived from the French tern coller (to glue or stick together), resulting in an assemblage. Other artists like Kurt Schwitters, Georges Braque and Hannah Höch also utilized this technique, depicting wine glasses, bottles, cups and calling cards.

Pablo Picasso 1942 Bull's head bicycle seat handle bars metal wielded art
Pablo Picasso Tête de taureau (Bull’s Head) 1942, Musée Picasso, Paris

Aside from painting these objects – or even using photographs – another tendency was to make cubist constructions from various scavenged materials. Most famously introduced by Duchamp’s “Ready Mades“. These are individual objects, sometimes slightly modified and presented as art. His most well-known piece is Fountain (1917), a standard urinal purchased from a hardware store and displayed on a pedestal. Thus, by “simply choosing the object (or objects) and repositioning or joining, titling and signing it, the found object became art.” This was a technique Picasso  also used in 1942: Tête de taureau (Bull’s Head), consits of only two parts, a bicycle seat and handlebars, which were wielded together.

Found Sounds

In music, “Found Sounds” follows the same principle, whereby domestic sounds from the world around us are used. It can be anything, like a ball hitting the floor, a machine motor running or a lift door opening and closing. It was created in the 1940s, by a group of avant-garde French composers, who named it musique concrète (concrete music). In 1948 the French composer, writer, broadcaster, engineer, musicologist and acoustician Pierre Schaeffer composed the piece Etudes aux chemins de fer, which is constructed entirely from sounds found at a train station. The piece is like a musical collage, featuring train whistles and the sound of steam engines clattering along a track. With digital methods available nowadays, this technique is now called sampling as in the musician taking a sample of something else and using it in their work. 

In Waters of March it is the environment, which is dissembled by the storm and the gushing waters, delivering these fragments and debris in the form of words.

The Influence of Poetry in Jobim’s Songwriting

The song lyrics also made me think of one of the 20th century’s most prominent poems, The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot from 1922. Not only is the poem’s form similarly obscure and untraditional – The Waste Land has many shifts in speaker, location and time – but especially the famous first line, “April is the cruelest month” easily conjures up Jobim’s seemingly unusual depiction of March as a destructive and cruel time. The influence of a renowned writer is not surprising, since Jobim was an avid reader of poetry by authors like Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Bandeira and Eliot, many of whose poems he could recite by heart.

The Influence of Weather on Songwriting

It is not unusual for songwriters to use weather conditions in songs. Rain is an especially popular topic, whether in the song Singing in the Rain, which was also a romantic comedy, or the smash hit It’s Raining Men. In the Southern hemisphere, March is the rainiest month of the year, which was Jobim’s initial inspiration for Águas de Março. He is said to have been travelling to his family rancho in Rio de Janeiro state, when a heavy rainstorm turned the roads and landscape to mud, which is also one of the lines in the song, “It’s the mud, it’s the mud…”. In Brazil, March represents the end of summer and the beginning of the colder season. In an article titled “Brazil: Waters of March“, the author, a foreign correspondent for the Al Jazeera media network, describes the rain like in the following:

“It hasn’t been raining more than 10 minutes when streets begin to flood. Thick and murky, it falls in corrugated sheets. Water. So coarse it’s opaque. Nothing but grey. And brown. And more grey. It’s March in Rio.”

Especially in the state of Rio de Janeiro, the weather is typically marked by sudden storms with heavy rains and strong winds, which cause flashfloods, violent flooding and landslides in many places around the city, sometimes killing people. The lyrics of the Portuguese version therefore also reflect this loss and destruction.

The Rite of Spring

This destructive interpretation of spring, reminds me of another groundbreaking piece: Igor Stravinski’s famous ballet and orchestral concert work from 1913, The Rite of Spring, which was so challenging at its time that it famously caused a riot at its première. It was in a similar way a piece of work with no specific plot or narrative, consisting of a succession of choreographed episodes. Stravinsky himself described The Rite of Spring as “a musical-choreographic work, [representing] pagan Russia […] unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring”.

The English Lyrics

For the English version, Jobim – whose music was already being played around the world by the early 60’s – changed a few elements. His goal was to provide a more life-affirming and universal perspective : He intentionally omitted specific references to Brazilian culture (festa da cumeeira, garrafa de cana), to its flora (peroba do campo) and folklore (Matita Pereira). So consciously holding a listener from the Northern hemisphere in mind, he depicted March as the month which marks the beginning of spring, an awakening. The waters are now instead from melting snow, from thawing, and not from the torrential rains as referred to in the Portuguese original.

Although both versions speak of “the promise of life”, the English one allows for these other, more positive interpretations with additional phrases like “the joy in your heart” and the “promise of spring”, a seasonal reference that would per se, be more relevant to most of the English-speaking world.

Both the lyrics and the music have a constant downward progression much like the water torrent from those rains flowing in the gutters, which would typically carry sticks, stones, bits of glass, and almost everything and anything. The orchestration creates the illusion of the constant descending of notes much like Shepard tones – an illusion that does in sound, what the old-fashioned barbershop pole does visually, just the other way around, that means, it seems to be rising forever.

Original, handwritten score of Waters of March by Antonio Carlos Jobim

Looking at an original score by Jobim, it becomes apparent that he was meticulous about the voicing, whereas many composers notate the chord symbols and melody, leaving the interpretation and therefore the voicing to the musician.

My Interpretation of the Song

Shortly before my first performance of the song, I was actually quite nervous. I wanted to do the song justice by being able to convey these sliding kaleidoscope images both lyrically and musically. I also wanted to be able to transport the ambivalence between tension and flow without over dramatization. Waters of March I think is a challenge for every vocalist. Who wants to sound too monotonous when listing these seemingly endless and disconnected objects? Because what matters is not so much the meaning of the individual words. According to the psychoanalyst Freud, their meaning varies in all of us anyway. It was rather, more about the sounds they create when put together in context with the music.

My musical director and guitarist, Greg Porée and I, had worked on our own arrangement of the song. So if you listen to the recording you will hear that the guitar starts with a very unique lick. Then the piano sets in. Riding on the groove of bass and percussion, I then start singing these strings of words. And that’s exactly how it was live. Very soon, I felt the emotion building up inside me. I felt in anticipation of something wonderous. I felt excited and suddenly realized, I had understood the universal meaning of the song!

Whether in Portuguese or English, streaming through me were all of these “things”, a stick, a stone, a sliver of glass. I was channeling metaphors and symbols of life flowing by in never ending new constellations, each one laden with its own history. Like in the line, “and the river bank talks of the waters of March”, that serves as a metaphor for events in the past and promises of things to come. Suddenly, to me even the English version didn’t feel like a calm stream just flowing along – but like a torrent.

In a similar way to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, even the English version wasn’t pastoral; a Beethoven or Schubert idea of spring, but an explosive one. Hence, without pain there is no joy. Without destruction there is no beginning. Whether it is the end of a cycle or the beginning of one, a cycle means life: No matter which way around, a beginning implies an end and an end implies a beginning of something new that will inevitably come. These were metaphors for events and situations that are chaotic, surprising, sometimes devastating. It made me feel very alive and that for me in that very moment was “the joy in my heart”.

Listen to my recording of Waters of March here…

*

UPDATE a few years later, on Saturday, September 10, 2016:

Since I first wrote this blog post, in 2013, I have performed Waters of March at many different venues, with different musicians and in different moods. What strikes me is that more and more, it has become this magical song that acts like a dream catcher, moreover, a poetic facilitator of a news bulletin. Like shortly after the Boston Marathon attacks happened in 2013 I almost, while singing, choked on the lines: “The foot, the ground, the flesh and the bone, the beat of the road, a sling-shot stone…” There have been and probably still will be many stories whose journeys I will be taken on and sceneries I will be enticed to visit because of this song’s associative contents and its permanent poetic state of flux, which is lastly what makes this song such a timeless classic.

For those of you who love these Brazilian jazz and Bossa Nova classics, here’s a whole playlist, including lots of different variations of Águas De Março / Waters of March:

Oil painting by John Constable, Rain storm over the sea (Seascape Study with Rain Cloud) circa 1827
John Constable Rainstorm over the Sea, circa 1824-1828
Franz Marc In the Rain 1912 Fauvism Blauer Reiter Lenbachhaus
Franz Marc, In the Rain, 1912

 

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