Thursday, February 28, 2013

Francisco Alves and Mário Reis

The cover says a lot about what you can expect to hear in this recording. The slicked-back hair styles and the fact that both men are wearing suits gives you a good idea of the era.

The recordings themselves date from the early 1930's, and they sound like it: lots of surface noise, limited dynamic range, and since they were recorded on 78 rpm records which could only accommodate about 3 minutes on each side, the track "Aquarela do Brasil" had to be released as "Part 1" and "Part 2." (Incidentally, "Aquarela do Brasil" was recorded in 1939, so the cover information is somewhat deceptive).

But none of that matters once you start listening. The scratchy sound literally fades away, and you're transported back to a time when things were, in many ways, simpler than they are today. Think about it: World War I had only been over for a little more than a decade, and it would be another decade before the US (and Brazil) became involved in World War II. 

I'm not saying that it was a perfect time, or an easy time. The world was still suffering from a global depression that would persist for years, there was political uncertainty and unrest on virtually every continent, and Brazil itself was under the dictatorial rule of Getúlio Vargas. But you forget about all of that when you listen to this classic Brazilian music, impeccably sung by Francisco Alves and Mário Reis. 

Francisco Alves, known as "O Rei Da Voz," recorded almost 1,000 songs during his 35 year career, and is considered by many to be the most successful Brazilian singer of all time. Remember, these were songs that appeared on 78's, so at the very most, two songs could appear on one record. The math is simple: at the very least, he produced about 500 different records. 

Most of his recordings were solo efforts, and listening to a collection aptly entitled "O Rei Da Voz" on Spotify, many of them sound like popular songs performed by male singers in the US from the same time in history: rather romantic, slow tunes, which haven't aged quite as well as the livelier numbers found on this collection of duets. 

Francisco Alves had just signed a contract with RCA a few days before he died in a car accident at the age of 54.

Mário Reis was also a famous singer from the same era, and he performed not only with Alves, but also recorded several duets with Carmen Miranda. 

So what's so great about this album? To be perfectly honest, until I saw the film "Histórias Que Só Existem Quando Lembradas," which I reviewed a few weeks ago, I would have had a hard time answering that question. The inclusion of the track "Fita Amarela" caught my attention because it showed two of the main characters in the film listening to the song, sharing a pair of iPod earbuds.  

I kept rewinding to hear the song, and each time it grew on me just a bit more. If you don't have an appreciation for older music, this album isn't going to appeal to you, but if you give it a chance, you'll see why Alves was so incredibly popular. You don't sell almost 500 records if you're not good, and Alves was very good indeed.

Here are a few samples from YouTube:

And here's Alves singing a patriotic song recorded in 1942, supporting the war effort:

Here's his Portuguese version of the classic "Bésame Mucho":

It's Official: Lula Endorses Dilma for Re-election

Putting an end to speculation that he might run for a third term as Brazil's President in 2014, Lula announced his endorsement of Dilma for re-election at an event last Friday in São Paulo.  

While many observers doubted that Lula would run again, there was always the possibility that the charismatic former President wouldn't be able to resist one more campaign.

However, any thoughts that he may have had along those lines were probably ended by revelations that have come out during the investigation of the "Mensalão" scandal. While there hasn't yet been a definitive link between Lula and the scandal, former government officials implicated in the scandal have alleged that they were acting upon his direction.

Lula's announcement of support for Dilma's re-election is seen as an early sign of party unity and it effectively kicks off the campaign, which is officially prohibited from beginning until 3 months prior to the election itself.

Not to be left out, Lula's own predecessor and on-again, off-again rival, Fernando Henrique Cardoso spoke at an event in Belo Horizonte, criticizing Dilma and the PT, saying, "they think Brazil started now, but that's not true. In my government I changed the course of Brazil." 

In spite of economic growth that has not matched what took place under Lula, Dilma continues to have very high approval ratings (in the 70% range), and as of now, is seen as the favorite. 

Embraer Wins US Air Force Contract

An article in Reuters reports that Brazilian aircraft
manufacturer Embraer won a $428 million contract on Wednesday to produce 20 attack planes for the US Air Force. The planes will be used for counter-insurgency missions in Afghanistan.

In winning its very first contract with the US defense department, Embraer prevailed over the US manufacturer Hawker Beechcraft.

This contract is important for several reasons. 

First of all, with the US Air Force giving its official stamp of approval to Embraer aircraft, other countries may be encouraged to consider Embraer as a producer of their own military aircraft.

Second, it's a positive step forward in building and strengthening trade relations between the US and Brazil. Specifically, the contract may increase the chance that US-based Boeing aircraft will be successful in its bid to sell $4 billion worth of planes to Brazil's air force.

Finally, it's exactly the sort of high-tech export that some analysts have encouraged Brazil to expand upon. 

The biggest loser in this story seems to be Hawker Beechcraft, which is struggling to recover from Chapter 11 restructuring.  

Source: Brazil Portal

Is Brazil a "Self-Absorbed Giant"?

In a recent op-ed, the Miami Herald's Andres Oppenheimer discusses the challenges facing Brazil as it competes in the export market with other emerging economic powers, such as India and China.

Oppenheimer writes: "Among the reasons behind Brazil’s unimpressive export performance are the country’s overvalued currency, which makes labor costs more expensive, low productivity, high logistics costs, and a maddening government bureaucracy that increases the costs of doing business, the report says." 

So once again, we see a list of familiar problems. There's Brazil's overvalued currency, low productivity, high cost of "logistics," which I'm assuming could include Brazil's notoriously underdeveloped infrastructure, complex tax structure, and the so-called "Brazil cost," and cumbersome government bureaucracy. 

Oppenheimer believes that Brazil is too dependent on agricultural exports, particularly its export trade with China. He points out that during the past 10 years, Brazil's high-tech exports have only increased 38%, compared to 873% for China, and 389% for India. 

Since commodity prices are not expected to increase as much as they have during the past decade, and Brazil cannot rely on strong, continued growth in domestic consumption, it must look outward to find ways to maintain its impressive economic growth. 

In spite of his rather harsh description of Brazil as a "self-absorbed giant," Oppenheimer sees much that is positive. He writes that "in almost every aspect — except its foreign policy, which remains too friendly with some of the world’s worst dictatorships — Brazil should be a model for its neighbors."

He gives credit to Dilma for working hard to address issues of corruption, as well as to increase educational opportunities, in particular citing her program to encourage Brazilian college graduates to pursue advanced degrees in US and European universities.

He also supports her government's auctions of infrastructure projects to the private sector, and her social welfare programs.

But he feels that Brazil must work faster to become more integrated into the global economy, by entering into free trade agreements with the US and the European Union.  

Otherwise, in Oppenheimer's words, "it risks becoming a 'once-emerging power,'" a phrase that conjures up the old one-liner that "Brazil is the country of the future, and it always will be."

Sources: Miami Herald, Brazil Portal

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Brazil's "Strong Weak" Economy

A recent article from Kenneth Rapoza of Forbes highlights some of the dichotomies in Brazil's economy, which Rapoza describes as being a "strong weak" economy.

It's strong because unemployment is low, at a record 5.5% for 2012. The figure was 4.6% for December 2012. It's strong because Brazil's currency is stable and strong. You'd think that with fundamentals like this looking so good, economists would be optimistic.

But Brazil's stock market is down, and economic growth rate of about 1% for 2012 is well below the 4% that had been predicted. 

The author says that some economic experts blame Dilma's government for lacking a cohesive economic policy, instead choosing to address economic problems as they arise. In other words, the government is accused of adopting too much of a short-term approach. 

Yet Rapoza also reports that in a recent survey, "Brazilian corporate execs ranked in the top 5 of countries that were optimistic or very optimistic about achieving higher revenues this year." 

Sources: Forbes, Brazil Portal

Histórias Que Só Existem Quando Lembradas (Found Memories) - 2012

This film is one of the most unusual Brazilian films I've seen so far, and I loved it. What makes it so unusual? Well, there is no romance, no violence, no sex, no chase scenes, and in fact very little action of any sort at all. It doesn't take place in a big city, it's not in a favela, it's not in the Amazon basin, and it's not in the middle of the sertão. In fact, it takes place in a mythical village in some unnamed region of Brazil. 

It's almost devoid of plot and has very little dialogue. Much of the dialogue is repetitive, by design, and the film ends up raising more questions than it answers. By now, you're probably wondering what on earth makes the film so great, and I freely acknowledge that not everyone will find it as engaging as I did.

I hesitate to call it an "art film," because that will only scare off more people, but it's hard to think of a better description, because director Julia Murat clearly approached this project as a work of art. The shots resemble a series of striking photographs, so that the film almost comes across as a slideshow with each slide containing minimal action. I guess you could say it's a series of vignettes.

Each shot is beautifully composed with a photographer's eye, which reinforces the story line, such as it is. The film takes place in a tiny, decrepit village in Brazil, populated by a handful of ancient residents and a priest who says mass in the equally tiny and decrepit church. The daily routines of two of the villagers, Madalena and Antônio, are established in the first 20 or 30 minutes of the film, so you have to be patient. 

Madalena (Sonia Guedes) lives alone and prepares the bread for the village early every morning. She brings the bread in her basket to the run-down shop of Antônio (Luis Serra), and puts them in the cabinet while he prepares their coffee. After they have their coffee, they join the rest of the villagers for mass. 

When she's not at Antônio's shop or at mass, Madalena spends her time tending flowers at the village's decrepit cemetery, which is locked and has an "entry prohibited" sign on its crumbling gate.

Madalena on her morning walk to Antônio's shop

Madalena and Antônio and their morning routine

The second or third time you watch these two go through their same rituals, right down to exchanging the exact same words during their morning argument about how to arrange the rolls in the cabinet, you begin to wonder if it's worth it. It is.

Madalena returns home one day to find a young woman standing in her garden. The young woman, Rita (Lisa Favero), is a photographer who has been roaming in the area and wants to stay at Madalena's for a few days. Madalena asks her how she got there, and Rita replies, "On foot." Madalena looks suspicious, but she agrees.  

The rest of the film shows the gradual changes that occur as Rita interacts with Madalena and the rest of the villagers. Most of them are reluctant to have anything to do with her at first, but even the hardest cases warm up by the end. Don't look for some massive overhaul of their lives, though, because that's not what this film is about. The houses and buildings are just as decrepit at the end as they were at the beginning, but the people themselves are changed, and not just the villagers, but Rita, too.

Rita photographing three villagers
Favero plays the part of Rita perfectly. When Madalena enters the room that Rita is using, Rita asks her to knock the next time, but she does so in a respectful way. She manages to enter into the villagers' lives without being intrusive, always backing off if they seem stand-offish, and slowly earning their trust. I have to emphasize the word "slowly," because this is not a film for viewers who want things to happen quickly. While the film only covers about a week's worth of time, it does so at an almost real-time pace. The pay-off of this approach is that you begin to see the village through Rita's eyes, and all of the ancient buildings with sagging boards, dusty corners, eroded stones, and chipped paint, begin to acquire a beauty that Rita is able to see.

Rita out on her own, exploring the village
I loved watching Rita use her various cameras, especially her pinhole cameras for long exposure shots, and then watching as the pictures develop.  A key theme, for me anyway, is that Rita, as an outsider, sees the village and its inhabitants differently from the way they see themselves. 

One of my favorite scenes has Rita and Madalena listening together to Rita's iPod, each with one of the earbuds. They are listening to a recording by Fernando Alves and Mário Reis from the 1930's called "Fita Amarela." After listening for a while, Fernanda removes the earbud and announces, "I like serenades better."

In many ways, the real star of this film is Sonia Guedes, whose sensitive and realistic portrayal of an older woman rivals that of Fernanda Montenegro in "Central Station." It takes both courage and extreme acting skill for an actress to tackle roles such as these, which are not only completely unglamorous, but which require that she openly display and even highlight the signs of age that most actors go to great lengths to conceal.

Dialogue in this film is so rare, and exchanges so brief, that the film didn't give me much of a chance to practice my Portuguese listening skills, but that's not a complaint, just an observation.  

By the end of the film, I felt that what I had just seen was in many ways a tribute to photography as an art form, and to photographers as artists. I know that there's more to it than that, but the presence of photography in the film itself (the cameras are almost characters themselves), and the photographic nature of the cinematography are major elements. 

So, if you're a photographer, or if you appreciate great photography, or if you simply are able to enjoy a beautiful film that develops on its own time schedule, give "Found Memories" a try. 

It's available on DVD from Amazon, and Netflix has it as a high definition streaming video, which is the way I saw it. Subtitles are clear and easy to read.