Sergio Roberto de Oliveira is one of the best-known contemporary Brazilian composers internationally, and certainly one of the most productive, with close to one-hundred-and-fifty works to his credit over two decades as a professional composer. His busy schedule also has involved planning and production for his composers’ cooperative, Prelûdio 21, and more recently, a contemporary music festival, Composers of Today (my collective review of last year’s edition of the festival appeared here at Sonograma). This rhythm was interrupted early this year by a mysterious malady which first manifested as a liver disorder, with weight loss and jaundice, and was finally diagnosed as pancreatic cancer. Sergio has been undergoing chemotherapy in the expectation of arriving at a cure for this disease. In the meantime, he wrote and recorded an orchestral work inspired by the cancer, Phoenix, which will appear on a CD with works by other Brazilian composers recorded by the National Symphony Orchestra, based at the UFF in Niteroi.
We talked in Portuguese at A Casa Estudio, Rio Comprido, in Rio de Janeiro.
A Casa Estudio, Rio de Janeiro
I: Childhood and family
STM: What is your earliest memory?
SRO: My earliest memory is being with my father at the supermarket, and I was wanting to buy something yummy. I was an only child, I am an only child, and my parents didn’t have so much money, but we were very happy. We lived in a small apartment, with one bedroom and a living room, but we were never lacking in anything that was really essential for us. There was education, good food, but without luxuries.
STM: How old were you at the time of this memory?
SRO: Two years old.
STM: Where did your family live?
SRO: We lived in Tijuca. My mother was born in Rocha Miranda, and lived in Cascadura, Mesquita, and Jacarepagua, and my father lived in Jacarepagua, then in Ilha do Governador, and then once more in Jacarepagua, and as they say, the dream of everyone in the suburbs is to live in Tijuca – at least in that period, that is the way that it was. Once I was talking with Guinga, and said I was from the suburbs, and he said “No, Tijuca is not the suburbs.” It was a neighborhood for making a transfer –first you lived in the suburbs, then you moved to Tijuca, and then finally to Zona Sul. But this wasn’t the case for my parents, they had always wanted to live in Tijuca, especially my mother. So we are a traditional Tijuca family, like so many others. We are a suburban family, and as it happened my parents went to live in Tijuca.
STM: After having lived along the train line.
STM: What street was this apartment on?
SRO: Rua Barão de Mesquita, no. 48, across from the Colégio Militar. One of the amusements that I had there – I was a friend of a boy who lived in the penthouse apartment, and we would go up to the roof, sometimes to play ball, and sometimes to see the cadets playing ball, or doing equestrian jumps with the horses. It was a very good childhood, because we used to play in the street – there was no “playground”[i] – we played football in the street, rode our bicycles in the street, played “pique” in the street – and this was very healthy. I see the later generations who are playing confined in the “play” , and it makes me feel sorry for them, because it used to be so nice, and there was another thing – it was as if we were the children of everyone. The doormen looked after us, the owners of the newsstands looked after us, the owner of the bar looked after us, and we knew that we had to respect them because they were older than us. It didn’t matter if he was the doorman from my building – he was older, and so he could tell me what to do. It was a very nice childhood in this sense, with so many people around us.
STM: I remember that you told me that the doorman was from the Northeast.
SRO: Yes, he was from the Northeast. There were many doormen, and I won’t remember them all. I remember Genesio, who was a little “unbalanced”, in a manner of speaking – he had some attitudes that were a little crazy. Once, when three rats went into the garage, he decided to take some kerosene, and light the rats on fire. Everyone was desperate, because the rats could run underneath the cars, and light them on fire. So he was a memorable doorman, but a sweet person.
My nanny was also from the Northeast. Especially because of my nanny, but because of the doormen as well, I feel like I am also a descendent of nordestinos, with all the stories that my nanny would tell me. She was a person that I regard as being another mother for me. I bought an apartment for her. She always was looking after me, since my mother worked outside the home. I remember wonderful moments when she would tell me stories about her childhood, singing songs, really picturesque things about her life. She was born in the interior of the state of Paraiba, lived under a mango tree, inside a plantation, and her father worked on the plantation – it gave me a emotional reference for the rural Northeast, which as a boy from the city I would not have had otherwise.
STM: Do you remember some of the stories that she would tell?
SRO: She said that when her father would send her to go shopping at the market, he would spit on the ground, on the dirt, and say “you have to be back before this spit dries, or else you’ll be in for it.” She said that she and her siblings liked to eat ants, and play at dams, but that she was always very scared. She told the story of her mother feuding with the lover of her father, the kind of thing that the Brazilian woman from that period had to deal with all the time. So there were many stories like this. I think the ones that I liked most had this flavor of the Northeast – she would go to the forró at the fair, and she would have walk so many leagues to get to the ball, to be able to dance, and then she would dance all night long, but she couldn’t go by herself, because her father did not allow it, and so she went with her older girl-cousins, and her brothers….all these stories were imbued with such a level of romanticism. And then she would tell stories about her arrival in Rio de Janeiro, the colors were already more dramatic. She had a brother who was killed by the police. The police went into her house after her brother, because they thought that he was a bandit (but he wasn’t). She came to Rio by bus, and when she got to the mountains in Petropolis, she was dying of fear, she had never made such a long trip, and was afraid that she was going to die. When she arrived in Rio in 1970, she was enchanted, because there was the parade of players who had won the World Cup in football. She heard them say that Pele was the king, and with her rural northeastern imagination, which was full of stories of kings and queens, she thought that Pele really was the King of Brazil. This is very interesting, because, later, when I was reading the Romance da Pedra do Reino [the Romance of the Stone of the Realm], by Ariano Suassuna, there is a passage with a character named Tia Felipa [Aunt Philippa] who talked exactly the way that Geniza would talk. Because Geniza did not have a sense of geography. So she would say, for example, that she lived close to Chile, there in the Northeast, and then came here to the South. This Tia Felipa has a moment when she says that something is “near Piaui, between Turkey and Germany”, and later I composed a piece of music with this title. This was something that reminded me immediately of Geniza. I grew up with these stories, I grew up with this affection from Geniza, who arrived in my house when I was one year and one month old, and so she is present in all of my memories of childhood.
STM: Did she have folktales that she would tell?
SRO: No. There was something she told me which inspired me in the piece Mot pour Laura, which was that during Lent her mother did not allow anyone to sweep the house, to brush their hair, or to look in the mirror. And because of this her mother would cover all the mirrors in the house. Just as in the Catholic Church they cover all the saints during Lent. And so I used this reference from Geniza when I wrote Mot pour Laura, which is full of mirrors, full of palindromes. I am planning to write down these stories while she is still alive, because there are many of them, and otherwise I will forget them.
Although her stories are full of difficulties, telling that she nursed until she was five years old, because as long as she had a sibling that was nursing, her mother would nurse her, because it was a way of nourishing the children, since they had little food, and often what they would eat with flour with water, and those ants that they would eat…..although her stories tell about a striking level of poverty, for me they had a very beautiful sound, which gave me a very romantic vision of the Northeast, because in spite of all those difficulties, the stories showed a huge saudades on Geniza’s part, different from when she came to Rio, and went through other difficulties – she said that she would eat fried mortadela – they would buy a piece of mortadela, and cook it in the frying pan, since they couldn’t buy beef. There she would eat ants, but it seemed to me that the mortadela revealed a much greater poverty than the ants did.
STM: The ants were probably more healthy.
Do you think that the situation of the refugees from the Northeast improved after she arrived?
SRO: Certainly. I think that before she came things were worse, there were stories of people traveling by truck – she went by bus. These days, and especially after Lula came in as President for the federal government , the situation in the Northeast is much better. Formerly the only solution for many of the people there was to go to Rio de Janeiro, to go to São Paulo, to the southeast, or as they called it “the Marvelous South”. Today we can see that this is not necessarily the situation – there are people who leave their land to become sushi-men, but the situation is much better. Brazil made progress after the end of the dictatorship, but it made much more progress in the last twelve years.
STM: Where did Geniza live?
SRO: She lived in my house. Her mother lived in Bonsucesso, and Geniza would only go home on the weekends. This was a necessity for my mother, and it also generated comfort for her, since there were other siblings at her mother’s house, and they all came one by one to Rio de Janeiro.
STM: Please talk about Paulo.
SRO: My father was born in São Cristóvão. He spent part of his life in Barra Mansa, because his father settled there. Another part of the family settled in São Paulo, but we lost touch with that part of the family – Tia Helen. He had a typical life for a suburban boy. He used to tell that he would take the train to go to school, would have the usual kinds of play for a boy at that time, play ball in the street, play with tops, fly a kite. My father was very good-tempered from the time he was a boy. He had two brothers and two sisters. He was the oldest of five children. Interestingly, I learned later that he was the reason for my grandparents to get married. My grandmother was pregnant with him, and because of this the date on his birth certificate is three months later than the actual date, precisely in order to conceal the pregnancy prior to the wedding.
STM: This is something that was very common.
SRO: Of course. I kept up the family tradition by marrying after my wife was pregnant with my daughter.
STM: But by that point it was no longer necessary to pretend with regard to the date of the birth.
SRO: No. It’s interesting that my father never heard about this story. He used to say that my grandfather told him that he had forgotten to register the birth, and so in order not to pay a fine, this is what he did. But later my father’s youngest sister my gave me a letter, from my grandfather to my grandmother, when they were still boyfriend and girlfriend, a romantic letter, a love letter, and my grandfather wrote that he couldn’t wait until he could marry her, so that he could take of her while she was pregnant. This love letter was one of the things that inspired me to write my piece, Cartas de Amor. I wrote the piece on a poem by Fernando Pessoa, but the whole time I was thinking about this letter from my grandfather to my grandmother. Interestingly, my parents also used to exchange love letters that were typed. They had a code. They would write all the words substituting the letters with one letter afterward, so that if anyone got hold of the letters, they would unable to read them. My father, like any poor suburban boy from that period – they were not very poor, were not miserable – but they didn’t have many luxuries. They had one car, which was shared with all his siblings. It was an old VW Bug. He only studied until the segundo grau [high school], and then went to work. His first job was selling Remington typewriters. Then he went to work with my grandfather, who had an advertising firm, and even began to do production, as impresario for a musical group, then theater production, then he put together an agency together with my godfather, Sergio Bittencourt. They put together an agency for musical performers, called Help, before the song by the Beatles, which ended up going bankrupt. My father had fantastic stories from Help. There was a television program that my godfather directed, he was the musician for the program, a variety show.
STM: When was this?
SRO: In the sixties.
STM: How old was your father when he began working?
SRO: I don’t really know. I know that he was emancipated by my grandfather when he was sixteen, so perhaps when he was sixteen. He was probably emancipated in order to be able to get a work permit. My grandfather’s advertising firm was called POP (Paulo Oliveira Produções) – he was also Paulo Oliveira. It was the leading firm doing jingles in Rio de Janeiro. My grandfather worked with Carlos Lyra, Durval Ferreira, Eumir Deodato – all these names that were very important in bossa nova were doing jingles for my grandfather, and he had stories about them.
There was a jingle from Coca Cola that had come from the United States. There was no money to re-record it, and it had to be shortened. Eumir Deodato went into the studio, and with a razor blade and some tape made a perfect edit so that the music would fit into the time they had allotted here in Brazil. Not only was he a master in terms of composition and arrangements, but also in terms of editing tape, something that was much more familiar for the engineers, and for composers of musique concrete.
My father became unemployed, because Help went out of business, and had gigs here and there doing production, until he was really out of work, and my mother had to go to work. I remember it was a moment in life when we really had no money. I remember that in my childhood it was usual for my father to not pay bills – there was no money to pay the electric bill, no money to pay the condominium bill, the telephone bill – sometimes they would cut off the service, and this was part of life. But I remember a moment that really was dramatic, which was when my mother went to take me out of school, because they no longer had money to pay for the school tuition. And they had to let Geniza go, because they had no money to pay her. It was very beautiful, because Geniza said no, that it was the moment in which my mother most needed her, and so she was going to stay even without being paid, as long as it was necessary. And at the school as well, they said I was an excellent student, and that while they were unable to pay, I would attend for free. And so these are people to whom I am immensely grateful. They say that I am very generous, but it is because people were always so generous to me, and so it is natural for me to be generous. After this very difficult moment – because when they had Help, it was a period when they had lots of money. I remember my father traveling to Manaus with my godfather, because my godfather was going to do a show there, or something like that, and they came back with two suitcases full of imported toys, from the Free Zone of Manaus, for me. So I had a childhood in which there moments when we had lots of money, even though we lived in a small one-bedroom apartment, but in this moment, that I will never forget, my father, who always brought me a present, brought me a little plastic truck, that must have been very inexpensive. And there I could tell that we had no money.
STM: How old were you? Do you remember?
SRO: Probably five or six years old. I had a special fondness for that toy. It was not so fabulous as the Matchbox cars that I had, but that one was special, because it cost my father more to give it to me.
My father finally managed to start working at the Teatro Nelson Rodrigues, which at the time was called the Teatro BNH. He had gone looking for a job for a friend of a friend, and while he was there, someone came in – they were all in the military, or bureaucrats who had been installed by the military – and this person came in, and said he couldn’t take working with performers anymore, because they were too crazy, that they were asking for impossibilities, that they had enormous egos – and this person was the administrator of the theater. He immediately asked my father whether he would be willing to take over his position – so my father was the right person in the right place at the right time. He had experience working with performers, with Help, with productions, with my grandfather’s advertising agency – and even before with my godfather, who is a separate chapter, who was a childhood friend of my father, the son of Jacob do Bandolim – my father was often at their house, where there must have been fantastic musicians – and so it was not something difficult for my father. He was always someone who was present both in the world of music and in the world of the theater. Perhaps this is why, although I began my artistic life as an actor, and having then worked in popular music, I looked for my place in concert music, because it was a place that I could have for myself, that had nothing to do with my father.
As soon as he took over the Teatro BNH, it was playing the play “Wedding Dress” by Nelson Rodrigues, directed by Ziembinski. He remembers working with these two masters of the Brazilian theater, and Nelson Rodrigues became a personal friend. There were various columns in the newspaper where Rodrigues quotes my father. My father was his friend who was a fanatic for Flamengo – Nelson Rodrigues, obviously, was tricolor [a fan of Fluminense]. I remember Nelson Rodrigues telephoning my house quite a number of times during my childhood. Often I answered, and he said, with a deep voice, “God bless you. Is your father there?” . He always started by saying “God bless you.” Geniza, when she left a message for my father, would say that “that priest had called”. She thought he was a priest because of the “God bless you.” When Nelson Rodrigues died, it was my father who suggested that the name of the theater should be changed from Teatro BNH to Teatro Nelson Rodrigues. The family accepted the suggestion, and today it is still called the Teatro Nelson Rodrigues.
These days the recent administration of the theater insists on calling it the Teatro da Caixa. My father was revolted with this. He used to say that for Brazilian theater the Caixa Econômica was only a checkbook, but that Nelson Rodrigues was fundamental.
A few years later he was invited to go to the Teatro Villa Lobos, which was good, because he was a functionary. At the Teatro Nelson Rodrigues he had not had that level of stability. There, after becoming a functionary of the state, a public servant, he directed the Teatro Villa-Lobos for five or six years, when he went to the Teatro João Caetano, where he spent the largest part of his life. He was the administrator there for twenty years, perhaps a little more, until, during the government of Marcelo Alencar, there was a director who came in who was very corrupt (that whole administration was very corrupt), and the director wanted the electrician to make a fraudulent bill – he also wanted to steal from the box office – but when he wanted the electrician to charge 5000 cruzeiros for a light box that cost 500 cruzeiros, my father would not let the electrician sign off. The electrician said “if I don’t sign, I will be fired.” And my father said, “No, you will say that I didn’t allow you to sign.” Because of this my father underwent an administrative process in which he was calumniated by the powerful protégé who was a friend of the sons of the governor, and nothing was proved against him, because there was nothing to prove, but he was reassigned to the area of engineering of FUNARJ. He spent seven very bad years there – this was when he had his first heart attack. He was practically not working, because he didn’t know anything about engineering, and the head of engineering said “go home, there’s nothing for you to do here.”
Later, in the administration of Benedita da Silva, my father went back to become director of the Teatro Villa-Lobos, stayed for a short time, and then went back to become director of the Teatro João Caetano. He stayed there until he retired, when the Cabral administration came in, wanting to do corruption once more, and my father did not want to accept this. They obliged my father to retire, although he was not at the statutory age. This was the point at which he aged the most rapidly.
At the end of his life he took over the Teatro Raul Cortes in Duque de Caxias – he was certainly the most important director in the history of the Teatro Raul Cortes. He was dismissed in a cowardly way by the mayor, because my father wrote in the newspaper, speaking badly about the governor. Because they were political allies, he was dismissed, which made him very sad. He ended up with cancer, and died last year, in 2015.
My father was someone that was beloved by everyone. I remember calling his friends last year, when he died, and there were so many artists that I had not know were such good friends, weeping copiously on the telephone with me, at the wake – it was very beautiful, with many friends. He was very helpful to everybody. Everytime that he could, he would. If someone told him “my daughter is unemployed”, he would not rest until he had found a job for that person. He was a generous person who enjoyed drinking – he enjoyed drinking whisky. There was a a point in his life where this got to be a problem – he was drinking too much. But he loved nightlife. He would leave the theater, and always go out on the town. At the end of his life, he would go to Fiorentina, in Leme, but there was a period at the João Caetano when it was the Centro Cultural Carioca…..
He was never someone for the daytime. He woke up late, drink his coffee, would read his newspaper in bed, take his shower, and go out to the theater. That was my father’s routine.
STM: And your mother.
SRO: My mother has a very unusual story. She lost her mother when she was three years old. Her father was a police detective. – my grandfather Lauro. Her mother was Alexandrina. They were poor – the police detective has the lowest position in the police department, so they did not have much money. They had two children – my mother, and my Uncle Amaury, my mother’s younger brother. Alexandrina became pregnant again, and they knew that they did not have enough money to support another child in the family. She did not let my grandfather know that she was pregnant, and had an abortion. My grandfather, not knowing this, wanted to make a trip, and she couldn’t, she needed to recover, but she kept this a secret from my grandfather, and she had a hemorrhage and it was fatal. And so my mother grew up without her mother. My grandfather at that time, seeing that he was alone with a boy and a girl, thought that he had not have the conditions necessary for looking after both of them, and so he asked one of his aunts, Tia Noriva, to look after my mother, while he looked after my uncle. I think that given the macho attitudes of that period (the 1940s) he felt more capable of raising a boy than a girl. He married again, and I know from the stories that my grandmother Geralda could be rather cruel with a child. My mother had the luck to be raised by Tio Noriva as if she were a daughter. Even today, Tia Noriva is the source of the sayings that are common in our family. She was born in 1888, that is, before the Republic, and was married to a taxi driver, who was black, Tio Pedro. My mother tells that she was very happy in this childhood with Tia Noriva and Tio Pedro, and then Tio Pedro died, and something very unusual happened. Because my mother’s father is the brother of my father’s mother. When Tio Pedro died, Tia Noriva asked her niece to live with her. They were all poor, and she was unable to support herself on her own. This niece was my father’s mother. And so from the time they were children my parents lived together. This had two consequences. Tio Noriva very much wanted my mother to be a “doutora” – that she would go to university. Because of this she would not let my mother do any housework. My grandmother Leda, who owned the house, told the girls to help with cleaning, washing the dishes, the cooking, and Tia Noriva said “No, Wilma has to study.” So while the girls were doing housework, my mother was studying. So this had two results. First, my mother does not know how to cook, (not at all), and second, that she studied law. My mother was the first person in the entire family to have a college education.
STM: What year was she born?
SRO: 1941. So she has just turned 75.
STM: So she was studying more or less at the time of the bossa nova, after Getulio Vargas.
SRO: When she was studying law, this was already in the period of the dictatorship. I know that the first time that she took the entrance exam (vestibular) she did not pass. I those days in high school you had to choose whether you would do the classic track or the scientific track. The classics was the area linked to the humanities, the scientific was linked to the exact or the biomedical sciences. My grandfather had told her to do odontology. And so my mother spent all of high school on the scientific track, studying subjects like biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, much more than the subjects that were necessary for passing the entrance exam for law – Latin, Portuguese, history, geography. And so she changed her mind right before the exam, and decided she would do law, and not odontology. And so she passed the second time.
She was studying at the academic center at UFRJ that was precisely the one most famous for resistance to the dictatorship. They would march on top of cars with blindfolds, with signs for liberty, to say that there was no liberty…. It was a very difficult period for them. This was in the first phase of the dictatorship, pre-1968. She got her degree in law and went to work with a colleague in a law firm, but it didn’t work out, and when I was born  she decided to stop working, to stay home looking after me, and it was exactly when my father became unemployed that she went back to work. She also worked at BNH, through a subcontractor that provided services for BNH, as a secretary, as a typist. Her boss was very had on her, because she had an education. This was not so common for a woman at the beginning of the 1970s.
She stood out, and they decided to move her to the legal department. And there she had a great stroke of luck – one of the lawyers was starting his own firm, and asked her to work with him there. Later she became a partner in the firm, and so our financial situation changed from the point at which she became an actual lawyer. Certainly a lawyer earns more than a secretary, or even than a state employee.
In 1980 we moved to an apartment with living room and three bedrooms, on R. Severina Brandão. It was an apartment that all my friends consider legendary, because we would have parties every week, with live music, but that’s another story.
My mother always had a great affection for her brother, since they had lost their mother. When ever it was possible, she looked after him, even when they were living separately. She said there were very difficult moments in terms of food, basic things – she always protected her little brother. My mother, although she is 143 cm tall, the famous “short lawyer” – no one wants to fight with her, because she can be extremely fierce, especially when she is protecting someone. I remember stories from my childhood about her being very aggressive in dealing with some adult that wanted to harm me in some way.
STM: So your mother made partner.
SRO: She always stood out, not through being a great scholar or jurist, but because she was a lawyer who was extremely effective in a hearing or a trial, very good in her arguments, and through managing to achieve things that seemed impossible. When a court order was needed from a very difficult judge, it was always my mother that went, because she would be able to convince the judge about what was necessary. Her firm was always one that argued for companies, and not for the employees. Often she arrived at agreements that favored the employee, because otherwise it would have been unfair, and thus both the employer and the employee were satisfied.
STM: She was skilled at producing results that were “win-win”.
SRO: Exactly. This was the generosity that I experienced from my cradle, both from my father and from my mother. She managed to achieve a level of success that was unexpected in the family, and she is still working today. She always used to say that she would retire three years from now. Now that my father has passed, she says that she will retire next year. She works four days, but we can see that the other lawyers are always consulting her. She’s a big Mom. This is her role in our family, not just with me, but with my uncle, my cousins, my godmother….there was a moment in which my godmother was feuding with her mother, and my godmother came to live in our house…
Something that I didn’t tell you about Tia Noriva was that when my parents married, she came to live with us. If I am not mistaken, she passed away when I was eight. She was somebody who was very important in my childhood. She slept on the sofa in the living room, because there was no other place, but my mother made a point of looking after her until the end of her life, because Tia Noriva was the mother whom she knew.
This (around 90) is usually the age at which people in my family die.
STM: So she witnessed the transition from the Empire to a modern Brazil. Could you share some of her sayings and stories?
SRO: She had a story about someone who was about to die; they were already preparing the funeral procession, and had put him in a hammock. They were passing by a farm, and the farmer asked “is he dead?” “No, he’s almost dead from hunger.” “I have some rice here he can eat.” The moribund man asks “does it have the hull?” “Yes.” “Yes? Well, then, sound the funeral bell.” So anytime there is something that would be good for someone, and they are too lazy to do it, we say as Tia Noriva would say “Sound the funeral bell.”
STM: And she had married a black man. This was not common at the beginning of the century. How did this work out in the family?
SRO: I don’t really know. But it’s true that the poorer people are the less prejudice there tends to be. I actually never heard any stories about prejudice in the family, although I suppose it’s possible there was some. Any stories from the time of the marriage would have been from the beginning of the century, and didn’t get down to me.
My mother said that she asked Tio Pedro for a doll, and that she said “I want a black doll.” And that she was eating black beans, and Tio Pedro threw the doll into her beans.
Recently we have started to be more politically correct about some expressions in our everyday language, but without any intention to express prejudice, and if I say something about one of these expressions to my mother, she will say to me “I am going to be prejudiced? I am the niece of Tio Pedro. Tio Pedro was black – the doll that I love to play with was black – I never was prejudiced.” I think for this reason I grew up without prejudice as well. There was never racial prejudice in our house. I think the only prejudice that I grew up with was the machismo that is present in our society.
STM: I recall you talking about your roots in Brazilian Indians.
SRO: Tia Noriva’s father was a man, that according to the story, was the child of an Indian woman who had been raped by a Portuguese man, and was brought up by a priest, and the priest’s name was Oliveira.
STM: So Tio Noriva’s surname was Oliveira as well.
SRO: I have two different Oliveiras in my family – Oliveira, from the priest, and the father of my father, who was also Oliveira.
Interestingly, my grandfather (Lauro de Oliveira) did not have the surname of his father in his name, only his mother, while his siblings were Pereira de Oliveira, which leads me to think that this man, Joaquim, did not register my grandfather.
STM: Could you talk a little more about your childhood, adolescence, friends, etc.?
SRO: I was born as an only child, but as I explained, my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother were siblings. My father’s father was also a very good friend of my mother’s father. So the family was very united – the whole family was together at Christmas. I was born into this family environment, a typical suburban family. On Sundays we would get together for dinner at the house of my grandfather, and I grew up with the company of my cousins on Sundays. My uncle (my mother’s brother) had two daughters who were my best childhood friends.
When I was a child I had no idea that I would study music. I didn’t study music, but I wrote poetry – that was my artistic side. This was something that shaped me, because it was something in which I stood out. In elementary school I was a good student, was considered to be the best student in the school, but I was also the best writer. The school had a literary journal, which always had several things that I had written, poems and even essays. My mother said she would feel awkward, because she would arrive at a parents’ meeting, and there were various things of mine on the walls, and nothing by the children of the other mothers – they were a little jealous. I was always considered to be a very cordial child – I was very quiet, very shy. I was always very shy – people who know me today have a hard time believing this.
STM: What was the name of the school?
SRO: Baby Garden, here in Tijuca. Unfortunately the school closed a few years ago. The two owners, Carmen and Mirti, had a very broad view of culture, and I told Carmen later that Baby Garden had given me my critical sense. The whole pedagogical program went in parallel with a very strong emphasis on culture, in terms of music, literature, the visual arts – this was always very important for the school, and had a great influence on me, not only in terms of writing, but also in awakening this artistic side that ended up heading in the direction of music.
STM: To explore this question of shyness a little further, ten years ago you told me that you created a different presentation of self precisely in order to be able to deal more easily with the artistic world. Please talk a little more about your shyness.
SRO: I had this serious shyness which I still have, still feel; there was a decisive moment in my life in which, in spite of being very shy, I was involved in the student politics of the Escola de Musica Villa Lobos. I became president of the association of students, and this was a moment which most directed me outwards. In this whole process, so that I could survive, what I did was this: as an actor, I imagined that I was another character, and this character was not shy. Little by little, I managed to bring the real Sergio closer to this fabricated Sergio, but in the beginning, this was how it was. I was ashamed of very basic things – I was ashamed of buying some popcorn, I was ashamed of talking with the popcorn vendor. I remember, on the first day of school, seeing two water fountains, and thinking, is there one for boys and one for girls? Am I going to use the right one? I was scared to drink water. I was very scared of doing the wrong thing, which was the reason for my shyness. I was afraid of mistakes, while at the same time having an artistic activity which exposes you to the possibility of mistakes. So this was my solution beginning in adolescence. In adolescence, I realized that I had to relate to the world, that I had come out of my shell, and this is where I began to forge this other persona, which had a lot of myself about it, but which made it easier to do things if I could imagine that I was someone else.
So being president of the student association was a decisive moment for breaking this shyness. I would direct meetings which even had people affiliated with political parties. I was there, relying on my heart, without any experience, with great sincerity, believing in what I was doing, but always believing that this was “Sergio the president”, not the real Sergio. He was a Sergio that was more extroverted, who did not have the fears that I had. And something that was definitive (which is later in my life) is when my daughter was born – then the shyness was over. Then I knew that I needed to give her a sense of pride, that I needed to be the head of the family, to be the father for Laura. This changes us as human beings, there’s no way that it won’t. I still feel a bit of this shyness, but I immediately have a process for getting myself out of it. Today people think that I am completely uninhibited, completely extroverted, and even say that I talk about my feelings without problems, that I reveal intimate details of my life to someone I may just have met, and I think it was the result of this internal process that showed me that I didn’t need to be afraid. I have not doubt that art, music, have helped me in this, because there is nothing that exposes you more than the stage, that exposes you more than music, even though when you are a composer, it is the performer that is more exposed – he is playing, he is the one that can’t make mistakes. But if we composers make mistakes, the performers know that we did – they think that the music is bad. And then you feel very ashamed, when you make a mistake in front of colleagues that we respect, in front of performers that we respect. You create a very careful presentation in order to be respectful to your colleague, but at the same time, you have a lack of inhibition, in the sense that you need to expose yourself, totally. I am exposing myself in the thing that is the most important for me, which is composition.
To return to my childhood, my godfather was a composer of popular music, Sergio Bittencourt, the son of Jacob do Bandolim, although he was not a direct musical influence, because in those days I didn’t imagine that I would be a musician. I began by being an actor, at nine years old, in a professional show called Radio Coração [Radio Heart], which was a play for adults. This was in 1979, the year of the re-democratization of Brazil, and this play had been banned. It was a political play by Oduvaldo Vianna Filho, and it dealt with torture. In fact, it talked about the Vargas dictatorship, but the military government didn’t want anything that talked about torture, dictatorship, none of that. It was a play that had been a great success throughout Brazil with a fabulous cast, with actors like Raul Cortes, Deborah Bloch…great actors. There was a role for a child in the play, and so they asked my father “you have a son, right? Wouldn’t he like to appear in the theater?” I did the audition, and passed, the director really liked me – he was a great director in the Brazilian theater – Ze Renato. Something interesting was that, since we were still in the period of the dictatorship, I was not allowed to watch the play – it was not permitted by the censorship. I did one scene, which was the first ten minutes of the play. So I saw the first ten minutes, and then I had to leave. On the weekends there were two performances each day, and I had to stay in the dressing room – I couldn’t be in the audience, I couldn’t stand in the wings – the censors couldn’t catch me watching the show, because it was a show for those 18 years of age and older. There were scenes with nudity, scenes with torture…. So that was something curious.
Right after this there was another show, this one a show for children, called Sonho de Alice [Alice’s Dream], which produced by Roberto Carlos. He was romancing an actress called Myrian Rios, who today is a politician. So he produced the play for her to star in. It was a very elaborate production –he put a lot of money into it. It was a musical.
STM: Where was it presented?
SRO: At the Teatro Villa-Lobos. Radio Coração was also at the Teatro Villa-Lobos.
STM: The Teatro Villa-Lobos was and is on Avenida Princesa Isabel.
SRO: Exactly. I think it has not reopened, because it was being reconstructed, there was a fire… My father, since he had been the director and administrator of the theater for many years had a special affection for the theater, and on the day of the fire he went to the door of the theater, and stood there in tears. He was very angry, since he had no doubt that the fire was due to arson, instigated by the politicians who were in the department of culture so that they could get money from the insurance. My father had no doubt about this.
STM: These days one does not think of this part of Copacabana as an artistic center, nor even Copacabana in genera. What was the artistic position of the theater within the city at the time?
SRO: It was a very prestigious theater. It belonged to the administration of the state. There was even another theater on the same street, the Princesa Isabel, so there were two theaters, and the Villa-Lobos was really one of the most important theaters in Rio de Janeiro.
Sonho de Alice was always sold out, there were children sitting on the steps, always standing room only. It was a fabulous experience, not just for the show in itself, which was directed by ???? Correia, but because of the tours, because the show then toured through all of Brazil. Every weekend I was in a different city in Brazil, performing the show for a full, packed house. Because it was produced by Roberto Carlos, it already had a very big appeal to the media. Myrian Rios was an actress from the novelas, so that was another thing that appealed to the media.
STM: How long did it play at the Teatro Villa-Lobos?
SRO: I think it was about a year.
STM: So you were playing this role for more than a year. How many performances each week?
SRO: For Sonho de Alice, it was four times a week – two sessions on Saturday, and two on Sunday.
STM: So you were a student during the week, and an artist on the weekends.
SRO: At this point I was already twelve years old. But during Radio Coração, when I was younger, it was even more complicated, because the shows started on Thursdays, and it was at night. So it was Thursdays and Fridays at night, and Saturday and Sunday at night, but Saturday and Sunday were easier, because on Thursdays and Sundays I had to wake up early the next day, I had swimming classes, English, all those things that children who have lots of activities do. But I managed.
The thing about the second play was that I never thought seriously about being an actor, but a lot of people thought that I would, or should, because I was already doing my second professional show, which was producing significant money – earning more than many heads of households – at twelve years of age.
STM: Do you remember other actors from this production who went on to careers in acting?
SRO: Mônica Torres, who was an important actress. There was Carvalhinho, who was an actor from the time of the teatro de revista, an important actor. There was Nina de Pádua, who went on to be a noted television actress. There were no really notable figures on the male side – there was Cesar ???, who did television and was a music director.
We had choreography, we sang and danced, and acted. We were working with the songs of Roberto Carlos, and his maestro, Eduardo ?? , who always was the arranger for Roberto Carlos, and we recorded an LP for Som Livre. My first time in a professional recording studio was recording a track for the theater. This was a very interesting experience. Maybe that was the beginning of my desire to have a studio.
STM: So we can hear your voice at age twelve on the LP.
SRO: Exactly. I have it at home….
The play was very successful, and a few years ago I was giving a workshop on theater, and on the first day of class, when you ask the students to introduce themselves, I introduced myself as well, and of course, making a link to my work in the theater, and when I said that I had done Sonho de Alice, one of the students said “Wow! I saw it lots of times! I have the cassette tape of the show!”
So it was on stage for a year in Rio, four times a week, a total of around two hundred performances, with about four hundred seats for each performance, so there must have been at least 80,000 people – we had a very big impact.
STM: And how long were you on tour?
SRO: I can’t say precisely. A few months.
STM: Which cities?
SRO: I won’t be able to remember them all. São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Brasilia, Santos, Porto Alegre, Curitiba….
STM: By bus? Airplane?
SRO: We went by plane. It was a super-production. We were always in excellent hotels. When I was a kid this was fun, because I stayed in a room with another kid who was my age, and we made a ruckus in the room, with those pillows, jumping up and down on the mattresses, playing… for us that life was an enchanted ??? ….
It was probably twelve to fifteen cities over three to four months.
The play kept on going, but I left the cast. My mother thought it was a good idea, that I could spend more time on my studies. Not that it ever caused a problem, but perhaps the traveling was too wearing.
It was very nice, they did an homage to me on the stage when I left, it was very moving….
STM: What was your role?
SRO: There were five children in the cast, and the children played various roles. We kept changing costumes during the show, we were flowers, the guards for the Queen …. It was Alice in Wonderland, so in each new place that Alice goes we were there, playing different roles. Each of the roles had different music, different dances. It was an incredible experience.
I remember that the preparation of the show was very intense, three months, every day, from two PM to eight PM, during vacation. It was two hours of music, two hours of choreography, two hours of ???.
STM: Did you learn the music by rote?
SRO: Yes. The musical director rehearsed with us. He played guitar. At that time I didn’t know how to read music – nobody knew how to read music – they learned by ear.
This was my career in the theater. Interestingly, I was doing Sonho de Alice in 1982, and at Christmas in 1982, my mother asked me what I wanted as a Christmas present. And I said “Mom, I don’t remember feeling this way last year, but I have the feeling that I always wanted a piano.” So in the middle of my acting career I was given an upright piano, the piano that I still have today. I had had some children’s instruments – I had been given a melodica, which I loved to play, and that was when I began to pick out my first melodies by ear. That was when I was about eight.
Something that was fundamental in my adolescence was having entered the Colégio de Aplicação of UERJ.
STM: Where is it located?
SRO: Today it is on Rua Santo Alexandrino, near my studio, but in those days it was in the Rua Barão de Itapagipe. It was one of the best schools in Rio de Janeiro – all the teachers told us that we were the intellectual elite of Rio de Janeiro, and that was a responsibility for us to bear, but a matter of pride. We had a very difficult competition in order to be admitted to the school.
STM: Particularly because it is a public school.
SRO: It was certainly the best public school at the time. We always had three good public schools – Pedro II, and the Colégios de Aplicação of UERJ and UFRJ. The fact that it was public was great, because the school was located by the Morro do Turano, and we had students that lived in the Morro. So there was range of students from upper class to lower class, although most were middle class. I think this was a very important experience for us, to live with this difference of colors and classes, although the majority was white middle-class from Tijuca.
STM: How were the favelas in Zona Norte in this period?
SRO: This was the period when organized drug trafficking got started. At the beginning of the 1980s you began to have an increase in the level of criminality, perhaps because of the end of the dictatorship – I don’t know. With a more democratic point of view you can’t just simply kill someone that you think is doing something wrong. This is a price of democracy, but certainly democracy is worth this price. I remember that people would criticize the governor, Leonel Brizola, who had a perspective very much directed toward the poorer part of the population – you shouldn’t call anyone favelado, everyone was a citizen, and in the middle class, the upper class, many people turned up their nose at this phrase, because he was “calling bandits citizens”, a very prejudiced attitude, but it was at that time that we see the increase in criminality and the increase in drugs. This was when the morro began to be what we see today.
Our interaction with the Morro do Turano was still very peaceful; it was not dangerous yet; but I was assaulted, not at the school, but nearby, by a student who was from Turano. It was a theft of a watch – nothing so important. My awareness of safety started there, because it was the beginning of my adolescence, when I began to go around the city by myself, by bus, by subway – when I began to leave the protection of my parents.
STM: People talk about bullying in Brazil now. The very fact that the word was adopted from English shows that the concept is not native to Brazil. Was there bullying when you were in school?
SRO: Yes, there always was, but I have the impression that today the bullying is much more aggressive. In our day the fatty was called fatty, the effeminate student was called a pansy, the shorty was called shorty, and the students were always giving each other a hard time. If there was bullying in our day, it served to unite people. There’s also this thing about Brazilian culture, which is that if you have a friend, you are giving him sh-t. I call one of my best friends “Animal”.
STM: And he calls you….?
SRO: Animal also. This was an important factor in socialization.
STM: You have to fit within the accepted limits.
SRO: Yes. And on the other hand, affirm your personality in those things that you do not have the possibility of changing. For example, if someone called me “shorty”, there wasn’t anything that I could do about it – I was short. The same thing would be true for a student that was gay, or black. This made me self-affirm as short, and, at the end of the day, made me realize that everyone was different. If I was short, the other guy had buck-teeth, another one was a scare-crow, our black friend was Magilla, and he didn’t care. I remember that in the eighth series, they said there was a kid in the other group that was shorter than me. And I challenged him – I was the shortest one in the eighth series. We went out to the playground, everyone standing around, they measured, and I won – I was the shortest. What I can say today is that I see a much higher level of aggression, or perhaps people are more sensitive, people have a harder time affirming themselves. And there are cases where there is physical aggression, which was not something that I had to confront.
I had a friend who was not gay, but he had kind of an effeminate manner, and people kept making fun of him about this, until one day a kid came and was going to put his hand on his ass, and my friend knocked him down to the ground, and after that he was respected. So you always had to show that there was a limit, and always, when someone wanted to go beyond that limit, your friends got together to protect you. There was a tacit agreement, that if someone were to do something that went beyond the acceptable, everyone would say “no, you can’t do that.”
But we didn’t call it bullying, it was “sacanear”, “pegar no pe”, “debochar”.
STM: Do you remember this school as a period that was happy? Difficult?
SRO: There were various phases. Certainly it was the most important period in my life – my friends from school, even today, are almost all still my friends, my great friends.
STM: This is when you met Animal.
SRO: I met Animal, Ricardo, Bruno – and various others who are not among my closest friends, the ones that I always talk about, but whom I still see today. We still have an intimacy as if nothing had changed. We have a feeling that each one was fundamental in the formation of the other as a human being.
STM: Please say something about these folks.
SRO: Luiz Claudio – who I call “Animal” – in fact, we only started calling each other “Animal” later – started to be my friend when I moved from primary to secondary school.
STM: How old were you?
SRO: Fourteen. From fifth to eighth series he was a classmate, but wasn’t my friend yet. But in the first year of secondary school, we started to study music together, at the Villa-Lobos Music School – me, him, and Ricardo. And then he came to be a close friend. It’s interesting that a little bit later we put together a jazz band – me, Ricardo and Luiz Claudio – which we called ???? – and Luiz Claudio’s father died. I remember that this had a deep impact on me. Luiz Claudio’s father was older than the other fathers, and he died suddenly, from a heart attack, and this was the first time I dealt with the death of a parent, it gave me the sense of the mortality of my parents, and to some extent my own, a very great sense. And this brought me very close to Luiz Claudio. In that moment I wanted to be more his friend. A little thereafter, in the second year of secondary school, he had a very serious illness, and they said he was going to die. He had an appendicitis, the appendix burst, it contaminated the intestine – the situation was very serious, and the doctor said the prognosis gave little reason for hope. I was devastated, I went to visit him, I was always praying for him, and by then he was one of the people that I most loved in my life. Since then our friendship – I won’t say that it grew, because there was no way it could grow more. We grow, we mature, and we have a friendship of brothers – he is a brother for me – and now, when I have pancreatic cancer, he has been my great companion, he takes me to the doctor, he cooks for me – he is being an incredible friend. This was always characteristic of my friendship with Luiz Claudio. He was always my companion. He was my companion at the bar, it was with him that I went every Friday night to drink a chopp. I remember that we finished school, I went to study philosophy at the university, and then quit (I will talk about that in a little while), and he was unemployed at home. So I began to study music, I had three classes a week, a piano lesson, a harmony lesson, some other lesson that I don’t remember – a few classes, and the rest of the time I had to study the material by myself at home. So I was at home studying music, he was at his house, and at the end of the afternoon we would always drink a chopp. We would go to a bar that was called “17”, at no. 17 Rua Soriano de Souza, in Tijuca, and drink a chopp, and our friendship moved to another level, perhaps, this level of companionship. Whenever I needed to go out, when I was feeling alone, or needed a companion for something, Luiz Claudio was the person to call.
Ricardo Grenha, was my first great friend at the Escola da Aplicação. Right at the beginning, in the first months of the fifth series, I felt a great affinity with him, wanted to be his friend, we became close, and among my friends perhaps he is the one who feels that he has the greatest resemblance to me. Luiz Claudio, often, when I say something, he doesn’t understand. He understands rationally, but doesn’t understand emotionally what I am saying. And Ricardo is not this way. Although Luiz Claudio is a graphic artist, a designer – he does the covers for my CDs – and has an advertising side and an artistic side, Ricardo is an engineer, but he is much more like me. So Ricardo was the person with whom I most liked to vent, to converse, when I was an adolescent, he understood better. But he was always a great “furão” [someone who doesn’t keep engagements]. So if I needed to go out, and I called Ricardo, right beforehand he would say he couldn’t go, that he wasn’t going, that something had happened, that he didn’t feel like it. So I went out more with Luiz Claudio, although I had a greater identification with Ricardo. Luiz Claudio was my best man, and I was the best man when he got married. I am the godfather for Ricardo’s daughter, Renata.
My third great friend was Bruno Araujo, who today is an architect, and he was already an architect in the fifth series. On the back of the schoolwork, the tests, the texts which we would receive in school he was always drawing the plan for a house, a façade – he always had this interest in architecture. Bruno was somebody that I wanted to get to know exactly because he was different. He was someone who was very different from me, although he really liked music, as I did, and I was very curious to get to know him better. He was a very close friend, and at this time he was someone who underwent more intense bullying. Until today he is a bosom buddy. He is the godfather for my daughter. There’s a triangle. I am the godfather of Ricardo’s daughter, Ricardo is the godfather of Bruno’s daughter, and Bruno is the godfather of my daughter – the three comperes. And from the fifth to the eighth series we were three inseparable friends. As I said, Luiz Claudio started to be my friend in secondary school. These were my great friends from school. Along with these, there were other boys and girls that I love – even today I know the list for calling attendance by heart – Gisela, Daniele, Marta, Marcelo Rivers, my cardiologist, Pedro, Renato (who is Magilla), Lulu (who is Luis Rogerio) , Raquel, Adriana Romano, who had a musical project with me. Adriana was very important in my life. Adriana was an excellent singer – if she wanted to make a career singing popular music, she would be a success. I remember that in that period there were lots of festivals of student song, they always invited her to sing, and she always won the prize for best performer. Either she won for best song or for best performer. Later I participated, not in student song festivals, but in festivals of song. I participated in two, and won both, with her winning as best performer. The two songs were written in collaboration with Luiz Claudio, which is another story. I don’t want to forget to mention Maria – there are so many people, Alberto, Alex, who was my partner just now in cinema – we made a film together – Leila, some people who are more distant. I didn’t mention everyone, but they know who they are, and they know that I love them all. This was very important in my education. It was a school that was full-time, so we started at 7 AM and left at 5 PM. We had lunch at the school. So we spent the majority of our day, of our life, together. These people really changed who I am, and I know that I changed who they are.
We try to maintain these links. Now that I am sick, they have all visited, kept up this contact, maintained this solidarity, something very beautiful that doesn’t surprise me, because it is the relationship that we really have. The whole gang gets together twice a year, and with some I get together more frequently.
There’s something that I didn’t say about Luiz Claudio. Luiz Claudio and I, in our last year in secondary school, fell in love with the same girl. And she was not interested in either one of us. So we began to write songs –he would write the lyrics, and I would write the music – and we composed a number of songs for this girl. Some of them were good, some of them not so good – we were getting started, learning, and afterwards Luiz Claudio didn’t continue as a lyricist, but I continued to be a musician. And then we went on to do other collaborations that had nothing to do with her, and some of them were really very good. The beginning of my career was as a popular musician, a pianist, arranger, and I thought that I would be a composer of popular music. This partnership with Luiz Claudio was important, and precisely because when I was working with Adriana we had a repertoire that had three or four songs of mine, and the rest was classics of MPB. People loved our duo. We loved working together, we had a fantastic interaction, we didn’t need to look at each other in order to come in together, it was based on the breath, the connection was really good.
My great friends were Antonio Grangero from Baby Garden, who was my great friend, and these friends that I mentioned from my adolescence.
STM: Please talk about your jazz group.
SRO: We learned songs that we liked from LPs.
STM: You played piano.
SRO: Luiz Claudio played tenor saxophone, and Ricardo playing electric guitar. Later we included sometimes drums and bass, two twins that were studying with us, Ricardo and Rogerio Torreshomem, Rogerio on drums, and Ricardo on bass. Even today they have a band that plays on weekends – they are professionals in other areas. And they are talented.
This trio was fun. It was impressive how Luiz Claudio was the only one of us who didn’t have music lessons – he was self-taught – but extremely talented. He was self-taught in everything that he did. One he wanted to make a suit for his brother, he went and looked up how to do, and he sewed the suit. He would have an idea, dedicate himself to it, and do it. Even in his professional training he never got a degree at university. He did it as an autodidact, and through his professional experience.
STM: Do you have recordings of this group?
SRO: I have a cassette. I remember that the sound wasn’t the best, and we weren’t so talented. I was a poor improviser.
STM: How did you discover jazz? This is something that has less presence in Rio.
SRO: In those days we had a Brazilian jazz movement that was very significant. We had groups like Cama de Gato, Jazz Brasil. We had Mistura Fina that was a jazz club, Jazzmania that was a jazz club, and also Rio Jazzclub. There were three clubs in Rio that were dedicated to jazz, with Brazilian and international jazz performers. There were various free shows, in Parque das Catacumbas, and even in shopping malls. Artists like Victor Biglione, Ricardo Silveira, Nico Assunção, who was a fantastic bassist, Ze Lourenço, Marcus Ariel…..very good musicians who constituted an important jazz scene that that time. Of course this had an influence on us. But we were also closer to a different type of music. I grew up listening to Tom Jobim, and this already brings you close to jazz because of the harmonies themselves. Because we were told that bossa nova was influenced by jazz we wanted to hear jazz to find out what it was all about. The people who were serious about music when I was an adolescent all went to study with teachers who would teach them jazz. So this was a mark on my generation, which for the next generation would be rock.
STM: You mentioned the arrival of the piano at home, but you didn’t yet say how you began to study.
SRO: I began by playing by ear. I relaxed by sitting down at the piano and learning a tune by ear. Usually the melodies, I was very good at hearing the melody, and even today people consider me to be a good composer of melodies. Then my father, who knew a lot of people in the area of music, knew a great choro musician, Claudionor Cruz, who had an informal music school at his house. On Saturdays he would give lessons in harmony, and lessons on every instrument. He was one of the musicians who could play everything.
STM: Where did he live?
SRO: He lived in Piedade, I think. In order to study with him you first had to study with another teacher who taught solfège, who was in Pilares. Everything was in the suburbs. So I would go on Saturdays to Pilares to study with this teacher, and later to study with Claudionor, and I would be there for the choro sessions which would take place at his house on Saturday afternoons. This certainly had a great influence on me.
But it didn’t really work out right. For me it was too theoretical, in spite of the fact that choro has a lot of practice, but it also has a lot of theory. Claudionor Cruz was extremely rigorous in this respect. So I was feeling the need for something more practical, and I was losing interest.
STM: More practical in what way?
SRO: Playing music, playing songs. I wanted to play.
STM: He wouldn’t let you play.
SRO: No. Until I had a certain level of theory, I couldn’t play. This was very rigorous, and for a boy my age, it didn’t work.
STM: For me it seems interesting to have this approach in the world of choro. We think of choro as popular music, but apparently it was not so popular as all that, if he would not let you move forward without this basis in theory. And there are many people playing classical music without any theoretical foundation.
SRO: The great school of choro, back as far as Pixinguina, are great masters, of theory, of harmony, of arranging, very deep. He made a point that we had to have this very solid basis.
My real beginning of studying the piano was with a teacher named Marly, who has already passed away, at the Casa Milton, which was a musical instrument store, which had instrument lessons. On the lower floor, they sold instruments, and upstairs there was a music store.
STM: In Tijuca.
SRO: On Rua Marisa Barros. So I had piano lessons there, studying classical piano, with this idea from Claudionor that I had to have classical study as a solid basis. I studied there for two years until I entered the Escola Villa Lobos. Ricardo and I studied music, both at the Casa Milton – he studied guitar, I studied piano, and we were saying that we needed someplace more serious where we could develop more.
We discovered the Escola Villa-Lobos, which had a test, but which was a public school. We told our friend Luiz-Claudio about the school, who from that point on became our friend, and not just our classmate. And so I went to study at the Escola Villa-Lobos.
STM: Was this full-time?
SRO: No, I studied at night.
STM: So you went to school from 7 AM to 5 PM…
SRO: And then I went to English class from 5 to 7, and at 7:30 there was music school in the center of the city.
STM: Until when?
SRO: 9 or 9:30.
STM: And then you went home and slept.
SRO: Exactly. Often there was still homework to be done. It was a busy life, but one that I loved.
There was one afternoon a week free, I think it was Thursdays. That was paradise, because it was the freest day of the week.
STM: It sounds like there was no time to do anything but study.
SRO: But we managed it. We had a very good time at school….later there were two afternoons where we didn’t have class, and finally three, so we had a little more time.
When I entered the Escola Villa-Lobos, they had the same setup, first I had to have theory, which they called rhythmization, which was really sight-reading. My first teacher at the EMVL was Marcos Vinicius Nogueira, composer and professor at the School of Music of UFRJ, who I would meet again later. When I decided to do the entrance exam, he was one of the people that I asked. I said “Marcos, I am thinking about doing composition.” And he said “Don’t do composition. Do conducting.” “But why, Marcos?” “If you do composition, what are you? A composer. In composition, anyone picks up a box of matches and says he is a composer, picks up an out-of-tune guitar, and says he is a composer. In conducting you become a maestro, everyone thinks you are a maestro. It’s different level of respect.” But what I wanted to do is compose.
At the EMVL, I had classes with him, and then the following semester, piano with Leopoldo Tosa, who was a great pianist, who never had an important career. He could have had one, but I found out later that he had had to win three competitions in order to have a fellowship, and he won the first two, and when he got to the third he had a breakdown, psychologically speaking, could not play, and that was the end of his career. But he was a great pianist, and he gave me a very solid foundation. If I had gone that direction I could have been a good pianist. But I think that my greatest talent was not to be an instrumentalist, and my head was not that of an instrumentalist, but of a composer.
Thinking about my childhood I forgot to mention someone very important, my first girlfriend. I was always very shy, but at the Baby Garden, from the time that I was very young, there was a girl that was my height, that was very much like me, who was my namoradinha at the school, Patricia. She passed the entrance exam for the CdA together with me, but she went into another group, and this was my first great romantic disappointment, because in the fifth series she went to be the girlfriend of another boy, and broke up with me.
It was a terrible blow, and my heart was shattered. Perhaps this deepened my shyness for quite some time. I had a hard time in chatting up girls for a long time. I was very insecure from then on. I had a girlfriend again only at age fourteen, exactly when I was beginning secondary school, studying music, inventing that character who was less shy than I was.
STM: What is she doing now?
SRO: I found her in Facebook – she is living in Correias, has two beautiful daughters, and is working at the TRE – the Tribunal Regional Eleitoral. But we haven’t seen each other for many years. I am really curious. We studied in the same school until the end of secondary school, until age sixteen. When I was in primary school I used to travel to her house in Correias, our families were very close; in school we were not in the same group, in the same classroom, but we would always see each other at recess, so we were in the same place for ten, twelve years, and then this person disappeared from my life. I would very much like to see her, sit down to talk, discover what has become of my first girlfriend….
The world of the human being that enchants me is principally that of women, yes? It’s not by chance that I am always collaborating with women, like I am right now with Gabriela Geluda, or with Christiane Muñoz, who is a clown, an actress, a director – I have already done a ???? de teatro for her. Now and then I am looking for a collaboration with a woman, and I am very curious to know what happened to Patricia.
STM: To move back a long way in our conversation, you mentioned your poetry, and we didn’t discuss it further. Do you still have your poetry from age six? The publications from the school?
SRO: Perhaps my mother has a lot of things. She won’t have everything, because it would be too much, but she certainly has something.
STM: How did you start? There are few people who write poetry, even as adults.
SRO: It was my school – Baby Garden. We used to read a lot of poetry; we certainly wrote poetry as exercises. And I like it, as a hobby, not just as schoolwork. But certainly reading poetry was something we did regularly – we would read poetry, and write it as well. It was really a school with a special view of culture.
In secondary school, when I had decided to be more extroverted, I went back to writing poetry. I wrote poetry, sometimes essays, texts, and even would pin them up on the wall at the school. This was in my first year in secondary school, at age fourteen. When I wrote something that I really liked, I would post it, everyone went to read it, everyone liked it. And then this went back to sleep again, and I started to write poetry again as an adult. I put together a book which I have not published. Now I write poetry when I need to, write song lyrics when I need them; I have written lyrics for myself to set, and for others to set – Marcio Conrad, who is a great friend and works with religious music – he works with the Adventist church as the director of the conservatory in a school, as a composer, and a conductor – asks me for lyrics now and then. He knows that I write very quickly. I always ask him to give me the subject, some references in the Bible, and to give me fifteen minutes.
I don’t know how well known they are among the Adventists, but there are a half-dozen that have been recorded on CDs. It’s a part of my life that few people know about.
These days I write poetry very rarely. Now and then it happens. The other day I had a feeling that I needed to express, and I thought it was easier to put it into the world in the form of poetry rather than music.
STM: I don’t want to leave your childhood without asking about the presence of Our Lady of Aparecida, since I remember your telling me about the family going to Aparecida to pray for your health.
SRO: My family was always very religious even though it didn’t belong to any organized church. Like all Brazilians, everyone says that they are Catholic; my mother was educated at a school run by nuns, and she knows how to pray the Ave Maria in Portuguese, French, English, and Latin, and I was baptized, but never took my first communion. Syncretism was always present in my family, the influence of Afro-Brazilian religion, of Brazilian superstitions. That mixture that the majority of Brazilians make. This was something very present. The family didn’t belong to the church, but was very religious, very mystical. My father always had a very mystical side, and my mother as well. When I was a child, I had lots of health issues, nothing very serious, but perhaps my parents thought that they were. Various times they made promises so that I would be cured. And these promises, when it was something serious, were offered to Nossa Senhora Aparecida. Which meant numerous trips to Aparecida do Norte, to the Basilica of Nossa Senhora Aparecida, so that I could light a candle that was my height. This was very classic – we would go and come back on the same day. We would leave very early, before the sun had risen, when it was still dark, and arrive there, have lunch, go to a mass, light the candle, visit the museum of ex-votos, which was something very strange to see, and afterward go back to Rio de Janeiro.
Now that I am sick I have already made a promise to Nossa Senhora Aperecida, of course. This is not something that I have done often, but I have a very strong mystical side – I believe very much in things from that side, the metaphysical, the spiritual…..
STM: My image of Nossa Senhora Aparecida is always that of Fernanda Montenegro in Auto da Compadecida…
SRO: Not for me….I confess that when the film came out, and I saw Fernanda Montenegro, I thought it was strange, because Nossa Senhora Aparecida was a person , and I had grown up looking at a statue. Seeing her as a person had an impact on me. There is an early scene in which she appears in that usual posture, which is a triangle, right? And I thought it was very beautiful. But this is not my image.
STM: So you were marked by the memory of the statue in the Basilica. Every time you would arrive you would see her….
SRO: That is the Nossa Senhora Aparecida that marked me. Even though we know that this is a representation, an image…and a large part of Christianity abominates images, perhaps for this reason. When I was a child, the image WAS the divinity. I had no idea that she was a representation of the Mother of Christ.
STM: So it was fundamental to go THERE, to THIS image that was in this Basilica.
SRO: For me, yes. For my parents, I don’t think so. For them they had to go there to pay the promise.
But for me, even today, when I think of Nossa Senhora Aparecida, I think of that image. It’s not by chance that she is the patroness of Brazil – she is the one on whom the majority of Brazilian rely when they call on the help of a saint.
STM: Let’s go back to the Escola Villa-Lobos.
SRO: They had a technical course and a free course, and the best one was the free course. It was the best professors who taught in the free course. The free course did not have a fixed curriculum – you didn’t graduate. You chose the subjects that you wanted to study, and there were some that were pre-requisites for others, but there was not a moment when you graduated. Something that was very important for me was the Workshop in Contemporary Composition with Tato Taborda. This was my first contact with contemporary music. He introduced me to Schoenberg for the first time, which had a big impact on me, along with Stockhausen, Steve Reich…..
And I studied composition with maestro Guerra-Peixe. This was something fundamental for my training as a musician.
STM: How old was he at the time?
SRO: This was very close to the end of his life. I began to study with him in 1991, and he died in 1993.
I had graduated from the Colégio de Aplicação, and my mother had two requests. She wanted to me to have another parallel career, that wasn’t music…
STM: So that you wouldn’t starve….
SRO: And I had to give her a diploma. I had to have a college degree in something. So I went to college in philosophy. I studied philosophy at UFRJ, in Largo de São Francisco, great professors, very interesting course, but I had a very great anxiety, because I would leave the school, and go home to practice music, and all my colleagues would go to the library to study philosophy. After three months, I realized I was deceiving myself, that I was not dedicating myself to studying philosophy, I was just trying to make my mother happy, and that somebody was doing something wrong, and I thought it was me. This was in May, and I went to my mother and said, “Mom, if I am going to starve as a philosopher (which is not one of the most well remunerated professions), let me starve as a musician.” She was very concerned, of course, and she let me, but with the condition that I bring her a diploma in music. I said, fine, but that right then I couldn’t, and continued to study at the Escola Villa-Lobos.
One of the professors there was Maria Aparecida Ferreira, who gave classes there, and private classes as well. So I studied with her both at the school and at her house, and completed the course in harmony in less than a year. I was always more interested in harmony. When I went to study with Guerra-Peixe, he gave an entrance exam, because he only admitted three students each year. Maria Aparecida had been Guerra-Peixe’s assistant. She said “I will prepare you to pass this test.” My test consisted of a question in harmony, a question about general knowledge, and a question on musical perception that was very unusual. He played an A in the middle of the piano, and then played a note that was extremely high, and another that was extremely low. He asked what notes they were, and then you had to write down where they were on the score. Then he played three notes that were closer together, and finally a chord in the middle of the keyboard, just giving A as reference. I passed.
When I left the Escola Villa-Lobos, it was for political reasons. As I said, I had been president of the association of students. The school belong to the State of Rio de Janeiro, and with every change of governor, there was a change in the secretary of culture. With every change in the secretary of culture, there was a change in the directors of the schools of the arts, which were the Escola Villa-Lobos, the school of visual arts in Parque Lage, the Martins Penna school of theater, and the ???? Neve school of dance. So of course there was no continuity in the curriculum – every new director would want to push things in a different direction.
There was a statute saying that the school could elect its own director, although we knew that the secretary of culture would name someone. But we went through the whole process of election, staying in contact with the secretary of culture. The government was from the PDT, and we were careful to nominate two candidates that belonged to the PDT, so that there would be no political stumbling block between the school and the government. In spite of this, there was a coordinator for the arts who had worked against the dictatorship, and perhaps for this reason, knew very well how to run a dictatorship, and she imposed a director on us. We resisted, we closed the Rua 7 de Setembro, we went to the newspapers, we marched, we held a demonstration in Cinelandia, and I was coordinating all this. And we managed to get rid of the director, but they did not install our director. This woman took over the direction of the school. We had meetings with the secretary of culture, but to no effect. She made a rule saying that any student with a grade of less than 5 would be expelled from the school, and she forced the professors to give low grades to all the students who had been members of the student’s association. The professors who refused to do this were fired. So you had a mass firing of professors and a mass expulsion of students.
At the beginning of the process Guerra-Peixe was on our side. But this woman became close with Guerra-Peixe, renamed the auditorium for Guerra-Peixe, brought him over to her side. She couldn’t convince him to give me a low grade, but convinced him that I was bad for the school. In fact, Guerra-Peixe didn’t do anything against me. In 1993 I passed the entrance exam for music at UniRio, and I went to get my transcript, and the functionaries said that it had disappeared, that I had never studied there at the Escola Villa-Lobos. I called the maestro, and Guerra-Peixe said that he had heard me at a meeting, that I was a hot-head, and I told him I was just defending the rights of the students.
STM: Wasn’t he on the left?
SRO: He was, but the problem was that it was a government of the left – of the PDT.
STM: Both sides can do things that are problematic.
SRO: Guerra-Peixe’s injustice was simply that of not interfering. My piano teacher had also been co-opted by that coordinator, and was not on my side.
I remember thinking “Well, now. I have just been admitted to the university. I will focus on my classes at the university. “
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[i] Note: in Rio there are no or few playgrounds in the American sense. The “playground” or “play” (borrowed directly into Portuguese from English) is usually a separate area or floor within a large apartment building set aside for children to play.