Lush Life: The Music of Brazil’s Doris Monteiro

Doris Monteiro, Brazil's "Queen of Radio", offered in 1976 what was perhaps her finest musical declaration with Agora, a now obscure and luxurious treasure of Brazilian pop-delights.

Like a hot breath of summer, Doris Monteiro’s Agora opens with the sultry rhythms of a most startling number, “Maitá”. In it, she sings of the innocuous pleasures of escape; leaving for no reason other than the possibility that the view is better somewhere else. Maybe it’s a stretch of land, a farm, some earthly respite situated by the sea. Whether she gets there or not isn’t the point. It’s the dreaming of that possibility which makes the sound of Monteiro’s work so fascinating, so freely welcoming. Like the painterly image of the album’s cover — a photographic print of Monteiro’s face awash in indigo-blue — the songs of Agora bring to mind the at once real and illusory scenes of a Brazilian woman’s life.

Born in 1934, Monteiro would embark on a career in music and film, recording and acting and gaining exposure in Brazil’s entertainment industry. Primarily part of a musical movement in Brazil during her early years known as “Velha Guarda” (“old school” or “old guard”), Monteiro would begin associating with many of the key figures responsible for bringing the music of bossa nova into fruition. She first attracted attention on a Brazilian radio program called Papel Carbono in 1949, and soon set to work on a series of albums that would appear throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. Songs like “Graças a Deus”, “Joga a Rede no Mar” and “Dó-ré-mi” would become hit singles and grant the singer wide success in the tail end of the ‘50s.

“Monteiro is a great singer and she has personality, which she certainly shows on Agora,” says Enrico Ribeiro, a music writer and native of Brazil who also regularly reviews music on his YouTube channel. “At the time when the album was recorded (and even before), she had some recognition in Brazil, to the point of being called ‘The Queen of Radio’; [the radio] was one of the main communication vehicles at the time, hence the relevance of the nickname.”

Indeed, the power of Monteiro’s work and, in particular, Agora, is her unquestionable ability to transmit such vivid imagery through sound; nothing beyond the speakers of a radio is ever necessary for impressing upon listeners the visuals of her scenic homeland. Monteiro recorded a number of albums prior to Agora’s release, but none really captured the sense of drama and musicianship to be found here. Agora remains a most private treasure of the Brazilian public, a trove of bucolic pop-delights which run sweet with the assorted rhythms of bossa nova, samba, Brazilian jazz and MPB (Música Popular Brasileira). Even when she’s caught up in the routines of the cities in her home country, her sights are fixed outwardly toward a romantic and distant life. Such is the life described in the music of bossa nova, a genre in which much of Monteiro’s work is primarily rooted in.

“Bossa nova officially came in the late ‘50’s, brought by young singer-songwriters who had a good life in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, usually enjoying the sun, the beach, the girls,” Ribeiro explains. “And this lifestyle was largely proposed in their songs. Listening to the LP Canção de amor by Elizeth Cardoso (written by Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes), for example, you can almost see the sunbathed avenues of the city and the youngsters playing their guitars, singing in a very soft and gentle way.”

In Agora’s 11 numbers (the Japanese edition of the album adds four bonus tracks), Monteiro’s characters are observed with impressionistic detail. Her women are carefree, sometimes coy in their purpose of action. Always, there is the immeasurable class and elegance which lacquers the soul of the music. Even the more serious topics like racism and bigotry are delivered with humour as stylish as it is pointedly ironic. “A Banca Do Distinto” tells the tale of an arrogant bigot who lives in Monteiro’s neighbourhood and harbours racism towards the black residents living in the district. Monteiro reminds him that he’s in serious need of an attitude-adjustment and that no one person is better than the next, since everyone ends up the same way in the very end: six feet under. The tune that carries this message is in no way dour; it floats along breezily, touched up with the soft shimmers of the Fender Rhodes. Her point is made gently and precisely.

Much of the album, however, simply illustrates the pure joy and exuberance of living a life in love and living it through music. “Pra Não Padecer” is a song about the samba, how music gives the singer all the sustenance she needs, even if it’s at the expense of an adoring lover. A beating of drums and of hearts, the number throbs ecstatically with the rhythms of samba, achieving a communion between the body and song. In “Maitá”, the guitar-etched funk of Brazilian jazz dances in urgent rhythm with the trills of flutes that dip and swerve like sparrows. It’s a winsome rush of sparkling guitar-lines and bright brass which blossoms into the cerulean-coloured romance of Monteiro’s so-near-yet-so-far-away dream of escape.

“I’d say Monteiro has some great songs under her name,” Ribeiro says. “She did quite a great job in showing her personality. I also think she was a big influence on the work of Elis Regina (a Brazilian singer of high renown), maybe having had the artistic relevance that Regina had in the ‘70s, but much earlier. What I like most about her work is the serenity and simplicity of her songs and lyrics. She undoubtedly appeared when bossa nova was reaching its peak, and you can see the movement’s influence on her music as you look into the lyrics.”

Agora’s aural box of assorted epicurean chocolates includes sweeping late-night ballads that exude the twilit and dreamy airs of heartbroken love; “Flauta de Lata” suggests a story of a man who’s just been left by an enthralling young woman; refusing to sing his “choro” (Brazilian folk song) anymore out of pure despondency, he quietly pens some verses of gratitude for his now estranged love.

The pastoral folk of “Partida” builds from a few sparse strains of acoustic guitar into the lulling plod of the Fender Rhodes, strings, brass and atabaque drums that it becomes halfway through. And even when the tempos speed up such as on “Dia de Feira”, a fluttery, chiming strut of gentle percussion and piping brass, there is still the sense of clouded reveries in which Monteiro is utterly lost in.

Monteiro’s success would be superseded by other singers like Elis Regina who became a revered figure of Brazilian pride, so much so that she was pardoned from a jail sentence after criticizing the dictatorship, which was run by the Brazilian military government during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Perhaps Monteiro’s evasion of any controversy helped seal her fate as one of Brazil’s more obscure affiliates of popular music.

“Nowadays, I wouldn’t say Monteiro is still a celebrity,” Ribeiro admits. “Even though people still remember and sometimes listen to great artists from the past, there are a large number of big names that have been forgotten. Somehow (for a lack of a better word) and unfortunately, I’d say she is one of those names. I feel that traditional samba and “Velha Guarda” have gotten a little bit dated when talking about young people in Brazil.

Many in Brazil know bossa nova masters like Chico Buarque and Tom Jobim, for example, but there are a much smaller number of people in their twenties that listen to João Gilberto and Sylvia Telles. Music has come a long way. Not just Brazilian music, but music from around the world. A singer-songwriter (from Brazil) that’s starting a career today might have strong influences from, say, Elis Regina, but he or she will most likely bear influences from modern and relevant musical acts like Radiohead, too; it changes the landscape in a way that you will probably never have another artist filling the shoes of a bossa nova master from the past. As much respect as there is for the past and the history of Brazilian music, I don’t think that there is anyone who still wants to keep living this dream.”

Agora appeared in 1976, in the midst of the rising success of Regina, Gal Costa and Caetano Veloso, proponents of the predominantly political musical movement known as Tropicália. The album today remains a little-known jewel that still glitters with the many colours of Brazil’s lush landscapes, a vestige of a woman’s dream of finding the perfect haven from a life of hassle. Monteiro might have slipped into obscurity, but Agora is like a siren’s call from the heights of Pico da Neblina – a woman’s resounding chorus from a vanishing dream.

I would like to acknowledge the help of Enrico Ribeiro, a music writer from Brazil who was a tremendous help in translating song lyrics for me, graciously providing me with information on Brazil’s musical culture and for granting me an interview for this feature.