Artists You Should Know: Wilson Simonal: Classic 60s Bossa Nova

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I think I know a fair amount about Brazilian music.  I’ve been following the music for a long time, have visited Brazil like eight or nine times, and love the music, culture, and country.  Brazil is unique.  So is Brazilian music.

And so when I heard this classic cut from a 1964 album by Wilson Simonal on the radio I loved it and wanted to know more.  The cut “Nana” was written by composer-genius Moacir Santos, who wrote the most lapidary, perfect, and beguiling compositions, yet who languished here in LA for 40 years, virtually unknown except to the musicians who loved, celebrated, and recorded his songs.  As for Simonal, he got his start in the turbulent 1960s of Brazil:   Brasilia, the city of the future, had just been completed (see image below).  It was the masterpiece of Oscar Niemeyer (who just turned 104), Juscelino Kubitschek was the new forward-looking president of Brazil (of Czech-gypsy ancestry), and Brazil looked optimistically at the future.  Then the army took over and the country went to hell in a handbasket.  All because of the fear of communism and of social change.  The army got rid of him, and started putting people in prison or pushing them into exile, e.g. Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Baden Powell.

We didn’t know about all that back then.  For the rest of us, Brazil was the sunny, cool music of Jobim, the Girl from Ipanema, a tropical, laid back giant down south.

This is the backdrop of Wilson Simonal’s early years.  The cut I love is from 1964’s A Nova Dimensão do Samba (A New Dimension of Samba) on Odeon Records (EMI).  I love the sound of the recording, the added reverb, the live feel.  Simonal later went on to record MPB classics,  the new stylistic wave that came a few years later.  I didn’t know that IKEA had used Simonal’s music in an ad, or that Stevie Wonder had recorded his music, and that his cover of Jorge Ben’s”Pais Tropical” (Tropical Country) was a big hit not only for Ben but for Simonal too.  Both their versions ascended the music charts the same year, 1969, something that could only happen in Brazil!  Recently, his song “Nem Vem Que Não Tem” (“don’t even bother trying”),  part of the in the City of God movie soundtrack, was featured in the Brazilian celebration closing the London Olympics.

In the 1970s, Simonal was thought to have cooperated with the DOPS, the dictatorship’s secret police arm.   At the time, Simonal had big hits and a popular TV show, then rare for a Brazilian of African descent.  Simonal was at the peak of his success. At the time, however,  he suspected that his accountant was embezzling money from him, so he contacted some of his DOP friends to teach him a lesson and kidnapped the unfortunate CPA.   The story was leaked and he became persona non grata.  No more radio airplay, no more concerts.   As a result of his association with the military’s secret police,  he was ostracized and his career fell apart.

The 1980s were even worse.  Simonal was  fell into virtual oblivion and depression.  He proceeded drank himself to death, dying from cirrhosis in 2000 at 62.   He told his second wife “I do not exist in the history of Brazilian music”.

On a more positive note, two of his sons, Wilson Simoninha and Max de Castro, have enjoyed flourishing musical careers.  Max de Castro even made it to the cover of a special edition of Time Magazine.