Baden Powell — Brazilian Guitar God

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600full-baden-powellLast week, on March 20, I took a day off from my show.  I moderated a music panel at UCLA’s Fowler Museum with Quincy Jones and Kenny Burrell.   Aaron Byrd sat in for me.  He played something from an older Baden Powell record, compiled from three albums onto a 2-cd set called Three Originals.  These were some of the first Baden Powell records:  Tristeza on Guitar, Poema on Guitar, and Apaixonado (=“impassioned”.) I had the cd but hadn’t listened to it for a long time.

Baden had been discovered by the French and Germans in the mid to late 60s.  Back then you had to buy these German MPS imports here; no US record company was putting them out, and Brazilian imports didn’t come here then.  These lp’s weren’t cheap, especially for a music nut in college (me).

I used to get calls from listeners correcting me on how to pronounce his name.  they said it was Bay-den Powell.  I said no, that’s correct for the British founder of the Boy Scouts, but not for the musician (“bah-den”).  It was annoying, and I was right.

Baden got his name from his father, who was the leader of the Brazilian boy scouts, who saw the famous Englishman as a role model.  His father also was a guitar player, and the family house in a Rio suburb was a stopping place for many Brazilian musicians, who admired the young guitarist.

Baden displayed extraordinary guitar talent from an early age.  In 1959 he hooked up with composer Tom Jobim, lyricist-poet and statesman Vinicius de Moraes, and young Paulinho da Viola and Maria Bethânia, Caetano Veloso’s sister.

Baden studied and practiced relentlessly.  By 22 he was already well known in Rio.  He mastered Villa Lobos difficult etudes and preludes, as well as classical Spanish repertoire.  But against this backdrop of this softer, more polite classical style, he embedded powerful African rhythms, an in-your-face bass string, and combined both subtlety, violence, and elegance into an impossible musical blend.

Powell moved to Europe, first to France, then to Baden-Baden, Germany—of all places.  He got work there, could play concert halls instead of clubs, and escaped the Brazilian dictatorship, which didn’t like musicians.  Caetano Veloso, for one, was put in prison before being expelled from Brazil.

Powell died early, at the age of 63.  They say part of the reason was that one of his closest friends was Johnnie Walker, he probably picked up his penchant for whiskey from Vinicius de Moraes, who was never more than two feet away from his bottle.  When somebody once commented on his whiskey habit, Baden replied saying “that might be true, but you’ll never find a guitarist who worked harder than I did”.

Baden Powell was also a beautiful man; his face and features were a combination of Portuguese, native amazonian, and African.  He also played guitar in a totally Brazilian way, combining African and European in a way only great Brazilian musicians can do.  He was the best of them all–truly a guitar god.

In this black and white video, Baden talks about the famous song “Berimbau” that he wrote with the immortal poet Vinicius de Moraes, then plays it.

Here he performs “Manha da Carnaval”, the famous song from the film Black Orpheus.  Note the way he holds his cigarette while playing, one of his trademarks.