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Back from a recent trip to her native Brazil, musician/composer Celia Malheiros asks: “Where Is My Country?”
May 30, 2007
By Jean Bartlett, Managing Editor

Celia Malheiros

Rio de Janeiro

Musician/composer Celia Malheiros was born in Rio de Janeiro.  She lives now in Pacifica, California.  Having recently returned from a three month trip to her native country, Malheiros returned thoughtful and angry.  She asks: “Where is my country?”

Censorship and political unrest brought Celia to the United States in the late 1970s.  “By the time I was 18, I was supporting myself composing and playing for theater, nightclubs, radio and television shows,” said Malheiros.  “I was also scoring films and teaching music. Several things happened that just made it clear I had to leave my country.  First, when I was going to the University of Rio, my favorite music teacher was fired on the grounds that his long hair and his educated thoughts made him a revolutionary.  Many of us said if he was fired we would quit in protest.  Only I quit.  Also, at that time all songs for films had to be submitted to the government.  Three songs of mine came back heavily censored and I was given the choice of making the changes or not having those songs in the movie; I chose not to have those songs in the movie.”

Malheiros left Brazil to join her high school sweetheart, musician Alex Popovics, who was studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston.  The two eventually married and moved to San Francisco.

For thirteen years, Malheiros was the music director of San Francisco’s Carnaval Ball.  In that capacity, she founded, performed and wrote music for the Brazilian All Star Band, a 25-piece band featuring a marquee of stars such as Elza Soares and Emilinha Borba.  She opened for Ray Charles at the Monterey Jazz Festival.  She has played at Yoshi’s, Le Montmarte, Bajone’s, Brava Theater and the list goes on.  In 2001, Malheiros composed, produced and released a CD of her own music entitled: Sempre Crescendo (ever growing).  The CD featured Celia’s music guru Hermeto Pascoal.

“With my music from Sempre Crescendo, I returned to Brazil in 2001 after a twenty-two year absence. It was such an emotional experience for me.  When the pilot said: ‘Welcome to Brazil,’ I cried like a baby.  I was invited to be on all the talk shows, including one very popular program ironically called: Without Censorship.  I felt so welcome.  When I came back to the States, even though my home is here too; I cried again, for Brazil.”

Malheiros who plays at least: guitar, cavaco, berimbau, repenique, caxixi, gourd, pandeiro, flute, clarinet, banjo, moringa, tabla, triangle, ganzá, alfaia, cajón, harmonium and sings – produced, composed and arranged her second CD Cenario Brasileiro (Brazilian Scenery) in 2006.  The CD features an incredible palette of Brazilian artists which include: João Bosco, Itiberê Zwarg, Ignez Perdigão, Marcio Bahia, Luiz Brasil, Delia Fischer, Marcelo Bernardes, Franklin da Flauta, Paula Novaes and Paulo Russo. Cenario Brasileiro was successfully released on the West Coast, in Scandinavia and in Europe.  In late winter, Malheiros left for a three month visit to Brazil to release her current CD and to work on her one woman show.  It was an important and difficult journey for Celia and one that she is still coming to terms with.

“I went to Rio,” said Malheiros, “because I like to think I live here, and there. And I wanted to release my new CD.  I did not release my CD in Brazil because it is not the time to do it.  Funny, I had my big mission to play my Brazilian jazz – to help communicate with people that music is vibration and therapy – but my music did not seem to fit anywhere.  You can’t sell sand in a desert or salt water in an ocean.”

“First of all, all you hear now is bad American music everywhere: heavy metal, screaming music.  I think Brazil is getting more and more of the worst of American culture.  People are walking around now in their American clothes into their Americanized shopping malls. KFC is there now, along with Pizza Hut and Domino’s Pizza. MacDonald’s has been there a long time.  American slang words are finding their way into Portuguese.  To me, it felt like my culture was sort of dissolving. It was like a washed-up America.  They have a samba bass and drums, and bossa nova bass and drums – but it’s driven by hip hop.  Famous Brazilian Portuguese songs are sung only in English; for instance Corcovado (Nights of Quiet Stars) and Águas de Março (Waters of March). If you look hard enough you can find Brazilian music but it’s not soulful.  It’s as if people get songbooks and just sing it. It would be like making a Bob Dylan tune, just a pretty melody.”

“Since my last visit, the people that were poor then have even less now.  The people that were rich are richer and the middle class is really struggling.  There are no jobs and when there are no jobs people make up the worst kind: selling drugs, or prostitution; anything with drugs, and of course you can always get the young people.  Brazil is trying to pass a law where 16-year-olds can go to adult prison.  That is because the drug lords get the kids and give them guns.  These kids are 11 and 12. You walk down the street and are afraid of the kids.  Too many kids with no shoes; some have just a little dress and they are pregnant at 14.  I wonder, what is the future here?  It seemed to me it was totally pointless to play jazz; for who?  I could play for people who drink black-label.  Corruption is everywhere.  It is so sad.  It has made me really sad.  What has become of my country?”

“The President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, came in with a high percentage of the popular vote in January of 2003.  He was just re-elected until 2011 and he ends up being a little dictator.  Censorship is back, not as bad as when I left, but it is back nonetheless.  Will I be censored in Brazil for saying this?  I’m not there now; I’m not going to worry.”

“Look at Fernando Collor de Mello. He was elected President in 1989 but he was impeached in 1992 because of corruption.  He was told he could not hold public office for eight years and they were considering criminal charges.  Instead, in 1994, he was exonerated of all charges brought against him by the highest court in the land.  Now, he is in the House of Representatives and he is planning on running for president.  The current government is so laughable. This guy Clodovil Hernandes, who was a famous Brazilian clothes designer and then he was a TV show host, in other words, a guy with absolutely no political experience, he was just voted into the House of Representatives.”

“I don’t see any way of changing things in Brazil, unless there is a big movement.  However I do think, without looking too deep, you will find people in Brazil still care.  But there is too much going on. Recently, while the pope was in Brazil, the Brazilian government decided to raise their salaries because most of the Brazilian population was on the streets hoping to see the pope and they didn’t care about salaries.  Brazil is still very religious.  It is the biggest Catholic country in the world.  Before the pope came, the Brazilian government promised it was going to talk to the pope about gay rights and the abortion issue.  But instead the government said nothing while they raised their salaries.”

“It is unbelievable what is going on in Brazil.  You can’t stop at red lights because kids with blades will cut your face if you don’t give them money.  At the beach you are afraid of kids.  There is something so wrong spiritually to be afraid of kids.  They should be our future, our hope; not our fears.  Then there are kidnappings.  People in prison phone random victims and tell their victim that they have their child and they demand phone cards and money.  These prisoners have someone on the outside who meets up with the frantic parent and takes their cash.  Do you know that there is not one person I know in Brazil that hasn’t been robbed or gotten such a call.”

“There is no law in Brazil.  You walk around and you get bullets.  I went to the opera and people are stealing stuff from the theater.  I went to the Villa-Lobos Museum and two days later, somebody steals his baton.  The richest neighborhoods have slums.  Rio is almost like one big slum and the smell is so bad.  People without money don’t have garbage collection or basic hygiene; and there is so much pollution.  There is still a middle class, but barely, and how they are making ends meet, I don’t know.”

“I ended up meeting with friends I went to school with and some of them are amazingly rich.  I didn’t like that side either.  Many of them at first just seemed like they only got their nails done – but underneath, there was more, there was kindness.  I asked them what were they going to do to help.  And there was silence until someone finally said: ‘Let’s have another bottle of wine.’

“Even religion is changing in Brazil.  It was a wonderful blend of Catholicism mixed with African spirituality.  Now it is as if some Evangelic UFO landed and they are taking over the television and the radio – and they keep talking about people being saved.  What about people being loved?  People are giving one tenth of their salary to the church.  And the church is wealthy, not like the majority of people living in Brazil.”

“I feel sad that I am saying all of this.  Something inside of me has changed this time.  I don’t know exactly what I am going to do, but I am going to do something.  I don’t want to get old and just sit in my rocking chair and complain.  I want to do something through music.  But still, something bigger than that; to talk about things.  I need people to hear.  It’s been almost 30 years since I left Brazil.  I miss something that will never be there again; unless we do something.  It’s not just Brazil’s problem; it starts right here in the U.S. because this is where the money comes from.  People in Brazil do not like Bush.  With all that is going on there they still wonder how I could live in the United States – they think it is a really bad place.”

“I felt a collective sadness in Brazil but I believe that sadness runs throughout the world.  Something has gotten out of hand and we need to go back to some other time, or start a time when people give love.  I think ‘love’ no matter how corny that sounds can heal.”

“In the United States people don’t want to hear unpleasant news; they want everything to be pretty.  In Brazil it is very different.  In Brazil they say: ‘You hold the paper and blood comes out.’  Drama and hardship sells in Brazil and now they have plenty of both.”

“If I was in the Brazilian government I would legalize drugs – so there wouldn’t be a war.  That would be the best start.  People would use less.  Doesn’t solve everything but it would help a little bit.”

“The saddest part to me is the young people don’t have any hope.  I think we have to start with kids here and in Brazil.  Educate them and love them so they will turn out to be great people.  The kids who are doing all these killings – maybe it sounds too simplistic, but they are all trying to find love.  Why do people think it is so stupid to talk about love?  Is it better to have so much fear, so much death?  If we start right now, in our own house taking care of and loving our kids and teaching them how to respect others and have compassion – if we all do that; it’s a good start. If we plant the seed of love right now in our own family, then that extends to our neighbor, our city, our state, our country.  Then maybe a big love tidal wave will go over the world and wake people up to what is important.  When you are about to die – all that you can count on is the love you received and the love that you gave.  That part about the 60s is right.  John Lennon was right: All you need is love.”

“Despite all that I am saying, I still want people to go to Brazil.  I will still go to Brazil.  Because Brazil is one of the most beautiful places in the world; its natural geography is visually stunning; and there are so many beautiful people that live there.  Also in Brazil there are no limits set between people as far as being open-hearted and caring.  Brazilians are not afraid of affection and love and surely all of us in this world can offer enough of that to go around.”

“I say these things because I love my country, my two countries – and I have hope for them.”

For more information on Celia Malheiros go to: http://www.celiamalheiros.com