Milton Nascimento: A Different Kind of Brazilian Voice

I have loved the music of Milton Nascimento for years now, ever since I first heard him on Wayne Shorter’s 1974 album, Native Dancer. Shorter’s first wife was a Brazilian woman named Ana Maria (the inspiration for his song), who encouraged him to record with the talented young singer.

Back when I was starting my career as a deejay, I worked the graveyard shift every Tuesday from 1–6:00 a.m. To close out my sets, I’d queue up Nascimento’s “Chamada” (“The Call”) around 5:50 a.m. as a pre-dawn invocation. It’s such a lovely song to wake up to, even though I was headed to bed soon after. That was 1977, and I’ve since featured Nascimento’s work more times than I can count on my shows.

Milton Nascimento was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1942. He was adopted by white parents, who moved to Três Pontas, a small town in the state of Minas Gerais, a place far removed from what most people associate with the country. But Brazil is a vast, similar in scale to the United States. And like the U.S., its various regions are characterized by different musical styles.

The name “Minas Gerais” means “General Mines”; it was where all the gem mining took place in the 1800s and 1900s. The discovery and ensuing gold rush in 1693 brought with it a huge influx of prospectors and opportunists looking to profit. Brazil was then under colonial rule, and the Portuguese employed slave labor to build the roads and dig the mines. In fact, so many slaves were brought over that by 1750, Minas had grown to a point where its population exceeded that of New York City.

Newfound wealth established a solid middle and upper class in Minas, replete with colonial architecture, European fountains, public spaces, and other grand symbols of wealth. However, once the mines were exhausted and slavery abolished in 1888, the once thriving Minas was reduced to a mere ghost town.

I think about this every time I hear Milton’s music. I was lucky enough to visit his home state during a trip to Brazil in 1990. As our plane descended into Belo Horizonte from Rio, I was struck by how its mountainous landscape stood in stark contrast to the coastline and beaches below. Even the air was different in Minas. Being so far removed from everything else, I somehow felt a vast emptiness there.

In the chapter on Milton in my book, Rhythm Planet: The Great World Music Makers, I wrote, “Hearing Nascimento’s achingly pure falsetto was like watching a shooting star across the sky. His plaintive ballads echo the feelings of millions of Brazilians.” In Minas, the towns are separated from one another by mountains and large expanses of barren land. The music born there is a far cry from the carefree, happy sambas of the cariocas in Rio. Milton’s melancholic vocals and music reflect its lonely landscape.

In Milton’s music, we find a rich brew of elements such as Portuguese fado, Andean music, classical, jazz, and even Gregorian chant. As a child, Milton was exposed to early influences like Nat King Cole and Ray Charles because his father worked at a radio station in Três Pontas, in the southern part of Minas. Later, he heard the soft, gentle voice of a young João Gilberto, who would forever change the sound of bossa nova. By age 15, Milton himself worked as a deejay at the station, spinning sambas, foxtrots, classical music, and jazz. Hence, the eclecticism we hear in his music.

Milton started his career in 1972, playing alongside Clube da Esquina, (Corner Club), a group of local musicians that included singer-songwriter Lô Borges, guitarist Toninho Horta (who became a big influence on Pat Metheny), pianist Wagner Tiso, Ronaldo Bastos, and singer Flavio Venturini.  Their 1972 debut album, Clube da Esquina, is a brilliant work.

Like many Brazilian composers (and American composers of popular song), Milton’s work consists mostly of collaborations with a gifted lyricist. Fernando Brant (b. 1946–2015) penned the lyrics to over 200 songs. Brant was a close friend who also grew up in Minas. Their most famous song together, “Travessia” which means “Bridges,” appeared on Courage, the CTI album from 1968.

The music of Milton Nascimento is stunningly unique and different from many of the other Brazilian artists. If you don’t already have his works in your music library, I recommend listening to Clube da Esquina (1972), Minas (1975), Sentinela (1980), and Milton (with Herbie Hancock, 1989). You can also stream them on Spotify or Tidal.

A full album reissue of the early Clube da Esquina with tracks “Maria Maria” and “Ultimo Trem.”

“Travessia”
Arrangement by Milton Nascimento
Lyrics by Fernando Brant

Quando você foi embora
Fez-se noite em meu viver
Forte eu sou mas não tem jeito
Hoje eu tenho que chorar
Minha casa não é minha
E nem é meu este lugar
Estou só e não resisto
Muito tenho pra falar
Solto a voz nas estradas
Já não quero parar
Meu caminho é de pedra
Como posso sonhar
Sonho feito de brisa
Vento vem terminar
Vou fechar o meu pranto
Vou querer me matar
Vou seguindo pela vida
Me esquecendo de você
Eu não quero mais a morte
Tenho muito que viver
Vou querer amar de novo
E se não der não vou sofrer
Já não sonho, hoje faço
Com meu braço o meu viver
Solto a voz nas estradas
Já não quero parar
Meu caminho é de pedra
Como posso…

“Bridges”
Translation by Gene Lees

I have crossed a thousand bridges
In my search for something real
There are great suspension bridges
Made like spider webs of steel
There are tiny wooden trestles
And there are bridges made of stone
I have always been a stranger
And I’ve always been alone
There’s a bridge to tomorrow
There’s a bridge from the past
There’s a bridge made of sorrow
That I pray will not last
There’s a bridge made of colors
In the sky high above
And I think that there must be
Bridges made out of love
When the bridge is between us
We’ll have nothing to say
We will run through the sunlight
And i’ll meet him halfway
There’s a bridge made of colors
In the sky high above
And I’m certain that somewhere
There’s a bridge made of love
I can see her in the distance
On the river’s other shore
And her hands reach out longing
As my own have done before
And I call across to tell him
Where I believe the bridge must lie
And I’ll find it, yes I’ll find it
If I search until I die