The Miami Herald and JazzTimes writer Fernando González on legendary sambista Paulinho da Viola who makes his Carnegie Hall debut as part of Voices from Latin America on November 28.
"Meu tempo é hoje. Eu não vivo no pasado. O passado vive em mim."
("My time is now. I don't live in the past. The past lives in me.")
—Paulinho da Viola
This phrase—spoken softly, unassumingly in the biographical documentary Meu tempo é hoje (2003) by Izabel Jaguaribe—is a perfect summation of Paulinho da Viola's style: deceptively simple, elegant, and profound.
It is also a clear, succinct explanation of his philosophy regarding tradition and change. "A memory is not something that must be kept prisoner of a distant notion of the past, but a way to keep present values and events that happened in another time," he elaborates in an interview. "It's not some nostalgic notion. I have no desire of going back or reviving something that happened a long time ago. But I want to keep elements alive that have contributed to making us who we are, that have set our path."
He was born Paulo Cesar Batista de Faria in Botafogo, a traditional neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. His father, guitarist Benedicto Cesar Ramos de Faria, as a member of Época de Ouro—considered by many to be the greatest choro ensemble in history. Not surprisingly, as a budding guitarist and future master sambista, da Viola grew up alongside several of the greatest musicians of his time, including guitar virtuoso Jacob do Bandolim.
His memories harken back to some of the most creative playing and writing in popular music history. But still, da Viola believes that tradition is a living thing that is kept alive by change. "A tradition is preserved by the people as long as it has a place in the universe in which it was created," he says. "Otherwise, it's a job for historians and the curious. The tradition of samba is alive today because it continues to express the feelings of our people. But change in samba is inevitable, as it is for any living form of expression."
In fact, da Viola himself has (from time to time) strayed from samba; he notes that he has mixed other styles into his compositions, and that songs such as "Sinal fechado" and "Roendo as unhas" are "not properly sambas." But he also remarks that beyond a certain syncopation and a binary time, "there are no rules or set models, but everybody recognizes the samba by its rhythm." And ultimately, what remains at its essence is a certain spirit.
"Initially, samba might seem like the manifestation of a superficial happiness—a simple enthusiasm, but samba is not only that," da Viola explains. "Samba deals with suffering, loss, and also the pleasures of life, but does it in a unique manner, a comforting way that is often lyrical, that makes us feel better about life's challenges. That is what I want to communicate with my music."
—Fernando González is an independent music writer and critic whose work appears regularly in The Miami Herald, JazzTimes, and The International Review of Music.
Special thanks to João Rabello for his invaluable assistance with this interview.
Related:November 28, Paulinho da ViolaVoices from Latin AmericaVoices from Latin America: BrazilVoices from Latin America: Samba