:: This article was originally published in
:: Brazzil magazine, December 2002.


From Cabaret to Syllables

Singer Suzana Salles conquers on two parallel fronts.

Daniella Thompson

19 September 2002

Suzana Salles

Brazil isn’t a country one would associate with world-class interpreters of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Yet, surprisingly, it has several. Since at least the 1970s, there has been a continuous Brecht-Weill presence on Brazilian stages. In 1988, Cida Moreira released the LP Cida Moreira Interpreta Brecht, with powerfully dramatic interpretations. Moreira, however, sang mostly Portuguese versions. When Suzana Salles released her own CD Concerto Cabaré almost ten years later, there was no question of repeating what had been done before. For one thing, Suzana sings Brecht in German. And not only in German, but in a German worthy of a native German singer. Her interpretations transcend the Brazilian milieu, establishing her as a peer of the post-Lenya divas I admire: Gisela May, Sonja Kehler, and Dagmar Krause.

I became interested in Suzana’s recordings by way of being a fanatic Weill collector. Once there, however, I discovered that there’s an equally fascinating Brazilian side to her career. Suzana doesn’t make concessions to the marketplace and doesn’t sing the obvious repertoire, as is amply demonstrated in her most recent CD, As Sílabas (see track list and a link for audio samples). Since non-conformist choices in the cut-throat popular music field never fail to make a favorable impression on me, I got in touch with Suzana and asked her to elaborate on her musical life and work.

Daniella Thompson—How did you begin to sing?

Suzana Salles—I began to sing professionally by chance; I always sang with the family at home, with my uncles, my sisters... in Brazil people always like to sing, beginning with children’s songs and lullabies, and I had uncles who played guitar and sang old modinhas from the time of the Empire, serestas, modas de viola, toadas of the sertão... I listened and learned, singing with them. I always loved music, but I never imagined I’d become a singer, I never thought of it. So I began to sing at home, and only much later did I realize that I could make a profession of it.

DT—What did you study?

Suzana Salles—I studied journalism at the School of Communications and Arts of the University of São Paulo (ECA-USP). At ECA there was a chorale, the Comunicantus, in which I sang, and it was what I enjoyed doing most at the university. Another member of this chorale, Hermelino Neder—now a composer and musician—invited me and Vânia Bastos (who was studying social science), to participate in a group that was accompanying the still unknown Arrigo Barnabé in the first Festival Universitário de Música Popular Brasileira. It took place in 1979, and the song “Diversões Eletrônicas,” by Arrigo Barnabé and Regina Porto, won first place.

DT—Then you went to Germany. When did you go, and how did it come about?

Suzana Salles—I began studying German in 1980, when I still thought I’d finish my journalism course (I had intended to be an international correspondent). It happens that at the same time I began to sing in all of Arrigo’s shows, which weren’t few, and I was also invited to sing with Itamar Assumpção during the same period. In other words, I was at the heart of the movement that would come to be known in MPB history as the “Vanguarda Paulista.” Little by little, I was abandoning the university, and almost without noticing it. Unexpectedly, I won a grant from the Goethe Institute to polish my German language in Germany—after my plans for a career in journalism had already been cast aside. I went to Berlin to study for three months. It was terribly cold there in January and February, and there, in mid-winter, I discovered the obvious: I wanted to sing, to be a singer, to perform in public. I went to the school of arts (Hochschüle der Künste) in Berlin, looked for a pianist, rehearsed a repertoire of Brecht-Weill songs (which I happened to have in hand and that interested me) and arranged to appear in one of the more active cultural centers of the alternative scene, the UFA-Fabrik. I didn’t even believe what was happening: I had become a singer, with a photograph in Tip-Magazin and everything, singing in German for Germans. Unbelievable!

DT—How did your interest in Brecht-Weill develop? Did you attend performances? If so, which ones? Which half of the Brecht-Weill partnership hooked you?

Suzana Salles—The first time I heard Brecht was in the Teatro Oficina: “Alabama Song.” The music touched me deeply, and I set about informing myself about the authors. Shortly thereafter I watched an excellent play called O Que Mantém um Homem Vivo, whose title is also the name of a Brecht-Weill song [“What Keeps Mankind Alive?”], and about this spectacle I created a little work at theatre school (I was seventeen at the time). Later, already at the university, I married the German musician Félix Wagner, who lived in São Paulo and played with Arrigo Barnabé. He was invited to play Brecht & Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel with Grupo Ornitorrinco, a theatre group directed by Cacá Rosset. This group later mounted a musical consisting of Brecht-Weill songs, in which participated one of the best Brazilian actresses, Maria Alice Vergueiro. She interpreted these songs very well, singing in Portuguese. It was as a result of these experiences that I decided to begin my solo career in Berlin with Brecht & Weill, since the sheet music was easy to obtain. These songs in German possess a great intrinsic force, an art that transcends political and social ideologies. It’s a partnership that really worked, like that of Lennon & McCartney: the music end ups benefiting.

DT—Are there any Brecht-Weill interpreters whom you find particularly inspiring?

Suzana Salles—Besides Maria Alice Vergueiro, I always admired the interpretation of Lotte Lenya, the source for all of us interpreters who followed. I also like Teresa Stratas and Ute Lemper, but the major inspiration comes from Lenya.

DT—When did you return to Brazil? How did you begin your musical activities upon your return?

Suzana Salles—I returned in March 1986 and immediately invited some musicians to participate in the new work. I formed a band and debuted in June of the same year at the nightclub Madame Satã. We had quite a few shows together.

DT—Apparently you were working with the group Aquilo Del Nisso in that period. What did you do with them?

Suzana Salles—At the time I had two different band formations and traveled throughout Brazil, from Curitiba to the Northeast, singing Brazilian music. In 1989 I presented the songs of Brecht & Weill with the Orquestra Juvenil do Estado de São Paulo, under the direction of maestro Juan Serrano. This series of concerts was very successful, and once again I found myself involved with this repertoire, which accompanies my career parallel to Brazilian popular music. I also traveled in Europe at Itamar Assumpção’s invitation, singing with Ná Ozzetti. Besides, Ná and I did a joint show for two years, Princesa e Encantada.

In 1992 the instrumental group Aquilo Del Nisso invited me to sing with them, and thus began a fruitful collaboration. I had never thought of recording my repertoire, because I was very happy singing on stage; I always preferred the stage to the studio. Then I received an invitation from the record label Camerati to record my first CD. The arrangements and production of this CD, Suzana Salles, were made by the members of Aquilo Del Nisso. The repertoire was immense, since it included work I had been presenting since 1986 with my first band. I used the judgement of my heart to select the twelve songs: those I liked to sing the most. Songs by Itamar Assumpção, Gilberto Gil, José Miguel Wisnik, Carlos Rennó, and Hermelino Neder... without forgetting the first collaborations with Ná Ozzetti and Itamar Assumpção. I also included one by Brecht & Weill and another of the classic Brazilian repertoire—“Carimbamba,” originally sung by Luiz Gonzaga.

DT—Does the public have difficulty identifying you both as a Brecht-Weill interpreter and an MPB Singer?

Suzana Salles—Music is the richest and most democratic territory in Brazil. Brazilians’ familiarity with rhythms and sounds is so great that they know how to understand and deeply love the music of all places, from Bulgarian women’s choirs to the most avant-garde jazz instrumentalists. I’ll go as far as to say that the public finds it normal that there’s someone who sings in German within MPB. It’s funny, but I didn’t want to record Concerto Cabaré. For me it was a great show, but it was more stage than studio; imagine, recording in German—far from me. It was the producer Elaine Marin who insisted that I record a CD exclusively with the songs of Brecht & Weill. I thought it was a crazy idea, but I had encountered a producer who was either crazier than me or much more lucid. Even today I still don’t know which of the two alternatives is the true one, but the CD sells very well and is frequently reissued... In short, it turned out all right, while it had every potential to become a mess: a live recording, with orchestra, done in just three performances. And I continue singing this repertoire now and then; it doesn’t exhaust itself. When I think that it’s all over with, there comes an invitation for new performances.

DT—Do you have trouble reconciling the two repertoires?

Suzana Salles—It’s easy to reconcile the two repertoires, and these days the same musicians who accompany me in one type of show also do so in the other (despite the protests of Chico Saraiva, who says that those harmonies of Weill are very “German,” whatever that means). I have to point out here my profound admiration for Lincoln Antônio—pianist, composer, and arranger who’s accompanied me since Concerto Cabaré—and André Magalhães, the drummer of Aquilo Del Nisso, producer of my three CDs and owner of Estúdio Zabumba in São Paulo, and of course Chico Saraiva: these are friendships and collaborations that keep growing.

DT—Would you tell us about the concept and the songs in As Sílabas? How did you choose the repertoire and the musicians?

Suzana Salles—Oops, I had already begun answering this question earlier... André Magalhães has been accompanying me closely since 1992, when we worked together with Aquilo Del Nisso. A great musician who these day is also a sought-after CD producer. Lincoln Antônio wrote the arrangements and conducted the orchestra in Concerto Cabaré, and since then we continued to work together. It was he who suggested that we invite Chico Saraiva to join us. Initially we put together a new repertoire of Brazilian music that would enable us to travel in an economical formation; we traveled through Brazil with just guitar, piano (or keyboard), and voice. We had a long tour of the Northeast, then we went to Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, the interior of São Paulo state... and the repertoire of As Sílabas assumed its shape during those trips. We like to talk, to experiment. Each one has an extensive musical background, and this is expressed in the way the shows were mounted and in the texture of the arrangements. Later, in the studio, André Magalhães, transformed all these sounds and ideas into the CD As Sílabas.

DT—How did your recent German tour go? Where did you appear, and what was the reaction?

Suzana Salles—I received an official invitation from Nuremberg’s Cultural Bureau to present As Sílabas in a very special outdoor theatre, in the restored ruins of an ancient church, now called Katharinenruine or St. Katharina Open Air. This invitation came about through Ponte Cultura, a German production firm that has been promoting encounters of German and Brazilian plastic artists for ten years. This time there were also Brazilian music, dance, and theatre, and I represented the musical part. The night was warm and pleasant, the theatre was full, the sound and lights excellent, and we ended up giving a very good concert, of the kind that remains forever in the performer’s mind. For me, talking to the audience in German was an experience and a half; I began by saying that the Cultural Bureau had already supplied the full moon and that it was sure to arrive that night... and the Germans laughed. I looked behind me and saw that the musicians were surprised at the reaction. I shouted to them: “I’m even making jokes in German, and they’re liking it; the night is ours, let’s go!”

And we went. It was as if the work of all those years had materialized in that concert. It was a totally virgin audience, and we loved being able to demonstrate: “Look, this is our show, a Brazilian popular music that’s different from what you know—this is also Brazilian popular music, and it’s our work!”

And the press reviews that came out fully confirmed our reactions.

As Sílabas, track by track

As Sílabas—this is an exhortation, an ode to Brazilian popular song: “Cantiga, diga lá, a dica de cantar, o dom que o canto tem que tem que ter se quer encantar...” Luiz Tatit unravels the text and the melody in such a cohesive and concise pattern, that one hears it and thinks: “What a simple thing, how does he do it?” It’s a self-explanatory song that isn’t the least bit explicit. I think it’s both a point of departure and a synthesis of the work that Lincoln, Chico, and I have been doing all these years: piano, guitar, and voice conversing and creating spaces, all at the same time now, without one overpowering the others.

Xangô—this partnership of mine with Chico César was created like this: Chico showed me the music, saying it had to do with me. And it really did because I simply adored it. But I was going to rehearse with the boys and found it rather short; something appeared to be missing. I asked Chico, “Isn’t there a refrain, an allegro cantabile or something like that?” and he said, “No, I think this is it.” Arguing at the rehearsal, the thing just didn’t flow. Around this time I traveled to London and Turkey, got to know Istanbul, set foot in Asia for the first time in my life, saw the Bosporus at sunset, that ancient civilization, and the mosques, the muezzin calling the people to prayer... and on the plane returning to Brazil, in one of those dawns when you wake up with a stuffed head, exhausted in an economy-class seat, the refrain came to me complete with melody and everything: “É Xangô que vai chegar, por Alá canta o Corão, coro atlântico verão, acalanto, uma canção...”

O Velho Francisco—this song was the idea of guitarist Chico Saraiva; Chico is a very intuitive musician, and he thought the song “agreed” with me. He made a marvelous arrangement, where we accentuate the rhythmic aspects of the music in a way that facilitates understanding of the lyrics, which are brilliant, like all those written by our great Francisco Buarque de Hollanda.

Foi Boto, Sinhá—a classic that I always loved from the Brazilian folklore repertoire, composed in the ’30s by the Amazonian Waldemar Henrique, with lyrics by Antonio Tavernard. It’s been recorded by many people in all kinds of versions, classic as well as popular, and was much performed by school choirs of my parents’ generation. From a young age I was fascinated by the story of the Amazon river dolphin that transformed itself into a man to seduce town girls. This indigenous legend continues alive to this day in Amazonia.

Die Sieben Todsünden (prolog)—I originally recorded the prolog of The Seven Deadly Sins by Brecht & Weill with an orchestra conducted by Lincoln Antônio. It was intended for my previous CD, Concerto Cabaré, but the recording didn’t turn out well, and it was the only song we had to leave out, much against our will. It was Lincoln who suggested that we record it in the studio with Toninho Ferragutti on sanfona [accordion] and Célio Barros on contrabass. I think he also didn’t accept the loss of the music in the earier CD, since he had arranged and conducted it... This time we were more than satisfied with the results.

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover—here’s another example of Chico Saraiva’s incredible intuition: he simply showed me the song and said it was my type. I confess that I heard Paul Simon and thought, “Well, okay, but...” Then we rehearsed, and I started singing it in shows, and the song began manifesting itself and finally became one of the songs I most like to sing. All thanks to Chico Saraiva’s third eye! Paul Simon, who’s so attuned to Brazil’s music and musicality, will no doubt be happy to know that there is a Brazilian version of this song, so tasty and pulsating.

Paraíso Eu—Arnaldo Antunes is one of the most attuned actual antennas of Brazilian popular music, and a composer I deeply admire. I went to his house so he could show me his latest creations, because I wanted very much to record a new song of his in As Sílabas. On the spot, he recorded a cassette tape with six or seven songs; at the time, I thought I’d have a lot of difficulty choosing one, because they were all marvelous. But by the time I got home, no doubt was left: “Paraíso Eu” grabbed me from the sound system and never again let me go.

La Luna È Bella—a little fun I had with my great friend and songwriting partner Ná Ozzetti, with her Italian origins and her enormous blue eyes... I wrote the lyrics and she set them to music.

Certeza É Ilusão—this song was written by another excellent paulista musician, who’s still unknown to the public at large: Paulo Padilha. Simple lyrics, the melody equally uncomplicated—the tried-and-true recipe of the great Brazilian composers. Just voice and guitar, in the manner it was conceived.

Para Ver as Meninas—another classic of MPB, composed by Paulinho da Viola. This samba of Paulinho’s is so beautiful that I was afraid to interpret it—I liked the melody and the lyrics so much... I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. Just as well we did do it. It’s a personal version of the song, and I think it walks along the razor’s edge. The interpretation was constructed during all those years of performances throughout Brazil.

Valsa dos Olhos Costurados—Lincoln Antônio showed me this song, and I picked it right away to sing; it has a somewhat expressionist feel, almost Alban Berg-like, full of crooked paths and unexpected corners... we recorded it live, all together, with our violinist friend Thomas Rohrer as a special guest. He’s a German Swiss from Basel who’s been living in São Paulo for seven years—a “Basileiro,” as he calls himself.

Helena—this song comes from São Luiz do Paraitinga, a provincial town in the state of São Paulo that celebrates one of the most animated and colorful Carnavals in Brazil. The whole city dresses up in costumes and goes out to the street, singing marchinhas composed by the local residents. It’s a real bulwark of cultural resistance, with street blocos, parades, and marchinha festivals. Every year I go there and have the privilege of singing on a float with the local bands. For this track, we had a real Carnaval parade in the studio, singing together in chorus, dragging our feet as the folks do in the streets of São Luiz, at times shouting, at others singing the wrong lyrics—this great disorderly fun that only the spirit of Carnaval teaches us.

Visit Suzana Salles’ official website.

Suzana Salles videos.

Lyrics and audio samples from As Sílabas are available here.

Suzana Salles: As Sílabas
(Dabliú Discos DB 0098; 2001) 45:56 min.

01. As Sílabas (Luiz Tatit)
02. Xangô (Chico César/Suzana Salles)
03. O Velho Francisco (Chico Buarque)
04. Foi Boto, Sinhá (Waldemar Henrique/Antônio Tavernard)
05. Die Sieben Todsünden [Prolog] (Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht)
06. 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover (Paul Simon)
07. Paraíso Eu (Arnaldo Antunes)
08. La Luna È Bella (Ná Ozzetti/Suzana Salles)
09. Certeza É Ilusão (Paulo Padilha)
10. Para Ver as Meninas (Paulinho da Viola)
11. Valsa dos Olhos Costurados (Lincoln Antônio/Marcelo Mota Monteiro)
12. Helena (Galvão Frade)

Suzana Salles: Concerto Cabaré
Songs by Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill
(Dabliú Discos 946069; 1997) 51:09 min.

01. Kanonen-Song
02. Nannas Lied
03. Eifersuchtsduett
04. Alabama-Song
05. Die Seeräuberjenny
06. Matrosensong
07. Denn wie man sich bettet
08. Ansttat-dass Song
09. Liebeslied
10. Havana Lied
11. Surabaya Johnny
12. Die Zuhälter-Ballade
13. Benares Song
14. Die Moritat von Mackie Messer

Foi Boto, Sinhá (Tajá-panema)
(Waldemar Henrique/Antônio Tavernard)

Tajá-panema chorou no terreiro
Tajá-panema chorou no terreiro
E a virgem morena fugiu pro costeiro

Foi boto, sinhá
Foi boto, sinhô
Que veio tentá
E a moça levou
E o tal dancará
Aquele doutô
Foi boto, sinhá
Foi boto, sinhô

Tajá-panema se pôs a chorar
Tajá-panema se pôs a chorar
Quem tem filha moça é bom vigiá!

Tajá-panema se pôs a chorar
Tajá-panema se pôs a chorar
Quem tem filha moça é bom vigiá!

O boto não dorme
No fundo do rio
Seu dom é enorme
Quem quer que o viu
Que diga, que informe
Se lhe resistiu
O boto não dorme
No fundo do rio...

It Was the Dolphin, Missus (Tajá-panema)
(Waldemar Henrique/Antônio Tavernard)

Tajá-panema cried in the yard
Tajá-panema cried in the yard
And the dark virgin fled behind

It was the dolphin, Missus
It was the dolphin, Massa
Who came to try
And took the girl
And that one will dance
That doctor
It was the dolphin, Missus
It was the dolphin, Massa

Tajá-panema began to cry
Tajá-panema began to cry
Whoever has a young daughter had better watch out!

Tajá-panema began to cry
Tajá-panema began to cry
Whoever has a young daughter had better watch out!

The dolphin doesn’t sleep
At the bottom of the river
His power is enormous
Whoever has seen him
Should tell, should inform
If he resisted him
The dolphin doesn’t sleep
At the bottom of the river...

Paraíso Eu
(Arnaldo Antunes)

Pode comer
Pode beber
Pode se embriagar
Pode falar e pode fazer
Tudo o que você desejar
Aqui é o paraíso hoje
Paraíso eu
Pode tocar
Pode pegar
Pode acariciar
Pode apalpar e
Pode fazer
Tudo o que você desejar
Que eu sou o paraíso hoje
Paraíso seu

Paradise I
(Arnaldo Antunes)

You can eat
You can drink
You can get drunk
You can say and do
Everything that you want
Here is paradise today
Paradise I
You can touch
You can take
You can caress
You can stroke and
You can do
Everything that you desire
Because I am paradise today
Your paradise


Copyright © 2002–2014 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.