:: The articles in this series were originally published
:: in the online magazine Daniella Thompson on Brazil.


The globetrotting Romeu Silva

The saxophonist and his band in France.

Daniella Thompson

17 November 2003

The prominent bandleader Romeu Silva (1893–1958) began as a saxophone player. As an 18-year old postal clerk in 1911, he played in the orchestra of the legendary rancho Ameno Resedá. The same year he joined the orchestra of the Sociedade Dançante Carnavalesca Ninho do Amor, whose director of harmony was the tombonist-composer Álvaro Sandim. In 1913, Romeu Silva followed Sandim to the rancho Flor do Abacate.

By the early 1920s, Silva was composing some tunes. Among the recordings made by the Oito Batutas in Buenos Aires are Silva’s maxixe “Tricolor” and his maxixe-samba “Si Papae Souber!” In 1923, following a stint in Eduardo Souto’s orchestra, Romeu Silva formed his own Jazz Band Sul-Americano. This group played in balls, cabarets, and in the lobby of the Cine Palais. In 1924, the band began recording for the Odeon label, with an extensive repertoire that comprised sambas, maxixes, and frevos, but also American foxtrots and Argentine tangos. Their first recordings appear to have been these:

Título: Cock-tail
Gênero: Fox-trot
Intérprete: Jazz Band Sul-Americano Romeu Silva
Gravadora: Odeon
Número: 122754

Título: Cherry
Gênero: Fox-trot
Intérprete: Jazz Band Sul-Americano Romeu Silva
Gravadora: Odeon
Número: 122755

Among their early recordings (Odeon 122786) is the maxixe “Lolote ‘Estrilando’” by Mário Silva, who was most likely Romeu’s brother, for he was a longtime member of the band and bore a striking resemblance to the leader (see photo to the right).

During this period, one of the band’s musicians was the young pianist Ary Barroso, still an impoverished law student and yet to make his name as the most celebrated Brazilian songwriter of his time. In 1956, Ary would describe his experience in O Jornal:

Depois, galguei o cimo de minha carreira, integrando a famosa Jazz Band Sul-Americana, de Romeu Silva. Era a orquestra da alta-roda. Tocávamos nos principais clubes da cidade: Country Club, Fluminense, América, Botafogo, Jóquei Clube, Tijuca, Guanabara e outros. Quando Romeu levou sua orquestra para a Europa, desliguei-me do conjunto. Fui tocar em Poços de Caldas, no Bar do Ponto, do Nico.

Later I climbed to the apex of my career, joining the famous Jazz Band Sul-Americana of Romeu Silva. It was the high-society orchestra. We played in the principal clubs of the city [Rio de Janeiro]: Country Club, Fluminense, América, Botafogo, Jóquei Clube, Tijuca, Guanabara, and others. When Romeu took his orchestra to Europe, I left the band and went to play in Poços de Caldas [Minas Gerais], at Nico’s Bar do Ponto.

The Dicionário Cravo Albin da MPB reports that in January 1926, sponsored by the Brazilian government, the Romeu Silva band embarked on a long-term tour of Europe, playing mostly Brazilian genres to publicize their country’s music. Among the musicians who traveled to Europe were Fernando (guitar), Mário Silva (trumpet), Bibiano “Bibi” Miranda (drums), Luiz Lopes (bass sax), and All Pratt (alto sax).

In Lisbon the band played at the Teatro Trindade, going on to the Politeama, the Monumental, and Maxim’s, in addition to various nightclub gigs. They were successful enough to have been invited to perform at the presidential palace. Appearances in other Portuguese cities followed: Figueira da Foz, Porto, Braga, Estoril, and Coimbra. In Spain the band passed through Madrid, Barcelona, Vigo, Bilbao, and San Sebastian, always with great success. King Alfonso XII invited Romeu Silva to an event for the Spanish aristocracy. Then on to Paris, where the band played at the salon of the Baron de Rothschild, Maison Lafite (owned by the Rothschilds), and Château Rambouillet (the French President’s summer residence).

The Dicionário da MPB appears to have based its information on an article (undated but believed to have been published in the mid-1930s) in the Rio de Janeiro newspaper A Noite, which in turn relied on Romeu Silva’s own letters to the newspaper. Along the way, some details were mangled, such as the report that the band had played at the “baile do Pétit le Blanc” (actually, it was le Bal des Petits Lits Blancs, an important society charity ball held at the Paris Opéra). The band also appeared at the inauguration of the night races at Longchamps and, at the invitation of then president Albert Lebrun, at the annual ball of Sureté Génerale, proving to be the great revelation of the event.

The band is said to have accompanied Josephine Baker, and the singer’s biographer, Ean Wood, mentions Romeu Silva once:

In the autumn of 1931, Paris Qui Remue closed. As Mistinguett was to be the star of the Casino’s next revue, Josephine employed herself by setting off on tour with a band of jazz musicians. She named them The 16 Baker Boys. Their leader was tenor saxophonist Romeo Silva, and among them were trumpeter Léon Jacobs, who has been her bandleader at Chez Joséphine, alto saxophonist Joe Hayman, who had come with her to Paris as part of the Claude Hopkins band for La Revue Negre, and the Argentinian guitarist and composer Oscar Alemán.

Wood does not mention his source, nor does he tell us how long Silva was involved with the Baker Boys. However, it has been established that various members of the Romeu Silva band sat in with Edmond Mahieux’s Melodic-Jazz du Casino de Paris on over a dozen of Josephine Baker’s recordings in 1930, 1931, and 1932, including “La Petite Tonkinoise.” The Silva band members participating in the Baker recordings were Mário Silva (trumpet), Romeu Silva (tenor sax), Luiz Lopez da Silva (bass sax), and Bibiano Miranda de Abreu (drums). The guitarist in these sessions was none other than Oscar Alemán.

From Paris, the Romeu Silva band excursion continued to Belgium, Switzerland, England, Italy, and Germany.

The success in Europe led to further international tours. In 1932, Romeu Silva left for the Olympic Games in Los Angeles with the Brazilian Olympic Band. In 1935 he returned to Brazil, bringing along several American bandmembers, including Booker Pittman (sax & clarinet) and the crooner Louis Cole. For the next two years, the band played at the Cassino Atlântico. Then, says the Dicionário da MPB, it accompanied Carmen Miranda and Bando da Lua on a one-year tour of Argentina. This part is highly questionable. Carmen had indeed performed in Argentina on an annual basis since the early 1930s, but her stays there never lasted more than two months or so, and she had no need of a full orchestra, being accompanied either by her mentor Josué de Barros and his son or by Bando da Lua.

Whether the Jazz Band Sul-Americano accompanied Carmen Miranda on her 1938 tour remains to be established, but there’s ample evidence of another tour the band took earlier, quite undocumented in the Dicionário. In 1937, the band went to France, most likely to perform at the Paris World’s Fair (Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne). While there, they settled in at the famous Shéhérazade dance hall—the same one managed by the Bahian dancer Duque, where Os Batutas had played in 1922. The Shéhérazade name is visible in the publicity photo below, circulated on the occasion of the band’s appearance in Nîmes, an ancient Roman city in the south of France, among whose landmarks is a feature familiar to every carioca.

Orquestra Sul-Americana Brasileira in Nîmes (photo courtesy of Anthony Baldwin)

Billed as Orchestre da Sylva du Shéhérazade de Paris, the band was the attraction at the Bal de la Presse, which took place on Mardi Gras, 9 February 1937. The event was a masked costume ball and spectacle organized by the Nîmes Press Association as a benefit for the anti-tuberculosis campaign, which was financed by the sale of the souvenir stamp seen on the photo. This is the very same photo that Romeu Silva sent to A Noite.

Anthony Baldwin, who sent me this scan, endeavored to read the musicians’ names from the photo and came up with the following, which I amended with names provided by A Noite and published by Rafael Velloso in his Master’s thesis O Saxofone no Choro. From left:

Heriberto Rico Either the brother of Filiberto Rico, Cuban musician & leader of Rico’s Creole Band, or Filiberto himself under a different name Flute, clarinet & alto saxophone
Elia [?] Lopes Possibly Luiz Lopez da Silva Cavaquinho, baritone sax
---ano Mu--n- Most likely Bibiando Miranda de Abreu Guitar & drums; dancer
Francisco Marti   Piano
Romeu Silva   Tenor sax
Fernando ----- Most likely Fernando de Albuquerque Principal vocalist; banjo, guitar & cavaquinho
Henri Plembans Possibly Henrique Planares Souzaphone & trombone
Mário Silva   Trumpet

In 1939, Romeu Silva was on the move again, as his orchestra was selected to appear in the Brazilian pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. This time he had several stars under his baton, including Noel Rosa’s partner Vadico (piano), Zaccarias (sax & clarinet), and Zezinho, later known as Zé Carioca (guitar). The band was in New York from June till November, participating in a Brazilian music festival that included among its headliners the baritone Cândido Botelho (who had performed the new samba-exaltação “Aquarela do Brasil” in the musical revue Joujoux e Balangandãs that very June) and the pianist Artur Rubinstein. Upon their return to Rio, the band began to play at the Feira de Amostras, and in 1941 they moved to Cassino da Urca, the most glittering showcase in the city. There they remained until 1946, when general Eurico Gaspar Dutra’s government outlawed gambling and all the casinos were shut down. Suddenly out of work, Romeu was forced to disband his orchestra and become a public servant. He died completely forgotten in 1958.

In 1955, a few years before Romeu’s death, Ary Barroso recollected the former bandleader in O Jornal:

Alto, forte, moreno. Cabelos de ondas pequeninas. Andava ereto e superior. Dirigia a melhor jazz band do seu tempo (1924). Exigia “linha” dos músicos. Tocava (mal) saxofone tenor. Era chamado para abrilhantar os mais elegantes bailes da cidade de São Paulo. Era o único que ficava de pé. Os outros músicos, sentados. Quando passava pelo salão uma dama bonita, ele fazia um muxoxozinho na palheta do saxofone e que soava, mais ou menos, como um beijo. Esteve nos Estados Unidos e na Europa. Hoje, como está diferente! Nem sombra daquele galã. Refiro-me a Romeu Silva, diretor da ex-Jazz Band Sul-Americana.

Tall, strong, dark. Tightly curled hair. He always walked erect and superior. He directed the best jazz band of his time (1924). Demanded “posture” from his musicians. He played tenor saxophone (badly). He was the one they would call to liven up the most elegant balls in São Paulo. He was the only one who would remain standing [on stage]. The other musicians sat. When a beautiful lady crossed the salon, he would blow gently with pursed lips on the mouthpiece, sounding more or less like a kiss. He has been to the United States and to Europe. How different he is today! Not a shadow of the fomer gallant. I refer to Romeu Silva, director of the ex-Jazz Band Sul-Americana.

Ary Barroso’s reminiscences in O Jornal were quoted by Sérgio Cabral in his biography of the composer, No Tempo de Ari Barroso (Rio de Janeiro: Lumiar Editora, 1993).

= = =

The musician Jorge Mello sent me the following quotation from the book O Choro (Funarte 1978; first edition 1936) by Alexandre Gonçalves Pinto, aka “Animal”:

Hoje um maestro, um intérprete das nossas musicas no estrangeiro, razão porque tornou-se adimirado e considerado celebridade pelo seu talento musical e patriotismo consumado, fazendo sobressair com vantagens pelos mundos civilizados o que é nosso. Romeu Silva é compositor e exímio executor.

O seu saxofone tem a magia da melodia, ele é um habilitadíssimo diretor de “jazz-band”. Veio este da Banda de música dos Meninos Desvalidos, e depois de andar tocando em diversos choros, foi Diretor de Harmonia da Flor do Abacate onde fez prodígios, e mais tarde a convite de Napoleão de Oliveira, Diretor de Canto do Ameno Resedá, foi ele Diretor de Harmonia do mesmo, onde alí com inteligência e dedicação fez dois carnavais. Romeu Silva consagrou-se, glorificou-se no estrangeiro levando ao apogeu o nome do Brasil que lhe deve a sua propaganda musical nestes paises civilizados. Romeu é um gentleman, simpático, de fino trato. É um artista de grande valor.

Heriberto or Filiberto?

Heriberto Rico, 1937
  Tommy Meini and Yves François Smierciak wrote me, suggesting that Heriberto Rico was, in fact, the saxophonist Filiberto Rico, leader of Rico’s Creole Band. The same claim was made by Alain Boulanger in the liner notes for the 2-CD set Cuba in Paris: Rico’s Creole Band 1947–51 (Frémeaux & Associés FA5055). Other accounts suggest that Heriberto was Filiberto’s brother. Filiberto, depicted in the photo below, does bear an uncanny resemblance to Heriberto in the Romeu Silva band photo (left).

Filiberto Rico playing alto sax with the Jackson Rhythm Kings, Paafuglen restaurant, Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, 1927 (photo courtesy of Peter Rasmussen and Erik Wiedemann)

By the 1950s, when Filiberto Rico released this EP, he was still recognizable. Three of the tunes on the disc were classified as baião. (photo courtesy of Yves François Smierciak)

Some readers might be interested in Yves François Smierciak’s note:

Filiberto Rico, leader of the famous Rico’s Creole Band [...] is a bandleader and musician of great repute, and he recorded a lot between 1931 and 1960 or so, though there is a 9-year gap that happens right after his last pre-war session in July 1937. His style was perhaps similar to Romeu Silva’s in terms of mixing styles of music organically. Rico’s Creole Band recorded in October 1936 (backing Antonio Machin), and again on 18 July 1937.

Was Romeu still in Paris during the summer of 1937, and is it possible that Filiberto may have moved to Brazil? There are no records of him in France or Cuba during the war, and if Filiberto did go to Brazil, he certainly would have been in good company with other musicians who made a success in France in the 1930s.

Filiberto’s band plays a variety of music–including types from Brazil, Martinique and Cuba–and hired vocalists from Brazil as well.

While Filiberto’s whereabouts during the war remain to be discovered, this page on jazz musicians in Paris claims that Rico’s Creole Band performed at the bar of the restaurant Le Triomphe in early 1938. Furthermore, Michael Stone tells us that World War II forced Rico to abandon Paris in 1941. Thus, he is not very likely to have gone to Brazil with Romeu Silva (if he ever played with him).

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