It was a long, circuitous road that took Manhattan Transfer from its U.S. roots to "Brasil," which is the subject and title of the group's new album, now rising fast on the charts.
"The whole thing began four years ago," said Tim Hauser, the member of the vocal quartet who produced "Brasil." "I looked in a store and saw this record in the window, 'Lilas,' by Djavan. I didn't know who he was, or what kind of music he was into, but I bought it because the guy in the picture looked so cool!
"I heard it and thought it was fantastic, then I found out that Cheryl (Bentyne) had the album, and also that Alan (Paul) and Janis (Siegel) had been listening to this new Brazilian music.
"Later, I had to go to Quincy Jones' office to get clearance on a song for 'Vocalese.' I met Louise Velazquez, who runs the Brazilian arm of Quincy's publishing business. She asked me if I was into Brazilian music, and I told her I had this one album by Djavan but was also a fan of people like Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento. Well, to cut a long story short, after several hours of talk I walked out of her office with 25 albums she loaned me."
(Djavan will be with the Transfer for its appearances Saturday through New Year's Eve at the Universal Amphitheatre.)
Velazquez turned out to be the Transfer's mentor throughout the "Brasil" project. She was with them when they went on a trip in September, 1986, that combined a few gigs with fact finding. Her contacts were invaluable.
"Within a single week in Rio," Hauser recalls, "we spent an evening sitting around the piano at Antonio Carlos Jobim's house, had dinner with Ivan Lins, dinner with Djavan, with Milton Nascimento, a luncheon where we met Wagner Tiso and Dore Caymmi. Getting to know all these people led to an even deeper sense of involvement."
A subsequent jaunt on his own led to more serendipity: Hauser was seeking out local instrumentalists when, in a Rio record shop, he picked up an LP by the group Uakti.
"Their music was so beautiful, so intelligent and different (that) they reminded me of the 1960s when I used to listen to Harry Partch. In fact, one of their albums mentions in the liner notes that they are Brazilian counterparts of Partch."
(Uakti, heard on the "Brasil" album, will also perform at the Universal concerts.)
The next step was the search for English lyrics. A friend of Hauser's named Doug Figer, who had heard some of Djavan's songs, asked to take a crack at writing a couple of them. According to Hauser, he used a technique that had been recommended by Djavan, who had told the Transfer: "I don't really tell stories; I use words as rhythms and sounds. If you hear in my songs a Portuguese word that sounds like an English word, use it; if you have a string of these ideas happening through the song, piece them together through a stream of consciousness."
Whether or not Figer's English lyrics for "Soul Food to Go" and "Zoo Blues" succeeded is open to question. Some listeners may find a far more significant message in the album's two best lyrics, Tracy Mann's for "Hear the Voices" and Brock Walsh's for "Notes From the Underground," both heavy in political overtones.
"Gilberto Gil, who composed 'Hear the Voices,' was jailed, tortured and exiled during the military dictatorship in Brazil," said Hauser. "This song, which he composed, tells his story. We dedicated it to him and to Caetano Veloso, another musician who was jailed and tortured."
No less moving is "Notes From the Underground" with music by Ivan Lins and original words by Vitor Martins. It carries a powerful anti-apartheid motif: "Beneath the marbled halls of Pretoria/There's the faintest sound rising from the underground. . ./Ten miles from Soweto under a thorn tree's branches/shanty will be no longer after the battle's over."
These socially significant lyrics are a product of the movement, known as Tropicalismo, that brought a hot gust of new winds, a sort of nova bossa nova, to the Brazilian music of the past decade.
Men like Djavan and Ivan Lins have become symbols of Tropicalismo. Djavan contributed five songs to the album, one of which he sings in Portuguese. Milton Nascimento not only made a guest vocal appearance but also turned Hauser on to some of the best available instrumental talent in Rio.
Asked how long the Transfer will keep its present Brazilian format, Hauser was typically casual. "We never know what we're going to do next," he said. "We'd like to do some more stuff with Uakti, that's for sure. But I've found over the years that you just can't figure out your plans intellectually. It's a spiritual thing, a feeling that comes to you in its own good time. When we listen to our own inner voices, we'll know which way to go."