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The steady move from Ipanema

Mielniczenko travels a wide path through Brazilian music, with an audience following.

April 03, 2004|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

If not for Sergio Mielniczenko, the world of Brazilian music, to L.A.'s ears, might very well have been summed up in one sweet, albeit Muzak-worn samba: Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto's beguiling 1964 recording "The Girl From Ipanema."

That transformation has been no small thing, but Mielniczenko has made it look like nothing more than a sly chord progression.

For nearly three decades, Mielniczenko has performed yeoman work as DJ, emcee, curator and general, all-around tastemaker, spreading the word of the breadth of Brazilian music.

Over the years, through a group of weekly radio shows --"The Brazilian Hour," the now defunct "Sounds of Brazil" and "The Global Village" -- on KXLU-FM, KPFK-FM and beamed by satellite, he has presented, in his precise and placid, Portuguese-accented English, the best of samba, bossa nova, musica popular Brasileira, Brazilian jazz.

More importantly, however, he has coaxed L.A.'s listening audience around unexpected corners -- and through regions and rituals and artists who fall off well-trammeled paths of say bossa nova or jazz samba.

As these things go, he is more than a bit of a ubiquitous dignitary, floating from festivals to tucked-away clubs to living room jam sessions.

When renowned Brazilian pop artist Caetano Veloso arrived in Los Angeles to perform for the first time in 1997, Mielniczenko was there to greet him. When the notoriously taciturn Joao Gilberto touched down last summer for his first L.A. performance in more than 30 years, he may have been testy with the Hollywood Bowl crowd, but he cleared time for Mielniczenko to visit with him backstage.

"It's just how we are," he says, with a wave of the hand, "we Brazilians like to become friends in a half-hour,"

Sitting in his CD-lined studio-office at the Brazilian Consulate, where he also works as part of its cultural sector, Mielniczenko is making lists. The phone rings nonstop. The greeting, he purrs in Portuguese, "Oi! Como vai?" Assistants and secretaries buzz in with letters to sign, and there are messages to return, meetings pending.

As usual, Mielniczenko has one foot in one world, the other in another.

He's hours away from hopping a plane to Rio de Janeiro to ferry a group of young musicians to L.A. for a set of shows tonight and Sunday at the Getty. The performance -- Flor Amoroso: The Brazilian Modern Choro Ensemble -- is one that Mielniczenko has been planning for some time.

It's been more than 10 years since a choro group has come to Los Angeles. And even in Brazil, choro had begun to recede into the backspace, so assembling this one has been a multipronged affair. While the imprint of choro greats Pixinguinha and Jacob do Bandolim still lingered, Mielniczenko noted that a revival was in the air -- with artists such as Paulinho da Viola becoming enthusiastic choro revivalists.

"What caught my attention is that these kids, they are in their 20s and they are playing this music that was developed in the 1800s," he explains, sinking his swivel chair in front of his radio console where he tapes "The Brazilian Hour." Instead of the typical grouping -- flute, guitar, cavaquinho (a miniature Portuguese guitar), perhaps a clarinet -- this modern ensemble will include a violin, harmonica, six- and seven-string guitars and a pandeiro (tambourine).

"When I was last there, I stumbled into a little bar in Copacabana called Bip Bip. It's tiny. The proprietor tells you you can't clap: 'You'll wake the people upstairs.' But it's hard not to. When you have these young musicians playing their version of this thing, it could change the whole thing, the history. I wanted to be there for it."

Mielniczenko's history here speaks for itself. The studio walls are a mosaic of color and black-and-white snapshots of him alongside a collection of Brazilian treasures -- some visiting, some who have, since Mielniczenko's KXLU debut in 1978, come to put down roots here: Djavan, Milton Nascimento, Oscar Castro-Neves, Ivan Lins, Gilberto Gil, Dori Caymmi -- even Pele.

As he opens the morning mail, out pops a CD that gives even seen-it-all Mielniczenko a start: The late Brazilian diva Elis Regina's daughter, Maria Rita, has recorded a new CD. He slides it into the changer. Maria Rita eerily channels her mother: "Ah. Look at the goose bumps."

Staying in L.A. wasn't the original plan. With two years of composition and conducting under his belt from studies in Sao Paulo, he came to the States in the mid-'70s to finish his music studies but instead got caught up in mass media studies.

In L.A. at the time, "People were still feeling the aftereffects of bossa nova. Sergio Mendes was very popular. Performing big shows in Vegas," he remembers. But, as Mielniczenko began to learn, Southern California was beginning to nurture and influence its own strain of Brazilian music.

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