Clube da Esquina by Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges was one of only five Brazilian albums to be featured in the book “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die”.
If you have yet to hear this fusion of Brazilian music and Beatles-inflected pop, this may whet your appetite…
1971. Rural northern Rio de Janeiro, just across the border from the mining state of Minas Gerais.
Seven year old José Antônio Rimes, known to his friends as Tonho, is playing with his friend Antônio Carlos Rosa de Oliveira, known as Cacau.
Two guys pull up in a VW Beetle, someone calls out to him, and he smiles.
The driver takes a picture, and beetles off.
Tonho carries on with the rest of his life, unaware he and his friend will be the cover stars of one of Brazil’s most celebrated records…
When he was young, like José Antonio Rimes, Milton Nascimento had a nickname. His was “Bituca”, which translates as “Cigarette Butt” – hardly the most flattering nickname.
Born to poor, working class black parents in Rio he was adopted by white middle class parents on the death of his birth mother when he was just three years old. Growing up, Bituca would attempt to learn to play songs he heard on the radio. The only problem was the songs were often incomplete because the signal would cut out mid-song. He would snatch fragments of songs, transcribe them and wait for them to be repeated. If they weren’t he would imagine the rest, making up his own harmonies. Only years later, when he heard other musicians play the songs did he realise he was playing them differently to everyone else. Being different turned out not to be a bad move.
Aside from the radio, the other place he and his friends could hear music was the cinema, in stereophonic sound. The cinema became a ritual. These temples of magic with their large screens didn’t just impress with their visuals, but also with their music.
Bituca’s father was a director at a local radio station, Ràdio ZYV36, and at just fourteen years old he became a DJ, playing music from around the world. He played in bands, covering pop songs from Brazil and America.
Moving to the city of Belo Horizonte for work, he rented a room close to an expanse of pavement on a corner downtown called Ponto dos Músicos. It was the Denmark Street of Belo Horizonte – a place where musicians would congregate, be hired to perform bailes (balls/dances), and to meet, and be seen.
Here he met a number of musicians who, in 1971/72 would join him to record an album called Clube da Esqiuna – the “Corner Club”.
Nascimento got a break at the 1967 Festival Internacional da Canção, a national song contest – think Eurovision for Brazilians, but with fewer Finnish heavy metal bands dressed in masks. His song “Travessia” was voted second best song.
The following year, he was a finalist again, this time at TV Record’s IV Festival De MPB, but his song was ignored by the judges in the middle of a storm between more traditional, conservative singers and a new wave of Brazilian music makers, the Tropicalistas – a movement of musicians that included Os Mutantes and Tom Zè – whose music was upsetting both the ruling dictatorship and Marxist-influenced students on Brazil’s left, whose aesthetic agenda was strongly nationalistic. This was mainly because a) it didn’t say how great everything was being Brazilian and living under a military regime and b) contained electric fuzzy guitars associated with American music. It seemed that “going electric” wasn’t just controversial in the Northern hemisphere…
Tropilcalia vanguards Caetano Veloso and Os Mutantes’ performances that year were the Brazilian equivalent of Bob Dylan’s infamous “Judas” concert, albeit because this is Brazil, they were even more tumultuous, as both were festooned in outlandish green costumes. Such behaviour resulted in their being pelted with fruit, vegetables, eggs and a rain of paper balls, while the audience expressed their disapproval by standing up and turning their backs to the performers, prompting Os Mutantes to respond in kind by turning their backs on the audience.
It’s the Brazilian equivalent of Bob Dylan at the Albert Hall, only dressed as a leprechaun, doing the Poznań.
Despite being overlooked at the 1968 contest, Nascimento had done enough to sign a record deal and he released a modestly successful album every year for four years, growing his fan base.
But, that year saw the military government pass strict censorship laws. Many Brazilian musicians went into exile. The period is sometimes referred to as one of “cultural emptiness”. Nascimento and his fellow musicians were watched with suspicion by the authorities – and with good reason – they would shelter activists and dissidents in their apartments. He was prohibited from seeing his son in São Paulo – the government threatened to kidnap his son “forever” were he to do so.
The atmosphere in the streets became paranoid. Gathering in groups on a street corner was now seen as suspicious. If someone reported your owning the wrong sort of book, something subversive, you might be arrested, or disappear. People became mistrustful and cautious, resigned to a future without hope. It was established by the Truth Commission Report in 2014 that the military government subjected as many as 20,000 people to torture between 1965 and 1985.
No Future: That’s quite an atmosphere in which to be a musician.
In response, Nascimento wanted to do something different. A collaborative effort with people he knew from the Minas Gerais region of Brazil, and to blend this regional music with Brazil’s national musical forms such as samba and bossa nova, and with jazz, music from cinema and Beatles-influenced pop.
He also wanted to reflect the times in his lyrics, while walking a thin tightrope with censors.
He pulled together a team of people who have the sort of football-friendly names that would have Graham Souness sign them on four year £100k per week contracts, sight unseen, with or without an endorsement from George Weah
These included two drummers, one called Rubinho and the other Robertinho Silva, a bassist called Luis Alves, lyricist Marcio Borges, guitarists Beto Guedes, Lô Borges and Nelson Àngelo, keyboards/piano from Wagner Tiso and to cap it all, a lyricist called Ronaldo. Well, Ronaldo Bastos.
Either way, you would fancy them to beat West Ham nine times out of ten.
Even now, at their age.
They had mostly met each other from the corner club, and were a close-knit team,
Having convinced the record label, Odeon, to fund a double album – a first for Brazilian popular music – the musicians took to a studio, rehearsing and composing as they went. Instruments would be swapped and songs would be put together as the friends gathered over lunch in bars and restaurants that would spill out into the street corners. Ângelo described such gatherings in 2012: “We had many meetings…we met and said ‘So this song will be like this, it will open and so on..’ Then Nascimento would say ‘No, let’s see if we can get a choir singing something there.’ Then someone else, ‘Let’s splice this song with that other one’.”
Lyrics in songs such as “Nada Será Como Antes” (“Nothing Will Be As It Was”) reflected the group’s experiences and were seen as subtle protests.
Thus the Clube da Esquina of the title represented the literal corners of the city of Belo Horizonte where Nascimento and his co-musicians met.
And while it wasn’t possible in such an oppressive regime to be openly critical, the album projected a more subtle meaning.
From its cover of two friends, its cinematic expansiveness, its use of a whole team of individual talents, its bringing together regional, national and international influences to create something that transcends them all, indeed its very name – the club on the corner, where the collective all met and came together to create something extraordinary – is one of achieving something greater than the sum of its parts through openness and cooperation.
The resulting album is a true collaboration, with multiple lyric writers, half a dozen guitarists, an equal number of percussionists, vocals from Lo Borges, Alaide Costa and Nascimento… all swapping roles from time to time.
The subtle message is that by working together, through friendship, life’s obstacles can be overcome. Including, no doubt, military dictatorships.
The album became one of Brazil’s most celebrated, and remains an extraordinary listen.
Which brings us back to the beginning of the story.
Six years ago it was the fortieth anniversary of the release of Clube da Esquina.
The hunt was on for os meninos da capa: the boys from the (album) cover.
They were tracked down by a journalist. Tonho worked in a supermarket. Cacau as a gardener.
Tonho had been unaware of the album, and was delighted to discover the photo, meaningful to so many Brazilians as a symbol of friendship across racial divides, but for a different reason: “We never had photos from when I was a boy”.
More meaningfully he reflected that his own friendship with Antônio Carlos had lasted as long as the image:
“We each took a different path, but when we see each other it’s always a riot. A friend is a friend, right? For life.”
Until very recently it has been prohibitively expensive to find a copy of Clube da Esquina on vinyl. Original copies are scarce. But a 2017 official Brazilian reissue by Polysom has changed this. Released on 180 gram vinyl in a gatefold sleeve and remastered from the original analog tapes, this is a double album that would grace any collection, and, although postage from Brazil is nothing to be sniffed at, is now more affordable than ever before.