In conversation with rosa passos
By Tomas Peña
Welcome to New York and congratulations on the release of Romance. It’s an exquisite recording.
Before we speak about your recording, I would like to ask you a few questions about the history of bossa nova. As I understand it the two key figures in the bossa nova movement are João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Yes, I learned the Bossa Nova from Joao Gilberto.
Bossa nova sounds so effortless, yet it is quite complex. How do you explain the intricacies of bossa nova to someone who has little or knowledge of the genre?
Bossa nova is very quiet and delicate. In order to understand bossa nova you have to be able to “feel” the quietness and delicacy of the music.
I read that bossa nova derives from samba. Also that it is “samba minus the percussion.” Is that so?
The dynamics and the rhythms of bossa nova are different from samba. I was asked that very question when I conducted a workshop at Berklee and I answered it by playing the rhythms side-by-side. It’s easier to hear the differences between than to put it into words.
You grew up in San Salvador, Bahia, known as Brazil’s “Capital of Happiness” and the center of Afro-Brazilian culture. How did growing up in San Salvador impact your music?
I grew up surrounded by music! But as a little girl my favorites were Dorival Caymmi and João Gilberto.
How about your father? I read that he used to play a lot of music (records) around the house.
Oh yes, my father loved music and he “kind of” played the guitar [laughter]. Everyone in my family played an instrument: my sister Arizete played the piano. Also, my two brothers played the guitar and the cello. I started out playing the piano but I switched to the guitar because it came very easy to me. I have always had an affinity for the guitar.
I understand that the film, Black Orpheus left a deep and lasting impression on you.
Yes, my sister brought the soundtrack home and I listened to it over and over.
It’s a timeless film and soundtrack. I have seen Black Orpheus countless times and I still play the soundtrack. It’s a classic.
It’s good to know that we have the same taste!
Did any of your brothers and sisters become professional musicians?
No, my brother (the cellist) tried very, very hard but in the end he opted to become a civil engineer.
When did you realize that music was your life?
Music has always been part of my life.
You first professional gigs were on Brazilian radio and television. In 1979 you recorded Recriacao, then you disappeared from the music scene for six years to be with your family. Was dropping out of the music scene difficult for you? Tell me about that period in your life.
No, it wasn’t difficult at all. I made a conscious decision to take some time off to raise my children. And, I never stopped studying, composing or playing. I just didn’t go public.
You resumed your career in 1985 and your big break in the U.S. came when Oscar Castro Neves invited you to appear with him at the Hollywood Bowl in 1996.
How do you explain bossa nova’s long-standing popularity in the U.S? From Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz to Djavan and Ivan Lins, the love affair is ongoing.
Bossa nova has always been well received in the United States. Speaking for myself, I love performing in the U.S. Even though I do not speak English I have always been well received by the public and the press. My “gift” to the U.S. is my music and in turn I receive such positive energy from the public. It’s very encouraging and uplifting!
Speaking of positive energy, let’s talk about Romance. When you were asked to do the recording you jumped at the chance to record an album of ballads. Is there any particular reason why you chose to do that now?
I have always been very comfortable with ballads and I was in the mood to do it. Also, the world needs it!
No doubt the world could use some love, peace and tranquility. Tell me about the repertoire.
I selected material by some of the greatest Brazilian composers: Antonio Carlos Jobim, Djavan, Ivan Lins, Dorival Caymmi, Joao Donato, Chico Buarque among others.
What’s your take on the new bossa nova? Are there any up-and-coming Brazilian artists that call your attention? Who are some of the artists that you enjoy listening to when you have a free moment?
I am a traditionalist and I am not involved in the new movement so I really don’t have an opinion on that. I like to listen to the divas of jazz.
Nancy Wilson, Shirley Horn, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Nina Simone and lots of instrumental music.
In Brazil you are known as “The Female João Gilberto.” Are you comfortable with that?
That has been going on for a long, long time. Overall I like it, but João is a legend so it’s a big responsibility. I would like the public to know that I perform all kinds of music in my own way, sometimes with a jazzy flavor.
As you did with Ron Carter (Entre Amigos) and Kenny Rankin (Here in My Heart) and Chris Botti (“Here’s That Rainy Day”). Have you given any thought to making a jazz recording your own?
Have you heard my recording, Azul (2002)? On this recording I perform in many different styles. If you haven’t heard it, give it a listen.
No but I look forward to hearing it.
Before we close the interview, I would like to echo the sentiments of one reviewer, who wrote that your voice “has immense warmth and sweetness.” And that “listening to you is like inviting an old friend to come and stay awhile.” Also I have a confession to make, “I am in love with the sound of your voice!” There I said it!
Good luck with your upcoming performance at Lincoln Center and Romance. It’s on heavy rotation in the Peña household!
Coda: Rosa did indeed perform at The Allen Room and she received rave reviews. According to Nate Chinen of The New York Times, “Her concert was a study in small gestures and subtle touches, and she made it feel both natural and special.”
Thank You to Rosa’s sister, Arizete Lockwood, who was kind enough to serve as our translator during the interview process.