‘That was the day I knew I had died … ’ José Mauro, the reborn genius of bossa nova | Music

It was the summer of 1995 when José Mauro discovered he was dead. The Brazilian musician, then 46 years old, was living on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, teaching guitar, when a friend called from London saying he’d spotted a CD of Mauro’s long-deleted 1970 LP, Obnoxius, on sale in a London record shop.

“He called and explained about this CD, and about how it said I’d been killed in a motorcycle accident,” says Mauro today, now 72. “That was the day I knew I had died.”

The record had been pressed up for limited UK distribution by Brazilian music expert Joe Davis on his burgeoning Far Out Recordings label. Davis had discovered it some four years earlier, while digging through the $1 bin in a Rio record shop. “I’d discovered a magical record,” says Davis today. “The musicians on it are the A-team, the arranger Gaya was a true maestro, and José and his lyricist Ana Maria Bahiana had a magical partnership.” But Roberto Quartin, whose label put out the album, told him that Mauro had died in a motorcycle accident shortly after the release.

Other 90s London club DJs picked up on the record’s unique blend of samba rhythms and rich orchestral arrangements, all grounded by Mauro’s melancholy young baritone and Bahiana’s poetic, spiritual lyrics. Simultaneously, the stories surrounding Mauro’s fate grew, with some speculating he’d been “disappeared” in the early 70s by Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship. Ironically, it was the record’s resurgence on the 90s club scene that brings Bahiana back into the story.

“I was working as a journalist in Los Angeles,” she says, “and I got this call from a friend in London. He’s in a club, he’s a little drunk and he’s shouting: ‘Ana! Ana! I can hear your voice! Listen!’ This club was playing one of mine and José’s songs!”

The initial feeling for Bahiana was bittersweet. “I thought someone in the UK had licensed all our music,” she says, “music I’d been told was lost. So that was great, but what are we going to get out of it? Also, the story José was dead … No, he was not! I’d recently exchanged emails with his nephew!”

Bahiana put Mauro’s family in touch with a creative rights lawyer and stayed in touch via Facebook, but it wasn’t until 2016 and a more high-profile reissue of Obnoxius on Far Out Recordings that Joe Davis learned Mauro was alive.

Top team … José Mauro, right, in 1970 with Roberto Quartin and Ana Maria Bahiana.
‘We understood each other’ … José Mauro, right, in 1970 with Roberto Quartin and Ana Maria Bahiana. Photograph: Far Out Recordings

“Various people had come forward claiming to be José’s family, but they’d all been bogus,” he says. “Then Ana Maria contacted me and a young musician who lived in the same area in Rio led us to José’s door via his friend David Butter, who is José’s nephew.”

Now, five years on, a second, even rarer collection of Mauro and Bahiana’s music, A Viagem Das Horos (The Journey of the Hours) is being reissued, this time with Mauro and Bahiana’s full cooperation. “It is unpleasant to live unacknowledged,” says Mauro. “[It was like] those 50 years were taken away from me.”

José Mauro was born into a family of eight on a farmstead in Jacarepaguá, in Rio’s west zone. When he was seven years old, his father bought him an accordion that he played until graduating to acoustic guitar at 15. He started composing a year later. “I went to a music school in Copacabana,” he says. “I also took additional classic guitar lessons at musical conservatories. Then I met Ana.”

Ana Maria Bahiana today
Bittersweet feeling … Ana Maria Bahiana today Photograph: Delaney Andrews

“I was 17,” says Bahiana. “I’d just graduated high school and I was a real bookworm, reading, writing essays, short stories, articles, poetry … But I had a friend who said, I’ve just met this guy, he’s our age, he has this amazing music and he’s looking for lyrics.”

“I saw one of her lyrics being performed at a university festival,” says Mauro. “I enjoyed it a lot. And so I asked her to be my music partner. Our creative relationship was exceptional. We understood each other.”

At that time in Rio, as Bahiana explains, the dominant sound of bossa nova had become associated with the wealthy middle classes, which made it incredibly unfashionable among the new wave of young musicians. “I was a rebel,” says Bahiana, with a laugh. “I was anti-bossa nova and when I heard [José’s] music it just sounded right. He composed in a minor scale, very emotional, lyrical, deep and I thought, Yeah, I get it.”

The lyrics Bahiana began writing for Mauro were, as she puts it herself, “not love songs”. A rejection of the pair’s strict Catholic upbringing, they instead embraced the African Brazilian religion Candomble, where music has a direct connection to God, and where God is music.

“We both had huge, huge crises in our strict Catholic families,” she says, “Plus José was gay, and his father could not fathom that. We’d talk about philosophy and unrequited love and whether magic could happen.”

“Yes, I was and am a gay man,” says Mauro, “and there was a slight [easing of attitudes] at that time due to the hippie movement, but it had no bearing on my work. Ana and I debated at the seas of poetry and art.”

Bahiana’s lyrics are cryptic, dreamlike, poems of despair and hope that reference sea journeys, falling bodies and spiked crosses, words that seem inextricably linked to the pair’s lives but also the the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Brazil at that time. “Brazil was horrible, terrible,” says Bahiana. “But we were a generation influenced by Joni Mitchell; Crosby, Stills and Nash. We were saying: horrible things are happening, so let’s try a different way. We were dreaming an alternative Brazil.”

Quartin, left, and Mauro, second right, with friends after a recording session.
Quartin, left, and Mauro, second right, with friends after a recording session.

The songs Bahiana and Mauro took into Rio’s Odeon Studio to record with Roberto Quartin were written for voice and 10-string Brazilian guitar. The transformation that happened in the studio was, in part, as a result of Quartin’s love of a 1967 album Frank Sinatra recorded with Brazilian bossa king Antônio Carlos Jobim and the German arranger Claus Ogerman. “Quartin played it over and over again and we got hooked on [Ogerman’s] orchestrations,” says Bahania. “Suddenly, we wanted voices, strings…”

Jose Mauro today.
‘I enjoy my loneliness’ … José Mauro today. Photograph: Jorge Bispo

Aided by the cream of Brazilian musicians and arrangements by the great Lindolfo Gaya, Mauro and Bahiana created a rich, dramatic and haunting sound that marked the shift from 1960s Tropicália – a style that blended samba and bossa rhythms with Beatles-influenced psychedelia – to the more cosmopolitan MPB (musica popular Brasileira), paving the way for such acknowledged classics as Chico Buarque’s Construção, Milton Nascimento’s 1972 Clube da Esquina and Edu Lobo’s self-titled 1975 masterpiece.

“To cut expenses we recorded 24 songs,” says Mauro. “Two albums in one session. Quartin picked the best for Obnoxius. And the remaining pieces for a second album, A Viagem Das Horas.” However, the second disc barely saw a release.

“Quartin got into a fight with EMI who didn’t promote Obnoxius,” explains Bahiana. “So he sold A Viagem to a nostalgia label, Tapecar. By that point it was 1972, I told José I’m going back to college. But I said, I’m still available to write lyrics. Just give me a call.”

“After Ana Maria left I had no plan,” says Mauro. “I waited a long time for both my records to happen and all that waiting took my interest away. I stopped composing. It broke me in some way.”

Mauro did some work for the Tablado Theatre School, composed original music for a number of plays and started his guitar lessons, but his health was affected by a fall that damaged his mobility. “That took its toll,” he says. “Then Parkinson’s came later, and kept me away from playing guitar. I live alone now, but my neighbours are quiet and friendly people. I enjoy my loneliness. Even if it frightens me occasionally.”

It’s thanks to his nephew, David Butter, that Mauro was persuaded to talk to the press and he’s enjoying it. “I was taken for dead for so many years,” he says. “Now my work is being acknowledged. It’s incredible.”

Bahiana recently got back in touch with Mauro over WhatsApp. She says simply: “I love that his work is back out there. Finally, the long journey is over. I know I’m a journalist, but that is a good ending to the story.”

With thanks to David Butter for his assistance and translations. A Viagem Das Horas is released on 28th May 2021 on Far Out Recordings

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