“Estou encantado e sinto-me feliz de vir ao Rio.”
(I’m enchanted and feel happy about coming to Rio.) – Leopold Stokowski’s only public statement, upon arrival in Rio de Janeiro in 1940.
In the summer of 1940, as Hitler expanded his power over much of western Europe, the Roosevelt administration anxiously invested in the United States’ “good neighbor policy”- first announced in Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural speech – meant to deter South American countries from potentially aligning with the Axis powers.
This policy included expanded cultural exchange with southern neighbors, and one of the first U.S. goodwill ambassadors to Brazil – before the more famous visits of Walt Disney (1941) and Orson Welles (1942) – was the star conductor Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski had been tremendously popular as conductor of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, and earned more widespread admiration through his conducting of popular projects such as Disney’s recently released Fantasia.
Rio de Janeiro was Stokowski’s first stop on his 1940 summer tour of South America with his All American Youth Orchestra and technicians from Columbia Records, traveling on the ocean liner S.S. Uruguay. Stokowski, already enamored with Brazilian music for decades, asked composer Heitor Villa-Lobos to help him find examples of the “most legitimate Brazilian popular music” to record on a Columbia album during his time docked in Rio’s harbor.
Forty songs were recorded in a less than ideal makeshift studio on the Uruguay. For most of the recordings, with some exceptions, Villa-Lobos presented semiprofessional samba composers like Cartola, Donga, Zé Espinguela and Zé da Zilda, who usually sold their compositions to successful recording artists and remained out of the limelight – and mostly in deep poverty – themselves.
Of the forty songs recorded, just sixteen made it onto the box set Native Brazilian Music, including Cartola’s “Quem me vê sorrir.”
Unfortunately for Cartola and other composers who recorded, Columbia Records marketed the album in the United States as Brazilian “folklore,” relegating the artists to near anonymity; tellingly, most of the composers’ names are misspelled or totally missing from the album. Few received compensation for their recordings, and none received royalties.
A year and a half after the box set was released, Cartola received a check that would cover just about three lousy packs of cigarettes.
But the recording, with the help of Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Herminio Bello de Carvalho, was responsible for what was perhaps one of Cartola’s final moments of joy.
On 27 November 1980, Cartola, sick with cancer, overcome with pain, had less than a week left to live. That morning, Herminio Bello de Carvalho went to the hospital with Jornal do Brasil, featuring a story by the renowned and beloved poet and writer Carlos Drummond de Andrade: “Cartola no moinho do mundo” (“Cartola in the the mill of the world,” a play on the title of Cartola’s classic “O mundo é um moinho”).
Herminio read Drummond’s praiseful words for Cartola: “By recording [Cartola’s] samba “Quem me vê sorrir” (with Carlos Cachaça), the maestro Leopold Stokowski didn’t do Cartola any favors; he merely recognized just how much musical inventiveness can be found in the most humble tiers of our population.”
After finishing the entire story, Herminio cut it out and taped it on the wall next to Cartola’s hospital bed; he recalls Cartola losing himself in a blissful, fulfilled gaze, sneaking frequent glances at the story by his side. Cartola passed away three days later.
Sources: For a more detailed account in English of Stokowski’s visit, see this post. Other sources include Os Tempos Idos, by Marilia T. Barboza Silva, and Hello Hello Brazil, by Bryan McCann.