The beat from Brazil: The boss of Bossa Nova

Forty years ago, Sergio Mendes had his debut hit (and England won the World Cup). Now his new single, a collaboration with hip-hop group the Black Eyed Peas, is set to give him his first chart success in the UK. He talks to Louise Jury about bands, Brazil (and England's chances in Germany)
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The Independent Culture

He is one of the biggest names in Brazilian music, he's sung with Frank Sinatra and performed for two American presidents. But this month, Sergio Mendes may achieve one ambition that has eluded him throughout his long career. At 64, he is set for British singles chart success.

Forty years after his first single, "Mas Que Nada", became the first Latin pop song to make the American charts, a new version recorded with the Black Eyed Peas, the Californian hip-hop band. is being tipped as a hit in Britain. The soundtrack to the current Nike advert, the single is doing well on iTunes without any marketing and the digital release will be followed by the physical release on Monday week. Mendes' record label, Universal, are confidently predicting a top- five charts success.

Evidence for this optimism can be seen at the box office at the Barbican in London, where a concert on 23 July - Mendes' first performance in Britain since 1980 when he opened for Frank Sinatra at the Royal Albert Hall - is already sold out. It seems Sergio Mendes is back in vogue. "Isn't that great?" he said in London yesterday. "For this to happen now, at this time. It's never too late to start!"

The involvement of the Black Eyed Peas is crucial to the new phase in Mendes's remarkable career. Band member Will.i.am, has been a fan of the bossa nova star's music since childhood and asked Mendes's record label to put him in touch. Though the Brazilian knew nothing about the Black Eyed Peas despite living in America since before they were born, he agreed.

"I opened my door and there's Will standing with a lot of my old records, old vinyls, in his hands. He grew up in Los Angeles listening to my music and said my music had influenced him a lot and that he was a big fan. I was very touched by that," Mendes recalled. "I saw this young kid who knew the old records and started talking very knowledgeably about Brazilian music. He invited me to play a song on his album and I really enjoyed the experience."

Mendes says he found the marriage of his Brazilian music with elements of rap and hip-hop "really interesting" and they agreed to work together again.

Will asked a number of his friends, from John Legend to Stevie Wonder and Justin Timberlake, to appear as special guests alongside Mendes and his second wife, Gracinha, and the resulting album, Timeless, was released in the UK in April. The single of "Mas Que Nada" is taken from it.

Mendes seems genuinely thrilled to be finding a new audience and professes a real love of rap and hip-hop. "It's great that a whole new generation is listening to the music. For me it's very rewarding," he said. "It was wonderful working with Will and I hope we'll do a second album."

Yet the sound of urban America is a long way from Mendes' roots. The son of a doctor, he grew up in Niteroi, a small town across the bay from Rio de Janeiro. "It was a middle-class life, easy days with the piano and football and the beach. It was a very calm little town where we went to the beach every day and the movies at the weekend."

He studied classical music from the age of seven but never intended to have a career as a musician. "My father was a doctor and he wanted me to be a doctor also, so the piano was my symbol of rebellion. Music was my passion."

It was to become his life. At the age of 15, he heard jazz for the first time when friends played him records by Dave Brubeck. Music by Art Tatum, Horace Silver and Oscar Peterson followed. "It sounded so different from anything I had ever heard before.

"I just said, 'Wow, what a great art form, what beautiful music.' It was so intriguing to me, the harmonies and freedom of jazz, improvising on a melody ... The whole thing was so exciting." He immediately adapted his own playing to the new beat, and formed several different bands - trios, quartets and quintets - that performed everywhere from nightclubs in Rio and Copacabana to tea dances. By the time he was 17, he had left home.

It was the period when bossa nova, a jazz-influenced form of samba, was beginning to emerge and Mendes was soon rubbing shoulders with Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao Gilberto and the other stars of the vibrant musical scene that was to be exported around the world.

With a new band, the Bossa Rio Sextet, comprising two trombones, a tenor sax, bass and drums, with himself on piano, Mendes became popular across Brazil. An LP - Voce ainda nao ouviu nada (You haven't heard anything - yet) was released and is now regarded as a landmark in the history of instrumental music in Brazil.

"There was great music happening and I was playing with so many different musicians," he said. "As a young guy, you're living for the moment. You have no idea, maybe, of the dimensions. But I knew we were doing something different."

He got his first chance to travel when Brazil's largest textile company hired the band as an opening act for its fashion shows. They toured Europe, the Middle East and Japan. Then in 1962 he took part in what was to prove a famous festival of bossa nova music at Carnegie Hall in New York alongside Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Stan Getz, Charlie Byrd and others. "They were wonderful days," Mendes remembered yesterday.

In the early years, his band was instrumental but in 1966, having moved to California two years earlier, he decided to add vocals. Lani Hall joined the band, which took the name Brasil 66.

At this point, Mendes met Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss of A&M Records who loved the new sound and signed the band to their company. Alpert (who later married Hall) produced their first eponymously titled album, Brasil 66, which becomes a hit worldwide. "Mas Que Nade", a song written by Jorge Ben taken from the album, became the first song sung entirely in Portuguese to reach the top five in the Billboard magazine chart.

Gold and platinum records followed and Mendes appeared on television with stars such as Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye and Fred Astaire. He toured with Frank Sinatra in 1967 and performed for President Nixon at the White House in 1971. The second tour with Sinatra - including a gig in London - followed in 1980 and he performed again at the White House for President Reagan in 1982.

He has affectionate memories of Sinatra. "It was magic working with him and magic just listening to him. He was a dear friend."

In recent years, he has been touring America and Japan but, thanks to changing musical tastes, he was never invited to Europe. Now, there has been a resurgence of interest in many things Brazilian including Tropicalia, another major musical scene of the Sixties. He is thrilled to be back.

"I've been on a promo[tional] tour. I started in Vienna, then Paris, France, and I can feel the buzz, the interest in Brazilian music again," he said yesterday.

Gilles Peterson, the Radio 1 DJ and an expert on Brazilian music, said for those in the know, Sergio Mendes had never been out of fashion, But with the re-release of "Mas Que Nada" on the back of the Nike advert, he was now set to be discovered by a new group of fans for the first time.

"Sergio Mendes with the Black Eyed Peas - that's A&R [artist and repertoire] heaven. It's on the Nike advert so everyone is hearing it all over again. It's bound to be a hit after the World Cup," Peterson predicted.

Because Mendes left his native country comparatively early, some Brazilians tend to be slightly sniffy about one of their most famous exports, Peterson added, but Mendes' achievement - and his influence on many indie bands - was significant.

"He rarely wrote his own material, but he did fantastic arrangements of classic Brazilian material. It's quite commercial but in a brilliantly stylish way. And there was a whole visual side that was unique. It had a quirkiness to it, a kind of kitsch element without it being detrimental to the music. He's the king of lounge but without being cheesy."

Having enjoyed his first success at the time of bossa nova, and a second spell in the limelight with Brasil 66, Sergio Mendes chuckles with pleasure at this latest burst of attention. "This is like the third time I experienced it," he said.

"It's great because Brazilian music is unique. It has beautiful songs, beautiful melodies, it's a great source of inspiration. It's romantic also. In the summer time, people think of Brazilian music - and with the World Cup and the football, it's just all coming together."

He laughs. "In 1966, I got my first hit single and England won the World Cup. It was a good year for England and for me. Forty years later, here we go again. Now I've got my first single expected to go in the British charts. Maybe we'll see you in the finals [in Germany]."

Big names of the new beat

Antonio Carlos Jobim

Drawing on influences from far and wide, including the French composer Claude Debussy, Jobim (known to his fans as Tom), was one of the greatest exponents of melody and harmony in the bossa nova world. A composer, singer, pianist and guitarist, his work on the 1963 album Getz/Gilberto featuring Astrud Gilberto singing "The Girl From Ipanema", brought him international fame and a Grammy. Stars from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald recorded his work and he also influenced more modern artists like George Michael and Sting. Died in New York in 1994.

Joao Gilberto

Self-taught guitarist and singer, his collaboration with Tom Jobim was perhaps the defining one of the bossa nova movement they helped launch. Gilberto is credited with perfecting the percussive syncopated samba rhythm at the core of the sound into one that could be performed by an unaccompanied guitarist. He was married to Astrud, voice of "The Girl From Ipanema". Gilberto continued to record and perform despite becoming Brazil's most famous recluse, spending recent decades living in one of Rio's luxury hotels, refusing all interviews.

Baden Powell de Aquino

Named after the founder of the Scout movement by his scoutmaster father, the young de Aquino came into contact with musicians of all sorts at the family home in Rio de Janeiro. He proved a precocious guitarist, winning many talent shows and accompanying top singers and musicians while still a teenager. His breakthrough came in 1959 with his composition "Samba Triste", covered by artists including Stan Getz and Charlie Bird. One of the biggest stars of the 1960s, he quit his native country for France in 1968 only to return late in his life after a long battle against alcohol. He died in 2000.

Carlos Lyra

One of the new generation of bossa nova composers who followed in the footsteps of bossa nova's twin giants of Gilberto and Jobim. He sought to steer the movement back towards its samba origins and continues to record today. His most famous compositions include "Coisa Mais Linda" and "Maria Ninguem", once acclaimed by Jacqueline Kennedy as her favourite song.

Jonathan Brown

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