In 2016, the British record label Far Out Recordings reissued the debut album by José Mauro, a mysterious Brazilian singer and guitarist whose 1970 LP, “Obnoxious,” had become a cult classic in his home country and with the famed crate diggers Madlib, Floating Points and Gilles Peterson. The album’s press materials noted that the conditions of Mauro’s death, presumed to have occurred in the 1970s, were unexplained. Maybe he perished in an auto accident, or was killed by the military for making what they thought were protest songs.
Just one thing, though: Mauro is still alive.
He never tangled with Brazil’s military dictatorship and didn’t craft anything close to political music, though his radiant art was seen as an escape. “I was a student, a music student who devoted himself to composing. Simple as that,” Mauro, 72, wrote in an email through a translator. “Nature, that was my thing. Nature and beauty.”
On Friday, Far Out, which specializes in Brazilian music, is returning to Mauro’s catalog, reissuing his second and only other album, “A Viagem Das Horas” (“The Journey of the Hours”) — a masterful blend of psychedelic folk and orchestral soul that, while recorded along with Mauro’s debut, wasn’t originally released until six years later. Where “Obnoxious” offered a more straightforward set of guitar-driven bossa nova, the follow-up represented a musical and spiritual awakening for Mauro and his songwriting partner, Ana Maria Bahiana, an author and journalist now living in Los Angeles. Its arrival has forced the label, and others who presumed Mauro dead, to reckon with their mistake.
“From a label standpoint, we genuinely believed Mauro was gone, that’s all there is to it really,” Joe Davis, Far Out’s founder, wrote in an email. “There was no reason for us to believe otherwise at the time. As soon as we heard that he was alive, we stopped everything until we spoke with him.” He said the revelation explained the five-year pause between the reissues.
Nobody is quite sure why rumors about Mauro’s death began. “I cannot fathom how it came about,” Mauro wrote. “I sort of disappeared due to the vast gap between recording and releasing the albums. But there was no reason to think that I had died!”
Davis said that the label learned of Mauro’s supposed demise in 1994, when Mauro’s old producer, Roberto Quartin, informed him of a possible catastrophe involving the singer. “He said he was told that maybe he had a serious motorcycle accident and passed away but wasn’t 100-percent sure,” Davis wrote. Because no one knew where Mauro was — not even the musicians he recorded with — “it led us to believe that was probably the case,” Davis added. (Quartin died in 2004.)
But Bahiana knew that wasn’t true. “A motorcycle is the last thing he would have because he hated speed,” she said in a phone interview. “He would drive his father’s car at 20 kilometers per hour.” There was talk that he was arrested and tortured, but “none of this happened,” she said.
Bahiana contacted Far Out after the label reissued “Obnoxious”; she knew Mauro was alive but didn’t know where. They eventually contacted Mauro through his nephew, David Butter, who helped facilitate the reissuing of his uncle’s music, and learned Mauro was living on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, spending his days reading and talking to friends.
Mauro’s story began in a farmstead in Jacarepaguá, in the West Zone of Rio. He was raised in a musical household; his father liked to sing and his great-grandfather was a small-town maestro. Mauro started playing the accordion when he was 6; nine years later, he was given an acoustic guitar, even though he wanted a piano. “My father was not able to buy one at the time,” he wrote. He fell in love with the guitar and studied piano at ProArte, a prestigious music school in Rio.
His guitar teachers included the Brazilian luminaries Baden Powell, Roberto Menescal and Wanda Sá, and he learned how to compose songs from Wilma Graça, the noted concert pianist. At ProArte, Mauro infused classical elements into his guitar playing, taking his music from an understated rustic style and giving it a more robust sound. He fell in love with music and didn’t turn back.
“Music became an ally, and I was pleased about that,” he wrote. “There was no bigger joy to me than taking the guitar and composing by intuition. Music came to me as a gift, as a natural gift.”
Mauro started listening to American singer-songwriters (Bob Dylan, Jim Croce and James Taylor), and to jazz and blues singers (Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan). Among Brazilian musicians, he particularly liked the melodic soul that Edu Lobo, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Milton Nascimento were making. The varied influences helped Mauro forge his own sound, meant to elicit peace and contemplation.
“My style is very personal,” he wrote. “I’ve always felt like a natural-born musician, carrying songs inside me. I was willing to give my best to the world without relinquishing my composing style.” He wrote songs in his room, looking out the window, staring at the nearby Atlantic Rainforest, where he observed animals, butterflies and birds: “When I felt in a creative mood, I turned the tape recorder on and started composing.”
He impressed Quartin, his would-be producer, by playing a waltz he had just composed on guitar after dinner at a mutual friend’s house. Soon after, he was introduced to Bahiana through a friend of hers, and visited his future collaborator at her house in Ipanema. The two started writing hundreds of songs for what would become “Obnoxious” and “A Viagem Das Horas.”
“We clicked right away,” Bahiana said. “I loved his music. It was easy for me to find words to his songs.”
Quartin, a local producer and label head who’d released some 20 albums through his Forma imprint, selected the songs he liked and put Mauro and Bahiana in the studio with Lindolfo Gaya, who worked on song arrangements and conducted the orchestra. “Obnoxious” was released to little fanfare; Quartin lost interest in putting out “A Viagem Das Horas” and sold it off.
“You know the labels that just do ‘Best Songs from the ’40s,’ ‘Your Favorite Jingles,’ that type of thing?” Bahiana said. “He ended up selling the second album to a company like that, who trashed it, basically. And that was the end of the story for us.” Bahiana went back to college and followed her passion for writing. Mauro stayed in Rio, teaching guitar and composing music for theater.
Mauro said that the six-year wait between albums broke his will to compose more songs: “It felt like centuries,” he wrote. He has no doubt that he and Bahiana generated enough music to release another two LPs. Dismayed with the industry, he eventually opted for a quiet existence. As he got older, he had to stop playing the guitar altogether: Mauro was diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson’s disease. Now his trembling hands won’t allow him to strum the instrument at all. “And to complicate things further, people took me for dead,” he wrote)
Despite losing his creative spark, Mauro isn’t focused on regret. That the music still sounds just as vibrant today as it did four decades ago is good enough for him.
The same goes for Bahiana, who relishes the purity of the music. “It is his soul talking,” she said. “There’s no gimmicks there, no ‘I’m going to write this because it’s a trend.’ It’s exactly the way we composed, the way we showed his spirit. His heart is there.”
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