Milton Nascimento once described to me something he’d witnessed while performing in a soccer stadium in his native Brazil. He’d started singing “Coraçâo Estudante,” about the precious capacity of youth for change and self-liberation. Gazing up into the darkened grandstands, he noticed a perfect valentine shape that had been formed by fans holding lighters aloft in the distance. To this day, he still doesn’t understand how they achieved this minor miracle of impromptu coordinated effort. He just tends to affect people like that.
So just imagine the national sigh of relief upon Milton’s beginning to recover from the diabetes and anorexia that almost took his life two years ago. As soon as he was on his feet, Nascimento went on tour. The new American album, Tambores de Minas, documents the ’97’98 performances, which were designed to serve both artist and audience partially as resurrection ritual and partially as talismanic memento mori.
Translated as a pun that can mean either Drums of the Mines or Drums of Minas Geraes (after the region in Brazil’s southern interior), the new album showcases many percussion-heavy arrangements and several newer compositions that reflect Nascimento’s lifelong research into the folkloric roots of regional Latin American music. As a poor black orphan raised by white adoptive parents in mountainous Minas, he shaped his compositional predilections by a sensibility very different from that of festive, sensual, coastal cities like Rio and Bahia. The undeniable passion in Milton’s music is palpably more of the spirit than the flesh. It has always sounded otherworldly, oddly cerebral and disembodied. Nascimento recently claimed that his approach to timbre and tonality is different because the black working classes of Minas historically labored in dark, claustrophobic mines rather than out in open fields, an environmental factor that shaped the sonic attitude of drums and vocals in Minero folk music. But no one disputes the singularity of how Milton hears and deploys melody. Until his recent medical crisis sapped his vocal strength and flexibility, he enjoyed a multi-octave range commanded by the most powerful falsetto on the planet. Although one notices his searing sostenuto a tad diminished on the current record, Milton’s new vocal fragility in no way reduces the emotional impact of his delivery.
Brazilian reviews of the Tambores de Minas show described it as intentionally carnivalesque in costume and set design, including a troupe of dancer/acrobats who helped dramatize shifts in temporal and thematic focus. Though the presentation was elaborately personal, it’s interesting to remember that Milton seldom writes his own lyrics, preferring to collaborate— Fernando Brandt and Márcio Borges, two of his oldest writing partners from the turbulent ’60s, still contribute richly poetic, obliquely political texts that urge Brazilians to remember their past and reconsider their future. Opening both the concert and the resulting album is “O Que Foi Feito Deverá” in a taped (Nat-and-Natalie-Cole-style) duet with the long-dead radio and television star Elis Regina, a singer whose active support in the ’60s helped sustain Milton’s early fame. Using one of Milton’s most popular compositional devices, the song actually comprises two sets of lyrics and two titles. According to cultural critic Charles A. Perrone, the titular play on words of “O Que Foi Feito Deverá/O Que Foi Feito de Vera” alludes to a kind of political causality in which what should happen to Brazil and what really does happen to her are properly attributed to supernatural human faith and all-too-natural human folly. Can the one even exist without the other? If the social perfection humanity seeks ever came to be, would there be any more need for religion or heroic struggle? Such ideological paradoxes have long been reflected in Milton’s artistic output, whether he is recording original or cover material.
Tambores de Minas is peppered with tunes Milton didn’t cowrite, such as a 1989 Portuguese version of “Riders in the Sky,” the elegiac “Corsário” by João Bosco and Aldir Blanc, and the pious Catholic folk song “Calix Bento” from Milton’s 1976 album Geraes. He performs these cuts because, as a troubadour, Milton feels no essential contradiction between revisionist American cowboy nostalgia, slyly inflammatory prison allegories, and liturgical propaganda. Each of these songs encapsulates a specific kind of universal yearning that he wishes were better understood.
He also takes care to pay tribute to certain communal aspirations within the Brazilian pop community by doing tracks he’s cowritten with two notoriously diverse geniuses of Musica Popular Brasileira: Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque. In his quest to be comprehensive in this sweeping overview of pivotal moments within a 40-year career, Milton ran the risk of significant omissions. But most miraculous is that he manages to achieve a meaningful recap without serious redundancy. Tambores de Minas will remind you of other Milton albums and side projects, but it’s never a been-there, heard-that marketing gimmick: It was created in gratitude, not in vain. When you hear “Ponta de Areia,” you’ll remember how quickly Nascimento’s version with Wayne Shorter became a hit with the American jazz-fusion crowd in 1974. But you won’t wish you were listening to Native Dancer instead.