12 January 2012


Jambul - the nickname stuck
The first time I ever heard the huge, piercing voice of a samba singer known as Jamelão (a sweet, dark fruit called jambul in English), I was unpacking in a hotel room in São Paulo. We'd just checked in, Mark had turned on the TV so we could have some background hum. What he found quite accidentally was a program on TV Cultura showcasing this kind of grumpy and unsmiling guy singing with a small back-up band. I stopped unpacking. We were transfixed. It's not every day you hear a voice so different, so compelling, that 1) you spend the rest of your trip trying to find his CDs, 2) you spend the next 15 years trying to track down the DVD of the show you saw on the hotel TV, 3) you become such a fan that you attend every performance you can, including the final show he gave on his 90th birthday, and 4) years after his death you still expect to hear his voice leading Mangueira, his samba school, down Rio's famed Sambadrome at Carnaval.

José Bispo Clementino dos Santos, aka Jamelão, a giant of Brazilian music. Best known for his booming voice (untrained, by the way) with its special timber, he was also infamous for his bad moods, his short temper and his sharp tongue. Identified forever with Mangueira, the samba school he got involved with back in the '40s,  Jamelão was also a crooner of a particular type of samba music known as dor de cotovelo, or "elbow pain." Got it? That's right, the pain you get leaning on your elbows at a bar, pouring your sob story out to the bartender. There was never any mistaking Jamelão for anyone else. He was recognized for the panama hat he always wore, for the ever-present elastic bands wrapped around his fingers, and for a voice that simply soared.

King Momo
The first time we saw Jamelão in person was at the Sambadrome. He was already in his late 80s, moving slowly with the help of a cane, but that didn't stop him from getting up onto Mangueira's sound truck, as he had done for the previous 50 years or more, and repeatedly belting out the samba to which 4,000 or so Mangueirenses danced along nonstop for the next 80 minutes. A few years later we saw him there again, this time up close. Thanks to press credentials Mark and I had pretty free run of the Sambadrome, and found ourselves down at the start of the runway as Mangueira was getting ready to enter. I nearly walked right into Jamelão. Mark was taking a picture of that year's King Momo, the Carnaval King, so he didn't see Jamelão. But Jamelão saw the camera. He immediately shielded his face with his hand, said something choice (I didn't catch it, but I knew it was nasty) and hurried on his way, grousing and grumping about journalists. So instead of a picture of the great Jamelão, we got the one you see here.
The last time we saw Jamelão was at the Bar do Tom (Jobim, that is) in Rio. The occasion was his 90th birthday and last solo show. After a long delay, three musicians came onstage and began tuning up. More delay. Finally, out strolled Jamelão, oblivious to the loud applause, with a huge, messy pile of what looked like sheet music. He dropped the pile on a table and — inexplicably — walked back offstage as most of the pages fell to the floor. When he reappeared, it was with a full glass of whiskey. Now he was ready. Jamelão sat down, picked up the microphone and began singing. He never once looked at any of the sheet music. He never forgot a lyric, though he sang for nearly three hours. True to his second nickname, the King of Requests, Jamelão sang all song requests that were sent up to the stage by the audience. The evening was memorable and magical and bittersweet.
Of all Jamelão's recordings, in my opinion the best one is Por Força do Hábito. You can download it at http://tomjuranblogcom.blogspot.com/2011/02/jamelao.html

And what the hey, I can never get enough Jamelão. Here's another video of a dor de cotovelo song, Ela Disse-me Assim

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