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Dorival Caymmi: Brazil’s Unsung Master

Dorival Caymmi

By Fredric Dannen

About a dozen years ago, I was in Guanajuato visiting a former friend, a young woman born in Salvador de Bahia, a city in the northeast region of Brazil. I had my laptop open and I was trying to work. My friend asked if she could play a CD of music from her home city, and I consented, expecting a relaxing soundscape of soft guitars and samba rhythms, which would make my work more pleasant. The CD had the opposite effect. It was a collection of songs by a Bahian songwriter named Dorival Caymmi, and the melodies were so beautiful that I stopped working altogether. I was left to wonder how a songwriter of his caliber could, until that day, have been unknown to me.

Portrait of Brazil
By Nancy Curtin, vocals; Alfredo Muro, guitar
With piano, bass, and percussion
Fri and Sat, Mar 10 and 11, 7pm
Miguel Malo Auditorium, Bellas Artes
Hernández Macías 75
300 pesos advance
350 pesos at the door

The circumstances of my first encounter with Caymmi (pronounced ky-EE-me) came up in conversation just a few weeks ago. I was speaking with the jazz vocalist Nancy Curtin, a celebrity of the Portland, Oregon, jazz scene, who is about to make her San Miguel debut in two bossa nova jazz concerts at the Bellas Artes, on Friday, March 10 and Saturday, March 11, both at 7pm. Three of Caymmi’s songs will be featured, including an evocative ballad entitled “Você Não Sabe Amar” (You Don’t Know How to Love), and one of the tracks on the CD my former friend played for me years ago. Curtin says Caymmi’s music was also a late discovery for her, a fact that she herself finds difficult to explain, since bossa nova is her specialty.

Caymmi, a Bahian street vendor who taught himself to play the guitar, established himself as a songwriter in 1939 at age twenty-five, when he wrote the words and music for “O Que É Que a Baiana Tem?” (What Is It About Bahian Women?). It became the first hit of Carmen Miranda. Caymmi, who died in 2008, went on to write around seventy perfect songs in the estimation of composer Caetano Veloso, including two others to be performed at the Bellas Artes concerts, “Doralice” and “Maracangalha.”

The concerts, called Portrait of Brazil, are the latest installments of the Steinway Series, quasi-monthly events that I produce at the Bellas Artes to raise money for Libros para Todos, an outreach program to promote reading, with a focus on children and young adults. Advance tickets are $300 pesos and are on sale at Solutions (Recreo 11), La Conexión (Aldama 3), and online at

The idea for a Brazilian jazz concert was proposed to me last year by Alfredo Muro, an internationally known concert guitarist whose fans include bossa nova co-founder Carlos Lyra and pop legend José Feliciano. Muro, who tries to include at least three annual appearances in San Miguel in his busy touring schedule, suggested bringing in Nancy Curtin from Portland, and he will be sharing the stage with her. Curtin and Muro met in Portland in 2000, formed a bossa nova jazz duo, and regularly played Brazilian jazz together, to great acclaim, in the United States.



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