I am standing on a street corner in Recreio, Zona Oeste, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Its just past three in the afternoon, and the streets, except for a light sea breeze, are devoid of life. It feels like a Florida retirement community—quiet, hot, stagnant. Mike rings the doorbell. We wait. Mike rings the doorbell again.
Finally, the crackle of a voice from the speaker phone, a pleasant female voice, but not the voice we came here to meet. Mike introduces himself, and moments later, out steps a very average-looking Brazilian man. Average height, average weight, mid-fifties, wearing shorts, a Brazilian national team soccer jersey, and Havaianas, a Brazilian brand of flip-flop that is the preferred footwear of the entire nation. He isn’t the archetypal heartthrob, but then again, he never was, it was his nice-guy persona, his every-man way of being, that made him so popular.
- Hear two exclusive tracks from Hyldon’s upcoming album Soul Brasileiro, heard for the first time, here on LongJaunt: “Rapaz de São Paulo” featuring a special guest appearance on electric guitar by Roberto Frejat of the Brazilian rock band Barão Vermelho and “Brazilian Samba Soul.”
“Michael!” the man grins.“Hyldon!” Mike responds.The man is like a long lost uncle, seeing his favorite nephew for the first time. Just behind Mike, I’m grinning as well, and trying to properly process what is happening at this moment. Introductions commence; the man offers a jovial handshake and a crooked-toothed smile, then welcomes us in. I have just met Hyldon.Track 1
Hyldon. The name means nothing to most people. In fact, to most people it’s not even recognizable as a name. It doesn’t really sound like a name, even in Brazil, where Hyldon is from. The word Hyldon is more apt to be mistaken for an element on the Periodic Table—a forgotten noble gas perhaps—than the name of a person.I remember first hearing his music when Mike, who had spent a year in Brazil in college, gave me a musical tour of some of the stuff he had collected. He had been telling me about Gilberto Gil’s album Realce that had been produced by Quincy Jones in 1979, the same year he produced Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall and, having been an MJ fan since I could walk, I was excited to see what his production would sound like for a Brazilian superstar.To this day I cannot recall what Realce actually sounded like, thanks to the following disc he popped into the CD tray: a 1975 release called Na Rua, Na Chuva, Na Fazenda. The cover of the album was gray and had a picture of a shirtless man with an unkempt puff of curly black hair in his early 20s playing a guitar, and one word, “Hyldon,” written in a simple white letters at the top. The music, as well as the album cover, had the feel of the seventies, but without the gaudiness and extravagance that makes most things from the seventies repulsive. His songs were undeniably melodramatic and not overly concerned with complexity, but they lacked the overproduction and unnecessary whirligig electronic stuff that tended to come out of much of music that I had heard from the seventies. He had the look of a late blooming hippie, and his music was organic-sounding, simple, fresh.The mellow sound of the double bass loping around the more agile guitar (or violão as it is called in Brazil), and the masterfully layered drums and samba percussion were the perfect accompaniment to Hyldon’s simple, sincere lyrics. Love remains a constant theme on each of the album’s 12 tracks, but he manages to convincingly channel his love in different ways in each song. “Guitarras, Violinos e Instrumentos de Samba,” (”Guitars, Violins and Samba Instruments”) an ode to the instruments that allow him to make his art, was sung with more sincerity than most songs dedicated to actual people. In “Sabado e Domingo” (Saturday and Sunday), his recounting of love invoked God and spirituality, not overbearingly, but with a sobriety that made me think, “Hey, maybe this guy is deep.” In “Na Sombra de uma Ávore” (In The Shade of a Tree) and “Vamos Passear de Bicicleta?” (Wanna Go for a Bike Ride?) he playfully celebrates the innocence of love, but delivers this message with absolute sincerity.
Story time in the studio
Upstairs in his apartment—which is nice but by no means luxurious—we greet Hyldon’s wife with a kiss on the cheek and then head into his home recording studio, which looks like any dad’s home office. The small room has a Mac mini, a small mixing board with a Bible on it, and a keyboard. The adjacent bathroom is used to store instruments; various electric and acoustic guitars crowd the shower.
I scan the walls for framed gold records and other recording industry memorabilia, but the room is decidedly bare. There are two framed newspaper articles about him, but that’s the extent of it. Above the mixer, in between two bookshelves that house such titles as “Raising Adolescents,” Pablo Neruda’s “Canto General,” and “ The Da Vinci Code,” there is another news clipping, not about him, but about a local hawk overpopulation problem that has neighborhood residents distraught.
As I notice the clipping, he launches into a story about one such hawk that decided to build a nest on the roof of his building. “It would swoop down with its claws out, and make that piercing cry,” he says, recounting with glee how the tenacious hawk defended its eggs, dive-bombing passersby, including his black lab, Preta. He acts out the hawk’s maneuvers and the way Preta slinked about for the several months that the hawk inhabited the roof.
Without warning, he turns his speakers up and starts playing songs from a new album he is in the midst of recording. The tracks aren’t fully mixed, but they sound good. Throughout his forty years of playing music he has freely experimented with many different styles, even recorded a children’s album, but this album has the feel of his seventies material: simple, organic samba soul.
Each song reminds him of a story about his life—who he was in love with, where he was living when he wrote it, what was happening in his career—which he offers up without hesitation, all the while pulling out dusty copies of his LPs from a closet. I am simultaneously overwhelmed on several fronts: I covet every old record he shows us, wondering what the songs sound like, I listen to his stories about Rio and New York in the seventies and imagine how wide eyed this country boy must have been, and I wonder if he will anoint us with a rough copy of the album. He promises to send us a track to post on the blog.
The quest to meet the legend
After my first listen, four years ago, I quickly became a fan of Hyldon. I had one copy of Na Rua, Na Chuva, Na Fazenda in my car and one in my apartment, and would sit with Mike talking about each song as we listened to the album. Thanks to the Internet, I found out all about who Hyldon was and where he came from. We jokingly spoke of one day meeting him.
He is credited with being one of Brazil’s pioneering samba soul artists, along with Tim Maia and Cassiano, two contemporaries and future collaborators. Fusing elements of classic soul from the U.S. and Brazilian rhythms, they created a new genre that swept the country. Four songs from Na Rua, Na Chuva, Na Fazenda hit number one in Brazil in 1975, and Hyldon looked like a promising young star.
A year later he released a follow up record, but it didn’t sell as well. Hyldon wanted to experiment, but the label wanted him to keep it marketable. They asked him to do a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Angie,” but he bitterly refused. His music was influenced by American soul, but he did not want to be a Brazilian derivative of Anglo music. He wanted to be himself. Doing just that, he continued to release albums, but never matched the commercial success of his debut album, and slowly faded from popularity.
While becoming an amateur Hyldon scholar I was also learning to play the guitar, and dedicated myself to the task of learning one of his songs. Mike procured other Hyldon albums, and though none of them moved us quite like the first one, they rounded out our image of the artist. I had plans to go traveling in South America, and imagined what might happen if I showed up at Hyldon’s door in Brazil and asked him for a guitar lesson.
Eventually, Mike got a job in New York working in the music business, and after a little sleuthing, found Hyldon’s email, and began corresponding with him. I took off for Mexico with my sights set on Brazil, hoping I might convince Mike, my in to meeting the legendary guitarist, to eventually join me. But alas, I ran out of money and steam thousands of miles before reaching Brazil, and the dream was dashed, at least temporarily.
A year later, LongJaunt began. We would be traveling to Brazil. We would meet Hyldon.
Wise parting words
Back at Hyldon’s place, we move to the spacious balcony where we are supposed to conduct a more formal “interview,” though the only real change is that we are seated instead of restlessly shuffling from spot to spot in the studio. Mike asks about his days as a youngster in Salvador, Bahia, where he was born.
“I was born there but I moved out to the country as a kid,” he replies in Portuguese. Then in English, “I’m a country boy, no?” He flashes a smile at Thushan and me—he has realized that we don’t always understand him in Portuguese, and takes the opportunity to show off some of the English he has learned over the years.
“Brazil was full of American pop music,” he explains, just like every other country within the sphere of influence of the U.S., “But unlike many smaller countries,” he continues, “Brazil had enough of a critical mass to support its own home grown music scene.” Samba was Brazil’s rock and roll, originating in poor rural areas before it made the jump to national popularity. Hyldon was a fan of samba, but also loved to listen to American black music, broadcast on the major Brazilian radio stations.
“I listened to everyone: Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Earth, Wind, and Fire, The Commodores…” he reminisces. “Not James Brown, I couldn’t stand him.” He was drawn to the emotional feel of classic American soul, not necessarily the energetic rhythms of funk soul.
“I had an American girlfriend, and went to live in New York for a year. Man, that was great. I saw Marvin Gaye at the Apollo Theatre …” he pauses, conjuring up the scene in his head. “My girlfriend, she was white, so everyone was yelling at her, but I was so distracted by Marvin I didn’t even do anything. There was a full orchestra backing him and I remember he came up from inside the stage on a circular platform, dressed in all white.” Spoken like a true fan of music, it’s as if he can feel everything that happened at that concert.
As the afternoon sun recedes, I think about all the anticipation leading up to this encounter, and how unequivocally it exceeded my expectations. I thought he would be more self important, not as down to earth; after all, he had been a huge star at one point. I would have been happy just shaking his hand, but I got to actually enter his creative world.
Through story after story about music, misadventures and romantic entanglements, we had covered most of his life and philosophy of living. I feel like Luke Skywalker after he met Yoda, Daniel after meeting Mr. Miyagi. Just before we leave Thushan ventures a question in English: “What was it that made you decide, ‘I want to be a musician?”
Hyldon takes a moment before delivering the final lines of a true guru. In halting English, he says, “It’s complicated,” looking at Mike for assurance that he is using the right word. “I need music…for my soul. And…I make music…for the people. Inexact science. I like that.”