Samba And Saudade: The Inspirations Behind 'The Air You Breathe' : Alt.Latino "Samba's beating heart is actually suffering and sadness." The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles uses Brazilian music as a backdrop for an intimate story of female friendship.

Samba And Saudade: The Inspirations Behind 'The Air You Breathe'

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(SOUNDBITE OF DONA IVONE LARA SONG, "CANTO DO MEU VIVER")

FELIX CONTRERAS, HOST:

From NPR Music, this is ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras. The music of Brazil has been an inspiration to so many people in so many different artistic walks of life. And this week we turn our attention to a new novel that is so musical in nature, it practically moves in your hand while you read it. It's called "The Air You Breathe." It's by author Frances de Pontes Peebles and is published by Riverhead Books.

The book jacket says it best. It's the story of an intense female friendship fueled by affection, envy and pride and each woman's fear that she would be nothing without the other. I'm excited to have with us today the author, who joins us from NPR member station WDET in Detroit.

Welcome, Frances de Pontes Peebles. Thank you for being here.

FRANCES DE PONTES PEEBLES: Thank you so much for having me, Felix. I'm so happy to be here.

CONTRERAS: Oh, my gosh. You know, it's a very musical book. And I think that we can say, without giving too much away, that the characters become involved in the music business. And toward that end, you sent us an amazing playlist of music that either inspired you while you were writing the book or simply wonderful Brazilian music that we should hear. What are we listening to first? And then we'll get into a conversation about the book.

PEEBLES: So right now we're listening to a song called "Canto Do Meu Viver," and it's by Dona Ivone Lara. And she was 97 years old when she passed away this last April. She was one of the greatest sambistas in Brazilian history, and she's one of the few female singers and composers. Men have always dominated the samba scene, but Dona Ivone was very vocal about how hard she worked to be respected as a woman, as a composer. And it was only when she was older, in her 40s and 50s, that she dedicated her life to music and performing. And so many of her sambas were hits in Brazil. And she's really an iconic figure in Brazilian samba.

The name of this song is "Canto Do Meu Viver," so it's the place where I find life, the place where I live. But canto is also similar to the verb to sing, to cantar, so there's a little play with words there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANTO DO MEU VIVER")

DONA IVONE LARA: (Singing in Portuguese).

CONTRERAS: We are listening to the music of Brazil with author Frances de Pontes Peebles around her book "The Air You Breathe." Now let's talk about the book. It's based on two characters, two female characters that meet when they're children. Tell us a little bit about the story arc of the book.

PEEBLES: Well, the story arc of the book - it's told from the point of view of a 95-year-old woman named Dores, Maria das Dores, and she's living in Miami. And she's very wealthy from all of her song royalties because she's a songwriter and a lyricist. But she has - she harbors all of these regrets about her life. And so it's as if - my hope is it's as if the reader kind of sat down, and Dores sat down on a bench next to them and starts recounting her life story. And each chapter begins with a song that she wrote, and so she remembers her life in song. And each song takes her back to that period of time. And so it begins in 1920s on a sugar plantation in northeast Brazil, which is where I was born. And she meets this - she's a servant in the kitchen, basically. She's an orphan. And this - a new owner comes to town, and his daughter is Graça. And she's pretty and well-fed and extremely spoiled and extremely ill-behaved, and Dores just loves her from the start. And they bond over music, and the story goes from there. They run away. They want to be samba stars. And Graça has an incredible voice and incredible talent. And she becomes a superstar similar to Carmen Miranda. But she also becomes kind of a comedic act, which was what happened with Carmen Miranda.

CONTRERAS: I understand you based this character on the very real Brazilian vocalist Carmen Miranda, who had a career both in Brazil and Hollywood in the 1940s and '50s, correct?

PEEBLES: Carmen Miranda was a very well-respected samba star in Brazil. And then she came to the U.S., and she became almost a joke. And that devastated her. It ruined her life in so many ways. And she - to be the butt of a joke can be very painful, and that's what happened. And so I kind of explore that in the book, how Latin American stars were treated and musicians were treated in Hollywood, in the golden age of Hollywood - it was not a golden age for them - and also their deep relationship and friendship and bond between Dores and Graça and what happens when there's so much competition and love and ambition between two women and friends and sweethearts and lovers.

CONTRERAS: So we're going to hear a lot of music on this show, so let's jump right into some music. You selected a track from Carmen Miranda, who you just mentioned is - the character Graça is based on. What are we going to hear?

PEEBLES: So this song that I selected is called "Uva De Caminhão," and it basically means grapes from the back of a truck, essentially. And this is a - this was a hit during Carnaval in Brazil in 1939. And the reason that I love this song is, you know, you typically associate Carmen Miranda with, like, kind of frothy, peppy, fun music. And this song is fun, but it's definitely got an edge to it.

She sings about a girl who is eating a lot of unwashed grapes from the back of a truck. There's a lot of double meanings here. And the girl gets appendicitis and goes under the knife. And in that time period, in the '30s, when you said, oh, she had appendicitis and had her appendix out, that was slang for, she had an abortion. And so the song is very dark in some ways, and I love the way that Miranda sings it because she kind of whisper-sings it like she's gossiping. And it's a risqué song, and it's very at odds with her Hollywood kind of frothy, comedic personality. And that's why I love this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UVA DE CAMINHÃO")

CARMEN MIRANDA: (Singing in Portuguese).

CONTRERAS: You're listening to ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras, and that was Carmen Miranda. Frances, it's really refreshing to hear Carmen Miranda in a way that we're not used to hearing her, like, in her natural element.

PEEBLES: Yes. When I was researching this book, initially, she was my first inspiration for it. And then the book changed and evolved into a story that was about Maria das Dores, about the lyricist, about the composer and not about the star. But Carmen Miranda was so vital in inspiring this because I watched her Hollywood films, and you can see this progression from the first films to her last appearance on "The Jimmy Durante Show." And in that show, she actually kind of collapses because she's so tired, and she's on so many drugs and painkillers. And you can almost see Jimmy Durante, the host, kind of propping her up. And it's such a terribly sad progression because by the end of the war years, Miranda was not as popular anymore. People wanted different content.

PEEBLES: American audiences wanted more kind of CIA, noir, spy dramas. They didn't want these Technicolor musicals that she was so famous for. So when you see her in black and white at the end, this - on these movies - they tried to do some black and white films with her because Technicolor became too expensive. When you see her in these films, it's not the same. She's not the same, and it's because she's portraying a character that was forced upon her that was not her. For me, that was so emotional and so sad that you have this brilliant singer, this brilliant sambista who then loses sight of her brilliance and - but is still loved, deeply loved by Brazilians and by others across the world.

CONTRERAS: And that's the power of being a novelist, where you can project that perception onto one of your characters in the book, which is what you do. You know, one of the things that's also fascinating to me is the research you must have done into Brazilian history and into samba. And in 90 seconds or less, what did you discover about samba in your research? I'm kidding, of course.

PEEBLES: (Laughter).

CONTRERAS: But I'm just - you know, it's like - there's - my understanding of music and Brazilian music and any of the conversations we've had here on ALT.LATINO is like, you're - I'm only going to scratch the surface of any kind of music coming from Brazil and all the different regions that each has its own style. But as you did and dug deeper into samba, did you discover something about the country? Did you discover something about the history? And did you discover something about yourself as a Brazilian as you researched samba?

PEEBLES: That's a many-layered question. But that's perfect because so is samba. Samba has so many layers. You can't peel them all back.

CONTRERAS: Sure.

PEEBLES: And that's what I discovered. You know, samba is deep in Brazilian roots. Many say that it came from the Northeast, that it came from Bahia and that when former slaves immigrated to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, they brought that tradition of getting in a circle and playing these instruments with them. In the decades before, like, in the teens in the '20s, samba was considered very street. It was kind of, like, a hip-hop vibe...

CONTRERAS: Wow.

PEEBLES: ...Where it was very - it was considered by many to be part of their culture and part of their tradition and a way to express themselves. But by other Brazilians of other classes, it was considered risqué. And you did not play that in a house or, you know, any kind of club. Anything that was European was considered good, and samba was considered kind of the music of the streets.

CONTRERAS: Because of its African background.

PEEBLES: Yes.

CONTRERAS: Yeah.

PEEBLES: Definitely, definitely. And I also learned how few women were in samba and still are. You know, it's very male-dominated music, but there are definitely women in its history, composers. And so what I learned about myself - that's hard to say. I think we never know our own depth, and I certainly don't know mine. But I feel like this music and writing some of the songs that are in the book - and I'm sure samba experts are going to, you know, say, this isn't a samba. But for me, it felt like samba because they were deeply emotional. They tell a story. And so samba's very complex in that way just like human beings are complex. And that's why I love it so much.

CONTRERAS: You mentioned female sambistas who wrote and performed. Is there one on the list that we can play right now?

PEEBLES: Definitely. One of my favorites, who's kind of an old-school female sambista - and she's iconic - is Betty Carvalho. And she sings, composes. She plays instruments. And the song that I selected is called "Se Você Jurar," which is basically like, if you promise me. And Carvalho's voice is kind of this scratchy, hoarse voice, and I love that about her voice. And one of the lyrics in this particular song that I absolutely adore is - she says, a woman is a game, a hard target to hit. And the man, like an idiot, never tires of playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SE VOCÊ JURAR")

BETH CARVALHO: (Singing in Portuguese).

CONTRERAS: You're listening to ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras. We're in the studio with Frances de Pontes Peebles, the author of the new book "The Air You Breathe." And we are listening to samba, and we're talking about her new book.

Are these songs that you grew up with? Or are these songs that you discovered as you were writing the book?

PEEBLES: A little bit of both. So that Betty Carvalho song - I grew up with that. I mean, I had her - gosh, I'm dating myself here, but I had tapes (laughter) and CDs of her singing that song. That's one of my favorite songs and other songs of hers. Definitely Marisa Monte is an amazing artist, and I listened to her in my teenage and college years and now. And some of the ones that I discovered - I guess Carmen Miranda - I discovered her. And others I had heard, but I didn't know who they were, like Cartola, who's very famous, but I didn't realize kind of that he was the author of these songs that I'd been hearing. So it was a process of discovery.

CONTRERAS: The sambas that are mentioned in the book and some of the lines that are reproduced in the book you wrote for the book. Now, are you a musician? Do you play music? And have you written music before?

PEEBLES: No. So I'm - I love music. I love it so much, but I am not a musician. I - you do not want to hear me sing or play anything. So the songs that I wrote in the book - I wanted them to be original 'cause I wanted them to be Dores' songs. Some of them, like I said before, are inspired by actual songs - by Carmen Miranda songs or by other sambas. But I wanted them - because they're so deeply a part of her life and her entryway into her memory, so she'll, just like us - you know, when I hear a song that I used to listen to when I was a kid or a teenager, it really takes me back. And I think that's what's so powerful about music.

And one of the characters in the book eventually gets Alzheimer's. And all he can remember is his first language, which is Portuguese, and music. And that's true. When people have brain injuries or when they have Alzheimer's, music is one of the only things that kind of takes them back to themselves, and I feel like that is so powerful. And so I wanted the songs in the book to do that, to take Dores back to herself. And to do that, they had to be original. But in the book they're styled more like poems because she is a lyricist.

CONTRERAS: Sure.

PEEBLES: And in the book, who comes up with the melodies is her partner, Vinicius, and their band. And so I didn't have to worry about that (laughter). So I just wanted to worry about the poetry of the lyrics and the story that the lyrics told. And so I - yeah, each chapter begins with a samba, and each chapter is a part of her life.

CONTRERAS: So when they make the movie, you're going to have to figure out how to put this stuff to music.

(LAUGHTER)

CONTRERAS: I'm just warning you (laughter).

PEEBLES: And that will be a problem that I will be more than happy to solve (laughter).

CONTRERAS: Do you have the book with you?

PEEBLES: I do.

CONTRERAS: OK, 'cause what I'd like to do is have you read the last two stanzas of the samba where the title comes from because I think it's...

PEEBLES: OK.

CONTRERAS: ...So breathtakingly beautiful.

PEEBLES: Oh, thank you.

(Reading) What do feelings matter as long as your stockings are new, as long as your baths are hot and every door is open for you? What would happen if I were to leave? No one notices the air they breathe. We all take for granted things that come too easily. That's why I can't let you go. You're always a challenge to me. Here's my vow to you. Here's all I believe. For you, I'll stay invisible. I'll be the air you breathe.

CONTRERAS: That is so profound and an explanation of the relationship between the two characters. That's my interpretation of that particular samba and reading the story 'cause they're so intertwined from the time they're little girls.

PEEBLES: I'm so glad you said that because that's why this particular song is the title of the book. Not only is it Dores' first samba that she writes, essentially, but it's really about their relationship. You know, Graça is a character and a person who is incapable of love in some ways. I mean, she's very loving and generous and drives everybody crazy. She's very magnetic. But her love is for the audience, is for the stage. And so she really can't love one person. She loves her audience. And Dores and Vinicius understand that through the course of the book. But Dores especially allows herself to be the invisible one, to be the one that is there but never seen. And I think it also talks, hopefully - I think it talks about the relationship to art and to music because music is also the air they breathe. Without it, they're lost, and they can't kind of function in the world without music, without a melody.

CONTRERAS: And towards that end, I want to read something from one of my favorite passages that I read that really knocked me out since we're talking about music and in particular doing radio or audio and sound. There's a paragraph that you have about sound that I thought was - that I had to read, like, five times 'cause it was so spot-on. This is Dores recounting her life, and she's the narrator of the book.

And she says, (reading) for our sanity, we train ourselves to distinguish which sounds are important and which we must ignore. We memorize the difference between a whisper and a shout, a purr and a roar. We accumulate within us a great index of sound until we hear the crack of a step and know by its depth and tone how much weight is being placed on the wood and who is coming up the stairs to greet us. An inhale and a soft crackle of paper makes us crave a cigarette. And when a lover sighs, we learn to distinguish between long and high-pitched and short and huffy, and we know whether they are satisfied or disappointed. So you see; sound is never simply sound. Sound is memory.

That just knocked me out. I got to say. It really...

PEEBLES: Oh, I'm so glad.

CONTRERAS: Yeah. And, you know - and it's sort of, obviously, again, the theme of the book because everything is based on Dores' memory about this amazing life and how she's retelling it.

PEEBLES: Yes. And for her, sound and music is memory. It's her way to hold on to the past. It's her way to hold on to the people that she's loved and lost because, as she says early on in the book, she's the last living member of the Blue Moon band. And she's - so then she defiantly says, so I'm the only one that can tell the story now, and I'm going to tell it my way.

CONTRERAS: Yeah.

PEEBLES: But memory for her is the music that they made together.

CONTRERAS: OK, well, we will have to wait for the movie to hear the music.

(LAUGHTER)

CONTRERAS: But in the meantime, I think it's time to play some music. Let's hear another one from your list.

PEEBLES: I think maybe the song "Vai Saber?" by Marisa Monte.

CONTRERAS: I was going to say that since we just mentioned her.

PEEBLES: Oh, great.

CONTRERAS: OK, tell us a little bit about this song.

PEEBLES: Yeah, so Monte's a female musician and composer, and she's got a lot of rock and pop albums. She's also part of a trio called The Tribalistas, who are very popular in Brazil. And this particular album where this song comes from is dedicated to samba. And she says in the album's liner notes that she wanted to kind of capture samba for everything that it is. And I love this particular samba because it's almost eerie. It's got kind of a sinister vibe to it, and her voice, though, is not at all. Her voice is very sweet, but the lyrics themselves are kind of - they could be read as a threat because she says, just because you don't love me now doesn't mean you never will.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VAI SABER?")

MARISA MONTE: (Singing in Portuguese).

CONTRERAS: We're going to wrap up our conversation with author Frances de Pontes Peebles about her book "The Air You Breathe." And what I'd like to do is have you read something that you read at one of your book readings to give us another sense of, really, what I think is the power of your writing but also the power of the story.

PEEBLES: OK. Let me just find this here in the book. I actually read this last night, but it's one of my favorite passages because it really gets to Dores' - I don't know - just her strength, I think. The 95-year-old Dores has these sections - usually, like, two pages - where she reflects on an idea or a memory, and then there is a song. And then she kind of is thrust back into her memories of her life with Graça. And some of the sections where Dores is kind of pontificating are some of my favorite sections.

And so here she's talking about how Graça changed and became Sofia Salvador, which is her stage name, and how heavy her costumes were 'cause they were covered in sequins and how Graça was never overshadowed by these costumes. But then she talks about what it's like to be a woman in - even in modern life.

So Dores says, (reading) being a woman is always a performance. Only the very old and very young are allowed to bow out of it. The rest must play our parts with vigor but seemingly without effort. Our bodies must be forms molded to fit the requirements of our times - pinched, plucked, painted, not painted, covered, uncovered, perfumed, dyed, squeezed, injected, powdered, snipped, sloughed, moisturized, fed or unfed and on and on until such costumes seem innate. Everywhere you are observed and assessed - walking down the street, riding a bus, driving a car, eating in a cafe. You must smile but not too widely. You must be pleasant but not forward. You must accommodate and ingratiate but never offer too much of yourself and never for your own pleasure. If you do this, it must be in secret. Any deviance from this role has the potential for disaster. Shun the part, and you're trying to be a man. You are a bitch. You are angry. You are pitiful. You are a dyke or, as they used to call us in my day, a Bigfoot. Embrace the role with too much gusto, and you're a puta, like my mother. Either extreme can get you beaten or defiled or simply killed and dumped in a ditch. If you think I'm exaggerating or that I'm trapped in a harsh past and times have changed, then listen carefully to what I'm telling you now. When you have no power in this world, you must create your own. You must adapt to your environment and try to foil the many dangers around you. So a woman's pleasantness, her smile, her grace, her cheer, her sweetness, her perfumed body, her carefully made-up face isn't some silly byproduct of fashion or taste. It is a means of survival. The performance may cripple us, but it keeps us alive.

CONTRERAS: Frances de Pontes Peebles reading from her new novel "The Air You Breathe," available now on Riverhead Books. Frances, thank you so much for joining us here on ALT.LATINO.

PEEBLES: Thank you so much for having me. It was so much fun.

CONTRERAS: And I want to let folks know that you can hear all the songs on Frances' playlist on our website at npr.org/alt.latino, and we'll also have a special Spotify playlist with some of these songs. And let us know what you think. You can always reach out to us on Facebook and Twitter. We are NPR's ALT.LATINO. OK, what song are we going to end with?

PEEBLES: Let's end with "Pago Pra Ver" by Zeca Pagodinho, which is a more modern offshoot of samba called pagode. And I love his lyricism in the song. I love how he plays with words. And I just love his voice, which is just like velvet.

CONTRERAS: Thank you for bringing in a playlist.

PEEBLES: Oh, thank you so much, Felix. I really appreciate being here.

CONTRERAS: I'm Felix Contreras. Thanks for listening to ALT.LATINO.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAGO PRA VER")

ZECA PAGODINHO: (Singing in Portuguese).

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