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Milton Nascimento: Maria Maria/Ultimo Trem (Far Out)

A review of the two soundtracks for ballets now available in vinyl

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Milton Nascimento, Maria Maria
The cover of Maria Maria by Milton Nascimento

The serenity of Brazilian vocalist/composer Milton Nascimento is one of the most reliable virtues in all music. These two soundtracks for ballets—originally recorded early in his career, released on CD decades later, and now available on vinyl for the first time—use Nascimento’s signature sound as a foil to create the most gripping, politically charged music he has ever made.

Maria Maria is a saga about the legacy of slavery in Brazil, first performed in 1976, a few years after Nascimento’s breakthrough disc Clube da Esquina. The title song is structured as a classic folk tune, with Nascimento leading rich vocal harmonies over the guitar of Toninho Horta, one of the many young musicians on the two soundtracks who would go on to be national stars. (Others include percussionist Naná Vasconcelos and saxophonist Paulo Moura.) But the persistently gentle backdrop is soon overrun by the depiction of Brazil’s harrowing history, as anguished voices sob over the sound of whips on skin, simulated with an unamplified dullness that provides “Trabalhos” and “Lilia” with raw emotional power. This leads into “A Chamada,” which thrives on the tension between beatific vocals and the heated cries and tumult of jungle birds and African percussion. (Like a handful of songs on both ballets, “A Chamada” became part of Nascimento’s repertoire.)

Performed five years later in 1981, Ultimo Trem (Last Train) deals with the closing of a railroad line connecting the mining communities within the Minas Gereis state where Nascimento was raised to the coastal urban centers of Rio and São Paulo. The themes of this soundtrack are less ambitious but musically richer and more accessible to fans of his later work. The welcome addition of pianists Wagner Tiso and João Donato is immediately apparent on “Minas,” and vocalist Naná Caymmi is exquisite on “Ponta de Areia,” named for the last stop on the train line. There’s a smattering of train-whistle effects and some spoken-word narration, but mostly Ultimo Trem is a procession of gorgeous vocals and folk melodies. Teardrop laments of loneliness and bygone days (the string-supplemented “Olho d’Água,” the aboriginal-sounding chant-prayer “Oração”) are delightfully counterpointed by happier songs like the chorally robust “Bicho Homem,” the rollicking, organ-inflected “Roupa Nova” (“New Clothes”), and the flash flood of joy with whistles, guitars, and marimbas tumbling out of it that is “Bola de Meia, Bola de Gude” (“Stickball and Marbles”).

Through it all, even amid the slave whippings and the toot-toot of the trains, Nascimento’s trademark serenity lingers in the mix, like groundwater or the low, humming assent of a choir. His abiding soundtrack is the gentle persistence of the human spirit.

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