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Dorival Caymmi, 94; Noted Brazilian Composer, Singer

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2008

Dorival Caymmi, 94, a revered composer and singer of Brazilian popular song who influenced generations of bossa nova performers and whose first major hit helped launch the Hollywood career of entertainer Carmen Miranda, died Aug. 16 at his home in Rio de Janeiro. He had kidney cancer and multiple organ failure.

Mr. Caymmi's influence on Brazilian music cannot be overstated. Bossa nova pioneer Antonio Carlos Jobim once called him a "universal genius" and his country's greatest composer.

Those who covered Mr. Caymmi's music and borrowed heavily from his style included João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Beth Carvalho. Yet it was with Brazilian singer Miranda he was most often linked.

She had an enormous hit in 1939 with Mr. Caymmi's song " O que E que a Baiana Tem?" ("What does the Bahiana Have?"). The piece, which she included in her nightclub act, impressed an American producer, who subsequently introduced her to the United States. Throughout the 1940s, she appeared in Hollywood musicals emphasizing her inexhaustible hip-wagging and impossibly garish hats towering with fruit.

It was a display far from the subtle beauty -- even studied laziness -- of Mr. Caymmi's style, which Brazilian singer and composer Carlos Lyra once praised for its "suave and romantic colloquialism."

Mr. Caymmi's inspiration was in propulsive Afro-Brazilian rhythms, gentle sambas and other indigenous folk sounds of his birthplace, the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia. With a rich, intimate voice, Mr. Caymmi recorded nearly 20 of his own albums and wrote about 100 songs.

He captured with simple, often sentimental phrasing the lives of the working class -- most famously, fishermen ("Promessa de Pescador," "Suíte dos Pescadores"). He also was known for extolling the beauty of women, in the recording studio and beyond.

The publication News From Brazil said he developed a reputation as a barfly and womanizer, despite a marriage of nearly 70 years to singer Stella Maris.

"One night I went to look for him in a bar," she told News From Brazil in 1994. "He was surrounded by women. I went in and slammed a table, a glass broke. The bouncer came and I punched Caymmi's face. Then I left cussing. I thought he was involved with drugs but it wasn't the case. He was with the tramps."

"He was a hard act to follow," she added, "but it was worthwhile."

Dorival Caymmi was born in Salvador, the capital of Bahia province, on April 30, 1914. He was a reporter with the Bahia's newspaper O Imparcial before moving to Rio de Janeiro in 1937 to continue a journalism career.

But having already won a contest for his songwriting, he was equally focused on continuing his early musical promise. He established himself as a songwriter when Miranda recorded "O que E que a Baiana Tem?" for the film "Banana-da-Terra" (1939).

Mr. Caymmi continued to write for Brazilian cinema, performing his own " Acontece Que Eu Sou Baiano" in "Abacaxi azul" (1944). He also was a presence on Brazilian radio, where he met Adelaide Tostes, who went by the stage name Stella Maris. She survives, along with their three children, Dori, Danilo and Nana, all of whom had distinguished musical careers.

Although never considered a political songwriter, Mr. Caymmi had many literary friends, among them Jorge Amado, forced into exile for criticizing Brazil's dictatorship. Mr. Caymmi's offstage views of the Brazilian reputation for corruption could be biting.

"I have concluded that to act as a citizen in Brazil today is to live a joke," he said in 1994. "It's the same as playing the lotto, dreaming about nonsense, trying to get rich when you are 80."


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