Monday, June 09, 2014

In the Quest of Oscar`s Cavaquinho

Oscar Alemán's first instrument was the cavaquinho, which he acquired as a boy and taught himself to play. He kept the instrument all his life, used it in stage appearance and recorded his 'O.A. 1926' in a solo performance on the Alemán '72 album. But what happened to his cavaquinho after his passing away in 1980? This question has puzzled the writer of this entry and generated a research of the story of Oscar's cavaquinho. Below Luis 'Tito' Liber gives his account of this story by quoting Oscar's own words on the topic from interviews and articles in Argentinian periodicals and other sources.

In the Quest of Oscar`s Cavaquinho
By Luis 'Tito' Liber
According to my humble investigations, there are two instruments in the property of Oscar Alemán which are lost: one is the original Parisian Selmer (Oscar pawned it by the end of the 1960s). The other is the old 1922 cavaquinho. The only instrument that accompanied him during almost all his life (from 1922 to 1980). Oscar`s most loved one.
Does Selva or Jorgelina have it through Carmen Vallejos? Would his latest wife, María Teresa Benito, had it to Spain? If that possibility exists... well, let`s begin the quest.
I have written a short story of the instrument in Oscar`s own words, with fragments from interviews and other articles. Here it is:

"I had gone to Brazil with my father... there I began and in 1922 I requested to make me an instrument, the "cavaquinho". In 1924, I got a borrowed guitar, and with it - in 1925 - I formed a duet. My first instrument was that cavaquinho, which I bought in Santos when I was a kid and lived alone, because my father had died. It is the same cavaquinho that stands here, on that shelf, and the one I even play today. And I never had to have it repaired!" (Sopeña, G. Oscar Alemán. Abrazado a mi cavaquinho. Crisis, Nº 21 - January 1975).

"The cavaquinho is a small four stringed Brazilian guitar. I haven`t made the historic record of the instrument, but I think it had been played in Spain, were they called it guitarrico. It is what in the USA and Hawaii they call ukelele" (Oscar Aleman. El tenedor y el cuchillo. Pelo Nº 99 - July 1978).

"I was standing alone in Santos (note: State of São Paulo, Brasil). I was about ten years old, but I was so slim and little, that I seemed to be eight. I slept below the benches of the parks, and opened and closed the doors of the cars to get some coins that let me eat. But I had a goal: buy me a cavaquinho. It was my first instrument and I still have it. It was made especially for me in 1922. I had agreed with a man the construction of that instrument, the cavaquinho, and I payed him all that I earned. I earned 20 reis, 30 reis, 45 reis by day. The luthier thought I was joking, but at the end he had to say: - "This boy is serious". The list of my payments it was written in one of those brown papers used to wrap sugar. It had written at the top the word "Oscarcito." Next the sums and the day I had rendered them: 20, 35, 15, 80, 40. It was all that I earned" (Ardiles Gray, J. Historias de artistas contadas por ellos mismos. Ed. Belgrano, Bs.As. 1981).

"I asked him to make me the best cavaquinho and the man asked me why I wanted the best wood, the best instrument. The cavaquinho costed almost 200 pesos" (Sopeña, G. Oscar Alemán. Abrazado a mi cavaquinho. Crisis, Nº 21 - January 1975).

"In the afternoons I took a rest and went to the man`s shop (in Gaffet`s Vida con Swing, the luthier from Santos is named Marcio) while his wife, who was a very good woman, gave me a cup of milk and coffe and a piece of bread because she knew that I had not eaten; I studied with another cavaquinho that was at the shop window. One day, happy beacause I had got two pesos to carry to the shop, I arrived there and found the door closed, saying 'Closed by mourning'. I rang the bell and the lady got out. She embraced me, and kissed me crying. Her husband had died... and his last words were: "Don`t charge Oscarcito a cent. All is payed..." And besides, he ordered to gift me the best case. The same case I have today! So, everytime I play my instrument on the scene, a deep emotion comes from inside; because I remember my entire life. There lays everything: how I slept below the benches embraced to my cavaquinho, how I carried the last two pesos - I had never got so much -, the closed shop, to where I could not go for two days because I hadn`t got anything... The first instrument that I have got and the last one he had made" (Sopeña, G. Oscar Alemán. Abrazado a mi cavaquinho. Crisis, Nº 21 - January 1975).

"Finally I could buy the instrument I loved so much. I started to play in some cafés with my cavaquinho. After my number, the boss allowed me to pass my small dish (Note: where the customers put the coins). While I was opening the doors of the cars I left the instrument kept in his little dancehall. The boss loved me very much and he took care of it" (Ardiles Gray, J. Historias de artistas contadas por ellos mismos. Ed. Belgrano, Bs.As. 1981).

Young Oscar Alemán built an early prestige playing in cafés and dancehalls. In 1924, Gastão Bueno Lobo was in Santos, when he found 15 years old Oscar playing the cavaquinho in the streets of the city. Having noticed the extraordinary potential of that kid, from that day onwards, Bueno Lobo became Oscar`s guitar teacher.
In Buenos Aires, December 1927, he recorded with Les Loups the side Criollita (Victor 79968B), waltz in choro style composed by Bueno Lobo, where Gastón played the cavaquinho.

One of Alemán`s earliest photos in Europe - Madrid 1929 -, shows him with a cavaquinho, not with a guitar; and critic Leonard Feather himself had recognized Oscar`s skills on cavaquinho: "Oscar Aleman, an Indian from Argentine who started playing ukelele at Brazil, he is a decade in France" (Feather, L. Melody Maker. Feb-Mar 1939). Notice that Feather rightly calls Alemán "Indian", not "American-Black", as if he had talked with Oscar about his true origins.
Madrid, 1929
Back in Argentina, during the 1940s and 1950s, Alemán and his Quinteto de Swing  recorded one theme, Apanhei-te cavaquinho (Ernesto Nazareth) (Odeon 22303B, June 1945) - but with guitar - and played live some chorinhos accompanied by his small instrument (for instance, Tengo un cavaquiño in 1946, and an early live radio interpretation of his OA 1926 ragtime in c.1955).

He also played his little instrument during Duke Ellington receptions at the USA embassy in Buenos Aires, 1968 and 1971. By 1975 Alemán still performed with the cavaquinho, for instance, at the café-concert Aristóbulo shows.
Alemán '72 , LP text
Much more, the emotion Oscar felt each time he played his cavaquinho, was captured during the recording sessions of Alemán `72 LP (Redondel SL 10.508, Nov. 1972) in a masterpiece. Here the inner cover note by Carlos Mayon: "It is to mention his interpretation of "OA 1926". There, what had to be a solo of cavaquinho, it was replaced at the recording room by a solo of Alemán... because he not only played the cavaquinho, but all his body vibrated in the interpretation of the theme, and that was essential to get to record. The recording technic, Carlos Piriz, so understood this, and with an adequate and not orthodox microphones placement, he could get along with the sound of the instrument, the noise of his feet marking the rhythm, the movement of all his body, his voice and the intermittent beating of his breathing."

Its presence in the 1970s, was remembered by Oscar`s student Guillermo Iacona: "He always taught with a classical (or creole) guitar and the very Parisian Selmer remained in its case, as was the cavaquinho" (Iacona, G, J. & E. Tributo a Oscar Alemán. pp 182-184. Bs. As. Whitefly 2012).

Oscar in his music study, 1978
Notice guitar and cavaquinho box to the right
The cavaquinho is a four stringed Portuguese instrument in the shape of small guitar (like the Hawaiian ukelele, the Indonesian kerotjon, the Spanish guitarrico, the Canarian timple and the Venezuelan cuatro), brought to America by the europeans. Its metal strings are played with a plectrum. The fretboard is divided in 17 frets. The body is most frequently made of spruce or cedar soundboard with Brazilian rosewood, or maple, back and sides. The portuguese word "cavaco", in english means "chatter"; this remains the way cavaquinho acts in brasilian music: as voice accompanyment. The cavaquinho is used by traditional groups from North Portugal, Brazil (samba, choro), Cabo Verde and Mozambique. The Brazilian cavaquinho is larger than the Portuguese. The Brazilian tuning is the traditional D-G-B-D (the Portuguese is D-B-G-E) (from Cazes, H. Escola moderna do cavaquinho. R. de J., Brazil. Ed. Lumiar 1986).
Cavaco and cavaquinho
Alemán, as he did with the guitar, he played the instrument in a spanish classical style, with his fingers, and with a single plectrum or "uñero" in his thumb (the man was a master!). Probably he used a tuning called natural or Coimbra (D-G-B-E), more adapted to guitarists, as it replicates the 1st to 4th strings of the guitar. Lamentably, he is no longer with us to affirm or deny this; but someone with a better ear than me may tell.
Oscar on stage 1974 - cavaquinho fingerstyle!
Oscar`s 92 years old little instrument perhaps is laying in the hands of someone who does not know its story, or it is kept in the dark of an old case. The worse is that, being destructed by bad use and time, it doesn`t exist anymore. If someone knows something... Write a comment!