THE CORNER CLUB: A História do ‘Clube da Esquina’

Welcome to The Corner Club, a new column on the music of Brazil. On the flagship issue, a legendary collective of musicians come together for one of the country’s most important records.

On March 31, 1964—though some say it happened on the day after—a coup d’etat by Brazil’s U.S.-backed military forces pushed democratically elected President João Goulart’s left-wing government out of power.

What followed was the transfer of rule to a military junta, the reversal of Goulart’s popular economic programs, and a sickly sense of unease across the country. In secret, as Paulo Evaristo Arns’ essential novel Brazil: Nunca Mais explains, the government was using lawless operatives funded by American corporations like GM and Ford to hassle and intimidate dissidents, from unions to student groups.

As the military government grew more powerful and reckless, instituting a police state to silence any resistance to Brazil’s rapid corporatization, the opposition didn’t back down. Instead, it got louder.

Loudest of all was Tropicália, a counter-cultural movement led by students, artists and other creatives. The goal was simple: to twist cultural signifiers of the West—from the sounds of The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, to the imagery of American media—into something distinctly Brazilian, upsetting traditionalists and incensing the junta in the process.

Tropicália was an explosive cultural force, with musicians like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes sparking chaos at popular song competitions, but there was danger in the creatives’ bold tactics. In February of 1969, the Brazilian government detained and imprisoned Veloso and Gil, only releasing them after they promised to flee the country. With two of the movement’s most essential artists exiled in London, Tropicália went underground, but it continued spreading its roots deep into popular Brazilian music (MPB). As the 1970s wore on, what emerged was a new movement that carried the same revolutionary spirit, while embracing a grander sense of community: a movement called “Clube da Esquina,” or The Corner Club.

It’s only right that the story of “Clube da Esquina” begins in Minas Gerais, a region of Brazil that carries with it a grand musical tradition. It is where the music of African slaves brought in the Brazilian Gold Rush could mingle with European baroque compositions from the 18th century, and where classical composers such as José Joaquim Emerico Lobo de Mesquita and Marcos Coelho Neto created their masterpieces.

Milton Nascimento grew up in Três Pontas, a municipality in southern Minas Gerais, absorbing musical touchstones from not only the region, but also from his adoptive mother, Lília Silva Campos, a music teacher and choir singer who had performed under legendary Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Nascimento’s adoptive father was no less integral to his musical upbringing; an electronic technician and a math teacher, Josino Brito Campos would occasionally let Milton deejay for a radio station he once ran.

In 1963, when he was 19, Nascimento relocated to the regional capital of Belo Horizonte, where he began playing at nightclubs to pay the bills. There, he met the Borges brothers: Márcio and his younger brother, Lô. With the duo, Nascimento widened his artistic boundaries, inspired by the cinematography of French new wave and artists like The Beatles, combined with his classical music training. Soon the trio, joined by friends in the Santa Tereza neighborhood like Beto Guedes, Toninho Horta, Nelson Angelo, Wagner Tiso and Flávio Venturini, began a “corner club,” a collective that pulled from strains of psychedelic rock, Brazilian folk, Western classical, bossa nova and more.

In the meantime, Nascimento’s star was rising. After recording one of his songs in 1966, legendary pop singer Elis Regina managed to snag him a spot on a popular Brazilian TV program. That led to a performance at Brazil’s International Song Festival. Before the decade was over, Nascimento was recording in the U.S. with Getz/Gilberto producer Creed Taylor, not to mention Herbie Hancock.

And yet, Nascimento’s most important, lasting work is undoubtedly Clube da Esquina, an album recorded a year into the new decade with his close friends in a rented house in Praia de Piratininga, about 20 miles east of Rio. It’s a record that owes as much to him as it does to all the other musicians involved in creating it, a truly transformational work that speaks to the power of community in uneasy times.

Clube da Esquina is a record of pure, unmatched beauty, and that’s made clear right from the start with “Tudo o Que Você Podia Ser,” or “Everything You Could Be. The first thing you hear from the song is Tavito’s gentle, rich 12-string guitar, followed by a voice that sounds as if it’s emerged from the heavens.

It’s an arduous task describing Milton Nascimento’s honeyed voice; it’s rich and earthy, while sounding like nothing of this world. It rings like a bell here, and it gracefully slides the song into a bossa-nova rhythm, aided by shaker and a gently syncopated cymbal on the last upbeat, building into something that’s truly physical, something you can feel beneath your feet.

There are moments of unmatched musicality here. There’s the famous moment in “Cais,” or “Pier,” where the song diverges from impassioned, guitar-driven vocal ballad, as a minor chord kicks in that expresses, as Pitchfork’s Andy Beta says in his review, “the bittersweet thrill of leaving the shore and drifting towards the unknown.”

On the wordless exercise of “Clube da Esquina N° 2,” Eumir Deodato’s arrangements build the song into a loose, off-kilter groove, switching off between the gently detuning organs and the rich strings as Luiz Alves’ melodic bass line holds it all together. Tighter is the groove on “Saídas e Bandeiras N° 2,” which tethers Nascimento’s voice and the echoing guitars as they warp through time and space.

Elsewhere, there’s the dizzy, meandering of Lô Borges’ “O Trem Azul” (“The Blue Train“), a drifting guitar sing-along about all that’s left unsaid. It’s followed by the lively “Cravo e Canela,” (“Clove and Cinnamon“), a song that exercises about 30 seconds worth of restraint before bursting out, crashing drums and all, into an exuberantly afrocentric sensory trip, smelling of clove, colored the rich brown of cinnamon, and tasting of coco honey.

Then, of course, there’s “Paisagem da Janela” (“Landscape From the Window“). The song is Clube Da Esquina at its most bucolic, guitars twanging gently, like they’re flowers lilting in the sunlight. Lô Borges’ voice sounds stunning here, conveying something that’s elementally, intensely wistful to striking effect.

Reading into these lyrics offers another layer of the song, juxtaposing the pastoral arrangements with something far less idyllic. Borges sees “morbid things,” “unpleasant people” and a “storm” outside his window, remarking that “You don’t want to believe it, but this is so ordinary.”

When listening to the song, it’s not hard to draw a comparison to the state of Brazil in 1972; with Emílio Garrastazu Médici in power, the crackdown on dissidents was intense, with his regime censoring the press, spying on political adversaries, and torturing thousands of political opponents. Yet, from the surface, Brazil was seeing explosive economic growth in a phenomenon called the “Brazilian Miracle,” and the country had even won the 1970 Football World Cup. It makes sense that Brazil’s federal censors originally blocked the song’s recording; nothing could conceal the music’s revolutionary power.

It’s a common theme discussed when bringing Clube Da Esquina up. Though it may not be as brash as some of the other records made in face of Brazil’s military regime, its virtue lies in the resilience it conveys. It’s an album and a movement that emphasized togetherness in the face of adversity, and in the cultural void left by Tropicália and an increasingly totalitarian state, it conveyed hope and connection as the world seemed more distant than ever.