Home Masthead Moacir Santos: Enduring Genius

Moacir Santos: Enduring Genius


Last year, my ninety-two year old mother and I were reminiscing as we often do when she visits, about, among other things, my father and his love for the music of the Northeast of Brasil. My mother was waltzing to the rhythm of “Paraiso” when we became aware of a small dark man smiling in the corner of the room where the stereo rested. I was struck by his smile. Was this the Nana who I sought so often these days? I called out, “Nana… Is that you?” and as suddenly as he appeared, he was gone—not in the proverbial puff of smoke; just gone, as if he was never there. It was the Nana I had been pursuing, was the Moacir Santos of my heart’s dreams… I knew he was there; come to visit and tell me that he was happy that I had finally put pen to paper to sing of his music , lute in hand, so to speak, pretending I was the young David of Jerusalem. Yet I was distraught. I had so much to ask him, but it appeared that he was gone forever, so I decided to write instead what I knew of him, pursue the music by piercing the diaphanous veil that danced around that music, barely concealing the delight of its melodies… The music of Moacir Santos, beloved of many upon whom his loving stamp was impressed… Moacir, my Nana.

I hopped on to the slowly moving box-car of my mind as it made its way to Pernambuco, to find the baby Moacir and awoke in Serra Telhada. No trace of Moacir there, though. He was born the area in a small town in July, 1926. Even he does not know which one it was; it might have been Serra Telhada or Bon Nome… At any rate it did not matter, but in point of fact, it was in Flores do Pajeú; he did struggle out his mother’s womb in one of them and she, it appears, did not live long after to share in the joy of her special son. By the time he was 2 years old Moacir was already banging on cans with a posse of other children his age banging cans and sticks, imitating the local band, singing and dancing down the street—the world’s youngest samba and choro ensemble if ever there was one. The fare was standard but the improvisation through the shuffling beat was already precocious to a man.

Young Moacir was orphaned young and abandoned by his father who ran away from home to escape the violent agrarian politics of the dreaded leader, Virgulino Ferriera da Silva, alias, Lampião—thus losing the last member of the only family he ever had. Orphaned and abandoned as he was Moacir was sent to the town of Flores, not far away, to be fostered by a woman. Here he shared a home in a garage, with five other siblings and was beaten for no apparent reason, mercilessly and frequently. Hungry and helpless to a great extent, young Moacir Santos endured this life of abject misery until he was fourteen years old. But life was not so completely cruel that he did not begin to school himself in music. More than anything else, he absorbed the rhythms of the bare feet on the earth and the wind that rushed and swirled above it. He listened to the rush of air that was ushered by the flapping of the wings of the birds; to the clucking of chicken and the screaming and laughter of the children and adults around him. He listened to everything until it became etched in his soul. And he recorded every cry of abject misery and of soaring joy that escaped from his heart as well; all this “music” of the human condition he somehow, stored away in a distant chamber of his heart. And at eleven years of age the budding prodigy learned to play the clarinet, among a host of other instruments.

One day it all snapped and Santos hopped on a truck filled with produce and a handful of agricultural workers and ran away from Flores and his tyrannical foster-mother. He had hoped that he would not be recognized and returned to his chamber of horrors. But he was by one of the fellow travelers, who remembered seeing and hearing Santos play the clarinet. Busted? Not quite for Moacir Santos ended up visiting a slew of cities on an uninterrupted sojourn which lasted several years until he ended up playing, as usual, for food and shelter, in Logoa de Baixo.

After a brief stay here, Santos hopped a truck again and ended up in Rio Branco, Recife. Here he met with his earliest known teacher, Paixão. It was here that his fortunes changed somewhat. Santos first became conscious of the ocean and was profoundly affected by the ebb and flow of the tides that seemed to purify the soul of its hurt. The sound of the sea was also music to his ears and its hiss and roar became a symphony that also became embedded in his soul where the rest of the earth’s song resided. By all accounts Moacir Santos was like a sponge, absorbing everything he heard, including the intoxicated chatter of Paixão. Life was good to the young student until he was beaten on his head by Paixão in a drunken and drug-induced rage. Santos soon packed his meager belongings and high-tailed it on the back of another truck into the back country that he so longed for, stopping in Vila Bella, a small town. It was not long for the soul survivor to find work here, in perhaps, the environment that would change his life and his musical destiny forever. For it was here that Moacir Santos found work in a circus, where he was hired to accompany an act fronted by the singing and dancing, Miss Jani. At this time Santos was a mere sixteen years of age. It is here that Santos learned to relocate vivid visual acts to the interior landscape of music. Lyricism and melodicism also became second nature to him in a somewhat Federico Fellini-like manner. Soon Santos was inventing stories of his own and he embellished the ones told by Miss Jani with those of his own.


  1. Really like your text. Very appropriate comments, do justice to the great genius of brazilian music Moacir Santos.


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