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Brazilian Musician Sergio Mendes on the Power of Music and Embracing Change

'My whole life has been a series of encounters that I never planned'

Painful path to music

When I was 3 years old, in 1944, I came down with a bone disease, osteomyelitis. My father was a doctor, so we were able to get penicillin, and that saved my leg. I was in a body cast until I was 6, and I had several operations. When the cast came off, I still couldn't ride a bike or play soccer, but my mom said, “I'm going to give you a piano.” It was, like, “Here is your new life."

The power of song

We lived across the bay from Rio de Janeiro. My father was Black; my mother's side was Portuguese. A lot of people in Brazil have that combination, and so does Brazilian music. Growing up there, it's all around you; people are playing instruments on the corner and dancing in the streets. I started out playing classical, but when I was in my early teens, somebody played me a jazz record — Dave Brubeck's “Take Five” — and I was, like, “Wow, this is amazing.”

Wanderlust

My group of friends would get together every week and listen to records, talk about art and literature, go to see movies by foreign directors like Fellini and Kurosawa. We were, like, “There's an incredible life out there.” I fell in love with the painter Paul Gauguin, because he had left France to go live in Polynesia. I thought, If he could do that, maybe I can leave here one day and go someplace!


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brazillian musician sergio mendes

Peter Yang

The magic of serendipity

My whole life has been a series of encounters that I never planned but that opened incredible doors for me. When I was 18 or so, a friend invited me to play at the Bottles Bar in Rio, where all the best musicians hung out. Bossa nova was just starting, and I got to jam with people like João Gilberto. I put together a sextet, and we recorded an album that did very well. In 1962 we were invited to play in the first big bossa nova concert at Carnegie Hall. The dream of my life!

Loose diapers and warm milk

In 1964 there was a military coup in Brazil. Tanks in the street, a horrible time. My son Rodrigo was born that April, and I sent a telegram to my friend Wesley Lee: “Tell Uncle Lee that the order of the day is loose diapers and warm milk.” They arrested both of us, because they thought it was a coded message to start the revolution. I had to take the soldiers to the hospital to see my son on the incubator. After they let me go, I flew to Los Angeles with my wife and baby, and we moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Glendale.

Making limões into limonada

I brought over some musicians from Brazil, and we started playing nightclubs as Brasil ‘65. We made a record, but nothing happened. We were struggling. One night we were at a club in Chicago. There was this girl named Lani Hall singing and playing guitar, and she was great. I said, “Would you like to join my band?” Back in L.A., I found a Brazilian girl who could sing in English, Bibi Vogel. I started a new group with them called Brasil ‘66. It was a great sound — sultry, sexy, romantic. Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss walked into a rehearsal and said, “We're just starting a new label, A&M Records.” Serendipity! Our song “Mas que Nada” became a huge hit.

Love, medicine and hope

In 1971, Gracinha Leporace joined the band. By then, my marriage wasn't working. Gracinha and I fell in love at first sight, and we've been together ever since. She's a great singer, great wife, great mother, great grandmother. She's very positive and encouraging. And the pandemic has been proof of that. When you don't leave the house for a year and a half, it's a good barometer. We interact well, even in prison! [Laughs.] In Brazil, the situation is not good — thank God we haven't lost any relatives. But it's so important that people take the vaccine. With the help of medicine and hope, we can get out of this.

Keeping it fresh

In 2004 the phone rings and this guy says, “I grew up in the projects listening to your music. My name is will.i.am.” He comes to my house with all my old records, and he asks me to make a record with his band, the Black Eyed Peas. I never thought about the fact that I was in my 60s and these guys were so much younger. It's all about spontaneity, curiosity, joy. If you find somebody on the same wavelength, you connect. That's how you make it work. Just embrace your passion and keep moving.

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