Growing up in Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s, Carlinhos de Oliveira (known today as Carlinhos Pandeiro de Ouro) was immersed in samba, a style of music with roots in both Africa and Portugal. Its most famous expression is in the poor and working-class neighborhoods surrounding Rio, called favelas, which host performing associations known as samba schools. These groups compete every year in Rio's spectacular Carnaval parade, with thousands of dancers in feathered costumes and hundreds of drummers playing samba rhythms.
One drum that can perform all the rhythms of the samba is the pandeiro, Brazil's national instrument. Similar to the tambourine but played differently, the pandeiro is tunable and with the right technique, a skilled player can sound like a drum set.
Carlinhos took up the pandeiro at age seven, starting with one of his mother's cake pans. He practiced all the time and visited the favelas and Mangueira, in particular, one of the greatest samba schools. Carlinhos would join in during rehearsals, and he soon came to the attention of Mangueira's legendary singer, Jamelão, who invited Carlinhos to become a performing member of Mangueira, a high honor.
Carlinhos's pandeiro playing became so theatrical, with unprecedented juggling and stunts (known as malabarismo), that it set a new standard for pandeiro playing in Rio's Carnaval parades. Soon Carlinhos was performing professionally, working with every important musician and composer in Rio.
In 1966, Brazil held a national contest to find the country's best pandeiro player. Carlinhos out-performed 500 other players to win the first Golden Tambourine award, thereby becoming known as Carlinhos Pandeiro de Ouro. With this recognition, Carlinhos has represented Brazil in performances before the Japanese royal family, the Swedish royal family, and also in a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip of England.
Carlinhos has had a wide-ranging career as a percussionist, appearing in Brazilian films, on Brazilian television, and performing around the world with Herbie Mann, Sergio Mendes, Sadao Watanabe, Ed Thigpen, Toots Thielemans, Martinho da Vila, BethCarvalho, Maria Bethania, and many more.
Carlinhos married an American singer in 1983, moved to Hawaii, and raised a family. For the last three decades, he has led parades, performed with numerous American samba bands, and taught 'classic' Rio-style samba to thousands of students. Today, Carlinhos lives in Los Angeles, performing nationally and teaching locally at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. He is a recipient of awards from the Durfee Foundation, the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, and the Department of Cultural Affairs, Los Angeles.
[Simon Carroll also participated in this interview.]
NEA: Carlinhos, many congratulations on a very well-deserved award, the National Heritage Fellowship. You received the award for your musicality, for the percussion instruments that you play, but most particularly, for your playing of the pandeiro. Can you tell us what a pandeiro is?
Carlinhos Pandeiro de Ouro: It's like what in the United States they call a tambourine. It's a drum that has some jingles. It is a percussion [instrument].
NEA: When did you start playing the pandeiro?
Carlinhos: I started to play the pandeiro in when I was a kid, about, five or seven years old in Brazil. I love it the first time I hold it. I saw it played in the samba school, at Mangueira. And then I start to listen to the meringues and other kind of music. At the time, they didn't play too many sambas in Brazil. My grandma made me play in Brazil for the Salvation Army; she made me play surdo, bass drums, and the cymbals. It was very funny because I was young, very shy. But then I saw the pandeiro and it was making me feel love so I had to learn that. I had a neighbor who played [pandeiro] very well. I asked him to teach me how to play. He said, "No, if you play the pandeiro, what can I do? You play a lot of instruments already. You'll take my job." I like to compose sometimes so I had to learn to play a lot of instruments. I spend my time just learning and start to create a lot of rhythms.
NEA:In Brazil when you were growing up there was a lot of samba, and there were sort of performing associations known as samba schools. How did you become part of one? You just would show up for rehearsals?
Carlinhos: Yes. Mangueira, that's my samba school. My neighbor Eijima Jorensu, his nickname is Jimice. He used to help me when I was a kid, he was very famous before. I learned how to play the pandeiro by myself because I would play with him every day: I'd hold the tambourines, it really was for him to learn and to play for practice. And then he is one day taking me to Mangueira. But my father, my parents don't let me go because I'm very young. But I want to go. That samba school touched my heart from the very first time I was there. I was afraid to get a spanking from my father. But I fell in love with Manguiera. It was my kick-off.
They would never let young people inside the samba school to watch those guys practice. But I sneak in with my neighbor and sit in the audience. When everybody started singing and dancing and playing, I hide in a booth. Somebody leaves some alcohol; I don't know what kind of alcohol they left … I had not drank before and I drink just one little sip. And I get so warm and then I start to get so excited, I jumped down in the middle of there, and I start dancing. The president of the school looked at me and said, “Who let you get in, man? Just stop.” [I said,] “I like to dance. So please let me dance over here.” And then he loved, you know, to see me dancing and playing.
A new samba school was baptized by The Trio -Pandeiro, there we would start the dancing. Cuica—and the bateria, the drums, they start to play. When those guys start to dance, I keep playing my pandeiro. And then I play the songs, I call to everybody, “Come together!” And then everybody come with the bateria, and then they were hoping for me to start to dance, but I was very ashamed, because I'm timid, you know? But they opened the circle for me to dance and play, and I closed my eyes and started to dance. And then I felt everybody carrying me, and taking me to the car. They took me straight to Mangueira and measured my body to make the costume to do the parade with Mangueira. I said, “Oh, my gosh.” And then I had to practice a lot, and they put me together with the very famous, sambistas, musicians, and composers. After that, we won in the carnival, all the contests. Winning everything, and my face in the newspaper, in every newspaper and magazine from Brazil. And then starts my life.
NEA: What was your first carnival like?
Carlinhos: My very first carnival in Brazil was when I ran away from my house, because I want to see the carnival. I used to live in Mieteroi on the other side of the Bay of Rio de Janeiro. I took the bus, the catamaran across the Bay, and walked to Hugh Brant Avenue, in Rio de Janeiro, and climbed up a tree, and was on top of the trees to watch everybody do the parades. And then I start to cry when I saw Mangueira. Everything got me feeling very, very strong.
NEA: What was it like for you to participate in your first carnival?
Carlinhos de Oliveira: Afraid because at this time everything is very dangerous and emotional. And happy. Very happy because after the Carnival a whole newspaper magazine from Brazil has my face. I am a nobody in the middle of these famous people. And that's my first kick-off for my success on the samba and everything. That's my First Carnival. After that I got invitation to do the movie [Black Orpheus], to work with the best composers in Brazil, it really opened my horizons, after that. And I started to study, study, study, more and more creation, more and more, every year I have something new to show to the public in Brazil and then I start to be very popular because I start work on television.
NEA: As you were playing the pandeiro, you became one of the first people to really introduce moves. You would juggle with the pandeiro. How did that come about?
Carlinhos: I used to practice with pieces of wood and barrels, and do some juggling. Then I started to transfer everything I used to do to the pandeiro. That's helped me win a lot of contests in Brazil: juggling with the pandeiros. And today, people don't know how to play, but know how to do the juggling. See, the Mangueiras play very, very fast. We have to dance, sing, and play at the same time. For more than one hour, 75, now it's 80 minutes. My samba school used to have 10,000 people doing the parade. That's very long parade, you know? So I started to create the juggling in order to breathe, to rest a little bit, but would not stop moving. Just to get time to breathe. My hands would start to bleed. Sometimes the pandeiro hits heads, and faces are cut. But we have to keeping going. Any kind of mistake made during the parade, or during the contest, will drop the samba school.
NEA: In 1966 you won this big national competition in Brazil, the first national contest to determine the best pandeiro player in Brazil. Tell us about that.
Carlinhos: The Pandeiro de Ouro in August 15, 1966, that was 45 years ago. That contest had about 500 people. We had eliminations. From those 500 people, they chose 10 pandeiro players to see who is the best, who gets the golden tambourine. I did not think I had time to do the contest, you know, because I was already a professional. I was doing albums, records. I got afraid because I was going to lose a lot of years of my career, my beautiful career, because I was focusing on one contest. But the title was the Pandeiro de Ouro, it was two golden pandeiros. I win and this is why I make my name Carlinhos Pandeiro de Ouro.
NEA: You've lived all over the world. You've lived in Sweden, you've lived in Hawaii, you're now in Los Angeles. You've certainly traveled all over the world. You keep the roots of your tradition, but you really are also stepping outside of it. You've done a lot of work with jazz artists, for example. With Toots Thielemans, with Ed Thigpen.
Carlinhos: I love to listen to jazz, and then I met Dizzy Gillespie in Sweden. Ed Thigpen introduced me to him. I used to teach with Ed Thigpen in Denmark. Dizzy became my friend and sometimes we played together. And then I went back to Brazil. I started to associate with these guys, play more jazz, like with Dom Salvador. And then I start to play for the band The Black Heel, they play funk, they play jazz, play samba, play everything. And there are a lot of jazz players in Brazil. The people in Brazil, they love to play the jazz. And then I start to play with Toots Thielemans, Herbie Mann, Al Gemiola, Paquito d'Rivera in New York. I used to teach at the Jam collective in New York and then back to Hawaii.
NEA: And then in Hawaii, you played with Japanese Taiko players.
Carlinhos: Yes, I played for Omano Jack, and Kenny Endo, he is from California, but lived in Hawaii for many years. They started a Japan Taiko group and then we went to Japan. I had been to Japan before, in 1983, to do the Carnival Polokwane with Mr. Ono. His daughter is a singer, Lisa Ono, who sings Bossa Nova in Japan. I wrote some tunes that I gave to her. She sang my music over there. I went to do the tour with the Tokyo Symphony. Tokyo Symphony plays my music, Mr. Koso, the director of the symphony, invited me. We would do the tour in Tokyo, and then back to Hawaii. A year later, back with Amano Jack, for a Taiko drums festival in Fukui.
NEA: How long have you been in Los Angeles?
Carlinhos: About eight years. But I came over here before many, many times to play with Herbie Mann, with Al Gimiolas, San Diego, San Rafael.
NEA: As you bring this music that's so rooted in Brazil and Brazilian tradition around the world, do you find that different audiences have different responses to the music?
Carlinhos: Yes. We have a lot of different people over here in California, a lot of musicians, they love to play Chorinho and Maracatu, that kind of music. It is easy for the American musician to play that kind of music, I think that's very rich music. It's a lot of rhythm, it's a lot of beautiful melody and beautiful harmony, and the people accept it very, very well. The younger kids today, they want music for jumping, dancing, you know, but that sounds beautiful, too.
Every year for [the last] seven [years], I taught at California Brazil camp. Over there, they have a lot of good musicians, like Ginga. It's full of amazing, amazing musicians and composers. And that camp has a lot of musicians who go to it to learn how to play Brazilian music and Chorinho. Two weeks at that camp, just learning how to play, how to sing, a lot of different instruments from Brazil…. And it's so beautiful, it's so nice, and the atmosphere over there, we're in the middle of the jungles, with 300-year-old trees, amazing trees in a beautiful place. Nice, very nice place to be: only music, day and night. We're playing songs till five, six o'clock in the morning, then eight o'clock in the morning we start teaching. With 200 people playing the drums, you cannot sleep. At nighttime, you make some fire by the river, everybody starts to play guitar, and pandeiros, and a lot of percussions and flutes. Everybody enjoys it, all night. We make some barbecue by the river and play for the stars, play for the moon, play for nature.
Simon, I think you have to tell the story about you learning with me.
Simon: We had an apprentice grant together this past year for six months. I had the extreme pleasure of learning to play the pandeiro and learning to juggle the pandeiro with Carlinhos. And it was fantastic. It's sort of a little snapshot of Carlinhos, of his life and what makes him who he is, and it was very interesting to learn all of that.
We would go to his house and it was very informal, and just play pandeiro, and cuica, and all these instruments, and he'd teach me the different rhythms and tell me wonderful stories of his life, and then we'd juggle pandeiro, and sometimes I'd drop it on his couch and he'd be afraid I was going to break his window.
NEA: Carlinhos, let me ask you, final question, and that is, how did you feel when you found out that you received a National Heritage Fellowship?
Carlinhos: A very, very big surprise for myself. For me it's beautiful, it's a big surprise to get something from the NEA. It is a big, big present for myself. Thank you very much. It's so beautiful.