After 60 Years, Sergio Mendes Is Still Writing Songs 'In The Key Of Joy'

Mar 2, 2020
Originally published on March 1, 2020 9:47 am

As a composer, producer, keyboardist and vocalist, Sergio Mendes helped pioneer the bossa nova movement and popularize Brazilian music globally with his band, Brasil 66. In his over 60-year career, Mendes has been one of the most explorative collaborators in world music, working with everyone from the Black Eyed Peas to jazz great Cannonball Adderley. His new album, In The Key Of Joy, is out now.

The record features the international range of collaborators that has become typical of his work: Everyone from American rappers like Common and Buddy to Colombian pop stars like Cali y El Dandee join Mendes on the record, alongside mainstays like Gracinha Leporace, Mendes' longtime partner in both music and marriage.

NPR's Leila Fadel spoke to Sergio Mendes about continuing to write joyful music after all these years, getting Joe Pizzulo and his daughter, Sophia, on the same album together and taking his time to enjoy each new release. ("I'm not a workaholic. I'm from Brazil," he jokes.) Listen in the player above and read on for highlights from the interview.

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Interview Highlights

On the melding Brazilian sounds with rap on "Sabor Do Rio," featuring Common

It always starts with the melody. I wrote the melody with a friend of mine from Brazil, and recorded all the percussion — all the track was recorded in Brazil. When the song was ready, we had the lyrics and everything, I said "It would be great to have a great rapper, like Common." And it so happened. We called him and he was very happy to be part of it, collaborating on this track. I think it added the diversity that I love about Brazilian music: the rhythms, the melody, the joy. Common is from Chicago. ... He brings the joy from Chicago to the world, the same way we bring the joy from Brazil, so it was wonderful.

On staying relevant over the course of a long career

I've been, always, very curious, since I was a kid, working with different guys in Brazil. Then when I came to the United States for the first time in 1962: at the Bossa Nova Festival at Carnegie Hall, Cannonball Adderley invited me to work on his album. And after that so many other incredible encounters in my life: Frank Sinatra, will.i.am. I've been very fortunate to have had such experiences because that has enriched my life. Working with different people from different countries, from different cultures, I think it just helps you grow and learn new things. ... I love that because you don't program that; it's about the magical encounter. I think it's a beautiful thing in life, meeting Gracinha and so many other people that I had the chance to work with.

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Looking back at his breakthrough hit with Brasil 66, "Mas Que Nada"

That was the first time a song in Portuguese became a hit all over the world — not only here, but in Asia, Europe, everywhere. Then it was a hit again 40 years later with the Black Eyed Peas. So it's something very magical about that chant; people love that song everywhere in the world. And after the recording with the Black Eyed Peas in 2006, there's a whole generation that never heard this "Mas Que Nada" played, the sons and daughters of the people that loved the first one. So again, this is a wonderful feeling.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SABOR DO RIO")

COMMON: Yeah.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It would be a lot quicker to talk about the few things Sergio Mendes has not done rather than all the legendary musician has accomplished over his 60-year career. He's a composer, producer, keyboardist, vocalist and pioneer of the bossa nova movement. Mendes and his band, Brasil '66, helped popularize Brazilian music and rhythm globally. He's collaborated with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Justin Timberlake. And now Sergio Mendes has a new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SABOR DO RIO")

COMMON: (Rapping) Feel the sunshine. Yeah, it's summertime - little brew, a little bit of little wine. We feeling good now in the hood now - Rio de Janeiro, understood now? Coming from Chicago, this is Common. I'm in the place with my man Sergio.

FADEL: That's a bit of "Sabor Do Rio" from Sergio Mendes' new album, "In the Key Of Joy." And the musician himself joins us now from our studios in Culver City, Calif. Thanks for being with us.

SERGIO MENDES: Thank you. How are you?

FADEL: Tudo bem?

MENDES: Tudo bem. Pleasure talking to you from LA.

FADEL: Did I totally mess that up?

MENDES: No. Tudo bem is pretty - no accent.

FADEL: Oh, great, great. I have a future in Portuguese then.

MENDES: OK.

FADEL: So this opening track "Sabor Do Rio" - taste of Rio - is such a great collaboration - that cool Brazilian sound of yours alongside the rapper Common. Talk about melding these forms and working with Common.

MENDES: Well, all starts with the melody. And I wrote the melody with a friend of mine from Brazil and recorded all the percussion. All the track was recorded in Brazil. And when the song was ready, you know, we had the lyrics and everything. And I said, you know, it'd be great to have a great rapper like Common. And it so happened. You know, we called him. And he was very happy to be part of it, collaborating on this track. And I think it added the diversity that I love about Brazilian music, the rhythms, the melody, the joy. And Common is from Chicago. It doesn't matter because he's an international musician.

FADEL: Right.

MENDES: And he brings the joy from Chicago to the world the same way we bring the joy from Brazil. And so it was wonderful. I'm so happy about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SABOR DO RIO")

COMMON: (Rapping) I can stay focused cause we be the dopest. Never wrote this, but it's all cool. This is what we do.

FADEL: So, you know, you've had such a long career. And you've stayed relevant over all these decades. Is that what keeps you fresh - mixing genres, working with different musicians, younger musicians?

MENDES: I think so. You know, I've been always very curious since I was a kid, working with different guys in Brazil. And then when I came to United States the first time in 1962, at the Bossa Nova Festival at Carnegie Hall, Cannonball Adderley invited me to to work on his album, to do an album together. And then after that, so many other incredible encounters in my life - you know, Frank Sinatra, will.i.am, I mean, so many. And so I've been very fortunate and - you know, to have had such experiences because that have enriched my life.

FADEL: So speaking of collaborations, you and your wife, vocalist Gracinha Leporace - you've been working together for how many years now?

MENDES: Oh, now I would say maybe 48, 47. And she is an important sound, very important in my band. And she teaches the other singers to sing in Portuguese. She's also a great teacher. And she brings a fresh kind of a vocal to my sound - very important to me.

FADEL: Let's listen to her on "Muganga."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MUGANGA")

GRACINHA LEPORACE: (Singing in non-English language).

FADEL: I'm definitely dancing in the studio here.

MENDES: Me, too.

FADEL: What does Muganga mean?

MENDES: There's no really - I mean, it talks about this imaginary place where everybody's having a great time and, you know, just sounding great - Mugunga. And you can say that in any language, which I love. I mean, even Japanese can say Muganga. If you talk to a - I mean, I don't know, a French can say Muganga, you know? (Laughter). So it has that wonderful international-sounding - great word. And I love that. And Gracinha's singing beautifully. And I think I want to do a dance remix of that.

FADEL: It's fun. So that song certainly puts us in Brazil. And this album was recorded both there and in California. And you said that there are some sounds that you can only get down in Brazil - that amazing energy, that massive rhythmical wave that you hear underneath everything.

MENDES: Exactly.

FADEL: Can you explain what you mean?

MENDES: Yeah. You just describe it. You know, to get that - because it's so local. You know, that's the sounds of Rio de Janeiro is - all that percussion. I mean, Carnival just finished now - people dancing on the streets. And, you know, it's the kind of a percussion sound, rhythmical things that are really native to the land. You know, it's like you go to India, you have local sounds that you can only get in India. And same thing in Africa. So I like very much that encounter of cultures and rhythms and melodies and joy.

FADEL: So another collaboration is with singer Sugar Joans. She sings on "Samba In Heaven." And spanning generations here, she's the daughter of Joe Pizzulo, who sang on...

MENDES: That's right.

FADEL: ...Your 1983 hit.

MENDES: That's right. You know, Joe Pizzulo - we had this incredible, big record. It was "Never Going To Let You Go."

FADEL: Yeah.

MENDES: And he's from Youngstown, Ohio. And he's a dear friend. So when he had his daughter - her real name is Sophia Pizzulo - I was the godfather. Me and...

FADEL: Oh, wow.

MENDES: ...Gracinha - we baptized her in the church in the San Fernando Valley.

FADEL: Wow.

MENDES: Now she's 27, 28 - beautiful voice, very unique, very fresh. And so when I wrote the song, I thought about her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAMBA IN HEAVEN")

SUGAR JOANS: (Singing) Samba in the corner - dancing, drinking, thinking back to grooving. Rhythm so delicious, infectious, baby. Now you got me moving. Samba in heaven.

FADEL: So you talked a lot about serendipity and the magic...

MENDES: Yes.

FADEL: ...Of the encounter, moments in your life where you've met up with people who've influenced you. Does that still happen?

MENDES: Yes. Yes, very much. Well, here's a good example. You know, Sophia - I mean, Sugar Joans - I can have - I have a hard time getting her Sugar Joans. Anyway, it's a good example of that. You know, I love that because you don't program that. It's not something that - it's about the magical encounter.

FADEL: So the album coincides with the release of a documentary film about your career. So you always seem to be looking forward, doing something new. But it seems fair to also look back just a bit. And I think it has to be your classic with Brasil '66 "Mas Que Nada," which is part of the movie soundtrack CD that's included in the collection. So let's listen to just a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAS QUE NADA")

SERGIO MENDES AND BRASIL '66: (Singing in Portuguese).

FADEL: So what goes through your head when you hear that tune?

MENDES: Only great thoughts. A big smile comes to me because that was the first time a song in Portuguese became a hit all over the world.

FADEL: Yeah.

MENDES: You know, not only here, you know, in Asia, Europe - everywhere and then was a hit again 40 years later with the Black Eyed Peas. So it's something very magical about that chant. People love that song - everywhere in the world. And now after the recording with the Black Eyed Peas in 2010, you know, there's a whole new generation that never heard this "Mas Que Nada" you played. So it's the sons and daughters of the people that love the first one.

FADEL: Yeah.

MENDES: So, again, this is a wonderful feeling.

FADEL: Sergio Mendes. His new album is called "In the Key Of Joy."

MENDES: Thank you.

FADEL: (Non-English language spoken).

MENDES: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAS QUE NADA")

BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) Mas que nada. (Rapping) Black Eyed Peas came to make it hotter. We be the party starters, bubbling up just like lava - like lava, heated like a sauna, penetrating through your body armor. Rhythmically we massage you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.