What was the view from Irio De Paula’s window? I have asked myself this question many times when of late I’ve been thinking about him. His house in Rome was in the South area of the city, in the nearby of Ponte Marconi, a long bridge on a wide bend of the river Tiber. A bridge that I now cross almost daily to get to where I work. At the time, however, that was an unknown part of the city to me.
I have often tried to remember what was the view from that window, because windows always attract me. They are a way out from the walls that surround us, they invite the gaze towards other spaces, they let the outside visit us, with its light and shadows. Try as I might, however, I just don’t remember. Perhaps it is because I have never looked out of that window. For, when I used to enter Irio’s house the sight, which is usually the keenest sense in me, lost its priority.
He was born in 1939 in Rio de Janeiro, a place so far from Naples, where I came from, that I could not even imagine it (internet did not exist yet, strange as it may seem). When we met, in Rome, in 1990, I was 24 and he was 51. We were at a dinner party where he had come with his guitar. At the time I was singing in Roman night clubs and earning very good money, so much so that I could afford to live on that ‘side job’ (while the main one was in a translation agency, where I could make the most of the degree in modern languages that I had just earned; now I can say it, though: it was a much less profitable activity). The musical instrument that accompanied my voice was always the piano, most often an electric piano, usually a Fender Rhodes.
I introduced myself to Irio, who was silently hugging his guitar (I would later discover that he never went anywhere without it, and also that he hardly ever spoke). He started playing it. And what can I say? That instrument had a voice that told such beautiful stories. At one point he asked me what I could sing in the Brazilian repertoire. And all I knew was The Girl from Ipanema (a hackneyed song in my view; to tell the ugly truth, I used to hate it). And he said, ‘sing it!’.
Now that I think about it, I am sure my love for Brazilian music was born there and then: because that ‘commonplace’ song suddenly turned into something else. And it wasn’t me singing, I was just the voice Irio wanted me to be, without him saying so: no loud trills, no forcing, just a light vocal thread connected to the guitar. It was one of those rare moments when you meet an artist who is so musically intense that all you have to do is let yourself be guided, follow with trust.
When I opened my eyes again – how long had it been? the time of a song? a lifetime? – I had glimpsed into the essence of that song which describes beauty as a maiden who, swaying, appears for a moment and then disappears again, leaving in the eyes of those who watch the desire to catch the last flutter of her skirt. When I opened my eyes again, Irio was looking at me with those somewhat enigmatic and drowsy eyes. He was smiling, though. He told me if I wanted to go and see him at his place because he would have liked me to sing some more of that music.
I did. And not just once. The television was always tuned to a football match. The volume was always turned down. I would arrive in the afternoon after lunch and leave before dinner. Irio had just woken up. Sometimes he drank coffee. Otherwise he didn’t. He used to call me ‘menina’ and he always had for me the delicacy and respect that one has for a child. People came in and out of his house: his son, singers, musicians, all kind of people. But he kept playing and I kept singing. We must have looked like a very strange couple.
He wanted me in some of his concerts in the North of Italy. His manager at the time decided that we should change my name into ‘Madalena’ to make it look more ‘Brazilian’! And so it came to be written on the billboards. Often, at home, he would record what we played. And one of the last times I saw him, he gave me one of these recordings. But I had already made some decisions. I had already chosen the life my studies were leading me towards.
I didn’t see him again after 1993. I could no longer. Perhaps I wanted to keep the illusion that the musical thread that had united us was not cut after all. Only much later did I learn that he was gone forever. It was February 2019, when I first entered a Roman music school tentatively trying to find a way to get back to singing: the guitarist who had to accompany my singing told me the news, that was not new anymore. After thirty years, the story had come full circle.
And after more than thirty years, a few months ago, I finally downloaded the contents of that cassette and suddenly remembered what the view was from Irio’s window.
His window looked out on Corcovado.
I would like to give my most heartful thank you to Robertinho De Paula for giving me permission to publish the recording of Corcovado, here below, in which I sing with his father, Irio De Paula, at a concert that was held in Rovereto in the summer 1993.