By Peter Vankevich
“Beleza, Tudo Beleza.”
“Beautiful, everything beautiful” is a local greeting in Brazil’s Salvador, capital of the northeastern state of Bahia where Humberto Oliveira Sales, called “Berto,” grew up.
Beleza is also the name of his musical duo that includes his wife, Madeline Holly Sales.
For the past seven events, Beleza has performed at the Ocrafolk Festival. This acclaimed festival which started in 2000, takes place on Ocracoke over the first weekend in June.
Sadly, as with almost all other music festivals, Ocrafolk was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic that ravaged the country causing hardship for musical performers and a disappointment for those who love live music. With safety measures in place, the show will be held this year on June 4 to 6 at the Ocracoke Berkley Manor complex with the return of Beleza along with a host of other performers and storytellers.
On stage, Berto dazzles the audience with his virtuoso guitar work, while Madeline’s amazing vocal ranges capture the rhythms of Latin culture as well as pure American jazz and blues, singing in Portuguese, Spanish and English. Their —I hesitate to use these days the word “infectious” — smiles quickly make the audience part of the show by clapping and singing along.
With her striking dark hair, brown eyes and masterful singing in Portuguese, one could think Madeline may also be from Brazil, but in fact, she was born in Durham, and grew up living in North Carolina, South Carolina and eventually Charlottesville, Virginia.
“I started the piano lessons from when I was five and it was classical training that continued up until high school in Charlottesville. My last piano teacher was French, Madame Duisit,” she fondly recalls. “I still remember her voice and her strong accent, ‘My dear Madeline, you must practice’.”
Both her parents were very musical and along with the four kids, on long car trips they all would sing and harmonize together.
“And so, I grew up singing at home, in church and school where I did a little bit of musical theater,” she said.
When it came for college, Madeline opted to major in sociology and not music at Duke University.
After graduating, she took a job for a few years with the Nature Conservancy in the Washington, D.C., area.
Then, in 2001, with an invite by a friend and kind of on a whim as she put it, she took a trip to Brazil to experience Carnival. These are multi-day festivals that take place throughout the country that traditionally begin the Friday afternoon before Ash Wednesday. That trip turned into a life-changing event, eventually meeting her husband-to-be, and discovering that music would be her life calling.
“As soon as I stepped there, I just said, ‘What? Why wasn’t I born here?’ and thought, ‘I’m just going to get more responsibility in life, so I’m going to give myself a year in Brazil, study music and live by the ocean,” she said.
After returning home, it took six months to get her affairs in order then she went back to Brazil for a new life. That one year turned into three in large part because she met Berto and began playing music with him.
The couple were to be part of a quartet, but when the drummer and bassist didn’t show up for the rehearsal, they realized the chemistry of just the two of them. When they decided to perform together as a duo, they had to come up with a name and Madeline just loved the Beleza greeting. So that’s what they became.
“While there, I studied harmony, Brazilian styles and even some Afro-Peruvian music and started performing more and more, especially after meeting Berto,” she said.
In Brazil, she sang so much that she injured her vocal cords which required medical treatment.
As she recuperated, she learned the importance of treating her voice as an instrument and she has studied and practiced voice training ever since. Now she also is teaching it.
Berto also grew up in a household of music lovers and recalls listening at a young age to his father’s vinyl records of Choro music, a genre sometimes described as the father of Samba and the grandfather of Bossa Nova. In addition to listening to the many variations of Brazilian music, his godparents who are from Spain, exposed him to Spanish classical music and somewhere around nine or 10 years old, he discovered Flamenco music that has become a life-long passion.
From age 10 onward, apart from school, his free time was spent with either one of Brazil’s two great passions, playing guitar or soccer.
“I would take my guitar to school and would play whenever the opportunity would arise,” he said. By middle school he was already performing Brazilian music such as samba, bossa nova and axé, along with Spanish classical and Flamenco. “In my hometown of Salvador, African influences in music are very strong and along the way I picked up playing percussion instruments.”
He found other musicians to jam with and they got interested in the rock and roll music from North America.
“My friends would say, ‘Hey, do you play Pink Floyd?’ and I’d say, ‘No, but give me the album and I’ll learn it,’” he said. “So, it was just learning everything by ear.”
But his heart was with Brazilian and Spanish music, and he opted to get formal training earning his degree in classical guitar and performance at the Universidade Federal da Bahia 1999.
It is this confluence of cultures that explains Beleza’s wide array of music–bossa nova, blues, soul, tango and Spanish flamenco — that one may hear at one of their performances or on their albums.
In the recording studio and sometimes on stage, it may be a Beleza and Friends performance, sometimes accompanied by drummer Matt Wyatt, Dave Berzonsky on bass, and percussionist Eric Gertner and others.
At the 2019 Ocrafolk Festival, they were joined by their good friend Vincent Zorn on Spanish guitar. A few days later, they did a performance interview at WOVV, Ocracoke’s community radio station and visited the Coyote Den in Ocracoke’s Community Square for a special concert with Marcy Brenner and Lou Castro. That performance was particularly notable for the virtuoso guitar jams of Lou and Berto.
There is a lighter side to their music that is displayed in their album “Just for Fun.” I’m an avowed fan of
that great song “I wan’na Be Like You” immortalized by Louie Prima in the 1967 Disney film the “Jungle Book.” I did not think anyone could match it, but Madeline’s vocals make that song rock and one can sense that she is having a ball singing it.
In addition to public performing, they both are engaged in teaching with private lessons and conducting a variety of workshops. Madeline focuses on voice training, piano and workshops such as Creative Expression through Sound and Movement. Berto teaches a variety of classes such as Latin Guitar, Brazilian Rhythms and Guitar Playing Biomechanics.
This pandemic that continues to shake the world has caused so many lifestyle changes for all of us. For many in the music biz, making use of Zoom and other audio-visual formats have permitted musicians to continue to reach out to their fans.
For Beleza, well, “We’ve been as busy as we’ve ever been, especially with online teaching,” said Madeline.
To book Beleza for a performance, request a workshop or to take music lessons, contact them at http://www.belezamusic.com/