Moacir Santos, 80; Composer, Arranger of Brazilian Pop Tunes

Times Staff Writer

Moacir Santos, an influential arranger and composer of Brazilian popular music, has died. He was 80.

Santos died Sunday at an assisted living facility in Pasadena of complications from a stroke he suffered some years ago, according to a publicist for his record label, Adventure Music.

Though not widely known to American audiences, Santos was well regarded among musicians in his homeland of Brazil and in the United States.

“He was a musician’s musician whose work was very under-recorded,” said Tom Schnabel, producer and host of the radio program “Cafe LA” on KCRW-FM (89.9) and program director for world music at the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Concert Hall. “His work was far less known than the compositions of Antonio Carlos Jobim because he didn’t write for the voice.”


Born in rural poverty in northeast Brazil in the 1920s, Santos showed musical acumen at an early age. By 14 he was able to play a number of instruments, most prominently the baritone saxophone. He worked for a time in a traveling circus. By the late 1950s, he was living in Rio de Janeiro and composing music for live programming on Brazil’s Radio Nacional.

His most musically fertile and productive time came in the mid-1960s, when he released the album “Coisas” on the Forma label and composed music for a number of Brazilian films.

According to Schnabel, the coisas -- which means “things” in Portuguese -- were “densely structured” pieces that went beyond the framework of bossa nova, the musical genre most associated with Brazil. He gave each piece a number, with “Coisas No. 5" becoming his biggest hit.

Writing in the Village Voice some years ago, critic Larry Blumenfeld said that “Coisas No. 5" mixed “African and march rhythms, and a splendid melody.... [It] became so popular that it was recorded more than a hundred times during the 1960s.”


In Blumenfeld’s view, “Coisas” was “a brilliant record” that represented “the best of Brazilian jazz.”

On the strength of his album and movie work, Santos moved to Southern California in the mid-1960s, hoping to break into film.

While continuing to write music, Santos taught music in Southern California but never achieved the wide recognition here that he was seeking.

His work has continued to draw the interest of aficionados of Brazilian music over the last few years. A two-CD set of his work, “Ouro Negro,” was released in 2004 on Adventure Music.


He is survived by his wife, Cleonice; son, Moacir Santos Jr.; and three grandchildren, all of Pasadena.

A memorial Mass will be said at 11:30 a.m. Monday at St. Andrew Catholic Church, 311 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena.