Mar 8, 2017

Was it the Carioca or the Tico-Tico?

The Church of the Sacred Heart
This view is over rooftops. The church
is difficult to photograph from the street.
This photo is from Google Maps
Benito H. Prats, for many years in the 1940s 1950s and early 1960s, was an organist at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Camaguey, the large relatively new (1919) Neo-Gothic style edifice with the contrasting Baroque-style gilded altar (from the old church it replaced). It was his family’s parish church, and his father had his grocery shop facing the narrow plaza that fronted it.

This was back before Vatican II — the Ecumenical Council that modernized the Catholic Church’s rituals in 1962 and changed them to the local language — when services were heavy with slow and stately hymns in Latin. Nothing praises God’s majesty more loudly than pipe organ music accompanying a chorus dressed in muted-color robes, the sound echoing in a large stone church. And the more than hour-and-a-half-long High Mass, all of it sung in Latin by priest and chorus, was nothing less than a concert performance available every Sunday to anyone who could care to come at the appointed time to any of Camaguey’s many churches, all for the few coins you were expected, but not required, to drop into the collection basket. In the Church of the Sacred Heart at that time, the organist was either a friar whose name is now lost to history or the young Dr. Prats. 

The Church of the Sacred Heart
This is a fish-eye view of the Plaza
This photo is from Google Maps
 The hymns and sung prayers changed every week, but they were basically the same, so to speak. Dignified and stately, predictable and uplifting. And unintelligible for the most part unless you spoke Latin.

One Sunday after Mass, there was one more song. 

Dr. Prats, the organ player
Benito must have been in an exuberant mood. Or maybe he forgot where he was for an instant. But that Sunday, after the priests, altar boys and chorus had ceremoniously filed down the aisle to the music of the recessional hymn, after finishing the hymn’s last flourishes, he broke into a popular tune: the current earworm that was on the radio, to smiles and murmurs from the faithful.

“(The) Carioca”
I could not find a pipe organ recording. This arrange-
ment is by the Hammond Organ performer himself,
MusicBlinded51 from Germany.
When I asked Benito one day, the two of us sitting just outside his retirement home room, what the name of the song was, he told me he thought he had played the Carioca. Carioca is the term residents of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil call themselves. “(The) Carioca” was a Latin-themed dance number written for the 1933 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers film Flying Down to Rio by Vincent Youmans, Edward Eliscu and Gus Kahn. The song quickly became a jazz standard and has been covered by many musicians all over the world over the years.  Benito was only 15 years old in 1933. This episode at that Sunday Mass would have happened more than 10 years after the movie came out. There must have been a current version of this song recently playing on the radio because by all accounts everyone in church was familiar with the song.

“Salve Regina”
Sung at Our Lady of Refuge Church, Brooklyn, in 2016.
Take a listen to the video of “(The) Carioca”  and imagine it playing out in a Gothic Catholic church decorated with statues of saints sitting on heavily-gilded altars, and filled with people in their Sunday best; women with mantillas covering their head. And consider that the Carioca unexpectedly started playing mere seconds after the end of a traditional Catholic hymn like, say, “Salve Regina.” Would not that have been a surprise!

The rector was not amused. Not in the least. Benito was immediately summoned to the monsignor’s office for a thorough dressing-down.  “No, Monsignor.”  “Yes, Monsignor.” “No, Monsignor.” “I am very sorry, Monsignor.”  “I don’t know what came over me, Monsignor.” “No, Monsignor, it will never happen again.”   

But was it the Carioca?

Mariana and Benito Prats in 2010
When Benito died in 2013, his niece Teresita Martinez Prats — the last Prats then still in Cuba, and, like her uncle, a medical doctor — arranged for a Mass of Remembrance at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Camaguey.  It was celebrated the evening of February 27 by an elderly priest, Father José Luis, she said, who remembered Benito very well. The Father said many kind words about Benito — that he was the best gastroenterologist that Camaguey had ever had, that both in Camaguey and “overseas” he had been a good Christian, active with the church, and he explained that “Dr. Prats had played that same organ you see there” at countless Masses for many years until his exile.

Then he told those gathered for the service the story about when Benito played “the Tico-Tico samba” in the church after “all that religious music.” He said that it surprised the congregation, still in the pews, who, all smiles, started to move to the rythm, while his mortified wife Mariana ran up the stairs to the balcony to get him to stop. It happened a long time ago, he said, but was so amusing and unique for the Church that it has transcended the march of time. 

“Tico-Tico no Fubá,”
Performed by German organ player Edgar Weissenfels.
The church organ in our story would not have had
percussion capabilities! No colored strobe lights 
either!  But still, ... !
The Tico-Tico, then.  “Tico-Tico no Fubá,” (Portuguese for “Sparrow in the Cornmeal”) is a Brazilian song. It first became famous outside of Brazil when Ethel Smith performed it on the organ in the 1944 Esther Williams MGM Technicolor water musical Bathing Beauty. The record of it sold two million copies worldwide. The Andrew Sisters put out their version the same year, as did many other performers in the U.S. and throughout the world..

So if this was the song he played after the recessional in the Church of the Sacred Heart, it makes sense he would have played it sometime in 1944. But he did not meet Mariana, until 1948.  What gives? Why was she running up the stairs? Nothing has to give.  Legends don’t have to be 100% correct. If they were, they would be facts, not legends. Legends just need to be based on a speck of truth. As Father José Luis indicated, this story has become part of the lore in Camaguey, the City of Legends.

Which one did he play that Sunday in church in Camaguey? Which one would you like for him to have played? 

Ethel Smith’s Tico-Tico Scene
From the MGM movie Bathing Beauty

P.S.  Did you know that Benito H. Prats also played a church organ in the United States?  He did, once a year, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on the feast day of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, the Patroness of Cuba. He last played in 2009. No Carioca or Tico-Tico, but he would invariably play the Cuban national anthem on that organ. When the anthem is played correctly, it is played briskly. He always played it correctly.