Born Wilson Simonal de Castro in 1938 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; died on June 25, 2000, in São Paulo, Brazil; married Sandra Manzini Cerqueira (a lawyer and manager); children: three sons. Addresses: Record company--BMG Entertainment, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036, website:

Initially rising to prominence in Brazil's music scene of the early 1960s, Wilson Simonal was one of the first Afro-Brazilian musicians to gain mainstream success in that country with his own television show and numerous album releases. In the early 1970s, however, Simonal's career went into a rapid descent after a scandal involving his alleged ties to police corruption and violence. When Simonal was accused of collaborating with Brazil's military regime during the scandal, his fellow musicians ostracized him. Deserted by the musical community at the height of his career, Simonal suffered an artistic decline as well, with his later recordings bearing only a semblance of the energy and personality of his first recordings. By his death in 2000, however, his wife had proven that Simonal had never informed on his colleagues. After his death, two of his sons, Wilson Simoninha and Max de Castro, carried on his legacy as popular performers and recording artists.

Simonal was born in 1938 in a poor district of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His mother worked as a laundress, and while young Simonal did not enjoy many advantages, he was fortunate to be raised in one of the most vibrant music scenes in the world. Most notable among its contributions was samba, a combination of Latin and African musical forms. Describing its development into Brazil's most popular musical style from the early twentieth century onward, World Music: The Rough Guide noted that "It started as Carnaval music, and horrified Rio's established (and white) society: it was lewd, loud, and the drums were too African, and so the police regularly raided the area to arrest sambistas." By the time of Simonal's birth, however, samba musicians had become part of Brazil's mainstream culture, and a highly creative music scene in Rio de Janeiro fueled samba's popularity.

Completing a stint in the military in the late 1950s, Simonal often entertained his colleagues with his talent as a singer. Discovered by songwriter and entertainer Carlos Imperial, Simonal gained initial exposure through his 1961 appearances at the famed venue Beco das Garrafas, where he sang rock and calypso songs in addition to contemporary Brazilian songs. Through his contact with Imperial, Simonal appeared on television and released his first album, Tem Algo Mais, in 1963. His follow-up, 1964's A Nova Dimensao do Samba, offered a mix of Brazilian samba and American soul rhythms that contrasted nicely with the dominant musical trend of the day, bossa nova, or "new wave." Whereas bossa nova employed spare, jazz-oriented arrangements that emphasized syncopation and harmony, best exemplified by the global hit "The Girl from Ipanema," Simonal's style was far more energetic and eclectic. Gaining a reputation as a dynamic entertainer based on his up-tempo arrangements and outgoing personality, Simonal toured throughout Latin America as the leader of the Bossa Trio in the early 1960s. By 1966, when he began a two-year run with The Wilson Simonal Show on Brazilian television, the singer was a household name in his home country.

To many, Simonal embodied Brazil's optimistic spirit of the 1960s, when the country looked forward to taking its place as a leader on the international stage. With the success of samba and bossa nova, the national soccer team's victory in the World Cup of 1958, the opening of Brazil's new capital city of Brasilia in 1960, and an ambitious government plan for economic development, the country was imbued with national pride and a belief in continued social and economic progress. As the first widely popular Brazilian musician of African descent, Simonal also demonstrated the greater acceptance of diversity in Brazilian society. Although Simonal thought of himself as Brazilian first and foremost, saying that "I don't have this history of 'Mother Africa,'" as reported by Mauro Dias in São Paulo's Estado, his popularity further infused Brazil's African descendents with a sense of hope.

With the economic crisis of the mid 1960s brought about by massive government spending and corruption, the years of optimism for Brazil were short-lived, and the impact on Simonal's career would be tragic. In 1964, a military junta overthrew the democratically elected government and instituted a regime that would last 21 years. Quickly taking steps to repress any dissent, military authorities implemented censorship measures that touched upon every aspect of creative life in Brazil, including its music. Any lyrics or statements that criticized the regime would result in immediate retribution, including blacklisting and sometimes even a jail term or exile. For Simonal, whose music had steered away from social issues, censorship was not immediately restrictive, although many of his colleagues suffered greatly from the repression. Some artists, however, used the repression to fuel their creativity, introducing oblique references into their music that continued to criticize Brazil's rulers. Simonal's style as a "pilantragem," or "rascal," allowed him to offer at least one such sly critique of the political situation in his song "Pais Tropical," or "Tropical Country," which refers to Brazil as a nation "Blessed by God." Soon, Simonal's phrase "pais tropical," shortened to "pa tropi" in everyday conversation, became a way for Brazilians to refer to their country without fear of retaliation.

For the rest of the 1960s, Simonal continued to release albums, make television appearances, and tour throughout Latin America. In 1971, however, his career took an abrupt fall after Simonal was involved in a scandal involving his enlistment of the police to take revenge on a business associate. Suspecting that his accountant had falsified some financial statements and stolen from him, Simonal asked some acquaintences in the police department to abduct the man and beat him up. When the scandal was uncovered, Simonal himself was arrested and served a brief jail term for his role in the kidnapping. The singer did not enhance his public image when he bragged of political contacts with Brazil's infamous Department of Political and Social Order, responsible for some of the worst repression under the country's military regime. Appearing to have been a collaborator with the state and its attacks on Brazil's artistic community, Simonal was immediately ostracized by his fellow musicians. Although no evidence that Simonal ever directly informed on anyone ever emerged, and he was eventually cleared of such accusations by Brazil's Ministry of Justice, his reputation was ruined. For his part, Simonal claimed that jealousy and racism caused his downfall. As Alessandra Dalevi wrote in her obituary of the singer on, "After all, he was the only Black singer who was a big star in his time, drove expensive foreign cars, was always dating beautiful blonde women and sold more records than anybody else."

Others saw Simonal's fall more as a result of his own artistic decline rather than vengance on the part of the music community. A review of his output during the 1970s on All Brazilian notes that "Simonal wastes a crystal clear, soul-driven voice with an incoherent repertoire--the true reason for his artistic suicide." A reviewer agreed, recommending his mid 1970s releases only to give the listener "a good sense of how far Simonal fell creatively speaking, and how it was almost within his grasp to pull himself back." While Simonal experimented with new musical forms, such as disco and other popular formats, his albums were neither critically nor commercially well-received during the remainder of his life.

The last decade of his life saw some of Simonal's work reissued in compilations that recalled his great successes of the 1960s. The singer's wife, Sandra Manzini Cerqueira, worked to clear his name and obtained a statement from the Ministry of Justice that showed Simonal had never collaborated with the military regime, which had been replaced by a democratically elected government in 1985. By the time of his death on June 25, 2000, of cirrhosis of the liver in a São Paulo hospital, however, Simonal's reputation had only begun to be reevaluated. As music historian Zuza Homem de Mello commented to Dalevi in Simonal's obituary, "Simonal was one of the most modern singers in Brazilian music history.... Whatever sin he committed, he paid too steep a price. There was a lack of humanity, and people transformed him into a monster." Simonal's legacy continues to grow, however, as two of his sons, Max de Castro and Wilson Simoninha, are rising stars in Brazil's contemporary music scene. Shortly after their father's death, the two paid tribute to him at the Rock in Rio concert, and both have released critically acclaimed albums that in part pay tribute to their father's musical heritage.

by Timothy Borden

Wilson Simonal's Career

Started music career during stint in Brazilian army, late 1950s; released first album, 1963; gained wide popularity with Brazilian television show, 1966-68; became a leading "pilantragem," or "rascal;" compilation works released, 1990s.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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