Jaime Oliveira

Born: November 13th, 1950, Lisbon (Portugal)
Nationality: Portuguese

Eurovision record
Jaime Oliveira took part in the Eurovision Song Contest on one occasion, in 1987, when he conducted Ramón Galarza’s orchestration to Portugal’s entry ‘Neste barco à vela’, performed by Nevada. In the festival final held in Brussels, this song finished eighteenth in a field of twenty-two competitors.

Biography
Born the eldest son to a working-class family, Jaime Soares de Oliveira grew up in Lisbon. “We lived in the heart of the city. My father, António Oliveira, was originally from the Alentejo region. In Lisbon, he worked as a secretary for a clothing manufacturing company, but it’s fair to say that music was his passion. Having been taught to play the trumpet in his home town, he played in all kinds of amateur bands performing in cafés after he had moved to Lisbon. Working with good musicians, he learned to play many other instruments – the piano, accordion, double-bass… yes, he was an autodidact, but also an excellent musician who knew how to play in every conceivable style. When I was young, he had his own music group, Seis de Espadas, with whom he performed in entertainment clubs and bars in the evenings and weekends.”

One would expect such a father to encourage his children to immerse themselves in music as well, but this was not the case. “He was strictly against me and my younger brothers becoming musicians – he always said that a musician’s life was tough and I suppose he wanted to spare us that. He even went as far as to lock the piano in our house with a key. When I was nine years old, I found a way of opening the lock using a small pair of scissors. I had heard some songs in the radio which I liked and I wanted to see if I could recreate those tunes on the piano. Of course, I made sure the fallboard was safely closed again by the time father got home from work! Fortunately, my mother was more lenient. Noticing that I had the music gene in me she took me to the conservatoire. Without consulting my father she simply took me by the hand, walked me there, filled in the registration form, and that was it; there was nothing he could do about it! The funny thing is that she did the same with my two younger brothers and my two sisters – all four of them studied at music school and all of them went on to become professional musicians. Destiny was at work… In the end, many years later, my father was happy and said a word of thanks to God that his children had made it.”

For nine years (1960-69), Jaime Oliveira was a pupil at the National Conservatoire, studying the piano, violin, and clarinet as well as composition and arrangement. “By the time I was thirteen, I made my debut as a pianist in my father’s sextet. Having him in the background wasn’t always easy. One day, when I had just started violin lessons, he simply took the violin from my hands while I was practicing. “Stop playing it,” he said. “You’re hurting my ears. I will show you how it’s done.” That was a bit harsh, but at the same time having the opportunity to play entertainment music in his group was a valuable addition to the classical lessons of my teachers at the academy. It turned me into something of a rebel, though, because I didn’t always accept my teachers’ lessons just like that. Inside of me was a jazz and entertainment musician – and I wasn’t able to hide it.”

Jaime (to the left) as a thirteen-year-old in the Conjunto Seis de Espadas of his father António (with accordion, far right) (1964)

“In classical music theory, there are very strict rules about harmonies. Some combinations are deemed impossible and prohibited. Once, as a fourteen-year-old, I composed a piece of music breaking all of those rules and stuck it up on the blackboard. When Santos Pinto, my teacher of composition, entered the classroom, he just asked, “Who wrote this?” I raised my hand. “Well, this piece of music is wrong,” he said. “If you think you can play this, step forward and play it on the piano.” So I did… by that time, I had laid my hands on books from Berklee College in Boston which explained jazz harmonies. I wanted to show him how narrow his outlook on music was. On another occasion, I remember teaching my professor of solfege about American pitch notation, which she had never heard of. When I was seventeen, I wrote a book about harmony myself, just to order my thoughts on the subject. It was never published, but throughout my career I have given it to musicians who asked me if I could give them arranging lessons. Still, looking back, I am very grateful for the education I received at the conservatoire. Compared to the current situation, the level of musicianship of teachers at the academy in the 1960s was very high indeed.”

Not very long after joining António Oliveira’s Conjunto Seis de Espadas, Jaime was recruited by a professional band called O Cinco de Ouros. “That was a great opportunity for me, but first there was a little problem to be settled – my younger brother Raul, who was an aspiring musician like me, and I were far too young to work as music professionals. Twenty-one years was the minimum. The two of us went to the Ministry of Labour to ask for an exemption. Fortunately, back in the days of Salazar, working conditions for musicians were good – and the government was willing to lend a helping hand. We got our authorisation to work! In fact, the official who gave us the papers told us we were the only musicians in Portugal with such a permission. My two years with O Cinco de Ouros were an excellent learning curve. We performed as a backing band for singers in bars and nightclubs. One night, at a festival at the Coliseu dos Recreios, we had to play 115 pieces of music without a rehearsal! This was the golden age of the live music scene in Portugal. There were groups playing music in every bar in Lisbon and musicians were paid good money.”

In the years that followed, Jaime formed his own bands, first the Hot Group (1966) and, two years later, Sexta Reacção. “It was simply the next step for me. I wanted to write my own arrangements… and being the band leader meant earning a little more as well! The Hot Group were a quartet, but all of us played multiple instruments. Raul, who had followed me, sometimes even played the double-bass with one hand and trumpet with the other. We were young and did some crazy things! Sexta Reacção was a six-piece pop group, with Raul playing the trumpet and an excellent saxophonist also joining. We worked with different singers; Paulo de Carvalho was one. At the time, I was heavily influenced by Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. We mainly played covers of their music, in which I tried to follow the original arrangements as closely as possible. Whereas the success of the Hot Group had been restricted to Lisbon, Sexta Reacção performed all over Portugal. We travelled the length and breadth of the country. In Portuguese terms, our sound was completely new and we were especially popular with young audiences. Our pictures appeared on the frontpages of teenage magazines and girls asked for autographs wherever we appeared. I suppose you could say we were pop idols at the time.”

Jaime (far right, playing the organ) performing with his band Sexta Reacção (c. 1970)

Meanwhile, Jaime also had to perform his military service, which he completed with the air forces (1968-72). “I was fortunate never to be sent to Africa to fight the communists in Angola or Mozambique. I had a good rapport with my commander, which may have helped. I played the clarinet in the Air Force Band, but I can’t say I enjoyed it much. You have to imagine… I was still in the music academy, I wrote arrangements, I did concerts with Sexta Reacção, and I sometimes worked as a piano accompanist as well! I hardly ever had a moment of rest… in the morning I studied, then I had a meal and slept for some fifteen or twenty minutes at most, and then I had to head off for some concert or performance, which would usually go on until the small hours. I could have done without the military band! During rehearsals, I put on my sunglasses and tried to get some sleep. The conductor, who had been impressed by my skills as a musician from the outset, never really got angry with me. I even wrote some arrangements for him. After I had left the army, we remained on friendly terms. He helped me in obtaining a commission to write a new hymn for Lisbon’s police forces… and, amazingly, it’s a tune that remains in use today!”

Incredibly, given all his other activities over those years, Jaime Oliveira also worked as a pianist with television orchestras and recording sessions. “With Sexta Reacção, we never recorded in the studio, but record arrangers like Jorge Costa Pinto were always looking for talented young musicians. One time, when I was up in the north of Portugal to perform with the band, I met Costa Pinto who was on the road with singer Madalena Iglésias. He asked me if I could accompany her at the piano for a small concert that night. From that time on, he regularly called on me for TV and studio work. He knew I could be relied on to play all styles imaginable. I was sometimes commissioned to write arrangements myself. In those years, I worked in the studio with artists like António Calvário and Artur Garcia. More often than not, however, I had to turn down these requests. I simply lacked the time to write those charts in between all the other things I was doing.”

In 1972, Sexta Reacção disbanded. For Jaime Oliveira, it was the end of his career as a pop performer. Instead, he turned to working as a bandleader in casinos, initially in Figueira da Foz and subsequently in Vilamoura in the Algarve. “Of course, this was a completely different corner of the music industry, but in Figueira da Foz I found that the music was good – and the money as well. From the start, I was employed as the pianist and bandleader, writing all of the arrangements. After one season, I received an offer from Vilamoura in the Algarve. They were in the process of merging the bands of three casinos on the southern coast of Portugal into one, picking the best musicians from each of them. They wanted me as their bandleader. I worked with a band of six musicians, which I led from the piano. We started playing at nine in the evening – and the show usually continued until three in the morning. We accompanied cabarets with singers and ballets. In between the various performances, we were expected to liven up the atmosphere with instrumental pieces. Usually, a show ran for two weeks or a month at most. All arrangements were written by me – and there were no computers yet, so everything had to be written by hand. Oh yes, I learnt to write scores incredibly fast in those years in the Algarve.”

Playing the piano in the Vilamoura Casino, Algarve (c. 1979)

“Those eight years in Southern Portugal were hard work, but I enjoyed them. Back then, the region was quiet and people were more laid-back than in Lisbon. I also met my wife there. Musically speaking, I had a good time, firstly because I picked most of the song material myself. In 1976, when Stevie Wonder’s album ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ came out, I was the first person in Portugal to own a copy – Raul, who lived in London by that time, had brought it with him from England. I took the best songs and we played them for tourists in the casino, who were surprised to find we were so up to date. We also had a set of classical music which I had rearranged for my orchestra – quite complicated arrangements. Of course, we worked with many singers from abroad as well… Lynn Rogers and Itojo Kumano are names which spring to mind. Furthermore, there were Portuguese fado artists. In short, the attractive part was that we had a lot of different styles of music to work on. This kept my musicians happy and eager to be back each morning at 10 o’clock for a new rehearsal. As a group, we had fun, creating a good sound in a spirit of togetherness.”

In 1981, after a conflict with one of the executives of the Vilamoura Casino, Jaime Oliveira packed his bags and headed back north to Lisbon. Succeeding the legendary Ferrer Trindade, he took over the leadership of the casino orchestra in Estoril. “It was funny. The offer to come to Estoril came almost immediately after I had left the Algarve. This was a bigger orchestra, consisting of twelve musicians – very interesting from the point of view of an arranger! I was contracted to be their conductor, but, some two weeks after my arrival, the pianist suddenly passed away. As I had become used to leading a band from the piano in the years prior, I conducted them seated at the piano from then onwards. During my time in Estoril, by modernising the arrangements, I changed the status of the orchestra. These were old guys… I was the youngest by far! In the beginning, they resented the fact that I wanted to do a rehearsal every day. They hadn’t been used to doing rehearsals. Slowly, however, they began to enjoy working on new music. These were good musicians. It was wonderful to give them back a sense of pride in their job.”

Jaime (with glasses) and the Estoril Casino orchestra with a Brazilian actress who performed with the ensemble (c. 1984)

In the same year as his return to Lisbon, RTP’s production team, always on the lookout for talented young conductors, invited Jaime Oliveira to lead a 41-piece orchestra for a large entertainment programme, simply entitled ‘TV Show’. “I had been away from Lisbon for eight years, but my name was suggested to the director by someone in the circuit who knew me. It was a programme which ran for 21 weeks and there were guests from Portugal and abroad who came to perform with the orchestra – Johnny Logan was among them. Usually, foreign artists brought their own arrangements, but all the other charts were mine. I was young, but the prospect of working with such a large orchestra didn’t make me nervous; quite the opposite, it was exciting. With my education at the conservatoire, I knew everything I had to know in terms of harmony and arrangement; I hadn’t finished the full conducting course because I had to join the army, but the basic knowledge was there. To my mind, no aspiring orchestral conductor, even in entertainment music, can get by without the theoretical background taught at a music academy. Moreover, you have to be able to read a score fast and rehearse effectively. The main job of a conductor is in rehearsals, working with his musicians to create the perfect sound. In the show itself, there is little more to it than counting the orchestra in at the correct tempo.”

Living far away from Lisbon’s recording studios for eight years, Jaime Oliveira had not been involved in session work for a long time. After his return to the capital in the early 1980s, however, he started receiving invitations from arrangers such as Fernando Correia Martins and Luíz Duarte to play the piano for their recordings. Following that, in 1982, Oliveira signed a contract with record company Valentim de Carvalho (VC), working as their staff arranger and conductor for two years.

“Most of the recordings I worked on for VC were for the foreign market – mainly background music for ballets performed in theatres in Spain, England, France, and America. I also did two albums with an Argentine singer, Orlando Ordoñez, which sold very well down there. Even with the arrival of drum machines and other technical innovations, I always made a point of recording my arrangements with large orchestras and real musicians. One of the directors once asked me if I could work with synthesisers for a recording to replace the string group, but I told him to call another arranger if he persisted in this idea. I got my way, but of course the times were changing. Fortunately, I never relied on the recording studio as my main source of income because synthesisers effectively killed the session musician. I’m not averse to using synthesisers – they are useful tools for pop groups in their concerts. I bought a synthesiser to help me in writing my compositions and arrangements… but it was never intended to replace real string players or real guitarists. Apparently it was a development which couldn’t be stopped.”

Jaime Oliveira pictured in his studio (1987)

By 1986, all original musicians in the casino orchestra in Estoril were retired. At the suggestion of some younger replacements who were eager to fill the gap, Oliveira founded a new, much bigger ensemble; a full, nineteen-piece big band. The new ownership of the casino, however, refused to contract the orchestra, which then found employment at Lisbon’s Loucuras Discotheque.

“It was José Nuno Martins, the owner of Loucuras, who coined the name for our big band, Orquestra da Felicidade do Brilho e da Glória. At the time, we were the only big band in Portugal. I didn’t just write jazz arrangements, but created sets of romantic music, pop… something for everyone. To our surprise, the concept caught on right from the start. Before long, we received invitations to perform all across the country. From that moment on, I became my own manager. A bus had to be arranged to carry all musicians and equipment, hotels had to be found, contracts had to be negotiated. We were hired by casinos, luxurious hotels, and private companies. Following our example, amateur big bands sprang up like mushrooms all over Portugal, enabling me to sell many of the arrangements I had originally written for my own orchestra. Moreover, the pool of experienced brass players to choose from in Portugal became larger, which made it easier for me to pick good replacement musicians for my own orchestra.”

From 1987 onwards, when the Orquestra da Felicidade was contracted by RTP Television to accompany the Festival da Canção in Funchal (Madeira), Oliveira and his musicians were much in demand to perform on nationwide television. Entertainment shows in which the orchestra featured include ‘Clubíssimo’ (1988-89), ‘O nosso século’ (1989), ‘Momentos de glória’ (1993), and, most notably, the ‘Grande Premio RTP Danças de Salão’ (1995).

“That show was actually conceived by my guitar player and myself. Why not have a competition between dancers featuring all international dancing styles? We submitted the idea to the RTP who decided to give it a go. Following that show, new dance schools opened their doors everywhere in Portugal. The success was incredible! For some of the TV shows we did, the big band was extended with strings and French horns to make the sound even more lush. Doing television was enjoyable, especially when there was a good production team on hand, but it was very hard work. For ‘Momentos de Glória’, which went on for over twenty weeks, I had to write seven arrangements a week – or rather, in five days, because the two remaining days were required for rehearsals and the broadcast itself. The thing I liked least about television was when people in the street started recognising me. I was embarrassed. When choosing music as a career path, I didn’t aspire to stardom. I never wanted to be above other people.”

Jaime Oliveira conducting his Orquestra da Felicidade for the ‘Momentos de Glória’ TV show (c. 1993)

Apart from his one participation as a conductor in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1987, Jaime Oliveira also led the orchestra for two Portuguese entries in the OTI Festival, the Ibero-American Eurovision spinoff, obtaining a seventh position with Luis Filipe’s ‘Vivo a vida cantando’ in Buenos Aires (1988) and coming fifth with Cristina Roque and a wonderful balled penned by Carlos Mendes, ‘Uma avenida inteira de saudade’, in Valencia (1992).

“Buenos Aires was a wild city, but it was a good experience nonetheless. We stayed there for nearly two weeks. I feel we could have done a little better in the voting if Luis Filipe hadn’t asked me to conduct the orchestra a tad faster than in rehearsals. He was nervous! Though I tried to dissuade him, in the end I followed his wishes. There was little point in running into conflict with the guy who had asked me to be his musical director. In Valencia, I received lots of praise from the conductors of the other participating countries for my arrangement. There were some who were overcome with emotion and had tears in their eyes. They felt it was music which otherwise could only be heard in films – and one or two even asked me if I wanted to teach them arranging. I hardly knew what to say other than that the inspiration had come from God. After that second OTI Festival, the orchestra in Valencia asked me back a couple of times to do mixed concerts of jazz music and light-classical repertoire, which was flattering and a very enjoyable commission to boot.”

In the 1990s and 2000s, apart from recording three albums, the Orquestra da Felicidade continued to perform extensively around Portugal, most notably at the 1998 World Exposition in Lisbon. The orchestra also accompanied nine consecutive seasons (1997-2005) of the Festival Marco de Canaveses, an open-air song festival held in a football stadium in a small town in the north of the country. “The first incarnation of that festival had been accompanied by Shegundo Galarza’s quintet, but it wasn’t until the Orquestra da Felicidade was hired the following year that it really took off. For this occasion, my orchestra was extended to include thirty-six musicians. Somehow, having a real orchestra on stage changes the atmosphere of any event. The stadium was sold out every year. My musicians always looked forward to this occasion. The festival was held in mid-summer and the weather was usually beautiful. Each year, I composed a new overture and arranged the twelve competing entries. Usually, the singers taking part weren’t big shots, but in spite of that the level of the music was really good. Many people who attended said that this festival was better than the Festival da Canção. Perhaps that was the reason why the RTP only broadcast the festival in Marco de Canaveses once. They might have been afraid it would overshadow their own competition.”

On stage with the Orquestra da Felicidade

Since the turn of the century, aside from leading his orchestra, Jaime Oliveira has been working as a music teacher. “Initially, I taught at some secondary schools, but I stopped doing that some years ago in favour of giving private lessons from my own studio in Benfica – mainly courses in piano, but also harmony, composition, arranging, and conducting. Word-of-mouth publicity keeps new students coming here regularly. I teach about two days a week, not because I have to, but because I enjoy it, although I must admit nothing beats working with my own orchestra. Whenever we’re invited by a private company to do a concert, we turn up and do our performance. For smaller events like weddings, we sometimes work in a slightly smaller setup with twelve musicians. As a rule, we rehearse twice a week and do about seven performances each month. I’m very happy with the musicians I have. They are all capable of playing all styles imaginable, ranging from Glenn Miller to Rimsky-Korsakov. Three of them were part of the original ensemble founded in 1986. My youngest brother José plays trombone in it… and one of my two daughters occasionally joins us as a singer. This orchestra has turned into a family affair!”

Latterly, Oliveira has devoted more time to music writing, most notably composing four classical symphonies. “As a teenager, I received a music education which was purely classical, even though I always preferred jazz and entertainment music. While I was studying, I hated the attitude of classical musicians. If a concert pianist told me that he played Bach, I always thought to myself, “No, you are just a bad copy of Bach!” Bach is dead. Nobody can tell if modern interpretations really follow his intentions. Many of those musicians lack the imagination to improvise and create their own style. I knew I didn’t want to become a copy musician. In 2014, however, after years of just focusing on my big band and light entertainment, I somehow felt the urge to retrace my roots. I was eager to create music in a classical style. Using the classical vocabulary, I wanted to write something which I could say was entirely my conception, without taking inspiration from any classical composer. In the past year, due to the COVID situation (we interviewed Mr Oliveira in April 2021 – BT), I have had so much time that I composed three more symphonies. They are by no means easy to play! I’m hoping to convince classical orchestras in Portugal to play my material. I mean, I love Beethoven and Mozart, but let’s do something new for a change!”

Jaime’s brother Raul D’Oliveira moved to London in the 1970s. Over the years, he worked with the likes of George Michael, Sting, and Elton John. Looking back on his own career, wouldn’t Jaime have loved to try his luck abroad as well? “Well, I never wanted to live in England – it’s too cold, you know! First and foremost, Raul is a special talent. He is among the best trumpet players in the world, which is why he has fared so brilliantly in the UK, where competition among musicians is stiffer than anywhere else. I don’t think I would have wanted to lead my life away from Portugal. Don’t forget that I wrote heaps of arrangements for foreign artists, which was ample satisfaction for me. From my adolescence onwards, I have been happy to be a musician. Thank God my health is still good. I am seventy years old now, but inside I feel forty years younger. Until my dying day, I intend to work on music, composing and writing arrangements. Why stop doing the things we have enjoyed all our lives?”

Jaime Oliveira in the Eurovision Song Contest
When taking a closer look at Jaime Oliveira’s involvement in the Portuguese Eurovision pre-selection show, the Festival RTP da Canção, the most striking element is that, apart from one or two stints as a keyboard player in the festival orchestra, he took part in it on only two occasions, in 1983 and 1987. When asked about this, he explains, “Well, first of all, I lived and worked in the Algarve for eight years, far away from Lisbon where the recording studios were… and when I was in Lisbon, I often had other engagements. One notable occasion when I had to turn down writing the arrangement to a festival entry was in 1973. Fernando Tordo wondered if I would be interested in writing the orchestration to ‘Tourada’. Unfortunately, I simply lacked the time to accept the commission. Fernando was very disappointed and he turned to Pedro Osório to do the job for him. This is just one example, because there were other situations in which something similar occurred.”

For the 1983 Festival da Canção, Jaime Oliveira arranged and conducted ‘Rosas brancas para o meu amor’ for Jorge Fernando. Finishing far behind winner Armando Gama, Fernando came seventh. “Unfortunately, we were marred by sound problems, which didn’t help us in obtaining a good result. At the time, I was staff arranger at record company Valentim de Carvalho. Amália Rodrigues was their number one artist – and Jorge Fernando her guitar player. One day, when I was working in the studio, Jorge approached me to ask if I wanted to work with him on this song for the festival. When he gave me the cassette on which he had recorded a demo version, I wasn’t too impressed. The song was too wordy. In the arrangement, I tried to work on the harmonies to make it a little more interesting to listen to. The musicians of the festival orchestra told me they had put my arrangement in first place in a vote among themselves. When I heard the other entries, however, I was sure Armando Gama would win. An altogether appealing, pleasant melody which deserved first place.”

Single release of Jorge Fernando’s ‘Rosas brancas para o meu amor’ (1983)

In 1987, Portugal’s Eurovision pre-selection was held in Funchal, capital of the Atlantic island of Madeira. Jaime Oliveira’s Orquestra da Felicidade do Brilho e da Glória, expanded by strings and French horns, was commissioned to accompany all six entries in the competition as well as a long list of guest acts, including Sergio Borges, Lara Li, and Barcelona’s Scala Ballet. It was the first edition of the Festival da Canção with an orchestra in place in four years. RTP’s choice for the Orquestra da Felicidade was all the more surprising, as the ensemble had only been founded one year prior to the event. It was the beginning of a successful partnership between the orchestra and RTP Television which was to last for a decade.

“Having the opportunity to do that festival in Madeira was a great experience for me and the orchestra,” Oliveira recalls. “The decision to take the festival to Madeira must have been political. I wasn’t involved in that. The RTP had reserved a large budget for the show. At the time, the Orquestra da Felicidade was the only permanent entertainment orchestra in Portugal, making us the obvious choice to do the job. A lot of energy had been put into the staging. Our band wasn’t in a pit, but took centre stage, which was nice. During rehearsals, there were some minor complications with RTP’s camera crew. One day, the end of the lunchbreak was at 3pm. I had told my musicians to sit ready on stage ten minutes before the scheduled time to allow the production team to start the second part of the rehearsals exactly on time. All instruments had been tuned, we were ready to go. The director, who was a very correct guy, said he had never before worked with an orchestra which was so disciplined. Unfortunately, the cameramen were nowhere to be found, which meant we had to wait endlessly to continue our preparations for the concert. At least I had shown the RTP that my band were excellent professionals in this respect.”

“Not taking into account the six competing songs, I had written all orchestrations for the programme myself. To me, the highlight was a medley of songs of Max (Madeiran fado singer Maximiano de Sousa, 1918-1980 – BT) which my orchestra performed with a ballet group. Already during rehearsals, I sensed this could be something special. One of the conductors taking part in the festival was Pedro Osório. Pedro and I didn’t have a particularly good working relationship. When I conducted the medley in rehearsal, he and his pianist were in the auditorium. To my surprise, they frantically applauded us; and later he even approached me backstage to assure me how beautifully he felt I had done on that medley. Now, as a musician, while you’re performing, you can usually sense if the audience likes what you’re doing – if they think it’s just ok, or good, or very good. While I was conducting the medley in the concert, I could sense the ecstasy building in the hall. When we finished and I turned to the audience, I noticed many had tears in their eyes. I knew that Max was an important figure on Madeira, but this exceeded all expectations. The applause continued for two minutes. Incredible really, when I think back on it now.”

Nevada performing ‘Neste barco à vela’ in the Festival da Canção with Jaime Oliveira backing them up with his orchestra; picture taken from front page of a magazine

Of the six festival entries, four were conducted by their respective arrangers (Michael Ross, Carlos Alberto Moniz, and two songs by Pedro Osório); for the remaining two entries, ‘Do stress’ by Mário Mata and the eventual winner, ‘Neste barco à vela’ by Nevada, Jaime Oliveira stepped in at the request of the respective arrangers, Jorge Palma and Ramón Galarza. “I remember Ramón Galarza well,” Oliveira comments. “Ramón is a drummer and he was in the early stages of his career. He wasn’t comfortable with the idea of conducting an orchestra. He said he lacked the ability… so I did the job for him. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought. Ramón’s father, Shegundo Galarza, was also a musician. I had an excellent working relationship with him. Like Shegundo, Ramón was a nice person, so I was happy to help him.”

In the voting procedure, ‘Neste barco à vela’, a midtempo pop tune with Portuguese elements to the arrangement, won the ticket to represent Portugal, beating Pedro Osório’s composition ‘Hora a hora, dia a dia’ with a margin of just one point. Oliveira had not expected the inexperienced vocal quartet Nevada to walk away with the trophy. “I was astonished, and so were all musicians in my orchestra. Osório’s song was ten times better! We couldn’t explain it. Had the voting been manipulated? Who knows. Thinking of it now, the only reason it stood out was that it was a mix of a pop song with a little fado worked into it. Alongside the vocal group on stage was an excellent Portuguese guitarist, Mário Pacheco. He was still quite young then and he got even better later on in his career. Perhaps he was the secret behind the win.”

Not only did ‘Neste barco à vela’ win the Festival da Canção; Ramón Galarza was also awarded the prize for best arrangement. At our request, Ramón kindly agreed to look back over his experience in Funchal in 1987. “I was backstage at the bar with that great friend of mine, the wonderful singer-songwriter Jorge Palma, when I was given a sign that I was expected to come on stage to receive the winner’s medal. The taste of victory was sweet! I hadn’t seen this coming. When Alfredo and Jorge (Alfredo Azinheira and Jorge Mendes, Nevada’s frontmen and co-composers of the song – BT) approached me to do the arrangement for the entry, it didn’t seem to me to have that much potential. As I have always done when working as an arranger, I spoke to them about their wishes for the song. Discussing the possibilities together, we came up with the idea of adding a distinctly Portuguese flavour to the arrangement. It was gratifying to note that people liked it.”

Jaime Oliveira during a moment of relaxation in between rehearsals at the 1987 Festival RTP da Canção in Madeira

All along, Jaime Oliveira believed his festival job would be over after the Portuguese final, but now that Nevada had won, he was called upon to conduct the song in the international Eurovision final in Belgium as well. “After the programme in Madeira, I spoke to Ramón. “Listen, man, this is your work, so you’d better go and conduct it yourself in Brussels”, but he begged me, again explaining that he wasn’t a trained conductor and that I should take that load off his shoulders. After that, I discussed it with the production manager at RTP. If anything, he was even more forceful than Ramón. I was left with little choice. It wouldn’t have done my reputation with Portuguese television much good if I had refused. Believe me, I would have preferred not to go… not with this song.”

The situation turned sour when the Portuguese broadcaster refused to pay for Ramón Galarza’s expenses to travel to Brussels with their delegation. “I was appalled by their attitude,” Galarza comments. “I stayed behind in Portugal and I don’t think I even watched the festival on television. It was extremely frustrating. On the other hand, I knew that Jaime would do an excellent job conducting the orchestra for Eurovision. He was contracted by the RTP to do it for them and I am sure he fulfilled the role with his usual competence and professionalism. Moreover, character-wise, he is a great guy! I remember that I adapted the orchestration at a couple of points after the festival in Madeira, but I don’t know exactly what compelled us to do so. It might have had something to do with the makeup and possibilities of the orchestra in Belgium.”

“When Ramón sent me the score for Brussels, I noticed it was different from the one we had played in Madeira,” Oliveira confirms. “The intro now included an electric guitar part with strings instead of just strings; moreover, the parts for the strings and trombones had been adapted, and the second electric keyboard had been replaced by a piano. It was an improvement on the original. The balance between the various sections of the orchestra was a bit better now. There was one problem, however. Ramón had also changed the drum part in a way which was very complicated. When I asked him about it, it turned out he had made a recording with a drum machine. The drum part for the version in the Festival da Canção had already been touch-and-go, but in the end the drummer in my orchestra had managed to play it as written. This new version, however, really was impossible for a human, a real drummer, to play. You would have needed two drummers instead of one. Given that the orchestra in Brussels had just one, I urged Ramón to change it. He asked for my suggestions; and then made some slight changes in the bass drum part. Mind you, we didn’t have an argument about this! The whole discussion was civilised and friendly.”

Nevada’s Jorge Mendes and Alfredo Azinheira on the Eurovision stage in Brussels (1987)

“I knew we didn’t have a chance in hell to get a good result with ‘Neste barco à vela’ in a field of more than twenty entries instead of just six, as had been the case in Madeira”, Oliveira continues. “I went to Brussels determined to do what was expected of me in a professional way. To my delight, the orchestra in Belgium turned out to be very good. The arrangement may not have been perfect, but the performance given by the orchestral musicians couldn’t have been improved on. Moreover, they were friendly and easy to work with. There was no backing track to worry about, as all music was played entirely live. The sound mix of the orchestra and the Portuguese guitarists on the artists’ stage didn’t cause any problems. The balance was good from the beginning. The Belgians had an excellent team of five sound engineers, two of whom were professional musicians able to read scores; furthermore, all the material used was provided by Sony – a huge mixing console, speakers, headphones, a personal microphone for each artist. There was even a monitor built into the conductor’s stand. What more could you have wished for? The organisation was magnificent.”

“As for the city itself, I wasn’t that impressed by Brussels. There wasn’t much of a vibe, apart from one or two streets in the city centre where a group of excellent street musicians was playing. They were paid by the festival organisation to entertain the delegations. Away from rehearsals, we went to some parties. As my English isn’t very good, I decided it was better to speak little and have a couple of drinks instead. That was better; after all, the language of drink is international, isn’t it?! There was a great sense of solidarity between the participants from the various countries. I was impressed by the singer from Iceland (Halla Margrét – BT), a beautiful lady. What was more, the song she performed was just as stunning… a wonderful melody which she sang to perfection accompanied by a pianist. Of course, I had no idea what she was singing about, but as a musician I don’t care too much about the lyrics. The music, vocal performance, and expression are more important to me. To my mind, musically speaking, this was the best entry in the competition.”

“Nevada’s four vocalists were very friendly, but they were also rather inexperienced and amateurish. In fact, two years ago, I invited Carla, one of the two girls in the group, to sing with my orchestra. In the end she didn’t join because of a lack of time, but in the audition she proved how much better her singing had become in the intervening years. In 1987, she was at the beginning of her career. In Brussels, I did one or two informal rehearsals with the group in the dressing room. Individually, they sang quite alright, but it was harder to get them to sing in harmony. After putting in quite some time and energy I managed to help them to sing in tune as a quartet. On stage, where nerves played a part as well, they didn’t sound quite as good as in our little rehearsal, but I must say the way they sang in the concert wasn’t that bad.”

“If I felt any nerves, it was a couple of minutes before going on stage. You have a responsibility not to mess up… but I wasn’t afraid that I would make some mistake. When I am standing up in front of an orchestra, I never feel nervous. The orchestra is my instrument and conducting is my profession. I knew what to do! I wore the same white suit as in the festival in Funchal. In fact, I had taken two suits with me, one black and one white. When discussing my clothing with the RTP’s Head Producer who was with us in Brussels, he was all for the white suit, because he felt it better matched the blue-and-white sailor outfits designed for our singers.”

Alfredo Azinheira and Jorge Mendes with Iceland’s contestant Halla Margrét, Eurovision 1987

“When we had performed the song and were back in the hall with all the other artists, the four singers finally relaxed. They were happy with the performance, but, like me, they knew they weren’t going to win. In such a situation, it doesn’t really matter how many votes you get. Together, we had a couple of drinks and enjoyed the rest of the evening. In the end, we did better than I expected; after all, we didn’t come last! (Portugal finished eighteenth with fifteen votes – BT). Our song was one of the worst, perhaps even the worst in the festival. Besides, we all knew who was destined to win the trophy; that guy from Ireland, Johnny Logan. He had the complete package; melody, voice, arrangement, expression, and above all lyrics which touched the hearts of the audience. Irrespective of the other songs – and some other countries had very good entries as well –, it was obvious that this was the winner. Again the Irish showed they have an incredible talent for songwriting. Nobody could have stopped this guy from taking first prize.”

When asked why he was so convinced that ‘Neste barco à vela’ would not impress the international juries, Oliveira explains, “The main problem was the song itself. With a better composition, even the inexperienced singers we had in Brussels could have obtained more points. This song had too complicated lyrics. In a festival like this, with foreigners not understanding what the Portuguese words are about anyway, it’s better to keep it simple. Portuguese as a language is inaccessible enough. Even in languages which are better attuned to pop music, like English, lyricists usually work with short poems and monosyllabic words. Musically speaking, songs with lengthy lyrics are almost always uninteresting to listen to. This is a mistake that Portugal has fallen victim to many times in the Eurovision Song Contest… and in the few cases when the song was good, they picked the wrong performer.”

“From the 1990s onwards, the interest in the Festival da Canção and the Eurovision Song Contest in Portugal has been in steady decline. I have to admit that I cannot bear watching it any longer. In the past, it was a nice event with an orchestra and arrangements which were interesting to listen to. Now we are stuck with playback tracks which all sound alike… boom boom boom. Salvador Sobral’s song which took the contest to Portugal was nice enough, but he only won because the other entries were so atrocious. They all sounded the same – a noisy rhythm track and nothing else. People were fed up with that and decided to vote for the one song which was different. The guy deserved his victory.”

“After 1987, my orchestra was never asked back to accompany the Festival da Canção in Portugal. We did an incredible amount of television work in the following years, but somehow there never was as big a budget available again as in Madeira. In the following years, the RTP often worked with an orchestra composed of freelance musicians, simply because it was a cheaper solution. Looking back, the Eurovision Song Contest in Brussels was quite interesting from a professional point of view, but it wasn’t an experience from which I derived much pride. In terms of musical satisfaction, I have better memories of my two participations in the OTI Festival in 1988 and 1992, first and foremost of all because the songs I worked on for that contest were more interesting. Those were big song festivals as well, organised in an equally professional manner. In 1987, I was proud of the way my orchestra had presented itself in the pre-selection in Madeira. To me personally, the contest in Brussels was little more than a footnote following that.”

Jaime Oliveira being introduced to the audience at the 1987 Eurovision Song Contest

Other artists on Jaime Oliveira
Along with Jaime Oliveira, guitarist and fellow-arranger Armindo Neves was part of a nucleus of Lisbon’s most sought-after session players in the early 1980s: “Jaime is an excellent pianist and keyboard player. I was more of a jazz guy than him, while he loved Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago. Each musician in this tightly-knit session group had his own particular outlook on music, but we were given a sense of unity by guys who we all liked personally, like Correia Martins and Jorge Machado. I found Jaime always nice to work with – someone with a very serious approach to life and music, but with a striking sense of humour at the same time. I remember one time when he played keyboards in the Festival da Canção and he almost killed us with his dark jokes in rehearsals. When Jaime made a joke, it wasn’t just the joke which made you laugh, but also the guy himself. Later, studio work dried up and each of us went our separate ways. Jaime founded his Orquestra da Felicidade, a fine commercial band which had a lot of work in television shows for some years. Few musicians were better at accompanying singers in live shows than him. He wrote good arrangements in a very distinctive style, usually quite close to the soul and R&B music genres he likes so much.” (2021)

Links & sources
  • Bas Tukker did an interview with Jaime Oliveira, April 2021.
  • Thanks to Ramón Galarza for his additional comments about the arrangement of the 1987 Portuguese Eurovision entry (email exchange, April-May 2021) .
  • Thanks to Armindo Neves for sharing his memories of Jaime Oliveira with us.
  • A playlist of Jaime Oliveira’s music can be accessed by clicking this YouTube link.
  • A short biographical film of Jaime Oliveira’s life can be accessed online on RTP’s online archive by clicking this link.
  • Photos courtesy of Jaime Oliveira and Ferry van der Zant.
  • Thanks to Lily Beatrice Cooper and Edwin van Gorp for proofreading the manuscript; and to Edwin van Gorp for uploading it on the website.

  

Songs conducted
1987: Neste barco à vela