A Musical Inheritance

When I was a child, my father was a dealer in black-market records. We lived on what was then the outskirts of Moscow, in what was then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It was the 1970s, and our nation's record stores only sold discs of domestic manufacture, most of them wooly-sounding classical recordings on the Melodiya label. This meant that a healthy contingent of Muscovites valued records smuggled from what they referred to in hushed tones as "The West" more than just about anything else their rubles could buy. My father sold a single American record by Black Sabbath or Ornette Coleman for what amounted to a doctor's monthly salary, a commerce that made him a hipster to some and to others—including the police and the KGB—a dangerous criminal.

The deals went down in our apartment. The doorbell rang, and on the other side stood a man—it was always a man—with an empty bag slung over a shoulder and a nervous, twitchy look. My father's favorite bit of salesmanship was to bundle a record the customer wanted with two that he didn't. Typically, there would be a phone call from a bearded jazz fanatic interested in the lightly scuffed copy of Coltrane "Live" at the Village Vanguard he heard my father was selling. When the dumbfounded man arrived at our apartment, after traveling for two hours on a municipal bus, my father informed him that he could only sell him the Coltrane as part of a set, along with Bread's Greatest Hits and a compilation of Anne Murray singles, all priced stratospherically.

Of course, my father was himself a record collector and also an audiophile. I remember him most vividly slumped on our living-room sofa listening to headphones that looked like grapefruit halves clumped over his ears. Their curly cord snaked across the floor to his most prized possession, a solid-state Telefunken receiver with dozens of knobs and switches, the illuminated faceplate glowing with foreign promise. It was connected to two Latvian bookshelf speakers and a domestic record player. He'd decorated the room with unobtainable posters of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. I think that for him this modest hi-fi and his rather less modest record collection was a refuge from the drabness and falseness of official Soviet life, a window onto a freer, more authentic way of being.

My mother and I left Moscow when I was 9, setting off on a winding year-long journey that eventually brought us to New York. My father stayed behind. My parents had divorced, and he couldn't bring himself to leave his country, friends, and everything he knew. At that time, emigrating from the Soviet Union meant leaving for good, with almost nothing and no possibility of return.

When my mother and I stood on a balcony at the airport in Moscow, minutes before boarding the plane that would take us to "The West," we looked down at my father. He was waving at us and crying. My mother took my hand and said, "Take a good look at your father, because you will never see him again."

The Soviet Union had endured for 70 years; how could we have known then that the nation and its vast, impermeable border would collapse a decade later? I flew back to Moscow in 1997. It was only my second time seeing my father since leaving as a child; I knew next to nothing about him. In the meantime, I too had become a record collector and an audiophile. My Brooklyn living room was furnished around a pair of Spica Angelus speakers, the first of several tube amps, and some record shelves I'd built with a friend. Remembering my father's beloved hi-fi and record collection, I wanted to bring him a worthy present.

One of my favorite records is a bossa nova session by Vinicius de Moraes. The poet had written the lyrics to "Garota de Ipanema" and a handful of other songs that form a cornerstone of Brazilian music. On the recording, his gruff singing is accompanied by the acoustic guitar of his collaborator Toquinho and the pellucid voice of Maria Creuza, a singer's singer who never received the acclaim she deserved. The session hadn't been released in the US; I found it on a French LP titled Le Brésil de Vinicius de Moraes in a bin at Academy Records in Chelsea and had an intuition that my father would like it as well. I'd never seen the record before or since, but prior to my visit to Moscow, I called nearly every record store on the East Coast until I tracked down a second copy.

When I arrived at my father's apartment in Moscow, his record collection was gone. He had replaced it with a CD player and rows of little plastic cases from our digital future. After we had a chance to talk, and to drink several glasses of tea and a little vodka, I awkwardly pulled out the record and handed it to my father. He nearly gasped in surprise and then tears appeared in the corners of his eyes. "That's one of my two or three favorite records," he said, looking up at me quizzically. "How did you know?"

I think about that day—and the strange bonds we share with our parents and children—whenever I listen to it.

Footnote: Alex Halberstadt is the author of Lonely Avenue: the Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus, and, published earlier in 2020, Young Heroes of the Soviet Union: a Memoir and a Reckoning.

jimtavegia's picture

Thanks for sharing. We all too often take our access to great music so easily and this should be a great reminder to us all.

volvic's picture

Thank you for sharing, it so reminded me of Hans Fantel's moving article about recorded music and the relationship he had with his father. As a father myself with a precocious seven-year-old, I too try to instill in the lad the beauty of recorded music and the bonds it can create between individuals. In this era of streaming and disposable music, I hope some of what I find precious about music and physical media will rub off on him.

A link to Fantel's article; https://www.therestisnoise.com/2006/04/full_fathom_nin.html

Yroz's picture

Thank you Alex for this wonderful piece. A few years ago I bought a used cd that on the face of it was a cd of Vinicius with Maria Bethania and Toquinho called "La Fusa" (by a label called "Discmedi" in Barcelona), only to find, upon getting home, that it was actually a double cd with the other one being the one you write about - untitled and not mentioned anywhere in the cd boxing! This cd is one of my favourites. Maria Creuza is simply stunning and I urge anyone who likes this kind of music to try and get it. Thanks again for this moving article.

ns_Teletabis's picture

I came from behind the Iron Curtain and I know exactly everything you wrote
life is sometimes so unfair to us and music spreads its invisible threads across borders, across generations and time ... music is like love, no one can do anything to it ...

Jeff Joseph's picture

And you can stream it on Qobuz!


Alex Halberstadt's picture

A bit of a mystery. The performances are the same. "La Fusa," however, claims to have been recorded live in Buenos Aires, but it sounds like a studio recording with audience noise mixed in. The French record has no audience noise at all. I'd love to figure out the whole story.

tonykaz's picture

I was just talking to my Grand Daughter, who is about to get married. Her man gave her a Boxed Set of Kate Bush vinyls including one of my most cherished Albums "The Kick Inside".

My granddaughter Hannah is a Vinyl Audiophile, I have at least 4 Vinyl Audiophiles in my children.

I, like your father, have embraced 16/44.

Thank you for this heart warming & wonderful experience.

Tony in Venice

volvic's picture

Give her one of your prized Koetsus as a wedding gift, she'll appreciate it more than you do.

tonykaz's picture

they're hoping for medical education, training and career development.

Tony in Venice

Aleko's picture

I don’t know why I cried on this one......don’t know the record nor the artist. A good read!

tiagoramossdg's picture

I first knew Vinicius de Moraes as a poet in my native Brazil. He wrote one of the true undying love sonnets in the Portuguese language, "Soneto de Fidelidade", an impassioned, yet ambiguous ode to everlasting love. A little later I came to know his music, through my mother's influence, especially his collaboration with Toquinho (although he also collaborated with so many bossa nova heavyweights like Carlos Lyra, Baden Powell and Tom Jobim).
Toquinho was a wonderful discovery for me. He is one of the most gifted guitarists of his generation, still working (except for the forced pandemic break), and he is one of the best Brazilian composers of melodies in my opinion. His collaboration with french cellist Ophelie Gaillard became quickly one of my all time favorites.
I remember a friend in college who collected Toquinho and Vinicius vinyls, and as I understood at the time, he had them all (he played them on an old Gradiente turntable which I suspect was actually a re-labeled Garrard). Even in his collection, I don't recall seeing this album, though. I hope he reads this.
Anyway, loved the article and the chance to reminisce. Nostalgia is a wonderfully heady brew.

james3895's picture

Such as our time is, this is a gift, a benediction really. I don't know where you learned to write, but my oh my this is something you don't expect to come across in Stereophile - luminous, a profoundly moving meditation on the reach, humanity, and importance of music. Gobsmacked.

gadgety's picture

Hard not to be moved by this beautiful story. Somehow it played out as a movie. Now, the soundtrack La Fusa is playing here. Thank you both to Alex Halberstam and Yroz.