Balancing two lives – that of a musician and a diplomat – made one former attaché in Cyprus feel he was winning at life. THEO PANAYIDES meets a man bristling with Brazilian vibes
Having two lives – or at least two careers – comes in handy sometimes. “As a diplomat,” says Antenor Bogea, “I had access to many places, many people, many things that I would not have as a musician. And as a musician, I had access to places, people – uh, manifestations” (he means ‘events’; French is probably his second language, after Portuguese) “that as a diplomat I would never have. So I would say it’s complementary, you know?
“When Mitterrand – Francois Mitterrand – inaugurated the Pyramid in the Louvre, not many people were invited, especially from the diplomatic corps in France. My ambassador was not invited, when I was in Paris. But I was invited. As a diplomat? Not necessarily. As a musician. Because one of my good musician friends wanted me to come, and he got me an invitation.” On the other hand, “when Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, I was invited to go to South Africa. As a musician? No. As a diplomat – because I had been escorting Nelson Mandela in Brazil for 10 days, when he left prison and made a big trip around the world.”
In the late 80s, when he worked for Brazilian president Jose Sarney, Antenor accompanied his boss on a state visit to what was still the USSR, meeting Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev and being invited to an intimate dinner for just 10 people. “When could I, as a musician, be sitting together and eating informally with two presidents – my president and the president of the Soviet Union?” he asks rhetorically, reminiscing in T-shirt and shorts a day before an evening of ‘Brazilian Vibes’ at CVAR in Nicosia.
On the other hand, he was surely the only person at that dinner table – president or not – who later shared a stage with Nina Simone, at the so-called Fiesta des Suds in Marseilles in 1994. The blues legend (a truculent diva, at least by reputation) was invited to perform; Antenor, a much smaller celebrity, was the Brazilian consul in the city and known locally as ‘le consul chantant’, the singing consul. “We coincided for one song,” he recalls fondly – though Nina had earlier been asked by reporters what she thought of Antenor Bogea and replied, “I don’t know much about his music, but the little I know, I like very much”, a response that still moves him immensely. “Listen: Nina Simone never heard of me!” he points out. “Nina Simone never heard one of my CDs. But she was so generous, you know?” Ms Simone too, it seems, was a diplomat as well as a musician.
His two careers always ran side-by-side, even as a child in Brazil. He grew up in Rio and later San Luis, capital of the northeastern state of Maranhao – and he grew up in a house full of music. There were two pianos, one of them a grand. All eight children (Antenor was the fifth) played some musical instrument, usually piano and one more; on Sundays the whole clan would gather to play and sing, music being “all the time present” in their lives – but duty, and the trials of public office, were present too. This wasn’t a house of happy layabouts. Antenor’s father (also called Antenor) was a prominent person, a lawyer, university professor and, for several years in the 40s and 50s, a member of Parliament – which was also why the family came down from Maranhao to live in Rio, the capital of Brazil before Brasilia was built in the 60s.
Father and son appear to have been close: they shared the same name, almost the same birthday (October 8 and October 9, respectively) – and, it seems, the same interests, Antenor studying Law in Rio and Political Science in the US before seguing into academia, teaching 20th-century British and American literature as a professor in San Luis. Then again, he also studied Music – and even thought about becoming a footballer (his other big passion) before reluctantly admitting he wasn’t good enough; his dad was “a very liberal man”, and never tried to rule his son’s life. Family has always been good to Antenor, and important too. Note that he now lives in Brasilia with his wife Sofia – they celebrate 50 years of marriage next February – and his two grown sons Paris and Pablo and his 17-year-old granddaughter, all of them living together on the same property! (The sons are in a separate house, each with his own quarters, while the girl lives with her grandparents in the main building; it sounds unorthodox, but works well enough.) “I am a very, very family man,” he assures me.
I can sense his two careers (or maybe I’m projecting) when I meet him, at the residence of the Brazilian ambassador in Nicosia – a smallish, shaven-headed 74-year-old with a trim grey beard and a certain formality of manner, not unfriendly by any means but slightly ceremonious, the style of a diplomat who’s been in many such meetings over the years and knows how to handle them. A maid appears, offering me coffee, but Antenor barely even looks at her – though it doesn’t come off snobbish, just unthinking. He is, after all, an important man, having served as ambassador (in Togo) and dined with Gorbachev and Mandela; he’s used to servants drifting in and out. All this goes, you might say, on the ‘diplomat’ side of the ledger – but there’s also the earring in his left ear, and the lion tattoo on his right calf (an impulsive decision, apparently), and the news that he’s just composed the music for a Spanish film called Bernard, which comes out next year.
Music came to the fore in middle age: the first of his six CDs – wistful crooning in a bossa nova register, with some Greek touches in the later ones – was released in 1996, during his time in Marseilles as the ‘singing consul’. Academia was a false start, or perhaps he was just marking time. He moved to the diplomatic corps in his mid-30s, his career being solid if not especially high-flying: four years in Spain, back to Brazil to work for President Sarney – “I was part of a group who organised his protocol, his trips, or in Brazil when he received other heads of state” – then a kind of cultural attaché in Paris, consul in Marseilles, five years in Greece, two in Togo, then finally three years in Cyprus until his retirement at 70. At one point he was also approached to go into politics, using his name – i.e. his father’s name – to attract voters. It might well have worked, he admits, but he declined, “because the politics in Brazil became so bad that I was not interested in going into politics”.
Ah, the politics. “I prefer not to talk too much about politics, because I am very unhappy with what is happening in Brazil.” For a man from a political family, a lifelong cog in the machine himself, the situation now must be especially galling – though “the great majority of Brazil,” he insists, is also unhappy. President Bolsonaro is a bit like Trump in America (my words, not Antenor’s), an outsider who rode a wave of anti-Establishment feeling to a position for which he’s clearly unqualified. It’s hard to say who’s more indignant, Antenor the leftist or the experienced diplomat.
“They’re not prepared, they have no capacity!” he protests of the current government, sounding every inch the professional surrounded by amateurs. “If you see the mistakes they are making in Brazil! We had the third most important aeroplane constructors with Embraer. You have Boeing, Airbus, then you have Embraer – it was a Brazilian company, making and selling big planes and small planes all over the world. The first thing they did, this new government, they sold it to the Americans!” Oil companies are apparently buying – and encouraged to buy – property with abandon, logging companies are going nuts in the Amazon rainforest, “cutting trees like crazy, crazy”. Antenor is pessimistic, and sad about the future being passed on to his granddaughter: “She will not have the kind of hope, or good expectations, I had as a teenager”.
Those expectations were met, by and large. That’s the conclusion – quite an unusual conclusion – that emerges from our conversation. Profiles often deal in turbulent, up-and-down lives, but Antenor Bogea is a rare case of a stable, predominantly happy life. He grew up in a close-knit, public-spirited family. He did what the family wanted, but it also happened to be what he himself wanted. He met a girl at the Alliance Francaise in San Luis – Sofia is actually Spanish, from the Canary Islands – when they were both in their teens, and they’re still together 50 years later. Retired from service, he remains creative (Bernard is the first time he’s composed music for films) and lives surrounded by his children and grandchildren, living pleasantly and indulging his passions. “I love football, I love music. And also Naturing,” he tells me, that being apparently a cross between ‘Nature’ and ‘gardening’. “In my house I take care of flowers, roses, orchids. I have two dogs, a bulldog and another mix of common dog and Labrador. And then we have a cat also at home. And we have plants and fruit trees, and the garden. I like to deal with this”. The granddaughter is a challenge sometimes, you know what 17-year-olds are like: “The children today – the teenagers – always they think in a different way, they act in a different way…” Antenor pauses, then shrugs: “But it’s normal”.
Has he ever had to face any major crisis? “No, no, no,” he replies, in the languid way of his sweet singing voice. There were “small things”, for sure. An accident while walking in Athens, when he hit something in the street and ruptured his Achilles tendon (he shows me the scar). A more serious episode in Togo, when he woke up one morning with a “big pain” which turned out to be an infarct, a heart attack – which was scary enough, but hospitals in Togo didn’t have the equipment to deal with it (a stent is required, a kind of catheter) so he had to be flown to Lisbon. This was why he had to cut short his ambassadorship – reluctantly, because “I love Africa” – and leave Togo; even here, however, things appear to have ended happily. The ambassador in Cyprus was an old friend, so “I called him, I said ‘Listen, I’m looking for a new country to be posted in, do you accept me as your second?’”. His three years here were uniquely blissful, maybe because there was no pressure: Antenor knew it was going to be his last posting so he went all over the island, played concerts, made friends, organised Brazilian exhibitions. The fact that he’d been demoted – having been ambassador before – never entered his mind.
Maybe that’s the key, in the end. Despite his slight patrician air, Antenor Bogea doesn’t seem to be ruled by ego. He’s down-to-earth about his music, emphasising perspiration – “I believe in work!” – over inspiration. His favourite animals are dogs and horses (the lion tattoo was unplanned; he’d actually been looking for a horse tattoo) both of which are loyal, domesticated animals. “You have to make the effort to avoid misunderstanding,” he offers when I ask for the secret to a long marriage. He and his wife have problems, like any couple, “but we’ve always had a quiet understanding and – nice life, you know?”.
I know, or think I do. A nice life is the most elusive animal. Marriages fail, countries become dysfunctional, people worry over whether to become a diplomat or a musician – but why not do both? Some might object that Antenor didn’t really rise to the top in either career, and might’ve done better to stick with one – but then he’d have had to choose between Mikhail Gorbachev and Nina Simone. “I consider myself a happy person,” he muses, “I cannot complain about life. I was fortunate.” Antenor shrugs: “What can I say? Thanks, life”. Brazilian vibes, indeed.