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João Teixeira Guimarães, better known as João Pernambuco, was born in Jatobá, Pernambuco, in northeastern Brazil of an Indian (Caeté) mother and Portuguese father. The family lived in poverty in the rural countryside. João began to learn the guitar at an early age in the streets and at the popular fairs of Pernambuco, and at 12 he was already performing at celebrations. After his parents' death, he moved to Recife, working as a blacksmith and at several other menial jobs. In 1902, he moved to Rio, where he lived with his sister and worked as a day laborer, continuing to play and compose.

As an illiterate musician, he would give his compositions to others to transcribe, and in that way several were stolen from him. João Pernambuco was an important composer of choros, and also of jongos, valses, toadas, and canções. His illiteracy left him in the hands of unscrupulous partners who robbed several important compositions of his. But his memory was preserved and his authorship has been recovered. He is now receiving the attention he deserved when he was alive, with his works now extensively recorded by major musicians around the world.

With Catulo da Paixão Cearense, he co-wrote "Engenho de Humaitá" (written in 1911, it would be transformed into "Luar do Sertão," the unofficial Brazilian anthem of tremendous importance, credited only to Catulo and only recently properly acknowledged as Pernambuco's composition). Another toada, "Caboca di Caxangá" (a big hit in 1913's Carnival), followed the same fate.

But the association with Catulo also provided him with access to the high bourgeoisie and intelligentsia, at whose soirées Pernambuco began to play. His conception and creation of Grupo de Caxangá (which inluded Pixinguinha and Donga, among others, and introduced northeastern percussion and culture in southeast), was extremely popular between 1914 and 1919.

Villa-Lobos, knowing of his problems with stolen songs, proposed himself in good faith to register and transcribe several of his songs, which he did. Pernambuco also participated with Pixinguinha's Os Oito Batutas and Os Turunas Pernambucanos. With Donga and Pixinguinha, he toured Brazil commissioned by Arnaldo Guinle, collecting Brazilian folkloric music. As a guitarist, he recorded for the first Brazilian-established label, Casa Edison, and for Columbia and Phoenix.

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