Did Brazilian Music Die in the 70s?

For a special little showdown for the music issue of October, Jungle pitted two high calibre musical minds against each other to debate the state of Brazil’s music industry and output to see if it’s as good as it has always been…

Did Brazilian music die decades ago? Well, on the offensive we’ve got Thomas Pappon, and coming back in defence of today’s music output we’ve Jody Gillet.

Thomas Pappon, Music Journalist

Thomas is a radio broadcaster, journalist and musician. In Brazil he worked for the radio stations of Record and Cultura in São Paulo, at the magazine BIZZ and the music label Stiletto. In Germany (1992-96), he worked at the CD stores Saturn and Ludwig Beck, and since 1997 he’s worked for BBC Brazil in London. He’s also co-founder of the band Fellini.

Brazilian music comes in waves. All it takes is the launch of two or three releases at more or less the same time – either by an influential cultural centre planning an event, or a festival dedicated to Brazilian art – and the Guardian or Time Out will claim Brazil is the “latest sensation” or the “flavour of summer”. In the 90s when I lived in Cologne, working in a record shop, I used to get tired of the praise for MPB (Brazilian pop music) in Prinz, Germany’s Time Out. Releases from Marisa Monte and Caetano Veloso used to sell 20,000 copies each in Germany, the fourth biggest music market in the world.

I remember that Polygram and EMI had labels (Motor Music and Blue Note) exploring the catalogues of their Brazilian subsidiaries in order to release compilations dedicated to the ‘dancefloor jazz’ or ‘acid jazz’ scene. This scene was big in Great Britain, Germany and Japan, where musicians such as Tamba Trio and Quarteto Novo were idolised, and where artists such as Joyce and Marcos Valle re-launched their international careers. The scene no longer exists as such, but it did help to awaken a great thirst for what was produced during the golden years of MPB, which in my opinion died out at the end of the 70’s. In London during the 00’s, I noticed that little had changed. The reality is that within the international market, Brazilian music is a marginal asset, difficult for the majority of the public to embrace.

But why is that? I can point to three reasons; 1. The language. Many love the sound of the Portuguese language, and, for them, the fact that what is being sung remains a complete mystery doesn’t make the slightest difference. Many, however, prefer to understand what they hear. It is impossible to compete with English. 2. The rhythm. Almost all of MPB derives from samba, with a distinct, broken tempo of 2/4, quite unlike the straightforward 4/4 beat of rock and pop. The English speaking ‘gringo’ doesn’t feel so at ease dancing to samba.

3. Sophistication. That’s right. Ask jazz musicians. Rock bands play the Beatles and the Stones easily, but see if they can get to grips with songs by Tom Jobim, Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil or even Caetano Veloso. The harmonies, the guitar positions; it’s all extremely complicated.

It’s not a coincidence that the Brazilian bands that managed to infiltrate the international show circuit in the last two decades were Sepultura and CSS; two rock bands that sing in English and have little or nothing to do with MPB. Bossa Nova, strongly influenced by American jazz, was discovered by American musicians (Charlie Byrd, Stan Getz and Herbie Mann), who brought it to the United States. American songwriters such as Gene Lees, Ray Gilbert and Norman Gimbel lined their pockets by translating gems by Vinícius de Moraes, Newton Mendonça, Ronaldo Bôscoli, Paulo Sérgio Valle and many others into English. Not to mention that Bossa Nova, a product of the golden years of MPB, had a ‘fresh’ and ‘different’ appeal to it; a quality starkly absent intoday’s Brazilian music.

The ‘fresh’ and the ‘different’ have the power to attract the attention of the majority of consumers in Britain, Europe or America and I would keep an eye on the subculture emerging from the club scenes in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, in electronic music and funk carioca. But one thing is for sure: the extrovert quality and ‘upbeat’ feel of our music culture (axé e pagode) is too frenzied for the Anglo-Saxons.

Jody Gillett, Editor of Mondomix

Jody is editor of online music and culture magazine Mondomix.com (English edition) and a freelance PR for international artists including Brazilian musicians such as Céu, Orquestra Imperial and Seu Jorge. She also works as a consultant with BM&A, the Brasilian Music Export Office.

“I don’t like Brazilian music”. Now and then you do come across the occasional person (or music critic) who utters the words. It’s tough to respond, as all that statement really does is speak volumes about how much Brazilian music they have yet to hear. What’s implied is that all Brazilian music sounds the same, with maybe the faint echo of a bossa tune spinning in their minds. It’s true, it’s not all that easy in the UK to keep up with what’s happening with new Brazilian music.

Only the tiniest tip of the iceberg ever gets released here and there are still precious few chances to see a live show by anyone who wasn’t a star in the 60s. But surely we’ve had enough exposure to new Brazilian sounds to click that the sixth most populous nation in the world is a universe of sonic diversity. When DJs Patife and Marky tore up the UK drum ‘n’ bass scene in the 90s they beamed a spotlight on the super-urban intensity of São Paulo-the-megacity. Then Baile Funk blasted any notion that Rio is all about sun-kissed melody, just as the current South African house boom is cranking open eyes on what Johannesburg’s soundtrack is really like. Likewise when CSS revved up a spectacular indie media love-fest, there was the sense that something had shifted. Maybe the next big thing in electro-pop wasn’t going to be from the northern hemisphere…

It took the movies for Seu Jorge to break through and become a name even casual listeners have heard of. Singing his beloved samba like tropical blues, Seu Jorge celebrates his Rio de Janeiro roots. His acclaimed David Bowie versions, in Portuguese, flipped expectations. Ah yes, Brazilian music also sounds like, well, ‘changes’. And it sounds like ‘Pavement meets Fela Kuti’, as Holger are described, a band on the up who were a hit at Austin music convention SXSW and are currently gigging in New York, playing indie rock with a touch of axé. That’s Brazilian. You want art-house brega? Check out Cidadão Instigado’s psych bubblegum pop. Calypso-marchinha? Have fun with Mini Box Lunar. Surf-guitarrada? La Pupuña. There just isn’t a genre which exists or is possible to invent that won’t happen in Brazil, where the level of musical activity is simply staggering.

Brazilian artists are pulling on a mind-blowingly vast hinterland of traditions, environments and influences. It was once a fractured landscape – artists operated in local circles often in isolation from whatever was happening in distant cities and even neighbouring states. With the digital age things have shifted and the 20-somethings making music now must be some of the most web-savvy artists anywhere. There’s a palpable sense of assurance – connecting across borders and genres seems to have galvanised individual creativity rather than having a homogenising effect.

What gets picked up by press and public in the UK may be relatively limited, and there are shocking omissions (will Nação Zumbi ever get to play Glastonbury?!) but the way people listen to music from Brazil has changed. We’re yet to see an Amazonian techno-brega rave kick off here, but it’s coming, you can be sure of that.

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