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by Cam Patterson
Brazil Project 1 (2011-06-08):
I mentioned way back when about this year's summer listening project. Basically, I'm focusing on salsa downstairs (family area) and Brazilian music upstairs (upstairs meaning my little office/man cave). The salsa project is going slower than anticipated, in part because my girls just want to listen to Celia Cruz over and over (nothing wrong with that), in part because I'm struggling with the genre. Not for the reasons Xgau cites -- like a lot of dance-oriented music I find that what is dynamic on the dance floor can be tough to differentiate in more reflective moments. But I'm beginning to draw some conclusions RE Project Brazil, and I thought some of you might be interested.
Project Brazil was catalyzed by Xgau's Tom Zé columns at MSN and B&N. I've loved Zé and knew something about tropicalia (which has kitschy connotations to me), but beyond that was in dire need of a primer. My first step was to figure out what preceded tropicalia in Brazil. Much of which was not art but politics -- a crackdown not quite comparable to Eastern Europe, an intellectual reaction as rigorous as the situationists or the Plastic People of the Universe (and combining elements of both). And overlapping that schism rode the Bossa Nova. It's no coincidence that Bossa Nova means (something like) "New Wave," yet in spite of its prole origins there is no doubt that the bossa nova always conjured a sense of blandness to my inner rock and roller. No doubt this has a lot to do with the fact that the sophistication of bossa nova is more harmonic than rhythmic, plus it can tend toward the mellow.
Serendipitously, Soul Jazz released two bossa nova comps last year that have been illuminating and at times energizing. Bossa Nova and the Rise of Brazilian Music in the 1960s is a straight 2-CD primer and covers the breadth of the genre with helpful notes -- I imagine this is as good a place as any to start. However, I like the other Soul Jazz comp even better: Brazil Bossa Beat! Bossa Nova and the Story of Elenco Records covers the quintessential bossa label/studio -- think Studio One in Jamaica as the analogy. More muscular overall than the first comp and far more unified, this is where I'll go when I want more. You'll hear the roots of a lot of Tom Zé's harmonic delirium in these tracks, plus harder rhythms than I get elsewhere -- Edu Lobo, I've got to find out more about this guy -- and rarely does this comp delve into the merely calm. This would be what I would play to try to convince someone about the bossa nova.
The seminal single album of bossa nova is undoubtedly Joao Gilberto's Chega de Saudade (Xgau was kind enough to explicate "saudade" in his review of the Jon Langford book project.) When I was growing up, everyone's parents had a copy of Sinatra's Only the Lonely and that Herb Albert LP with the whipped cream and maybe the soundtrack to The Sound of Music. Chega de Saudade would kind of fall into that category. It's a classic, but I prefer a Gilberto comp called O Mito, which includes virtually all of Saudade among 38 tracks. Stretching things out actually works to the benefit of music of such subtle distinction. This issuperlative chill out music -- think Nick Drake or Thurston Moore's new one. (One side note to this bossa nova trek: Sinatra/Jobim: The Complete Reprise Recordings. Caveat that I've got only passing knowledge of Reprise-era Sinatra and Alex Chilton whomped the crap out of Ol' Blue Eyes on "Girl From Ipanema." But this holds up really well: "Off Key" and "I Concentrate on You" are worth coming back for. Ella Fitzgerald has a bossa nova album too that I haven't checked out.)
Brazil Project 2 (2011-07-24):
Having listened to enough bossa nova to understand why I would listen to it and why I would not listen to a lot of it (as mentioned last time, key finds were: Soul Jazz Records' recent Brazil Bossa Beat! and Joao Gilberto's O Mito if you can find it. If not try [link]); the next stop is tropicalia and the late '60s transitional pop era. For my purposes here, I am going to define Tropicalia with a big "T" as music recorded during the late '60s, and I'll be talking more about artists like Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and Tom Zé -- musicians at ground zero of the Tropicalia movement who have recorded extensively since then -- in subsequent episodes, focusing here solely on their 60s work.
For years I've had an aural image of Tropicalia as a kitschy idea, and after some reflection I think this misperception comes from my first experiences with the era: Luaka Bop's Os Mutantes best of (more below) and Hip-O's Tropicalia Essentials, the latter recommended by Xgau in 1999. Tropicalia Essentials draws on the campy aspects of this incestuous musical community and is in retrospect clearly an incomplete story. Soul Jazz's Tropicalia comp is a (still biased) improvement. It's release date is 2005, so although half a dozen songs stacked toward the beginning repeat from Essentials, we've now got a more avant-garde undertone and Tom Zé is prominently featured, whereas he goes unmentioned on the Hip-O comp. Great liner notes and a brief interview with Zé add value to the as-usual thorough Soul Jazz package. Beleza Tropical (Luaka Bop) is yet another comp, David Byrne-curated (he curates things, rather than compiles them, do I have that correct?) and spanning more years, it suffers in utility as a result.
But the multiartist LP I love the most is Tropicalia (Ou Panis et Circencis), which the whole crew put out themselves on Polydor in 1968. This is where the essential nature of the Tropicalistas is revealed to me: Politicized theater brats. (Q: And the dictatorship ended when? Sergio Dias of Os Mutantes in 2005: It didn't end. Who said it ended?) On this Tropicalia the campiness is pushed into the backround, replaced instead by popminstrelry, ensemble work (Os Mutantes backs everyone), and a show tune ethic. Zé is working behind the scenes here, but the skronkiness that is highlighted on Tropicalia Essentials is muted, allowing the exuberance and a shared mission to shine through. Allow me to suggest this is a Brazilian Forever Changes that exchanges politics for schizophrenia, and yes I absolutely adore it. [Link].
Os Mutantes themselves are nearly as well known as Tom Zé among contemporary North American dilettantes of Brazilophilia (Kurt Cobain may be responsible for this, his recommendation here much better than his promotion of the Shaggs but worse than his support for the Raincoats), but Os Mutantes really is at least 3 different bands. They are an omnipresent backing trio for the solo work of Veloso, Gil, probably Zé sometimes, and others during this period, displaying chops and a sensibleness that rarely carries over to their own recordings. Their first two albums are called Os Mutantes and Mutantes (which reflects a curious trend among the Tropicalistas for releasing serial self-titled LPs -- you have to be very careful that you have what you think you have). These two records have plenty of high points but are a ragged mess, the epitome of stoner rock. After the transitional Technicolor, which is recommended by some but seems rather effete to me, they turned into a full-on prog band through the mid-70s. Luaka Bop's Os Mutantes: Everything Is Possible picks from the whole damn Os Mutantes enterprise but it is still the best way I've found to hear the high points of their earlier recordings. Yes it is kitschy, and also heavy (an adjective I'd not choose to describe any other aspect of the Tropicalia oeuvre), but this collection reveals a wildly inventive band when they are grounded and a source for the space age blipwork that Stereolab honed to a fine point.
Among the individual artists of Tropicalia, some weeding out is necessary. I'll have a lot more to say about Gilberto Gil later; in many ways he is the most challenging and frustrating Brazilian artist I've encountered in this project. His 60s albums that I've tried, Frevo Rasgado and Cerebro Eletronico (now available on one CD as Sound of Revolution 1968-1969) highlight his exuberant melodicism well, but I'm not sure that this is the best way to hear Gil: neither of these albums rise to the level of his best mid-70s long players. Likewise, Tom Zé's Grande Liquidacao (his only solo album of the 60's, I believe) makes plain that his idiosyncratic rhythmic sense stands him apart from most of his contemporaries and that his sprightliness has been there from the get-go (one song title translates as "Catechism Toothpaste and I," another begins with a free-jazz rendition of "God Bless America"). But the wackiness can be more off-putting than endearing over the course of 11 tracks. There is an enormous step-up of his solo work as he enters the '70s.
I do have a couple of single artist treasures from this era though. Jorge Ben is probably the biggest selling Brazilian pop artist of all time, but for purposes of the discussion here I should note that more than anyone else he brought African musical culture to the Tropicalia movement, which was Rockist first and foremost. He is more consistently rhythmic than other members of the Tropicalia clan, but since his rhythm is usually a samba he's got a docile groove (compare with Zé's Grande Liquidacao to highlight this distinction). Add to that probably the best voice in Tropicalia, a spectacular acoustic guitar style, add a soupcon of mid-period Beatles, and hey what's not to like? I've listened to several of his late 60's recordings and I'll agree with anyone who thinks O Bidu (Silencio No Brooklyn) is the best. Think dancing on the beach with your honey and you'll have the right idea.
Better still, probably my favorite Tropicalia recording of all, is Caetano Veloso's self-titled White Album (Philips 1969). There's more to be said about Veloso, who seems part shaman and part prophet, but this is everything I want in Tropicalia. It rips up song structures yet still flows from beginning to end. It has its hippy moments (especially the English language songs), but each of those nonetheless brings something special to the finish line. His "adaption, arranged by C.V." is a Woodie Guthrie cut-up. He writes his own. He covers Gilberto Gil and Fernando Lobo (Edu Lobo's father). He sings "Irene," perhaps the most beautiful Brazilian song I know. This is the kind of album that makes these sonic adventures worthwhile. [Link]
Coming up next week, I hope: Tom Zé's 70's albums.
Brazil Project 3 (2011-07-30):
Brazil Project Part 3: Tom Zé. Given all the excitement about Zé's NYC show, I thought it would be timely to share this now.
I think I've now listened to the vast majority (if not all) of Tom Zé's recording under his own name prior to the Luaka Bop era. I've already mentioned Zé's contributions to the Tropicalia movement and I've pointed out that his (I think) first album, Grande Liquidacao, displays a lot of manic intensity, but ultimately wears a bit on the ears.
After that, I'm not sure what happened with Zé but his next move was a retreat. Tom Zé, released in 1970 (and included almost en totale on a quirky reissue called 20 Preferides, along with some key singles and part of the much later Nave Maria) lacks both personality and spunk. Zé was obviously still up to something, because key singles during this period (including the prescient "Jimmy, Rende-Se" from 1971, included on the Soul Jazz Tropicalia comp) explore crazy rhythms galore. The album itself, not so much.
The next one, another Tom Zé album later reissued as Se O Caso E Chorar (1972), is a major step toward the exploration of big musical ideas that dominated later era Zé recordings. "Jimmy Rende-Se" is revisited here as "Dor e Dor," not the first or last time Zé has had the good sense to repeat a great riff, in this case a headhunting bass lick. The record only occasionally hits such heights elsewhere, but it has a delightfully whimsical groove throughout and this is the first indication that Zé is a major artist in the making.
Todos os Olhos is something else. In addition to having what may be the greatest cover art of all time, this is where Zé writes his own rules. Some of the ideas here are so great that he'll reuse them decades later. A collision and synthesis of Brazilian music styles. A musical food court. David Byrne would take several songs off this album for his Zé compilation, but the whole thing has to be heard. This is an album to fall in love with, Zé's first masterpiece.
The next step from here was Zé's first homage, Estudando O Samba, which was essentially reissued in toto on the Byrne comp. Gorgeous from beginning to end, I'm not sure now why it needed to be messed with. This is the Tom Zé statement of purpose -- synthetic of old and new, creative and respectful. It's staggering to thing that almost all of the first Zé Luaka Bop record was released on this single album in 1976.
1978 saw the release of Correio da Estação do Brás. At one level a step back in the direction of understatement, classics like "La Vem Cuica" are comfort food for the ear. I love that Zé doesn't seem to be trying so hard here.
Finally, in 1984, Zé released Nave Maria. The MTV keybs datestamp the album, which explores many themes that are revisited on The Hips of Tradition. But let's admit it, either time or David Byrne had a lot to do with the genius of Hips. There is a cloying nature to Nave Maria that is hard to get beyond, as great as some of the songs are.
Zé does not seem to have recorded again until 1992's Hips of Tradition. He has a parallel recording career to the American releases since then that I have not yet delved into deeply. Among his early albums I'd rank them:
1-4 are all recommended (I consider 1 and 2 and maybe 3 classics), and fortunately they are available digitally on two-fer packages. Even better, I hope you will agree, is my best effort at synthesizing all of this music into a single disc. I've intentionally omitted anything from the Luaka Bop reissue and have tried to create a more faithful sense of what Zé sounded like before his rediscovery. I like that this sounds less "downtown" than Byrne wants him to be. This shines a light on the "other side" of Zé that is, in my opinion, equally masterful and deserving of attention.
Here you go: [link]
Brazil Project 4 (2011-08-05):
I knew nothing about Edu Lobo until I ran into some tracks of his on the bossa nova comps I tuned into this summer. Really glad I did. The son of a highly regarded Brazilian composer, he's a classically styled singer/songwriter who's career spanned both sides of the late 60's Tropicalia surge, though he wasn't really a part of that at all. Patrick thumbed him up, and gave us a quote comparing some of his 70's work to Brian Ferry. I can hear that, although he strikes me as calm and confident rather than affected -- I almost went with Tony Bennett myself.
But then I noted that his records were consistent and full of subtle distinctions, like Leonard Cohen or, I don't know, maybe Ladysmith Black Mambazo. There was a time in my life when Leonard Cohen records were kind of interchangeable, and for right now I think one Edu Lobo record would probably work for me. My appreciation for Cohen broadened over time as I bought into each of his mood shifts and lyrical diversions. So I wouldn't be surprised one day to find that if someone took away any one of my Edu Lobo records, I'd sit down on a divan against the wall of a sleepy café, pouring Persian chay from a samovar and wondering where did my record go and why did it take part of my soul with it.
Edu e Bethena. An Elenco reissue, recorded in 1966 and georgeously remastered with excellent sound, this is a trad bossa nova in style, although the Elenco studio machine shakes up the tracks to reduce the repetition quotient close to zero. Lobo takes all the writing credits and for such a young kid he's got a rich stylized bel canto thing going already. He's paired up here with Maria Bethania, Caetano Veloso's sister, and her throaty delivery adds to the tonal palate and sexiness. (Side note: much to my displeasure, the rest of the Bethania I've tried -- including the oft-cited Alibi -- walks too far on the schlock side of the tracks for me, so sad for such a husky, emotive voice.) More wood block! I bet Arto Lindsay knows "Pra Dizer Adeus" by heart. Think formal, elegant, like horses in military formation breaking into a canter periodically.
Minha Historia. This is a compilation from a recommended series on Polygram that explores mostly late '60s tracks with minimal overlap with Edu e Bethena. A reasonable substitute, and I imagine someone who knew Lobo at the time would like having what I suspect are the "hits." However, like most comps it looses the groove that a stylized artist like Lobo thrives on.
Cantiga De Longe. He really breaks out here. He's still a bossa nova guy, but this time with Sinatra's confidence and Nillson's songfulness. He gets all the girls. There isn't a touch of the fusion or prog that creeps into his later recordings, so if that turns you off then this is gonna be manna from heaven.
Edu Lobo (or Missa Breve). Lobo goes over the edge on the first side of this one, into a realm of Brazilian music I've never heard repeated. He creates a confident swirling sensation where each moment tops the next with surprising changes in tempo, rhythm, and mood, only intermittently touched by baroque effects that seem proggy. If I compared it to anything recent it would be the new TVOTR. The second half takes a different path, exploring Catholic musical and lyrical themes. I have complicated feelings about this. Your mileage may differ from mine.
Limite Das Aquas. Ever wonder where "So Fresh So Clean" got its hook? Breezy, sometimes pulsing and long on instrumental passages, this moves into areas that bands like Phoenix now occupy. The touches of fusion are most apparent here, but I wouldn't let that dissuade you. I'd call this his song cycle, and it's elegantly constructed and probably his most melodious.
For me it's going to be Cantiga De Longe for the time being, although I can go for the first half of Missa Breve anytime and Edu e Bethena is as good as 60's bossa nova gets in my little world. Dive in here somewhere though.
Brazil Project 5 (2011-08-21):
There are few musical crimes less forgivable than writing the Sergio Mendes atrocity "Mas Que Nada" or the melody for "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" Only, Jorge Ben's original version of "Mas Que Nada" is a cultural landmark, and "Taj Mahal" (the song Rod Stewart ultimately admitted to ripping off) is one among many helter-skelter rhythm machines that populate his world music-historical Africa Brasil album. How does Ben (later Ben Jour, reputedly to keep George Benson from taking home Ben's royalties) atone himself for these crimes? By getting Rod Stewart to donate the "Sexy" royalties to UNICEF, that's how.
Ben the teenager quickly made two huge contributions to Brazilian pop music, writing "Mas Que Nada" and subverting Joao Gilberto's bossa nova guitar style by taking out some of the tricky chord changes and adding more bass, polyrhythm, and above all propulsion to create um novo som. In retrospect his instrumental innovation was a key intermediary step without which the loafer-gazing bossa nova style never could have evolved to the danceable format known expansively and generically as MPB. His O Bidu -- Silencio No Brooklin came out in the middle of the late '60s Tropicalia phenomenon but was far more groovalicious than its peer chaos-provoking recordings. (I've already highly recommended this lovely record, which is available on iTunes.) If you want to go deeper, check out the revved up 1969 Jorge Ben with its luscious cartoon cover, or go whole hog with the infamous (and equally scarce/crazy expensive) four-CD Series Grande Nome box set, which covers 60s-era Ben exhaustively. I've listened to it several times without pain. Everyone needs a 3-hour head massage once in a while.
The rest of the Tropicalistas struggled with what to do about their (literally) rebellious tendencies as the 70s happened; Ben by contrast was laser-focused on the post-bossa funk-samba gumbo that electricity and his rhythmic innovations made possible. Only Edu Lobo (who took a completely different approach) matched Ben among popular Brazilian musicians for consistency and quality at the long player level during this period. Ben's Negro E Lindo is transitional, Gil E Jorge (a one-off with Gilberto Gil and the only slice of the Ben cannon to get props from Xgau) is an acoustic rhythm-fest, Salta O Pavao (with a Byzantine cover, available for download on iTunes) is the fruition of Ben's new jam, and the Serie Sen Limite compilation (Universal) contains 30 tracks that craft the arc of 70's-era Ben well. (The 19-track Definitive Collection on Wrasse covers the same ground.) This is music that deserves a deep dive: A 4-CD compilation from this era, if it existed, wouldn't be a head massage, it would be an all-night clothes-optional beach party.
But among all his music during Ben's wonderful streak on Phillips, the great game-changer is still-in-print Africa Brasil. The first track, "Panta De Lanca Africano," is a pancultural musical cartography that wouldn't be out of place on Dr. John's Gris Gris. There is the sense of moving forward in this music, in terms of defining how funk works in a Brazilian context, but also of expansiveness in an African direction. The album closes with two of the most barn-burning African-American tracks I can think of: "Cavaleiro Do Cavalo Imaculado" and "Africa Brasil" itself. Ben was one of the first musicians from the Western Hemisphere who consciously connected with modern African music at a textbook rhythmic level. It's no coincidence that he later collaborated with King Sunny Ade nor that he among all the many Brazilian musicians was tapped to participate in the Red, Hot & Riot Fela homage. Africa Brasil is the roadmap for on ongoing transcontinental musical journey, and its Rod Stewart associations have somehow diminished its cultural importance.
Starting in the late 70s or so, most of Ben's contemporaries moved in what I can only describe as a schlocky direction -- that pre-VHS soft-porn sound that you will recognize as soon as you hear it. My assumption going into this exercise was that Jorge Ben, as a groove artist foremost, would have been the first to take that route. But with his migration to the Globo label (origin of a lot of great Cumbia as well) in the late 70s, he continued being, both musically and lyrically, what he always was: a fun-loving, somewhat self-effacing country kid who adored the beach and the town he came from, treated the ladies respectfully, and looked forward to tomorrow so long as it was going to be just as good as today. He took his Afro-samba sound to the discos with the wonderful Salve Simatia (which is rare) and the even better period compilation Brazilian Hits and Funky Classics (which is easy to find). I'd compare BHFC to Bad Girls in terms of groove and muscularity but with the nuance of Ben's tricked up rhythms to counter Summer's incrementally stronger vocals.
But phhhht to all this. Continuing to expect the worst, I popped in a late 80s-early 90s Ben comp that documented his recordings for Warner, E-Collection. It's a grab-and-growl, internally redundant 2-disc compilation mixing hits, live versions, and remixes of different flavors. ("Norma Jean"! Ben does house!) Let me say right now that I've rarely had a preconceived notion about artistic decline refuted so quickly and completely as during the first minutes of delving into this era of Ben's career. I am going to be clear: Jorge Ben is a funk master and I am an ignorant fool. He slows the beat down just a bit from before, he's got a fatter and deeper bass sound working and he knows that we want a wack hook (one two three, are you sure that more is not better?) served up with every single jam. Why isn't everyone talking about this? Ben isn't breaking a sweat, even if he's always on the verge of it. Gap Band-fun. Funky fresh. Subtly unself-conscious and loose. Never, ever saccharine. Seriously, why isn't everybody talking about this? E-Collection goes for a zillion dollars on Amazon. Since this era of Ben is so poorly documented, here is how I would represent this wonderful music to fit on one CD: [link].
Tom Zé is a great artist because he is the ultimate deconstructor of Brazilian music. He pulled Brazilian pop music apart into individual pieces, each of which he burnished with a deft magic that is completely anarchic and individualistic. But Tom Zé would not exist without a perfect foil, which is Jorge Ben. The question of greater artistry can be debated, but Ben's influence on Brazilian music is far, far greater than Zé's. Rod Stewart is somewhere in a mansion attesting to Ben's mastery as a songwriter, and Ben the innovator gets credit both for the early 60s reconstruction of Bossa Nova rhythm into a danceable feast and the 70s creation of the Afro-Samba funk sound. But his artistic coup de grace is the malleable funk of a thousand years (or at least three decades) that he has blessed us with, wearing sunglasses, a smile, good humor, and a conviction that we will all funk tomorrow too.
Brazil Project 6 (2011-08-28):
Female vocalists, musicians, and producers have always been a part of Brazilian popular music. The Tropicalistas were integrated in all directions: Os Mutantes were boy-girl-boy, and Gal Costa was just about everywhere that Caetano Veloso was in those days. I say all this to confess that I was nervous for awhile about spending most of my time listening to and talking about not women in this experiment.
I tried. Maria Bethania (Veloso's sister) did a lovely turn with Edu Lobo (Edu E Bethania) for Elenco in 1966, but I found her subsequent work (including the highly regarded Alibi, one of the best selling Brazilian albums of all time) too syrupy to do anything but distract from her rich mezzo-soprano. Gal Costa I completely failed to connect with: I gave up after Fatal: A Todo Vapor, which sounds to me like what would have happened if Grace Slick had killed Marty Balin and fled to a South American jungle to sing Paul Kantner songs. (India has got a great cover though, so she has that going for her.) Elis Regina is gorgeously throated but oh so cabaret, notwithstanding Elis Regina In London (which has got a The Look of Love thing going).
My sweating went from cold to warm when I found Marisa Monte. Monte sings like every moment is a summer sunset. She has training in the opera but this is not obvious -- she's more comfortable (and in fact better) singing in a whisper than in the upper decibel range. Monte also grew up in a deeply musical family (her father is an important figure in the old-school Rio samba scene), and her sense of the traditional is a perfect counterpoint to the avant-garde tendencies of many of her collaborators. I doubt Kanye could bust out a delta blues song without sounding like a clown, but Monte can pull off a comparable sort of thing without evoking the question: "Wha?"
(Side note: I just realized that cheesy synth keybs are the brass tuttis of MPB. Monte already knew this.)
Beginning in the late '80s Monte relocated to Italy and hooked up with Nelson Motta, a pivotal figure in the bossa nova and MPB worlds (he collaborated with Edu Lobo and produced a number of mostly female pop singers). Monte also somehow developed a professional relationship with Arto Lindsay, who has produced several of her best albums. The first Lindsay production, Mais, uses traditional instrumental styles to keep the "downtown" sound of her sidemen (including Marc Ribot and John Zorn) at bay. (Bernie Worrell fights off the cheesy synths all by himself.) Released in 1991, this record stands out amid the dregs of so much MPB of that era -- Monte is classy and swaggeringly self-confident, a nice trick.
Even better is Rose and Charcoal, another Arto Lindsay production. The trad flourishes of Mais are deemphasized here to make way for lush life instrumentation (including Gilberto Gil playing guitar on a lovely Jorge Ben tune) that suits the music well, not ever getting cloying. The songwriting is a noticeable step up from Mais, so much so that the lyrics get English translations (with chord changes!) on the lyric sheets and the Lou Reed cover is a letdown. This record sold 1.2 million copies in Brazil. Let me say that again: Arto Lindsay produced an album that sold over a million copies. DNA!
The third Monte record that stands out to me is Universo Ao Meu
Redor ("The Universe Around Me"). This is a luscious self-produced
modernization of early samba. David Byrne probably helped out in some
way (the dismaying cover?) but his vocal contributions get in the way
of a passionate resurrection of early 20th century Brazilian popular
music. This is far more subtle than Rose and
It would be a shame to underemphasize the breadth of contributions that Marisa Monte has made to Brazilian popular music as a singer, songwriter, producer, and executive. It's difficult to think about a North American artist to compare her to. Smokey Robinson, maybe, but that doesn't capture her immersion in the history of pop music in her country. Among her production credits, Joe Sixpack shouts out for the hey-man-let's-get-the-band-back-together Tudo Azul by Velha Guarda Da Portela, which is historic Rio samba, no more and no less. It's a wonderful homage to the music and the people that Monte must have grown up around, and the best example that I can find of why samba is a seductively listenable and danceable musical style. It beats by a long shot the Luaka Bop compilation O Samba, which has some lovely songs but no sense of connectedness. Tudo Azul is a communal effort in the best possible way.
And there is still one thing that I haven't told you about: Tribalistas. A tribute to the Tropicalistas Gil, Veloso, Costa, and Bethania, who called themselves Doce Barbaros, Tribalistas is a collaboration between Monte, Arnaldo Antunes (who also showed up on Tom Zé's Fabrication Defect), and percussionist Carlinhos Brown. I'm not at all sure what was the intention of their eponymously titled one off (whose cover was appropriately created from chocolate), but the effect is of casually confident musicians singing lullabies around a fire on Ipanema after dark, with acoustic guitars and timbals and breaking waves for accompaniment. In song after lovely song, these three gel their voices together in a way that is repetitively breathtaking: close baritone harmonies by the male voices with Monte coming in on top. Spontaneous, intuitive, natural. I don't want to say anything else about this remarkable recording. I'm glad they didn't try to do it again -- it would only have been a let down.
Brazil Project 7 (2011-09-04):
On June 27th, 1987, well after midnight, I put on Gilberto Gil's Um Banda Um for the first time while studying for Part I of my medicine boards. (Janis Joplin's Pearl preceded.) And for the next four and a half minutes I sat slack-jawed at the delirious title tune that opens the album. I've played that song, which epitomizes everything that is swell about Gil, to dozens of people. Not one has been unpersuaded by its jouissance.
Gil is the Everywhere Man of Brazilian pop music. He's the fellow who's always ready to play, who's always got a song to show you or a new guitar lick to trot out. He was seemingly the glue of the Tropicalia movement as a songwriter, backup musician, and featured artist, and this musical bonhomie extends throughout his career: The challenge is to name a major Brazilian artist who has not collaborated with Gil.
This fervor is just one ingredient in Gil's musical feijoada. Add to that: Gil has an exhaustive facility with Brazilian songforms and effortlessly juxtaposes bossa nova, samba, and MPB elements (often within the same song). He is a vocal stylist rather than a belter, frequently using phonic syncopation, but he never comes across as a technical singer. And he is perhaps the best acoustic guitar player in all of Brazilian pop music, tapping into a chordal approach that draws heavily on early bossa nova principles even in the most pop-oriented contexts (and highlighted nowhere better than his acoustic jam session with that other Brazilian saint, Jorge Ben). Did I mention that he is up up up through all of this?
So am I being déclassé when I say that Um Banda Um is a misleading introduction to this fecund artist? Because among many very good albums (Beefheartian Expresso 2222, rococo Refazenda, and retro Eu Tu Eles being my faves) and delightful collaborations (the Jorge Ben collaboration is a wake up moment, but he's played with everybody), there are more than enough mediocre-at-best albums. Plus also the sticky truism you hear from the cognoscenti that the great Brazilian artists of the 60's all lost their musical integrity around 1978 or so. And as I've become slightly less emotional about it, I realize that Um Banda Um itself is a very good album with one unbelievably great song on it, rather than the through-and-through classic I've longed for.
So Gilberto Gil has never made a great album. But that doesn't diminish his stature as one of the most influential Brazilian musicians of the last 50 years. Even his failures can be glorious earfucks. A case in point is 1971's Gilberto Gil, which is a hippy dippy lovefest with odes to mushrooms and whatnot. Only it's also a rumination on his political exile: when Steve Winwood sings "Can't Find My Way Home," it's like he's stoned and can't find his car keys, but Gil squeezes a morose resignation at his plight out of the same words. (Plus, a bonus cut of "Sgt. Pepper" done on acoustic guitar has to be heard to be believed.) And yes, there is plenty of great Gilberto Gil from 1980 and beyond, cognoscenti be ****ed.
So until the 4-CD box set that Gil so richly deserves becomes available (Rhino Records, over here!), I can say that any of the albums mentioned above are worth exploring, but compilations might be an even better way to start a Gilberto Gil habit. I've looked carefully at 8 different Gilberto Gil compilations, and it's staggering that once you get past 10 or so of his early hits, it's hard to find overlap among any of them. So if you were me, I'd suggest checking out an early era comp like The Early Years on Wrasse, which is well programmed and has his Tropicalia hits as well as his best known tunes from the early 70s. E-Collection is a 2-CD sampler that culls music Gil recorded for Warners in the 70s, 80s and 90s and is superior to the two To Be Alive Is Good single CD comps that each cover the 80s and 90s in ten-year chunks. And then there is perhaps the best introduction to Gilberto Gil as an established Brazilian pop genius, the perfectly titled The Definitive Gilberto Gil: Bossa, Samba & Pop. Bossa, Samba & Pop (which has no overlap with E-Collection or with the Wrasse disc) highlights Gil the effortless and ebullient syncretic, epitomized by the dissonant skank of "Sala De Som" or the circular guitar figures in "Refazenda." It'll set you back 30 bucks at least though, and we can't have that. [link] If you go with the comps though, keep in mind that you'll never hear "Banda Um," a fate I wouldn't wish on my worst musical enemy.
Brazil Project 8 (2011-09-12):
One thing I'm pretty sure of, Caetano Veloso is the Brazilian artist who gets compared to other musicians the most. In his liner notes to Nonesuch's The Best of Caetano Veloso, David Byrne even gives us a list that includes Bowie, Cole Porter, Lennon/McCartney, Neil Young, and on and on. To his credit, Byrne concludes that this is an exercise in futility, and he's right, the comparisons are futile because Veloso is so utterly archetypal. Yes he flits around from style to style like Bowie, but Veloso is more an innovator than a pop trend dilettante. Yes Veloso is a globetrotting politico just like the lads in U2, but how much time did Bono spend in jail? One could go on. (And of course nobody compares to Dylan -- but hey, Veloso had his performances drowned out in boos too.)
You can also bet that no musician would evoke such comparisons without the charisma that Veloso exudes in extra helpings. His hands are all over the Tropicalia crusade: he and his blood-brother Gilberto Gil dominated the songwriting of this collective; some of the movement's great performances ("Irene"!) are Veloso's; and he managed the rare feat of being center of attention for the whole movement without sucking all the air out of the room. He was the ringleader of the project that reduced this rebellion to vinyl, Tropicalia, released on Polygram in 1968, and his self-titled 1968 and (especially) 1969 albums are Sgt. Pepper-to-White Album high-water marks of this era.
The Brazilian military junta provided the punctuation mark to this first phase of Veloso's career, jailing him (and Gil) and forcing an exile that lasted into the early 70s. Veloso's returned with undimmed enthusiasm and creativity that paradoxically caused problems for me as a distant admirer: He recorded so much stylistically diverse music during the 70s and 80s that I couldn't find a point of entry. My friend Blair helped me through this with a tranche of Veloso albums from this period. It turns out that the trick is to dive in anywhere in the middle and then go left or right: Veloso was moving so quickly during this, his "middle era," that even if you find a recording not to your liking, its predecessors and decedents are going to be so different as to minimize the risk of a strike out.
If there is anything that holds this music together beyond its blossoming evolution, it's the sense that Veloso never tries to hard. Not that he is lazy, but that his music and lyrics come easy, even when they are obviously impassioned. In part this is his fealty to the admittedly somnambulistic bossa nova, but Veloso puts his stamp on the languid Brazilian groove in a way that vacillates between intense sincerity and intense sexuality, a neat trick. So dive in, and allow me to share a few of my own highlights from the dozen or so period recordings I sampled:
Veloso's 90's, and by my scorecard the bracket to his still ongoing third period, began in 1989 with the clamorous Arto Lindsay-produced, delightfully packaged Estrangeiro. (This is also the era in which English language translations become the norm, all for the good given Veloso's penchant for politico-surrealism.) From here on out, Veloso is fearless, avoiding the critiques of softness and repetition that are levied at his peers. Failures such as 2007's modern-music-with-my-kid Ce blow on an audacious scale. Winners, and there are many, are as likely to be cabaret as they are to be skronky, yet he doesn't come across as willful and itinerant in the way that Neil Young, for example, can be. He collaborates with his old bud Gil on the 1993 Tropicalia 2, which does not make the mistake of fondly remembering the past -- these guys get hard again, politically and otherwise. Veloso also updates and improves upon Estrangeiro with 1998's Livro's samba at the vanguard, his best studio recording of the past two decades.
And then there are the live albums. Evidently Brazilians love live albums, because there sure are a lot of them. Sometimes these are just marketing moves: It's not at all uncommon for a studio album to be re-released a year later in live form. Veloso does this himself, and Prenda Minha (Hold My Hand, from 1999) is partly in this mold, reprising as it does a chunk of the then-current Livro. But Prenda Minha is also a mission statement of a sort, cataloguing Veloso's detournement of Brazilian pop history sedately in front of attentive, adoring fans without simply doing a greatest hits-live trick.
From a completely different place comes Omaggio A Federico E Guilietta, also live and also released in 1999. This record is unlike anything else in Veloso's oeuvre, or anyone's, really. Intimately recorded in Rimini, Italy, at the bequest of Federico Fellini's heirs, this recording has the feel of Italian villas, salty Adriatic air, and Sangiovese wines. Veloso leads a small acoustic group with cello that fills up a huge ambient space with music that is softly performed but not austere. Intended as an homage to Fellini (who's wife Veloso had already canonized in "Giulietta Masina"), the show is deeply and curiously inspired by the filmmaker, exploring the iconography of his films (clowns!) and the early lessoms Veloso learned from Fellini as an auteur and rebel. Writing credits include Nino Rota, Irving Berlin, and plenty of Velosa, who begs comparisons to Kurt Weill in this context.
If one wanted a quick way to get to know Veloso, I'd suggest two CDs that were released with the exact same cover art. One is Caetano Veloso: The Definitive Collection (Wrasse 2003), a career-spanning hits selection chosen by Veloso himself. This supercedes the previously definitive A Arte De Caetano Veloso, which includes a few too many failed experiments. The aforementioned, slightly improperly titled The Best of Caetano Veloso (Nonesuch 1999) is really more of a sampler of latter era Veloso from albums already mentioned. If you don't want to dive in deeply, these two compilations would be a great place to start. But you'd be missing so, so much. Omaggio A Federico E Guilietta. And the 1969 Caetano Veloso. And Muito. Veloso isn't a peck-on-the-cheek kind of guy. He wants passionate conversation late into the night and then to hold you until daylight comes, if you'll just let him.
Last Part (2011-09-14)
Best of Brazil:
This project didn't begin as something I intended to document in this way, just as a way of immersing myself in music I understood poorly. Let me be clear about one thing: This was a spring training vacation for me. I hope none of the many real writers around here thought I was demeaning their vocation. I tell ya, after messing around with this, it was a real thrill reading Xgau's Gilberto Gil reviews. I was like the hacker who tries to hit one out of the infield during fantasy spring training and then gets to watch Albert Pujols come in and smack the ball all over the field and out of the park.
Thanks to Blair for his help with Caetano Veloso. Thanks to Milo for introducing me to Joe Sixpack, and thanks to Joe for his lovely website of Brazilian music. Thanks to Tom for making me think seriously about this stuff. Thanks to Michael and everyone else for encouragement. Finis.