Brazilian music is a whole world of its own. It may be best known for samba – the irrepressible rhythm of carnival – but that’s only a fraction of a story that takes in everything from the drum groups of Bahia (where Paul Simon got his inspiration for Rhythms of the Saints), to forró, an accordion-led dance music that is a little like zydeco. David Cleary gets down to the roots and ramifications.
Meu Brasil brasileiro – My Brazilian Brazil, a line from an Ary Barroso song, “Aquarela do Brasil”, sums up the way Brazilian music has long since burst its national boundaries while remaining true to its roots. In the 1940s it was translated into English and sung by Carmen Miranda in one of her first Hollywood films; in the 1980s it gave Terry Gilliam the idea for the film Brazil, where it served as the basis for the soundtrack. Words that were once Portuguese – samba, bossa nova, lambada – have entered the international vocabulary. Brazilian music is World Music in its most literal sense, played across the world, recognised globally, its influence noticeable in the musical output of many other countries from the US to Nigeria.
“Who hasn’t been influenced by Brazil?” said Sérgio Mendes, when asked about Brazil’s impact on American jazz. The top Brazilian stars, like Milton Nascimento and Gilberto Gil, sell out Montreux or Madison Square Gardens as easily as the Canecão in Rio, while luminaries like Paul Simon and David Byrne – and an entire generation of American jazz musicians before them – have made musical pilgrimages to Brazil. And yet, funnily enough, Brazilian music on the World Music scene is like an iceberg: a highly visible tip but with an enormous mass of music and musicians lurking beneath the surface, unknown for the most part abroad.