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 the story
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.
A National Genius
The same rich ethnic cocktail that formed Brazilian society from African, European and Indian ingredients underlies a national genius for music, and a bewildering variety of rhythms, melodies and regional genres. Everyone’s seen clips of the orgiastic music-making of Carnaval (along with other forms of orgiastic activity), but music is an all-year backdrop to life in Brazil.
Hop into a taxi in any Brazilian city and you weave your way through the traffic to the sound of distorted but foot-tapping music pounding through tattered speakers – the beat will be different, depending on the city. Walk into a bar at the weekend, or head for the beach, and you’ll run into ordinary Brazilians making often extraordinary music.
Instruments help but aren’t essential: match-boxes shake to a syncopated beat, forks tap against glasses, and palms slap on thighs or tabletops – and that’s all that’s required. This is a country that has had a significant recording industry since the 1920s, where musicians are called artistas and draw audiences from the whole population rather than mainly the young, and where some of the most innovative writing in the language occurs in song lyrics: Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarqueare known throughout the Portuguese-speaking world as great writers as well as musicians.
Some MPB Geography
Música popular brasileira, habitually shortened to MPB, is the catch-all term Brazilians use for Brazilian music in general. It first cropped up in the 1930s, when the growth of a national radio network made it possible for musicians to build up a national audience, and it still refers to the elite corps of nationally – and often internationally – famous artistas whose records are available everywhere. But underlying modern MPB, as it has done ever since the term was coined, is a rich tradition of regional music-making, and it’s in these regional centres that musicians cut their teeth and start to experiment with other musical influences, from elsewhere in Brazil and abroad. It’s the regional variety of Brazilian music that explains its remarkable capacity to produce exciting new sounds, since there are so many genres to pick and mix with outside influences that the permutations are almost endless.
On any musical map of Brazil, Rio figures large, especially historically: it was here that choro, the precursor to samba, developed in the nineteenth century, and in the city’s favela slums that samba began to develop around the time of World War I. But viewed from inside Brazil, Rio is only one of a number of musical centres. The city of Salvador de Bahia, six hundred kilometres north, has produced as many MPB stars as Rio, and with its unique blend of African and Brazilian influences – not to mention the most musically inventive Carnaval of any Brazilian city – it now has a strong claim to be the music capital of the country. Then there is Recife, which lies at the centre of another hotbed of genres that Brazilians lump together under the heading of música nordestina, northeastern music.
Further north and you hit eastern Amazonia, famous for burning rain forests but also – and not a lot of people know this – for lambada, which started out as a souped-up variant of carimbó, the dance music of Belém, a city with its own regional genres but also strongly influenced by the Guyanese and French Guianan rhythms available on the radio dial. Go deeper into Amazonia and you hit the heartland of boi, a once obscure brand of folk music from central Amazonia recently popularised by an astutely marketed annual festival in the river town of Parintins, and now a national craze. Even São Paulo, long derided by non-Paulistanos as a musical desert, has in recent years become home to a thriving rock and punk scene.
It was in a downtown Rio bairro known as ‘Little Africa’ that samba began in the early years of this century. This was a quarter where ex-slaves and the few black bourgeois lived from the eighteenth century on, their numbers steadily reinforced by contingents from the hillside favelas that were already a feature of Rio’s landscape. Samba, here, started as Carnaval music and horrified Rio’s established (and white) society: it was lewd, loud, the drums were too African, and so the police regularly raided the area to arrest sambistas.
There’s nothing of the bairro left today: it was swept away by the docks and warehouses of Rio’s port as it was expanded in the 1920s. The beaches from where poor blacks set out on Sundays for day trips to the islands in Guanabara Bay are long since filled in: where the wharfs stand is where Carnaval as we know it today began, as the returning day-trippers, well-oiled, danced and sang and formed the embryonic, informal music groups that a couple of decades later would evolve into Escolas de samba (samba schools), the highly organised neighbourhood associations that parade in the modern Carnaval.
Why schools? Before he died in 1975, Ismael Silva, a great sambista who was born at the same time as samba, explained: “The sambistas used to rehearse in an empty lot near a teachers’ college, and people always said, that’s where the professors come from. But nobody knew more about samba than us. People started joking, no, this is where the professors come from. That’s how the idea of a samba school came about.”
Even before samba there was choro, literally ‘crying, sobbing’. The original Carnaval music, it still survives today as live music, not just on dusty records, some 120 years after it surfaced. It is mainly instrumental, played by a small combo that might include a flute, a guitar, a cavaquinho – a miniature guitar introduced to Brazil by the Portuguese – and a clarinet.
With its roots in European salon music and Portuguese fado, choro is generally through-composed with little space for improvisation in its original form. Probably the most influential composer of choros was Pixinguinha, (1898–1973), whose classic “Lamento” is still played. Choro was also one of the primary inspirations of the great Brazilian classical music composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959), who spent his formative years playing cello and guitar in choro bands in Rio’s cafés, on street corners and at parties.
Choro is in some ways the opposite of samba, as quiet and private as samba is loud and public. You come across it most often these days as background music in stylish bars in the big cities of southern Brazil. It is currently undergoing something of a revival after decades of neglect, largely thanks to the well-known sambista Paulinho da Viola, who has been arguing for a return to Brazilian roots and including a choro or two on all his recent records, most notably the self-explanatory “Chorando”. Several choro bars have sprung up in recent years in Lapa, one of the oldest and most traditional nightlife areas in central Rio, as choro recolonises its old haunts. One of the best choro groups, Os Ingênuos from Salvador de Bahia, recorded in the mid-1990s by Nimbus, gives a good introduction to the choro style and its diverse solo instruments: the seven-string guitar (an extra bass string brings out the highly mobile bass lines), cavaquinho, trumpet, trombone and soprano