Published Mar 01, 2000Brazilian music, in the form of samba, bossa nova and tropicalia, has always drawn from and interpreted global sounds. Almost forty years later, the rest of the world is finally holding up its end of the bargain.
For someone who doesn't rate many mentions in world music circles, Beck has been the entry point for a lot of people into Brazilian music. Chameleon (an approving way of saying dilettante) that he is, there's little musical territory where Beck fears to tread. Hence, the velvety, acoustic bossa nova guitar chords on Odelay's "Ramshackle" and affectionate knockoffs like Mutations' "Tropicalia" (named for the genre that inspired it) sly, little teasers dropped without preamble or context, but unmistakably influenced by Brazilian pop.
An artist so stylistically impure may seem a strange conduit for world music, but Brazilian music doesn't hew to the Western ideal of world music as evolving, or remaining forever arrested, along pristine folkways isolated from outside influences. In fact, bossa nova's biggest impact on North American shores was not as world music, but as sophisticated, easy listening pop hits like "The Girl From Ipanema." But bossa nova and its first-generation descendant, tropicalia, are global music in perhaps the truest sense of the term their tradition is one of blending traditions with musical currents outside Brazil. It isn't so remote from Beck's aesthetic of borrowing, his uneasy balance of parody and homage. The biggest difference is that Antonio Carlos Jobim created a singular, identifiable sound when he distilled his Brazilian and American influences into bossa nova.
"I was raised on Jobim, on Astrud Gilberto records I heard all that stuff growing up," Beck recalls. And when his former roommate and current sax player returned from a trip to Brazil ten years ago with a sackful of tapes by a whole galaxy of Brazilian pop stars, his obsession with bossa nova and tropicalia deepened, especially with Jorge Ben, a brilliant blender of American and Brazilian music. As Arto Lindsay puts it, Ben "isolated the funk in the funk here and the funk in the funk there," but his equatorial grooves weren't widely heard outside Brazil until he was featured, along with tropicalia superstars Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa, on David Byrne's landmark Beleza Tropical compilation of 1988.
"When Mellow Gold came out," Beck grins fondly, "people asked me who my favourite singers were, and I'd say George Jones and Jorge Ben, but it's only been in the past couple of years that it would ever get mentioned in the article. It just wasn't on the radar. Jorge Ben writes the most unbelievable melodies. His melodic sense is absolutely unparalleled."
Vinicius Cantuaria has contributed to the recent resurgence of bossa nova in no small way himself with his excellent 1999 album, Tucuma. But he appreciates the added clout a pop cultural juggernaut like Beck wields as an arbiter of cool witness the re-evaluation of jheri-curl funk in the wake of Midnite Vultures when he namechecks Ben, Veloso and Jobim.
"Beck is important because he's a kid who loves the music, and he's big on MTV, and his album, people love it, and he talks about Brazilian music," Cantuaria says from his adopted home of New York. "People say they like my album, but I don't get interviewed in magazines or have a video on MTV, but when Beck talks about Jobim, that's great for Brazilian music."
Beck may be pushing the spread of Brazilian music, but it was never truly confined within Brazilian borders. New Brazilian music created by piling on global sounds. The home-grown culture that spawned bossa nova was the pulsing, polyrhythmic samba itself an amalgam of West African rhythmic traditions, Portuguese song and Native American music. Antonio Carlos Jobim looked north for added inspiration, and his bossa nova was deftly fused with American traditions like cool jazz and Broadway musicals. Tropicalia added the culture and aesthetics of American and British rock to the rhythms and melodies of bossa nova. By the late 80s, North America started holding up its end of the conversation. Paul Simon embraced samba on 1990's The Rhythm of the Saints, and samba animated the boisterous rhythms on Philip Glass's soundtrack for 1988's impressionistic art-house film Powaqqatsi. The influence of Brazilian music was irresistible to musical omnivore David Byrne shortly after launching his series of Brazil Classics compilations, samba and tropicalia started infiltrating his solo work, beginning with 1989's Rei Momo.
And like Burt Bacharach and Henry Mancini, a couple of other 60s songwriters oft-considered high-end cheese mongers, people eventually recognised Antonio Carlos Jobim's songs as some of the most strangely beautiful ever written. Such was Jobim's genius that the wounding beauty of standards like "The Girl From Ipanema" and "Corcovado" is untarnished even after being processed into muzak.
Esquivel got the props, largely because his eccentric persona fit the affected nuttiness of the mid-90s cocktail nation, but space age bachelor pad groups like Stereolab are as indebted to the cool bossa lilt. You may be surprised at how much second-hand bossa nova and tropicalia you've heard. It's in the quiet chords and wistful hooks of Unrest and Air Miami's long-faced pop, for instance. There are plenty of signs from Thievery Corporation to DJ Spooky that DJ culture is wise to bossa grooves. A torrent of compilations span authentic tropicalia rarities to bossa/trip-hop hybrids to Italian funk groups riffing on Brazilian grooves. Money Mark brings his bossa affections to the Beastie Boys and his own solo work, while Brazilians Amon Tobin and Clifford Gilberto add samba and bossa colouring to big beat.
The Japanese have always had a healthily promiscuous interest in a whole spectrum of music, but their relationship to Brazilian pop is peculiarly fervent. There's the frothy soul/post-bossa samba of Soul Bossa Trio, perhaps the most accurate pastiche of 60s Brazilian pop and American soul ever pulled off; UFO's arch, jet-setting bossa grooves; Pizzicato 5's taste for cool 60s sounds; the bed-headed tropidelica of Cibo Matto's latest, Stereo*Type A; and Cornelius's puckish folk-tropicalia musings.
A truly global music, indeed.
Marcel Camus's award-winning 1959 film, Black Orpheus, introduced bossa nova to the world. Antonio Carlos Jobim wrote songs for the score with playwright Vinicius de Moraes, whose retelling of the Orpheus myth perfectly framed Jobim's bittersweet melodies. Bossa nova the new wave sounded a cultural coming of age. Brazil's international image shifted toward something more elegant and worldly than the tempestuous rhythms and bold sensuality of Carnival, and something less tainted by colonialism than Carmen Miranda and her absurd tropical fruit head-dresses.
"Bossa nova connects samba to Portuguese, urban and North American music," says Cantuaria, who happened upon the scene about half a generation after the tropicalists. "Jobim knew Cole Porter, Gershwin, Chet Baker and the cool jazz, and he put all of them in the music. And you must understand the importance of Joao Gilberto and the guitar groove in his music if that doesn't happen, bossa nova doesn't take off in the rest of the world. So you see, Jobim is the great composer, but Joao Gilberto is the great interpreter."
The 1963 version of "The Girl From Ipanema" by Joao and Astrud Gilberto, accompanied by West Coast cool jazz saxophonist Stan Getz, helped to break bossa nova in the brief window before the Beatles began the British reign over the charts. Jobim's peerless melodic sighs, Astrud's melancholy vocals and Joao's gently rippling rhythms had a lot to do with it, but bossa nova also crested during rock's early dark ages when feckless pop and pre-fab teen idols ruled radio. Bossa nova was superior easy listening, and its acoustic sounds worked for a growing folk audience. But it was the American musicians and translated lyrics that really gave the music a foothold in America.
"Stan Getz and [guitarist] Charlie Byrd spearheaded it in America," explains Richard Seidel, a Senior Vice-President of Verve Records, which owns much of the bossa nova catalogue. "Because Getz and Byrd were known quantities here, they could take this music from Brazil and meld it with their own sound and bring it to the rest of the world. [Getz and Byrd's 1963 album] Jazz Samba was the initial breakthrough, and [1964's] Getz/Gilberto vaulted it even higher because of the English lyrics for The Girl From Ipanema' and Corcovado.'"
Bossa nova became a minor craze in the North America: middle class suburbanites learned to "do the bossa nova" to Edie Gorme's "Blame it on the Bossa Nova" after their TV dinners had settled. But bossa nova's impact was felt in more profound ways in Brazil.
"If you take of picture of Brazil in the late 50s and early 60s," says Cantuaria, "you see bossa nova, you see revolution beginning to happen. It took music in different directions. You hear all kinds of samba styles after bossa nova."
The different regions in a country as populous and geographically diverse as Brazil naturally spawn their own musical idioms. In privileged enclaves of Rio, the Portuguese influence and bossa nova's cool sophistication held sway. From the Northeast state of Bahia, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil led the charge of tropicalia, adding to a bossa foundation the rawer, more complex rhythms of the Northeast, where the African roots of samba were more pronounced.
It's comparable to Bob Dylan's celebrated raspberry to folk purists when he picked up an electric guitar at Newport: when Veloso started playing electric guitar, it sent shock waves through Brazil. By the late 60s, the tropicalists fomented their own Velvet Revolution, with gentle melodies and rock and roll hedonism imported from the US and England an iconoclastic movement defiant enough to challenge authority and clever enough to veil its political sentiments in its lyrics. Unfortunately, for the military government, which seized power in a 1964 coup, opening your mouth at all was treasonous in 1968, Veloso and Gil were arrested, and by 1969, they were expelled from the country. Like the oft-exiled (and assassinated) stars of Algerian rai music, the tropicalists' crimes had more to do with lifestyle and attitude than sedition.
"The government clamped down on all forms of expression and lifestyle that might be considered rebellious or hedonistic," explains veteran experimental guitarist Arto Lindsay from New York. "The politics of the tropicalists were coded in their lyrics, but they were definitely more directly political than bossa nova. The show that got a bunch of them arrested had a banner that said, Be marginal, be a hero.' But the tropicalists also set themselves up in opposition to the overtly political music of the students. The students tended to be leftists, and they were concerned with preserving Brazilian authenticity from the cultural imperialism they thought rock and roll represented. But the tropicalists loved Brazil, too, and they didn't want to cut Brazil off from the rest of the world. So they were attacked from both the right and the left."
Lindsay watched the rise of tropicalia from Permambuco, the Brazilian state north of Bahia, where his parents were Presbyterian missionaries from 1956 to 1970.
He believes that the tropicalists' love of American music grew out of Brazil's musical genius for alchemy, creating something indigenous from outside influences.
"The music is both global and native to Brazil, you know what I mean? In America, it's only been recently that we've acknowledged the influence of Africans on our culture, but Brazilians have always seen their country as African, European and indigenous. The US and Brazil are two huge countries where the music of the slaves and the music of the masters blended in interesting ways."
Brazilian music has never ceased speaking with the rest of the world, so why is the world is listening more intently now? The globalisation of popular culture has the inevitably homogenising effect of American mass culture uber alles, but it also means that the rest of the world now hears the rest of the world. When the world's most charismatic sports team, Brazil's national soccer team, captured the global imagination with the last two World Cups, fascination with Brazilian music followed suit. (North Americans en masse finally heard Ben's great post-bossa samba, "Mas Que Nada" - better known as the song from Nike's soccer-team-in-the-airport commercial.") Interest in bossa nova and tropicalia in turn revived interest in the wistful fado music of Portugal and their contemporary kin in Portuguese-speaking outposts like Cape Verde, home to the "Barefoot Diva," Cesaria Evora.
DJ culture, eternally restless for different beats, has made its own response to the call of bossa and tropicalia grooves. And the world could only ignore the consummately menschy Veloso for so long, especially when Veloso continues to make exquisite albums, like last year's Livro. Indeed, for nearly 40 years, the singer-songwriter/poet/author/activist/critic has remained a formidable figure in Brazil approaching Vaclav Havel's level of arts celebrity combined with moral authority.
"There's been a bit of a shift in consciousness," Arto Lindsay says with satisfaction. "Caetano is finally getting the respect he deserves, and that's happening along with people realizing that there's modern life outside the Northern Hemisphere. Brazil is not just rhythms and samba dancers and soccer players."
And on a really basic level, don't discount the timeless appeal of bossa melodies and infectiousness of samba rhythms, two things that continue to benefit Richard Seidel's Verve label.
"Bossa nova has never stopped selling throughout the whole world," says Seidel. "It's as consistent as it gets. Bossa nova is like Coltrane and Miles and Billie Holiday: new fans are continually discovering and rediscovering, and the word of mouth never stops. My guess is that Getz/Gilberto is probably one of the ten most popular jazz albums of all time."
There are also striking similarities to the period when bossa nova enjoyed its first vogue. Popular music seems exhausted. Focus-grouped, pubescent Hilfiger clone groups clog the charts, indie pop is bored senseless, alt-rock faxes it in from some marketing wonk's office, and the punk aesthetic of simplicity has become entwined with boneheaded mookdom and overproduction. All of which leaves a lot of people craving what's been largely lacking in popular music ever since Kurt Cobain nuzzled the gun under his chin: genuine ambivalence and ambiguity. At least that's what Beck loves about bossa nova and tropicalia.
"This music is so perfectly ambiguous and so perfectly combines disparate elements, and that's something I've always tried to do with music," says Beck, waxing passionate. "I think ultimately you can really achieve something that resonates so beautifully and emotionally, and you have this music that's just joyous and open and the melody's beautiful, but the rhythm is really rough and kind of ugly. Or they'll be singing something very uptempo, but it'll be about something very politically charged or there'll be the most gorgeous, melancholy song, and it'll be about a soccer player."
Resolving opposites is Arto Lindsay's approach, too. Besides working as a producer in Brazil with Gal Costa and Veloso, Lindsay's Brazilian upbringing has influenced DNA, the Ambitious Lovers and Golden Palominos, but with 1996's The Subtle Body, Lindsay finally immersed himself in the bossa tradition. Lindsay's most recent, Prize, is possibly his best, and deepens the dialogue between bossa nova, DJ'ed beats and disparate musics.
"Before I made The Subtle Body, I had done some stuff with Ryuichi Sakamoto, and he said he loved my ballad singing, but I didn't feel qualified to do any bossa nova, so I did a bossa nova-referencing album instead. I didn't play very much guitar on that one, but I made Aggregates, which was a much noisier album, at the same time. I suppose I've loosened up in my approach to bossa nova since then," he laughs softly. "But that's the way I've always done things - I've always played two things off each other throughout my career."
When he plays live with Vinicius Cantuaria in New York, Lindsay takes that ethic to another level, and that's part of what Cantuaria relishes about living in New York, where he's also worked with Laurie Anderson and DJ Spooky.
"This is a very exciting time for me," Cantuaria enthuses, almost tripping over the English words before they escape his mouth. "These are all very revolutionary musicians. When I work with Arto, he plays his noise guitar and I try to harmonize with his noise with some bossa nova kind of guitar. You can imagine if I worked with Jobim, it would be fine, but not much different from normal, but Laurie Anderson and these others are totally the opposite of me, and that makes it exciting."
Cantuaria is yet another Brazilian venturing into the world for more influences, and more genre-mixing and global hopping seem to be what's in store, and what's best for Brazilian music. In the tradition of the tropicalists, Cantuaria implies that to be a Brazilian musician is to be global.
"I moved to New York in order to be more Brazilian. In New York, the world atmosphere is so big, it's easy to be Brazilian. But people everywhere are really looking for Brazilian music. People like Beck, you know, they hear the music differently from people in Brazil, and I think that's good because it's modern music and because bossa nova needs help. It needs new influences and new people to make it strong again, because Brazilian music really is a rich world music."
From Soundtracks to Samples: Where to Start Looking
The Black Orpheus soundtrack was the first the world outside Brazil really heard of Antonio Carlos Jobim and his new creation, bossa nova. One of the most exciting things about this soundtrack is hearing bossa nova at an embryonic stage before it became polished, depthlessly melancholy easy listening. Jazz Samba, by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, was the first concerted attempt at domesticating bossa nova for North America without bastardising the complex tone of such Jobim classics as "Desafinado." Getz/Gilberto, though, remains the touchstone no pop collection of any kind should be without its showpiece, "The Girl From Ipanema."
David Byrne can be credited with breaking the current wave of Brazilica. In 1988, he launched his Brazil Classics series with Beleza Tropical, a fabulous who's who of Brazilian pop from the 70s, including Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben, Gal Costa, Chico Buarque and Milton Nascimento. The whole series is worthwhile, but of particular note is the volume devoted to Tom Ze, a Brazilian musician whose influence outstrips his renown. Hard on the heels of Brazil Classics came Byrne's omnibus exploration of tropical grooves, Rei Momo.
Caetano Veloso has the dizzyingly vast discography you'd expect from the single most influential figure in Brazilian music today, but you could do a lot worse than start with his most recent, Livro. Its impressive stylistic sweep and a clutch of utterly gorgeous songs has beautiful melodies playing off tough samba rhythms to elicit the trademark frisson of tropicalia. Now in his mid-50s, Veloso's voice is as tender and resolved as ever. Fittingly, 40-plus years after Black Orpheus opened ears to bossa nova, Veloso's upcoming album is the soundtrack to a remake of Black Orpheus, Orfeu, due out this spring. Vinicius Cantuaria is not as well known as Veloso, but he played with Veloso for eight years and wrote Veloso's first million-seller, "Lua e Estrela." Cantuaria's Tucuma strikes more of a bossa nova stance than what Veloso's been up to lately, but it's no less lovely. Percussionist Carlinhos Brown, one of Brazil's most eccentric and fiery musicians, has also played with Veloso, and shares his elder's taste for the eclectic on Omelete Man, which is less and omelette than a gumbo of Brazilian and global styles.
Of all Veloso's collaborators, none is better known in North America than Arto Lindsay. With The Subtle Body, Lindsay threw the alternative press for a bit of a loop the no wave enfant terrible had made an achingly beautiful bossa album. He deepened the mood further with the aptly named Noon Chill and pulled out all the stops for Prize, one of the most stunning albums of last year. As if to suggest a new way of making and hearing music as the millennium wanes, Prize roots the interplay of tradition and technology in some of Lindsay's most accomplished songwriting.
The mysterious Mr. Bongo label specialises in Brazilian music. Its Batucada Por Favor, featuring the legendary Airto and oft-anthologised Niagara, is probably the best available sampler of batucada, the frenzied cousin of samba that energises Carnaval in the Brazilian Northeast. And don't be fooled by the ironically tacky cover art of the recent compilation, Learn To Play The Bongos With Mr. Bongo. It's more tightly focused on funky soul and samba offshoots than the sprawling Big Noise compilations of the mid-90s, but every bit the instant party. For the same blend of 60s soul and bossa/samba, you can also look to the absurdly accurate and effervescent evocations of Soul Bossa Trio's 1995 debut.
The Red Hot organisation has a fruitful relationship with bossa nova, beginning with Red Hot & Rio, a tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim. Highlights include Everything But The Girl's drum and bass version of "Corcovado," Herbie Mann guesting with Stereolab on "One Note Samba/Surfboard" and David Byrne's duet with Marisa Monte on "Waters of March." Novabossa: Red Hot On Verve goes back to the source with original of Brazilian classics, including the Tamba Trio's version of "Mas Que Nada." And their curiosity piqued by bossa nova, the Red Hot people drafted an all-star line-up of pop stars, Brazilians, DJs and Portuguese luminaries for Red Hot & Lisbon, an intriguing and often striking excursion into Portugal's fado tradition.
Another cousin of bossa nova enjoying the spotlight today is morna, the music of Cape Verde, an archipelago off the coast of Senegal. The Spirit of Cape Verde and Putumayo Records' Cape Verde are both worthy introductions to this deeply melancholy music of doomed romanticism, which not unlike Brazilian music, arose from the encounters between Portuguese colonists and slaves imported from Western Africa. If you have to choose, the Putumayo compilation has the more comprehensive liner notes and somewhat stronger selection. The centrepiece of each, though, is the "Barefoot Diva," Cesaria Evora, whose recently released Best Of is a fine showcase of her formidable voice and bittersweet arrangements.
1998 saw the emergence of one of the most distinctive singers in the world with Caetano Veloso's protégé, Virginia Rodrigues' Sol Negro album. The otherworldly beauty of her alto voice is one of the most singular sounds in the world of music today, and Sol Negro endowed her with great songs that spanned several genres of Brazilian traditions and contemporary pop. Her just-released follow-up, Nos, doesn't have the haunting ballads of its predecessor, being conceived of more as a tribute to the music of her native Bahia, but that voice still carries it a long way.
Central to bossa nova and tropicalia is the undulating groove, which DJ and dance culture have become increasingly fascinated by in a sense, they're simply continuing the ongoing project of bossa nova and tropicalia to reinvent themselves by appropriating styles, aesthetics and techniques from outside. Bossa Cuca Nova bills itself as the first made-in-Brazil bossa remix project, with three DJs reconstructing a handful of bossa classics, while Brasil 2Mil: The Soul of Bass-O-Nova covers the latest grooves arising from the encounters of DJs and bossa nova with results that often veer toward trip hop. Nowhere is that more true than on Suba's Sao Paulo Confessions. Suba was a transplanted Yugoslavian who settle in Sao Paulo, a city better known for its metal scene in the 80s, and became transfixed by the potential of marrying bossa nova and tropicalia with lush studio beats. Suba died in a fire late last year, but not before finishing this beautiful new departure point that one might feel tempted to subtitle Massive Bossa Attack.