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The Noise From Brazil

by Carol Cooper

MARCO AURELIO DA SILVA, known as Mazola, sits hunched over the console in one of Rio's top recording studios, waiting for a live horn section to overdub an arrangement on a salsa-influenced dance single. Almost all of Brazil's top-selling artists have had their work produced by Mazola at least once, and mostly by their own choice. By North American standards, he might be described as a cross between Quincy Jones and Tommy LiPuma -- but operating under the socio-economic restrictions of a Third World country.

"If I had done what I've done for various labels in Brazil almost anywhere else, I'd be much better known and far better capitalized," he says. "But of course the only place one can really develop Brazilian music is in Brazil."

The producer's projects have run from the rebellious tropical rock of Rita Lee and the bluesy bossa-nova interpretations of Antonio Carlos Jobim to the omnivorous ethno-pop of Gilberto Gil and the no-wave lunacy of Ney Matogrosso. Limited resources and poor exposure have always been a problem for his music, but Mazola seems to be finding solutions.

In the United States, Mazola alumni have been scooped up by domestic labels for promotion in the jazz, pop and "world beat" markets. Simone, Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque, and Caetano Veloso all currently have American releases. And Mazola himself has begun to be recognized as a resource by American artists. Paul Simon chose him as a guide to native Brazilian rhythms for a post-Graceland experiment in cross-cultural pop. Mazola was also tapped alongside compatriot singer/songwriters Djavan and Gilberto Gil to contribute to last year's Manhattan Transfer album, Brasil.

"I met Paul Simon in the States before he decided to record in Brazil," Mazola says. "When we spoke, I managed to convince him that we could work well together, that I understood what he was looking for, and could expedite recording schedules and contacts with artists. He was looking for fresh, authentic root rhythms. So I put him together with innovative afoxe groups like Olodum, from Bahia."

Afoxe bands are a prominent part of the increasing black African consciousness in Brazil. Traditionally somewhat ambivalent in its acceptance of its African legacy, Brazil contains large numbers of blacks and mulattoes who have kept their cultural traditions and a rich oral literature. The Brazilian talent for absorbing foreign ideas and reinventing them is now manifested in dozens of new or hybridized rhythms coming out of the under-industrialized state of Bahia. Those that have been recorded in the past few years are relatively unadorned: pure drumbeats and vocals. Ironically, like disco-oriented "house" music out of technologically advanced enclaves such as Chicago, New York and London, afoxe songs by traditional Carnival fraternities like Ilé Ayé and Filhos de Gandhi (immortalized in pop songs by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil) make immensely compelling dance music. Like the itinerant samba gatherings known as pagode, which swept out of Rio's black neighborhoods into national notoriety in the eighties, the Bahian afoxe aesthetic has grown over the last decade to influence far more than the yearly Carnival celebrations.

"What we did last year," says Waly Salomeo, a Brazilian of Turkish extraction whose impact on the past 20 years of Brazilian music has been different but no less pervasive than Mazola's, "is to bring the two predominant types of Bahian Carnival music together: the trio electrico, which is considered the more modern tradition of our middle-class neighborhoods, and the blocos afros or afoxes, which is the older, more Africanized tradition." Salomeo, as the acting head of the Gregorio de Matos Foundation, is the civic director of the four days of benevolent madness that overtakes every city street during the pre-Easter celebration of the flesh. When David Byrne came to Bahia last fall seeking locations for his film Aiya, which traces African cultural retentions in the music and lifestyles of Bahia, Salomeo was one of the authorities consulted.

"When we first proposed bringing one of the leading afoxes into a wealthy suburb to play alongside the local electric trio," Salameo continues, "there was a lot of resistance on the part of shop owners and residents. They actually thought the presence of an acoustic afoxe group would attract a 'dangerous element' that would disrupt their normal Carnival revels. In truth, the only problem we had was adjusting the sound system so that the amplified trio band wouldn't drown out the drums and voices of the afoxe.

"We brought the organizers of the two groups together. They had never met each other, even though they are both important community leaders who have presided over large groups and musicians for years. It turned out that they enjoyed each other very much, so the experiment was successful. We want to do it again this year in a few more places to try to increase mutual cooperation across class and racial boundaries."

Neguinho, Olodum's principal composer, stresses that for Olodum, at least, the afoxe is much more than a band, and more than a social club. In addition to their musical enthusiasms, Olodum has a political and civic agenda. "I have been asked many times if we would tour more, or if some other players and I could become the back-up group for this one or that one, which would keep us out of Bahia for months at a time," says Neguinho. "But I say no. The street children that we take in and teach and supervise are more important. It was great to work with Paul Simon, even though we had to sign away our ownership of our contributions once we were paid. Hopefully, our music will be spread and popularized that way. I've already been briefly to Angola and Cuba promoting Olodum's sound and philosophy. But it is the community work we do here that fuels what we are."

The emphasis on Carnival as a focal point for new music is something Americans find hard to understand unless they have experienced how Brazilians react to live music. You won't find many passive listeners at Brazilian concerts. Whether at an appearance of Caetano Veloso at New York's Town Hall, or at an international spectacular like Martinho da Vila's Kizomba Festival in Rio, the audience usually knows and sings all the words. Considered poetry for the masses, pop songs are taken very seriously as an art form. Carnival provides a forum for the performers, and though the styles of party music vary from city to city, every major Brazilian musician has recorded or written Carnival tunes. In the =9170s, when years of dictatorship all but eliminated other avenues of discovery for new songwriters -- fewer festivals, fewer television specials -- Carnival became one of the ways in which artists like Moraes Moreira, Geronimo, and numerous others rose to national prominence.

Several years ago, when the Brazilian government came out against apartheid, the motion gave tremendous impetus to various local liberation and activist movements. South African sounds and rhythms began to be heard in the works of more progressive singers. Portuguese-speaking Mozambique and Angola sent musicians to Brazil who have been widely accepted and used on various Brazilian recordings, in spite of the socialist subtext implicit in such collaborations. Martinho da Vila and Chico Baroque were among the first Brazilian stars to perform and record in Angola. Abel Cabral and the Banda Afra Sound is a group of both Angolan students and Brazilian nationals whose songs are poignant protest material for Third World teenagers. The band's 'Nao Vou, Nao' is an up-tempo bit of Luso-African funk that makes direct reference to the fact that half of Brazil's urban population is trying to leave the country because the economic situation is so untenable. Much as Mazola and Neguinho have already pointed out, a mere commitment to staying in Brazil these days and enduring the political and financial disarray is an act of courage worthy of musical homage.

All of this contextual complexity is obviously part of the attraction that Talking Heads chieftain David Byrne feels for the music of this troubled, yet incalculably great, nation. Byrne's handpicked compilation of Brazilian singles from the '70s and '80s is a thoughtful guide to the generation of musicians who came of age -- stylistically, at least -- just before the country's worst period of censorship and economic regression. Released earlier this year, Byrne's Beleza Tropical offers translated lyrics and copious notes that do much to ease the culture shock that the uninitiated feel when first introduced to this music. Byrne himself admits he didn't understand the profusion of styles and mellow phrasing until after he spent several years listening, studying and traveling in Brazil.

In the same way that American pop borrows liberally from American folk music, singer/composers like Jorge Ben, Milton Nascimento, and Caetano Veloso adapt Brazilian folk styles to create a modern body of music every bit as rich and distinctive as the Yankee hit parade. On 'Andar Come Fa' Gil affects the nasal, backwoods accent of the itinerant singers most associated with the particular rhythms in the song. Caetono Veloso's carnivalesque contribution to the compilation is a tribute to the afoxes called 'Um Canto De Afoxa Para O Bloco Do Ilé (Ilé Ayé)'. In careful imitation of the Africanized arrangements of the afoxes, Veloso resists the temptation to orchestrate for much more than percussion and vocals, letting a lovely call-and-response carry the short verse and exquisite melody.

Like the ritualistic "circle shots" from black churches in the American south, afoxe music and music from the Yoruban cult houses that still thrive and practice ancient rites in many Brazilian cities rely on polyrhythm and the human voice to celebrate heavenly (and challenge earthly) authority. Byrne's filmic examination of Bahia's black subcultures and how they feed and preserve Brazilian root music -- released this summer -- will doubtless influence the two planned sequels to Beleza Tropical. Titled Il'e Aiy'e, the movie is semi-documentary in form, following Byrne as he, in the words of a slightly bemused Brazilian journalist, "scrambles up and down the ghetto stairways, eating stewed tripe and visiting sacred voodoo grounds and afoxe rehearsals, seemingly about to turn into a cult initiate." Since Brazilian mainstream journalists have never been very impressed by much of Bahia's African culture, it's no wonder they stood to the side as a foreign rock star of Byrne's stature bypassed many bourgeois pop favorites to exalt a host of little-known black musicians.

But Brazil had better prepare for more commercial interest in its musical exports, because this summer new records celebrating the Pan-African emphasis of recent Brazilian music are coming from several major domestic labels. Chief among those are two releases from strikingly different sources. The youthful, cosmopolitan Paralamas emerged several years ago with a revolutionary fusion of samba, reggae, rock, and funk, all combined with the wit and sly subversiveness of a Malcolm McLaren.

The title track of their first album on Intuition/Capitol, Bora Bora, will remind you of Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire's early experiments with funked-up Brazilian rhythms: a fast disco beat interrupted by r & b horn riffs, and rhythm guitar patterns right out of South African township rock. On the other hand, 'Sanfona' is an even more complex hybrid, using the bass drum and percussion patterns from the Bahian samba style generically known as baiao And you haven't lived until you hear these big-city Brazilian white boys rap in Portuguese to a reggae beat.

Two afoxe groups, Ara-Ketu (featured in Byrne's Ilé Aiyé) and Olodum (featured on Paul Simon's imminent album), have their most significant work compiled on Bloco Afro: Beats of Bahia. Both these groups write autobiographical songs with lyrics of historical or topical significance for the annual Carnival competition. 'Umme Historia delfa' is typical of the haunting, incantatory power of these melodic civic patterns.

With Paralamas charting new directions for Brazil's internationalist mainstream and the afoxes beating the drums for a neotraditionalist underground, Americans are learning that there is a lot of activity in contemporary Brazilian pop that has nothing to do with the usual stereotyping of such music as the laid-back soundtrack for nude beachcombing. The intellectual ferment of the '60s created a golden age of pop stardom in Brazil that has been hard to recapture in the slow climb out from under a coup d'etat. Now, Beleza Tropical and the explosion of Brazilian music we are enjoying this year remind us of the glory that was -- a glory one hopes will flourish again if the elections later this year don't plunge this fragile democracy back into the repressive bondage of military rule.

Published in: Elle, August 1989