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Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Album Review: VA - ‘Oi! A Nova Música Brasileira!’

Various Artists - ‘Oi! A Nova Música Brasileira!’ (2010)
Mais Um Discos MAIS01, 2CD album, £10
I love Brazilian music, and I have done for years, but do I know anything much about it? Well, to be honest, I tend not to know about any particular kinds of music: what I know about is the stuff I’ve come across and liked enough to pay some attention to, and that is such an eclectic mix that I can’t claim expert status on any style, movement or region.
This is why I like albums like this one. A truly well researched compilation, curated with a real love of the music and depth of knowledge, and accompanied by informative and articulate commentary, is a thing of great value. I enjoy hearing new sounds, but sounds mean very little without context, and any effort to broaden and enrich the context of an encounter, especially with the music of another culture, can only enhance the complexity of meanings generated by that encounter. There’s a whole debate around how and what music means, and what constitutes an ‘authentic’ meaning in cross-cultural listening, but unless you’re an ethnomusicologist the only issue is that the music should generate some meanings for you, as a listener, and that the process should be satisfying on some level: aesthetic, political, cultural, educational, or hopefully all of the above and then some. So if you care about authenticity, a well made compilation should be a boon, but if you don’t, the whole structure still ought to help you enjoy the music more than if you were just presented with the sounds as a folder of audio files.
My initial encounter with Brazilian music was heavily mediated by American jazz artists, and while it did lead me on to the classic bossa of Tom Jobim and João Gilberto, that was where it left me. America plundered Brazil’s musical treasury at a particular moment, and never went back: had I stopped to think about it I would have realised that noughties Brazil was not listening to 50s bossa, wearing lounge suits and smoking cigarillos, but it took the excellent Manteca compilation ‘Nu Brazil’ (MANTDCD217, 2003) to open my ears to some of the diversity of music being recorded there.
The music presented there ranged from Silvera’s mainstream r’n’b, through Vitor Ramil’s haunting Argentinean tinged folksong, and jazz-funk hipsters Max De Castro and Jair Oliveira, to the electronic dance music of Mad Zoo and the late Serbian expatriate Suba. There was a sonic thread that unified all that diversity however: a deep groove, a lightness of touch, a melodic sweetness, a harmonic coolness, a combination of all these, or maybe none of them. An elusive but audible character that I would come to identify as Brazilian-ness, and to value in music so diverse as to have nothing else in common. Brazilian musicians have given birth to many home grown folk and popular music styles, and also put their own stamp on everything the global music industry has thrown at them, from reggae to metal.
The compiler of ‘Oi! A Nova Música Brasileira!’, known only as Mais Um Gringo (‘another gringo’) says ‘all the Brazilian compilations I found either offered a tired mix of nu-bossa and nu-samba or were titles covering niche genres like baile-funk’, and as a pathological trawler of world music racks I can concur. There came to be some big money in selling an idea of Brazil through Virgin and HMV, and it was unsurprisingly a non-threatening, easy to dance to, ‘tropically’ floaty, Riocentric idea of what is in reality a very large and diverse country. The idea of this album is to bring us the underground: and not just one underground, but a sampling of underground musics from all over a country with extremely strong regional identities.
The amazing thing is that I can still hear the same Brazilian-ness that I first encountered on the much more mainstream ‘Nu Brazil’ eight years ago. Far be it from me to attempt to say what it is, but I do contend that Brazil has a national musical character, albeit one that is probably totally blurred across its borders, and hard to hear from within them.
The CD insert folds out into a large (slightly bigger than A3) poster, with a track by track guide to the album on the back, organised by region, and laid out around a map of Brazil. This is immensely helpful, although it can be confusing that the artists’ descriptions are not laid out in the sequence they appear on the album.
To my ignorant European ears the tunes bear some resemblance to contemporary independent rock, but with a great deal more groove, and a somewhat unexpectedly strong echo of central European folk sounds. This is a gross generalisation: there is a huge mixture of genres, both between and within all of these selections, but genre is a funny thing, and unless you are equipped with an understanding of which musical characteristics are usually grouped together to make up a style, it is very hard to unpick them. Fusions of fusions of musics with which I’m unfamiliar: not necessarily the obvious thing for me to be reviewing, you may think, but in the absence of expert knowledge I hope to share my musical experience, which has been one of joyful discovery.
Many of the tracks on Disc 1 sound like a Brazilian incarnation of things we’re used to hearing in Europe and America, with clean (or psychedelically fuzzed) electric guitars, and analogue synth sounds mixing it up with funky beats and folk flavours to convey some (mainly) happy sounding material. Fun, uplifting, danceable stuff, but also displaying a great deal of extremely diverse musical and sonic creativity. In production terms, we’re talking vintage flavours.
These observations hold true on into Disc 2, but a stronger electronic vein is mined as the compilation progresses. From around halfway through the disc the beats get bouncier, reminding my philistine ears of dancehall and reggaeton, as well as, unsurprisingly, baile funk. These are all home-grown flavours however, crossovers and fusions between regionally specific rhythms and a variety of influences, and the excursion into big bangin’ choon territory is a relatively brief one. The album closes out with a lilting, bittersweet episode of folktronica, courtesy of Júlia Says.
It’s hard to compile an album from different artists and make it sound like an album: it’s even harder when those artists come from a variety of traditions across a huge, regionally diverse country, but Mais Um Gringo has succeeded. You might be forgiven for thinking these artists have something specific in common, for instance that they are label-mates, but although some of them have something to do with one another, the one unifying thread that unifies the entire compilation is the curatorial ear. This is very much a DJ’s ear, in the way that sonically compatible tracks are sequenced to exploit their similarities and differences, and to spin out a coherent narrative, that ebbs and flows across the whole two and a half hours of music.
There are stand out tunes for me, unsurprisingly. The album is punctuated with pretty ballads: Tulipa’s haunting ‘Pedrinho’, and Lucas Santtana’s gorgeous, fragile, English language ‘Hold Me In’, are both intensely moving. Santtana is also the composer of BaianaSystem’s ‘O Carnaval Quem É Que Faz’ which features a deep groove and a shimmering waterfall of African styled electric guitar. ‘Eletro Do Maciota Light’ by Maderito & Joe lays it down in righteously electro style for the dancefloor, while Burro Morto espouses a more mellifluous brand of (instrumental) funk in ‘Navalha Cega’.
Picking particular tunes is pretty pointless, however. The quality is high right across both discs, and the album is more than the sum of its parts: I could give you a close reading of every tune, and it wouldn’t tell you much about the success or failure of the whole enterprise. My encounter has been with the collection, more than with the individual tracks: it’s in the big picture that the important meanings have been generated for me. Similar to my earlier revelation that Brazil contained a variety of musical practices, it has been a revelation for me to discover that there is such a rich musical underground. I was already aware of Brazilian music in American and European genres, such as punk and metal, but it’s been deeply satisfying to gain the beginnings of an understanding of all these fusions, whose foundations are outside my listening experience. So, in its aim to represent these musical scenes from across the country, to capture an accurate snapshot at a particular cross section, does this album succeed? I couldn’t possibly judge. What I can say, is that this is a collection of ear pleasing, danceable, creative and sonically imaginative music, which presents a well balanced combination of familiarity and novelty, and opens a window into what for most listeners will be new territories. I can’t wait to hear more from some of these artists: my horizons have been broadened.

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