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Brazil’s music may be cool, but it isn’t easy listening

The hype over Brazilian music shouldn’t blind us to a new wave of rougher and more radical sounds, argues David Treece

Issue No. 2003

Seu Jorge – one of the new wave of Brazilian musicians (Pic: Benoit Peverelli)

Seu Jorge – one of the new wave of Brazilian musicians (Pic: Benoit Peverelli)


Chill Brazil, Favela Chic, Brazilian Flavas… From Bebel Gilberto’s chart topping “new” bossa nova to corporate adverts for Nissan, Citroen, Orange and Ikea, Brazilian music seems to be back – and in a big way.

If the marketing rhetoric is to be believed, Brazilian music is the epitome of a new Latin cool – a kind of inoffensive, laid back, hip sophistication, a modern cosmopolitan alternative to the old world charm of the Buena Vista Social Club.

All of this is presided over by the “minister of cool” himself – as Gilberto Gil, the black pop musician turned Brazilian culture minister, was recently dubbed in the media. He is spicing up the neo-liberal medicine of president Lula’s administration with the language of multiculturalism and echoes of Brazil’s 1960s Tropicalia movement.

But shouldn’t we feel a little uncomfortable with the slick “dinner jazz” associations of this marketing boom, at a time when the real Latin America is seething with revolt and discontent?

Shouldn’t we be looking elsewhere for sounds of protest, and viewing the “cool Brazil” with suspicion? Is this anything more than a repackaging of Afro-Brazilian samba’s rootsy rawness into something more consumable and politically innocuous?

Seasoned veterans

All is not as it seems. Every month in Britain’s concert calendar seems to bring back one or another of the well seasoned and now middle aged veterans of the post-1960s singer-songwriter tradition known as MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) – Gil himself, Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento, Gal Costa, Joyce, Djavan.

MPB was once a voice of middle class opposition to Brazil’s 1964-85 military regime, challenging the orthodox tastes of folk purists and right wing nationalists with an iconoclastic mix of bossa, regional traditions and post-Beatles rock and pop. Today it has now become something of a respectable musical establishment.

But look again at the club scene, or scratch beneath the smooth surface of any decent CD compilation such as Gilles Peterson In Brazil, and you’ll find some grittier, more streetwise, politically angrier sounds with their feet firmly on the ground.

These include drum’n’bass artists DJ Marky and Drumagick, rappers such as MV Bill and Marcelo D2, and an emerging fusion of funk, samba, hip-hop, reggae and rock, represented by Seu Jorge or BNegão and the Seletores de Frequência.

Alongside these younger, less familiar and more working class names is a bewildering array of musical styles. Batucada and maracatu are intensely polyrhythmic percussive sounds descended from the traditions of Congolese slaves. There’s forró, an upbeat accordion-based dance music, and sertaneja, Brazil’s country music.

On top of this there are any number of variants of samba, from the improvised, small ensemble songsmiths of partido alto, through carnival style samba enredo, all the way to samba-rock and samba-reggae.

So what has changed? For one thing, in the last ten years or so we’ve simply caught up with what Brazilians themselves are listening to – and that is both more international and more local in character than ever.

Since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, and the punishing conservative transition to neo-liberal social democracy that followed, the grip of Brazilian nationalism has loosened, in both its right wing and left wing varieties. With this the claims of traditional samba and MPB to speak for Brazilian society as a whole have weakened.

Instead, young Brazilians living through the last decades of insecurity, social invisibility and political betrayal have rooted their musical identities in the hard day to day reality of local urban experience, reinventing international styles through the prism of regional traditions.

This has led to afro-reggae in the black “capital” of Salvador, Brazilian rock in Brasília and other cities, hip-hop and drum’n’bass in São Paulo, and funk brasileiro, descended from Miami bass, in Rio de Janeiro.

This shift is in turn related to the simultaneous disintegration of Brazil’s populist ideology of consensus, its mythologies of fraternal, democratic race relations and class collaboration, symbolised for years by carnival and samba.

The bankruptcy of this picture postcard iconography of social harmony and wellbeing is captured by rap band Pavilhão 9 (see below).

Like Fernando Meirelles’s film City of God, with its raw, unapologetic soundtrack of funk, hip-hop and roots samba, the new music may be celebrated by the Lula administration as another lucrative cultural export. But it speaks of a nation at war with itself.


Pavilhão 9 – Welcome to Brazil

Once upon a time there was a marvellous city
Full of beaches, squares and gorgeous women
A beautiful city glimpsed by the whole world
Who doesn’t know the famous Rio de Janeiro?
The little tram, the Corcovado mountain
Copacabana Beach and the Flying Circus
Pretty places that draw the tourists

Of course the magazines only show what’s fit to see
From our side there’s bloodstains on our postcards
Rival gangs, brutal slaughter
A fourth world inside a third
Powder keg ready to explode
Postcard of a future that’s already here

Welcome to São Paulo
Welcome to Rio
Don’t try to live for a day in Brazil’s Vietnam

David Treece is the director of the Centre for the Study of Brazilian Culture and Society at King’s College London. For more on Brazil’s musical history, read The Brazilian Sound – Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil by Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha (Temple University Press). Catch The South Bank Show: Seu Jorge – A Favela Story, ITV1, 11pm, Sunday 4 June.

Seu Jorge's site in English and Portuguese www.seujorge.com


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Sat 3 Jun 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2003
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