Brazilian popular music plays a larger role in the cultural life of Brazil than popular music seems to elsewhere. It wasn’t until the second half of the of twentieth century that a majority of the population was literate. And a large majority of Brazilians still live below the poverty line. Perhaps these facts contribute to the importance of oral tradition in Brazil. Brazilian Portuguese is constantly evolving, and its speakers maintain a very playful relationship with it.
Despite the poverty and isolation of much of Brazil, the literate portion of the population is exceptionally informed. They have an acute awareness of cultural developments in the rest of the world.
Music and poetry have always been closely linked. Perhaps the “musical” sound of language is due to its origins. Brazilian Portuguese mixes the language of Portugal (which already contained many Moorish words) with several African and Native American ones. An especially large percentage that words are African in origin. The tribal groups that were brought in as slaves were not separated and were allowed maintain their cultures. They had and continue to have an overwhelming influence on Brazilian life.
The ’60s generation, which most of these songwriters belonged to, was part of a worldwide movement that used music to express and focus its political and personal awareness. While in North America psychedelia was following the repression-breaking arrival of rock and roll, in Brazil a new generation was reacting both to Bossa Nova and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Bossa Nova was a combination of certain strains in traditional Brazilian popular music and the advanced harmonies of American cool jazz. Antonio Carlos Jobim, the composer of “Girl From Ipanema,” like Mlles Davis and Gil Evans, was influence by Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartok. João Gilberto, the singer and guitarist, used the cool styling of vocalist and trumpeter Chet Baker to help create what is perhaps the most intensely swinging musical style anywhere. Bossa Nova was a revolution in sophistication.
The songwriters featured on this record were among the first to have access to television. Yearly televised music festivals provided a forum for political dissent and artistic experimentation and generated enormous controversy. Weekly “yeah yeah yeah” shows featured imported styles of rock & roll with distinctly Brazilian lyrics.
Political upheavals in Brazil led to a military coup in 1964. In 1968 the repression intensified and did not begin to lift until the late 1970s. Lyrics had always been subject to censorship, an during this period, songwriters had to resort to double and triple entendre to get their points across. Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, although not often directly political in their songs, were considered so threatening to the status quo that they were thrown in jail. They were released into exile and lived in London for several years.
A cultural movement called Tropicalismo had coalesced around these two entertainers. It saw in itself an extension of ideas dating from the Brazilian avant garde of the ’20s and ’30s when Brazilian culture had been defined as anthropophagic, or cannibalistic, devouring European, African and Native American elements and expelling them in a truly new world culture. Tropicalismo was informed by such diverse elements as the concrete poetry from São Paulo that stressed the visual side of poetry, the pop art of Andy Warhol, and the range of twentieth century classical music from serialism to John Cage.
It also owed debts to the English stylization of American rhythm & blues, and the ironic but affectionate takes on Brazilian standards by João Gilberto. These insights were focused on the clash between the archaic culture of rural Brazil and the mass produced culture of the cities. Tropicalismo provided a new perspective on local and international kitsch and made striking use of the rhythms of Bahia and the other Northeastern states that had been relegated to the status of folklore.
Jorge Ben drew from the sambas of the hillside slums of Rio de Janeiro and American rhythm & blues to create an original style. He created the most organic fusion of North and South American forms of African music. This affinity is being demonstrated again today by the enormous popularity of rap music in the slums (and only in the slums) of Rio. Jorge Ben was also a highly original lyricist who combined street language with images drawn from African and Christian mythology and esoteric literature.
Chico Buarque de Holanda comes from one of the most intellectual families in Brazil (his grandfather wrote the dictionary). His lyrics are among the most literate, drawing specific inspiration from the songs of Noel Rosa, a songwriter from the ’30s whose verbal brilliance is comparable to Cole Porter’s. Chico Buarque does not lack mass appeal either. He didn’t go into exile, and his recordings from the worst period of dictatorship provided rallying cries and subtle encouragement during that time.
Milton Nascimento rose quickly to popularity in the early ’70s. He was the leader of a group of musicians from the landlocked state of Minas Gerais that also included Lô Borges. They developed outside the limelight and appeared on the scene with their styles already in place. With his beautiful falsetto and a gift for combining Beatleseque melodies with very African percussion, often contributed by Naná Vasconcelos, he has become the most popular Brazilian musician outside Brazil since the days of Bossa Nova.
Maria Bethania is from Bahia, like Gilberto Gil and her brother Caetano Veloso. She has been one of the most popular singers in Brazil for 20 years. Her voice is very low, lending it an androgynous quality common to Brazil’s most popular singers. On this song, she is joined by Gal Costa, also from Bahia. Gal Costa’s career has run the course from Bossa Nova through Tropicalismo to mainstream popularity.
Nazare Pereira has been living in Paris for many years. She recites her lyrics over almost unalloyed rhythms from the Brazilian folklore tradition.
Fads have swept Brazilian music around the world periodically since the heyday of Carmen Miranda. It has maintained a loyal audience in many countries, but in the U.S. the language barrier has kept lt from being enjoyed by the public at large. Perhaps now North Americans are ready to appreciate singing whose literal meaning they cannot understand. And without much effort, enough of the lyrics can be understood to provide a great deal more pleasure.
Arto Lindsay. August, 1988
These songs represent but a small sampling of the fruits of a flowering in Brazilian creativity. The innovations in structure, lyrics and arrangements, combined with a very restrained but heartfelt intensity, are unique to Brazilian pop music… and in their own way, are as radical, seductive and beautiful as the best english language pop.
The “lightness” of much Brazilian pop music is often mistaken or confused for American middle-of-the-road bland radio ballads. We associate lightness, subtlety and easy rhythms with shallowness and music without guts. It is a mistake that can blind us to much of the world’s great music. Some of the artistis represented on this compilation were in fact forced into exile from Brazil as a result of sweet sounding songs like these. It is hard for us to imagine this music as being in any way dangerous, but the military regime that ruled Brazil during the late ’60s and early ’70s found it quite threatening. The combination of lyrics, the re-introduction of Afro-Brazilian rhythms and the electric guitars encouraged and inspired a whole generation in Brazil — much to the dismay of the government of the time. Maybe those songs are a more human form of political pop than our rabble rock epics which often sound too close to national anthems or marches for me. I first heard music like this about nine years ago. I didn’t “get it” then — I couldn’t hear it for what it was. Then, years later, I picked up a few LPs by Milton Nascimento and Caetano Veloso. I had no idea what was on them — I was buying blind, as I often do. I guess I was ready, because after that I became kind of obsessed, and every time I went to the record shop, I’d get a couple of Brazilian LPs. Some were great, real seductive ear openers, while others were not at all to my taste. But the gems far outweighed the garbage. I became intrigued by the question: What kind of culture could produce such radical yet beautiful music? I visited Brazil for the first time in 1987, mainly staying in Bahia (Salvador), as that city and state are the most African, and serve, in many ways, as the source or root of much of the most exciting Brazilian music. It is this mixing, blending, and creolizing of forms that creates the freshest music.
Many of the artists on this compilation are cultural heroes in Brazil (and deserve to be here, too). Their concerts are attended by young and old alike… and almost everyone knows their names. Their music is extremely sophisticated, yet it appeals to almost everyone. They play to sold-out shows in Paris and Tokyo, and yet they represent but a small part of the variety of comtemporary styles that can be found in a country as vast as Brazil.
There are (at least) two more very popular styles that I would like to present on subsequent compilations. Samba and Pagode, the dance music of the mainly urban poor in and around Rio, and Forró, the dance music of the poor in and around the Northeast. And these are only the tip of the iceberg. The artists on this compilation continue to grow creatively while a younger generation of musicians who grew up listening to these songs are now making their prescence felt. We await the ’90s.
David Byrne, June 1988