The Brazilian Beat, Vol. I

This is the first installment of contributor John Bohannon's monthly column, The Brazilian Beat.

When looking at another country's music through Western ideals, it’s hard to get past the conditioned view that most Americans have of what “world” music is. From Barnes and Noble to Best Buy, some of the world’s most prestigious artists have been lumped into Latin Café compilations and stereotyped as a whole.

Some years ago, the pieces of international music started falling into place, and the rock n’ roll mindset of my youth took a backseat to the welcome sounds of Afrobeat, French Pop, Japanrock and, most importantly, Tropicalia and Brazilian pop music. I discovered the name of Caetano Veloso, and from there came the movements of Tropicalia and MPB (Musica Populeira Brasilia) and the20transgressions of Bossa Nova into America.

Over the course of this column, I hope to introduce you to a world of music, new and old, that is highly underappreciated in the United States and beyond. The Brazilians take pride in their culture and the authenticity of its music shines through, and has since its conception. It is a nation united by its music culture, so artists like Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim have become Brazil’s equivalent to George Gershwin -- the songs have become not only standards, but recognizable by the young and old.

Chances are, if you flip over the cover of any Bossa Nova record, you are likely to find the name Tom Jobim somewhere in those songwriter credits. He is the foundation, the solid rock that will forever stand its place. Joao Gilberto is responsible for the percussive acoustic rhythm we now know as Bossa Nova, a style that swept the world from top to bottom, and continues to until this day.

Tom Jobim and Joao Gilberto performing “Girl from Ipanema”

With this first column, it is not my desire to introduce you to every element of Brazilian culture and music -- we will have plenty of time for that. Instead I want to introduce you to the compositions that made me want to dig deeper into the vibrant culture that rests South of the equator. It’s likely I will spend time over the next several columns talking about the assortment of drums used within the stylistic elements of Brazilian popular music, as well as the dances associated with the culture (ie - Capoiera, Samba). But from my once incredibly Western-trained ears, Caetano Veloso is responsible for my obsession. Hailing from the cultural melting pot of Salvador de Bahia, Veloso has become one of the most important musicians the country has ever experienced, as well as one of the most controversial.

Exiled in 1968 during the military dictatorship that swept Brazil until 1988, Veloso spent a bit of time in London with fellow Tropicalia founder, Gilberto Gil, and made some of his more westernized recordings (sung in English), that appealed to me greatly at the time of introduction to the music. So for those of you that haven’t been rightlfully exposed, it may do the same for you. Now widely available as a vinyl re-issue in the United States and the U.K., Caetano Veloso (A Little More Blue), was Veloso’s fourth album, and quite possibly his most profound statement up until that point. Straying largely from the nationalistic sounds of Brazil at the time (many found the Tropicalia movement to be outrageous and “rebel-like”), Veloso spearheaded the Tropicalia movement that put Brazil on a path towards a new sound along with the support and sounds of Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Os Mutantes, Tom Ze and his sister, Maria Bethania.

For a taste of the parallels between Veloso’s popularity and impact and the Beatles' appearance on Ed Sullivan, this semi-low quality video from the popular Brazilian showcase program, TV Record, was filmed around the time of Veloso’s first career hit “Alegria, Alegria."

The prolific “London London” from Caetano Veloso (A Little More Blue), a song with lyrics (in English) that greatly portray his feelings of exile from Brazil during that period.

As so much more could be said about Caetano Veloso (and will be said throughout the course of this column), other things must be said about my discoveries. Although Tropicalia and Bossa Nova were my first loves from the country, my first affair took place with the likes of Jorge Ben and Tim Maia, two of the greatest soul artists to ever grace the microphone, not just in Brazil, but in the world. I liken Jorge Ben to Wilson Pickett to Tim Maia’s Sam Cooke.

Jorge Ben’s sound was much more raw and held so much passion and soul, while Maia’s sound was much smoother and compassionate -- both equally effective. Both were crossovers in between the Tropicalia and MPB scene, especially Jorge Ben who was cited as a major influence to Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso within Veloso’s book, Tropical Truth (which is essential reading for anyone interested in the real happenings of the Tropicalia emergence and downfall). Both had carved out a sound undoubtedly influenced by a mixture of the Detroit sound of Motown, the early crooning style of Dorival Caymmi, and Bossa Nova alike.

Jorge Ben and Tim Maia together in 1981, for a rare performance by Brazil’s two number one “soul brothers.”

Jorge Ben performance in the early 1970s.

As soon as I discovered these two making music that sounded familiar to my Western ears, I decided to trace the influence of Brazilian music on America, instead of vice versa. Brazilian’s general influences were on that of jazz, when Bossa Nova arrived, mostly to those like Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, who found great comfort playing in the styles of Joao Gilberto and Tom Jobim. But the first time the American public became conscious of this style in large numbers was when Marcel Camus’ film Black Orpheus introduced the sounds of Samba and Bossa Nova to a crowd that was acquainted heavily with jazz music and the hip New York scene of the 1950s. The film featured compositions by Tom Jobim (of course), and legendary Brazilian guitarist Luiz Bonfa. Certain compositions from this film such as “Samba de Orfeu” and “Felicidade” would later become American standards.

Frankly, this is the twisted path to my introduction to Brazilian music and culture. It has gone in great depth since then and will continue to for years to come, but is has become a life goal of mine to introduce English speaking audiences to the beautiful stylings of Brazil. If you already have been dealing with Brazilian culture for a while, jump right in on the discussion – if you have no idea where to start, then this would be the place.

The Brazilian Beat, Vol. I