The Brazilian Beat

This is the second installment of contributor John Bohannon’s monthly column, The Brazilian Beat. Check out the first installment here.

For this edition of Brazilian Beat, I figured I would introduce a Brazilian reading primer –- all the books I’ve discovered over the years that have led me in the right direction or helped expose me to the culture that surrounds Brazilian music. It’s important to understand that Brazilian music is very unlike any other music in the world; it’s the solid foundation of the country’s culture in a much more sincere, strong way than most others. Unlike the powerhouse English-speaking markets like the US and the UK, Brazil is very nationalistic in its approach, with most of its music grounded intensely in the roots of Brazilian history.

To establish a knowledge base for analyzing Brazil’s music, a history primer can be found in Boris Fausto and Arthur Brakel’s fantastic book, A Concise History of Brazil. They explore everything from colonial times to issues like the military dictatorship in Brazil without a great deal of bias (to say any history book didn’t have a bias from the writer would be a tad naive). Although the translation is a little rough around the edges, this book is quite possibly the most authentic document in English you can get that’s not from an American or British viewpoint.

While most people see Brazil as having a great deal of glamor, the truth is that a lot of the country's greatest music came out of its poorest regions. That doesn't necessarily refer to today's pop stars; you have to look back further. Many years ago, music -- particularly the percussive element based around the drum -- was imported from the African Diaspora as a communal practice. While hours could be spent writing about the African influence on Brazil and its culture (Brazil had the highest number of African immigrants, mostly from the Angola region), that can be saved for another day.

Afro-Brazilian Maracatu Drumming

The most important thing to highlight is that when people in the Brazilian favelas (ghettos) had nothing to turn to, music was an escape from the trials of everyday life. It’s essential to understand the essence of the favelas. From my perspective, the best way to achieve this without actually traveling to them is by reading Carolina Maria de Jesus’ diary Child of the Dark. Although it's very raw, the book’s documentation of the realities of being poor in a third-world country is unparalleled in the world of literature. By understanding these conditions, you can understand the positive impact that music had not only on individuals, but also on communities.

Now whether the books I’m about to recommend about the music of Brazil are definitive is up for debate, but they are the ones that furthered my interest in traveling to and exploring the music of the country. Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha’s The Brazilian Sound examines not only the music of Brazil as a whole, but ties it in with the cultures that surround each of the movements: Bossa Nova, Samba, MPB and even artists into the 90s, who are much harder to discover through literature available in the English language. Although it can become dense, it's only because there is so much information to cram in one book – it's best taken in over several sittings. Particularly for those who are interested beyond just the classics that have made their way into the U.S., this is a valid place to start.

It seems that in America, one of the biggest subculture interests right now is the Tropicalia movement -- and rightfully so. It shares common characteristics with our beloved psychedelic 60s and the golden days of radio. The last two books I will discuss revolve around Tropicalia, the movement that led to a lifelong obsession with Brazilian music.

First, we are so lucky to have a professor at the University of Tulane by the name of Christopher Dunn who has published so many influential writings on Tropicalia. His book, Brutality Garden: Tropicalia and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture, is not only essential reading for anyone interested in the artists involved with Tropicalia, but has been the most influential and important non-fiction read in the past decade of my life. Spanning the beginnings of the artistic lives of Caetano Veloso, Tom Ze, Maria Bethania, Gilberto Gil, and Os Mutantes, Dunn describes all the musical and cultural events going on around these individuals that caused the scene to flourish. Written from the perspective of an intellectual with a great deal of passion for the subject, you can't help but want to track down each and every piece of material described within the pages.

Gilberto Gil - Estrela

Last, but certainly not least, is Caetano Veloso’s book, Tropical Truth. Veloso is one of the most influential musicians living in Brazil today and has led a life that many of us couldn't imagine. Thankfully, we don’t have to -- Veloso’s book goes into immense detail about his life, from being a young boy on the streets of Bahia all the way through to his career as a working, revolutionary musician -- and sometimes filmmaker, too. Although Veloso spends a decent bit of time going into fairly unnecessary details, the vast majority of this read is indispensable and essential to seeking light on Brazilian music for the new generation.

Caetano Veloso - Sozinho (Ao Vivo)

The Brazilian Beat