April 13 - April 19, 1995


Rio Rules

By Dave McElfresh

REGGAE CONTINUES ITS rhythmic rule as the "world music" of choice, but many of the most experimental pop musicians have shown a preference for the sounds of Brazil. Paul Simon has several times recorded with the country's music god, Milton Nascimento, once for his very Brazilian Rhythm Of The Saints disc. David Byrne has hand-picked five compilations worth of Brazilian music for his Luaka Bop label, and given prominent roles to the country's best musicians on Rei Momo and other albums. Everything But The Girl has regularly recorded bossa nova, and Sade's entire career is built on the influence of Brazilian music.

Producer Quincy Jones is responsible for a lot of Brazilian songs being recorded by American artists. Ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce sings bossa nova tunes on albums by New York composer Kip Hanrahan. Even Dionne Warwick has just released an album of the country's music. Add the jazz artists and the list is lengthened by dozens.

Many may be hopping on the bandwagon, but it's an old bandwagon. American interest in Brazilian music began in yer grandma's day, with the help of the military, cartoons and a Brazilian Sade-on-speed.

When the World War II shut off Hollywood's access to Europe, directors turned southward for exotica previously milked from France and Spain. Ary Barroso's "Brazil" was used in a Disney cartoon--and later as the theme song for Terry Gilliam's movie of the same name, sung by Maria "Midnight At The Oasis" Muldaur. Other Barroso songs were central in two more '40s Disney features.

But singer/actress Carmen Miranda was our primary contact with the country, her appearance as "The Brazilian Bombshell" representing the sexual and festive appeal of Rio's music-worshipping cariocas, as the residents are called. Decked out in fruitbowl hat and stacked heels, the grinning Miranda came close to the era's presentation of blacks as shuffling minstrels via Amos and Andy. With our most frightening war in full swing, we needed the entertainment of "outsiders" to be entirely innocuous. Miranda's popular songs, "South American Way" for instance, presented Brazil as a tropical paradise both non-threatening and representing a flippant carnality wartime America could only dream of.

In 1959 the Brazilian movie Black Orpheus presented the mythological love affair between Orpheus and Eurydice, updated by using Rio's carnival week as a background. Everything Carmen Miranda had flashed as representative of Brazil's festival atmosphere was offered again, this time more accurately presenting the country's party music, samba, as the creation of the country's underprivileged majority. Its American debut was a softer, acoustic guitar ballad style soon to be known as bossa nova. The movie won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. A handful of the soundtrack songs are now jazz standards.

Two years later the State Department sent a number of jazz musicians to the country on a goodwill tour. Contacts with Antonio Carlos Jobim, a composer of much of Black Orpheus, and Joao Gilberto were the equivalent of discovering the Lennon and McCartney of South America.

Guitarist Charlie Byrd, one of the State Department visitors, met with saxophonist Stan Getz at a Unitarian church in Washington, D.C., in 1962 and recorded "Desafinado" and "One Note Samba"--both penned by Jobim and both soon to become immensely popular. Though the reader may not relate to either by name, the music will unquestionably ring familiar upon hearing. The album Jazz Samba reached number one on the pop charts in the fall of '62 and remained there for the next year and a half--extremely impressive for a jazz release. It was a crossover feat topped two years later by, again, Getz.

"The Girl From Ipanema" spent 96 weeks on the charts. The song was sung by Astrud Gilberto, wife of bossa nova patriarch Joao Gilberto. Astrud's popularity was due to a fragile, timid vocal style that sounded as though she was merely an audience member dragged onstage to sing. Unknown to millions of bossa nova fans, Muzak listeners and maybe Astrud herself, Jobim and cowriter Vinicius de Moraes, in their thirties and forties at the time they composed the song, wrote the piece about a 14-year-old girl who regularly passed their café table on the way to the beach.

Thanks to the lengthy bossa nova craze of the early '60s, four Stan Getz albums stayed on the top 100 chart for a total of 200 weeks. The only reason 1964's Getz/Gilberto did not reach the number one slot on the charts is because The Beatles dominated the position the entire year.

The country's music resurfaced on the pop charts in the decade to follow, but only in diluted form. Brazilian keyboardists/opportunists Deodato and Sergio Mendes seemed ashamed of their roots, pumping out either limp pop-jazz or barely-bossa nova rehashings of Bacharach and Beatles classics. Stateside, Brazilian music was on its way to becoming elevator music.

Another kind of lifting not involving elevators occurred in 1979. The number two single of the year was Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy," a very catchy tune--and one Stewart ripped off from Brazilian composer/vocalist Jorge Ben, as a lawsuit attested. Ben's "Taj Mahal," written years earlier, is identical in melody. Possibly expecting trouble, Stewart had already donated the song's profits to UNICEF. Also revealing a lack of creativity was fellow popster Robert Palmer, who later promised to meld heavy metal with bossa nova, the result, Heavy Nova, hardly representative of either style.

More legitimate musical happenings were going on in Brazil, this time partly due to U.S. influence. Back in 1964, Brazil's democratic government had been overthrown by the military. Musicians were finding their releases censored, or themselves being yanked offstage and thrown in jail for singing anything the new regime found threatening.

The biggest names in music, including Jobim, were arrested for signing a petition opposing the censorship. Two of the more radical post-bossa nova Brazilian composers, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, were forced into exile as a result of writing music and lyrics considered subversive by the ruling powers and followers. "Alegria, Alegria" is a bizarre late '60s live recording by Veloso, where the audience boos throughout the song due to his straying from bossa nova into the domain of America's rock and roll.

The dictatorship did not fall until 1985. Brazilian music returned to the American and European pop music scene that year by hosting Rock In Rio, the largest multi-day music festival in history. The late '80s brought the lambada craze. The complicated dance centered on the female riding the leg of her male companion, and was considered quite risqué by the post-disco crowd. By then over a decade old in Brazil, the lambada was being dismissed by its country's dancers not for lewdness, but for being musically boring. For proof, compare the music on Kaoma's World Beat, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack of the lambada movement, to nearly anything in the realm of samba and bossa nova.

As has been the case from Carmen Miranda's day, today's female vocalists (rather than the male composers) rule the music scene, explaining why an '80s Tina Turner concert at Rio's Maracana soccer stadium pulled in a record attendance of over a third of a million. Two of the newest Brazilian singers, Marina Lima and Marisa Monte, have released topnotch stateside recordings within the last few months. Monte's Rose And Charcoal was produced by former Lounge Lizard/Ambitious Lover guitarist Arto Lindsay, the son of Brazilian missionaries. She also offers an update of Miranda's "South American Way" on the tiny Lux label's recent tribute, The Living Legend of Carmen Miranda. Monte is sexy and intentionally over-animated in concert, much like her mentor. With a video or two, we might find ourselves once again idolizing Carmen's country.

Tucson Weekly's Music Bin
The Music Pages Index
.Mod File Collection
RockWeb(TM) Interactive
Jazz Net
Web Wide World of Music

Contents - Page Back - Last Week - This Week - Next Week - Page Forward - Help

April 13 - April 19, 1995

Weekly Wire    © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth