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The Beat Goes On

From the Samba to the Bossa Nova, Brazilians Infuse Their Music with Driving Drums and Mesmerizing Rhythms
Larry Rohter
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

Brazil. The mere mention of the South American giant brings to mind a host of romantic images: palm trees, beaches, bronzed bodies, soccer performed as ballet, Carnival, flying down to Rio. And, of course, music. There is probably no country anywhere else in the world that relies so thoroughly on the marriage of word and melody to define its essential character and express its deepest yearnings.

Brazilian music takes many forms, from the heavy, powerfully percussive samba of the favelas, or squatter slums, of Rio de Janeiro, where thousands of drummers march each year in the orgy of sound and revelry called Carnival, to mainstream pop songs so light and lushly lyrical that they seem to float above the beat. But Brazilian music does have a unifying principle, that of ginga, a concept whose closest English-language equivalent is swing. It is that basic feature that has so beguiled foreigners from the days of Carmen Miranda more than half a century ago right up to the present day, influencing such pop stars as Paul Simon, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Stevie Wonder and David Byrne.

But it is also there for the taking for the rest of us, and one does not have to spring for a trip to Rio to do so. The worldwide interest in Brazilian music has become such in recent years that the works of most of the country's major singers and musicians are now available on disc in the United States. For anyone who has learned to savor the tropical experience, this music is the next best thing to being there.

Start, as so many people do, with the bossa nova, the gently pulsing mix of acoustic guitars, subtle rhythms and understated vocalizing that has been familiar the world over for more than 30 years. That means songs like "The Girl From Ipanema" and "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars" and above all, Antônio Carlos "Tom" Jobim, the pianist, guitarist, singer and composer who wrote both of those songs and dozens more that have been recorded hundreds of times over.

During a career that spanned 40 years, Jobim, who died in 1994, captured the admiration not just of his countrymen but of English-speaking artists ranging from Frank Sinatra, with whom he made an album of duets in 1966, to Sting, who sang "How Insensitive" on Jobim's final record in 1995, the posthumously released Antônio Brasileiro. Jobim was a prolific songwriter who was comfortable working in a variety of formats (with singers or in purely instrumental settings, with large orchestras or small ensembles, recorded live or in the studio) and never stopped tinkering with his music, so it is not unusual to find a half-dozen recorded versions of his key compositions.

But certain discs and performances stand out even amid so vast and distinguished a body of work. Elis and Tom, recorded in Los Angeles in 1974, paired Jobim with Elis Regina, the singer with the silky, seductive voice whom many Brazilians consider the finest interpreter of his music, and includes "Waters of March," a song Jobim regarded as perhaps his crowning achievement. A Arte de Tom Jobim provides a thorough overview of Jobim's music, offering versions of 22 of his best-known songs, many of them in instrumental form, while Antônio Carlos Jobim: Jazz Masters focuses on the composer's clear affinities with American jazz. (The compliment has been repaid in recent recordings such as saxophonist Joe Henderson's Double Rainbow and pianist Eliane Elias' Eliane Elias Plays Jobim.)

Among the many artists associated with the bossa nova, Jobim's only peer was his close friend and longtime musical associate, the eccentric singer and guitarist João Gilberto, whose groundbreaking early efforts have been brought together on The Legendary João Gilberto: The Original Bossa Nova Recordings. It was Gilberto, rather than Jobim, who, accompanied by his then-wife, Astrud, and the American jazz saxophonist Stan Getz, recorded the version of "The Girl from Ipanema" that became a worldwide hit in 1964, challenging the popularity of even The Beatles. Since then, the percussive guitar strumming, unexpected harmonic twists and understated vocals that are the hallmark of the Gilberto style have been absorbed by musicians all over the world, turning up even in such unlikely places as the work of British pop stars such as Sade and George Michael, whose new record is dedicated to Jobim.

More recently, though, Gilberto has preferred to work as a solo act, just a voice and an acoustic guitar, and has resisted all efforts to get him into a recording studio for any length of time. That has resulted in a simple, uncluttered sound that allows him to emphasize the gentle rhythm that has always been the essence of the bossa nova sound. A pair of recent live recordings, João Gilberto: Live in Montreux and João Gilberto Ao Vivo: Eu Sei que Vou Te Amar, range widely over the Jobim songbook and convincingly paint the picture that Gilberto now wishes his music to convey: less is more.

With Elis Regina, on the other hand, more was never enough. Almost as notorious for her tempestuous love affairs and legendary outbursts of temper as for her unerring vocal gifts, she died of a drug overdose in 1981, leaving behind a body of work that has influenced every Brazilian singer since. Fascination: The Best of Elis Regina offers the best overview of her 15-year career and demonstrates how dramatic and emotional a singer she was. Elis Regina: Elis por Ela has a much narrower focus: 10 of its 14 songs come from her two favorite composers, Antônio Carlos Jobim and Milton Nascimento, and her performances are luminous in their beauty.

Like Elis Regina, Jorge Ben came to prominence during the bossa nova period, with a gentle samba called "Mas Que Nada"; the song has been recorded by more than 200 artists around the world and made into a hit in the United States by Sergio Mendes. But Ben has always had a much stronger following in the working-class neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro than the more sophisticated bossa nova crowd, and many of his best early songs, contained on Samba Nova and Pais Tropical, focus on the concerns of that world, such as soccer events and other festivals. Amazingly, after modifying his name to Jorge Benjor, the 54-year-old singer and guitarist has in recent years been able to reinvent himself as a rollicking purveyor of rock-influenced party music, as demonstrated on a raucous concert recording called Live in Rio.


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