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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

(continued from page 1)

Bossa nova was also one of the starting points for tropicalismo, the most important Brazilian musical movement of the last quarter century. But the four prime exponents of that school, all of them born in the northeastern state of Bahia and acquainted with each other since childhood, were equally influenced by the folk music of their native region and the invasion of British and American rock groups that occurred just as they were becoming professional musicians. As a result, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethânia and Gal Costa have become the most significant artists of their generation, carving out careers in which they function as ambassadors of Brazilian music to the rest of the world while simultaneously absorbing and transforming foreign styles for consumption at home.

Perhaps the most eclectic of all Brazilian artists, open to influences from every corner of the globe, Gil in particular has found ways to work rock and roll, reggae, funk and salsa into his music without sacrificing its distinctly Brazilian character. His most recent American release, for instance, a live unplugged set called Gilberto Gil Acoustic, charmingly inserts the melody of The Beatles' "Daytripper" into "Realce," one of the best known of his own songs. But he has also managed to seamlessly synthesize indigenous Brazilian styles, from samba and bossa nova to folk styles such as baião and frevo, while still leaving his unmistakable personal stamp on everything he does.

In fact, Gil's music always contains two constants, no matter what trend he may be adapting for his own purposes: beautifully uplifting melodies and the warm, gentle caress of his voice. Of his recent recordings, Parabolicamará, a meditation on technology and change that still manages to be both engaging and highly danceable, probably showcases those strengths to best effect. But it is also rewarding to turn to earlier, somewhat harder to obtain discs such as Extra or Refazenda, where his fascination with the various musical permutations of the African diaspora is most prominent.

Gil's close friend, songwriting partner and virtual alter ego, Caetano Veloso, is a cooler, less emotive artist, yin to Gil's yang, but no less important a songwriter and performing talent. Together, they launched the tropicalismo movement in the late 1960s, and in 1993 they collaborated again on Tropicalia 2, a rich musical stew in which they employ everything from rudimentary percussion instruments to the latest digital sampling techniques. Veloso's recent solo recordings, such as Circulado and Estrangeiro, are equally sophisticated in terms of instrumentation and their clever, dense and often surrealistic lyrics. That, combined with the ringing endorsement of American pop stars like David Byrne, has helped him find an audience among both the Manhattan downtown set and the Brazilian intelligentsia, many of whom regard Veloso as one of their country's greatest living poets.

But Veloso is probably most affecting in a simpler context, with just a couple of acoustic guitars, a keyboard or flute, and a gently pulsing rhythm section to frame his voice, best described as vulnerable yet consoling. The Art of Caetano Veloso and Personalidade are compilations of some of his most admired Brazilian hits; they highlight his gift for combining melody and wordplay on tracks such as "Menino do Rio" and "Beleza Pura," while Cores Nomes (Colors Names) and Caetano are delicious tropical confections that underline Veloso's debt to the bossa nova movement, his idol João Gilberto in particular.

It is always entertaining to observe the expression of shock and confusion that passes across the faces of people hearing the music of Veloso's sister, Maria Bethânia, for the first time. She possesses a dark, smoky, almost masculine voice that often seems at odds with her waiflike appearance, and that contrast injects her music with a deep sense of drama and melancholy. Many Brazilians regard her as the most accomplished interpreter of her brother's songs, but she brings deep feeling to the work of other composers, too, rolling her "rrrrs" and allowing her voice to break in order to emphasize some profound truth she has discovered in the lyrics of a song that has moved her.

In purely stylistic terms, the other towering female talent to come out of Bahia, Gal Costa, could hardly be more different. Her voice is silvery and lustrous, a sultry invitation to drift off into a sensuous daydream. But as she demonstrates on the greatest hits collection entitled Personalidade, she shares the same sure, unfailing sense of rhythm that musicians from Bahia seem to imbibe from childhood along with the cachaça, or burning sugarcane liquor, that is native to their region. So a typical Gal Costa disc, such as Gal Tropical or Aquarela do Brasil, inevitably has a joyous and festive air to it, mixing tunes by leading Brazilian songwriters with the occasional Cole Porter or Lennon and McCartney composition. No matter that even those songs are sung in Portuguese translations: Costa's voice is so utterly captivating that, in the end, words do not seem to matter.

Fittingly, the most popular new performer to come out of Bahia in the 1990s is Daniela Mercury, a young singer whose music, appearance and onstage manner is imbued with a strong Gal Costa influence. On her two biggest discs, O Canto da Cidade and Musica de Rua, Mercury has deftly mined the rhythmic innovations of the blocos, or neighborhood bands, that have made the annual Carnival celebrations in Salvador, the capital of Bahia, a beacon for musicians and party lovers the world over. The best known of those drum choirs, Olodum, provided the driving beat behind Paul Simon's hit song "The Obvious Child" and, on the basis of that success, was invited to record Olodum: Live at the Montereux Jazz Festival, which highlights the African roots of Bahian music.

It may be going too far to say that the dreadlocked crooner Djavan is the male equivalent of Daniela Mercury, but there is no way to deny the strong and obvious kinship between his music and that of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. In fact, one of Djavan's hits from the early 1980s, "Sina," is an homage to Veloso, sung in the style of Gil. Since then Djavan has grown into a first-class writer of love songs, such as those contained on Seduzir and Petala, with a romantic voice that recalls some of the great American soul singers in their prime (which perhaps explains Stevie Wonder's fondness for Djavan's music). His latest disc, Novena, finds a sophisticated and fully mature artist at the peak of his powers, spinning off one lush and gorgeous melody after another against a background of saxophone and guitar.

Just south of Bahia lies the mountainous, landlocked state of Minas Gerais, whose geography and location are a key to the music of Milton Nascimento, the most gifted singer and songwriter to come out of the Brazilian interior over the last generation. As Nascimento tells the story, he grew up listening to radio stations from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, which came in so weak and scratchy in his hometown that he and his friends could barely make out the melodies of songs they liked. So when Nascimento and his associates, known collectively as the Clube da Esquina, or Corner Club, began performing in public, they had to invent their own harmonies for those songs.

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