The Beat Goes On

From the Samba to the Bossa Nova, Brazilians Infuse Their Music with Driving Drums and Mesmerizing Rhythms
| By Larry Rohter | From 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.

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.

More than 30 years later, exotic, unexpected harmonies are still the backbone of Nascimento's music. Newly remixed versions of his masterpieces Clube da Esquina and Clube da Esquina 2 were released in the '90s; they bring out all of the haunting beauty of songs like "Cais" and "Olho d'Agua," many of which have been subsequently recorded by artists ranging from Brazilian pop singers to American jazz stalwarts. The disc Milagre dos Peixes reaches nearly the same level of accomplishment by emphasizing Nascimento's extraordinary vocal range (which often moves from an ethereal falsetto to a wistful baritone in the same song), his clever phrasing and his fondness for wordless singing.

Nascimento also provides the foundation and inspiration for Native Dancer, one of the first of what would subsequently become many collaborations between Brazilian and American musicians--and which stands even today as probably the most successful example of that cross-cultural phenomenon. Recorded in the mid-1970s with saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock, who were members of the Miles Davis quintets of the 1960s, the record gives a jazz treatment to five of Nascimento's compositions and features his ethereal scat singing on several other tracks. Nearly 15 years later, Nascimento and Hancock would team up again on Miltons, which contains reworked versions of such canons of the Nascimento songbook as "San Vicente" and "Bola de Gude."

Over the years, several members of Nascimento's circle have struck out on their own, heading mostly in a jazzy direction. Drummer Robertinho Silva, regarded as one of the top percussionists in the world, mixes a variety of American and Brazilian rhythms on a pair of sterling solo releases that draw as much from the Miles Davis band as from Milton Nascimento. Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil takes its title from one of Shorter's compositions and features the author on soprano saxophone but also contains a lilting version of the classic "Brasil." The same recipe is used to great effect on Shot on Goal, which includes the Thelonius Monk standard "Bemsha Swing" done as a jaunty Carnival samba and another excursion into Miles Davis territory with "Nefertiti."

Listening to the music of guitarist Toninho Horta can be deceptive. Many of the songs on his two main releases in the United States, Diamond Land and Moonstone, are so gentle, so relaxed that it may be tempting to consign them to the realm of elevator music. But a closer hearing reveals Horta to be, as his friend and admirer Pat Metheny puts it, "one of the most harmonically sophisticated and melodically satisfying Brazilian composers of recent times," capable of writing "chord progressions that defy gravity." Horta's remarkable talents are probably best displayed on a subtle, jazz-based trio outing, Once I Loved, that features several of his own compositions as well as his take on American standards such as "Stella by Starlight" and "My Funny Valentine."

As should be clear by now, Brazilian music is a universe of its own, full of different innovators and genres--which may make the thought of plunging in unprepared simply too daunting. If that is the case, any number of introductory compilations are available, the best and most comprehensive of which is probably Brasil: A Century of Song. This four-disc set, accompanied by a 48-page booklet that offers biographical information on the artists, explanations of styles and translations of the lyrics, starts with Carmen Miranda, ends with Milton Nascimento and manages to touch on all the ground in between. Even for more experienced listeners this labor of love offers attractions: some of the songs selected here are not found on other recordings available in the United States, and a few are rarities even in Brazil.

Also worth exploring is another four-volume collection that looks at some of the main genres of Brazilian music, devoting a separate record to each. Bossa Nova Brasil includes some of today's top artists singing bossa nova standards and Nordeste Brasil focuses on the folk-based styles of the Northeast.

But the two most stirring discs in the set are Samba Brasil and Afro Brasil, both highly danceable sets that bring to mind the old Brazilian adage that "anyone who doesn't like samba is either sick in the head or lame in the feet." A related disc, Canta Brasil: The Great Brazilian Songbook, shifts attention to composers, accentuating the work of the Bahia and Nascimento clans.

Most other compilations tend to focus more narrowly on a particular period or style. For instance, David Byrne, former leader of the New Wave rock band Talking Heads, has put out a "Brazil Classics" series on his Luaka Bop label, reflecting his own particular tastes. The first disc, Beleza Tropical, is a survey of mainstream Brazilian pop, leaning heavily on Caetano Veloso and other tropicalistas, while the second, O Samba, focuses on the principal contemporary samba performers. The more traditional sound of Rio's main samba school performers, on the other hand, gets a fuller treatment on Rounder Records' delightful Brazil--Roots Samba, complete with the unison chorus singing and large percussion section that is the Rio trademark.

Several overview discs also concentrate on forró, the accordion-driven dance music native to Brazil's northeast, the poorest and most backward part of the country. Urbane Brazilians traditionally have looked down on this style of music as crude and lower-class: indeed, one compilation released in the United States deftly skewers that prejudice, proudly taking Forró: Music for Maids and Taxi Drivers as its title.

That peculiarly Brazilian chauvinism, however, is no reason for Americans not to enjoy a frenetic style of music that David Byrne aptly describes as "a mixture of ska with polka, in overdrive" in his liner notes to the excellent Forró: Music of the Brazilian Northeast. The focus here is on the late Luiz Gonzaga, the king of forró, who also figures prominently on Asa Branca: Accordion Forró from Brazil.

So feel free to explore, with the assurance that at every turn you are likely to find music as exciting, as sophisticated as that produced anywhere in the world, that moves the body as much as the soul. Perhaps it is best to let Antônio Carlos Jobim have the last word on the extraordinary musicality of his country and its people: "What really swings is the music of the United States, Cuba, the Caribbean and vicinity, and of course, Brazil," he often said. "The rest is all waltzes."

Larry Rohter is the Caribbean bureau chief for The New York Times and a former music critic for The Washington Post.