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Guide to Rio de Janeiro’s Music Scene

11 Jan


Last year I wrote an article for American Express on where to find good music in Rio de Janeiro. As well as talking about where to see samba, the article mentions the best places to dance samba, to hear tropicalia and bossa nova, as well as the best spots for dance music and alternative rock and indie. It’s a pretty good primer for getting your head around the Rio nightlife.

You can read the article at

I’m Back!

2 Jan

It’s hard to contain the excitement of being back on the road again, and especially of heading straight to a place I know nothing about.

On Saturday and Sunday Nuqui will be hosting the NuquiFestival. As far as I’m aware it’s being organised by Arianna Vallecilla, a Colombian married to Will “Quantic” Holland, a relatively famous (he’s played some big festivals, Southbank Centre, Lincoln Center in New York, etc.) British producer, musician and extreme convert to the Colombian musical cause. I had met both of them last year, Will at Discos Fuentes in Medellín where he was working on his Ondatropica project and Arianna in Cartagena where we got talking about música pacifica, the distinctively Afro-Colombian music of Colombia’s Pacific coast. On that occasion she sold me a copy of Una Sola Raza by Grupo Canalón de Timbiqui, as pure an expression of Afro-Colombian music as you’re likely to find.

I’m hoping that Grupo Canalón will be at NuquiFestival, as well as Will and a few other musicians I’ve met along the way. In truth, it’s hard to know who will be at the festival as all that exists to even prove it will be happening is a Facebook page that includes a couple of directions and an apology for not updating the page very often.

I’ll be flying to Nuqui from Medellín. It will mark my first visit to Colombia’s Pacific coast and my first visit to the Pacific coast since spending a week in Máncora (Peru) what seems like an eternity ago.

It’s the Pacific coast of Colombia which I’ve most wanted to visit since leaving Colombia last year with a bag full of new Colombian music and the names of a hundred artists I wanted to listen to. The music from this region has retained it’s sense of origin despite influences of salsa and jazz. It’s music which can hit you right in your soul; devotional, passionate, hypnotic, a beautiful example of how African slaves were able to adapt their sacred music to a new environment while also bringing in a different catalogue of instruments.

This is the music which I am hoping will be rife in Nuqui, and the reason why I had to give up my New Year’s Eve to get a New Year’s Day flight to Colombia and make sure I will be in attendance.

New Book Celebrating Colombian Music and Culture

28 May

This week I have been mostly working on Sounds and Colours Presents Colombia, a new book/CD celebrating Colombian music and culture. A lot of the research for this book was done during my Colombia travels earlier this year, all documented below, but since then the search has continued and I’ve delved head-first into anything Colombian I could find, and managed to get a few good collaborators along the way.

Which means this summer I’m going to be editing this new 208-page book (limited to 1,000 copies) and accompanying CD that will celebrate everything that’s great about Colombia, with lots of articles traditional styles of Colombian music as well as the current music scenes, Colombian cinema, Circo Para Todos, the giants of Colombian literature and theatre, original artwork, and lots more. It’s gonna be really special for anyone interesting in Colombia.

To raise the money for the printing costs we’re currently selling advance copies through a fundraising campaign. If you want to help a great project get off the ground, as well as discover a hell of a lot about Colombia you should really check out the link:

Jorge Ben’s Africa Brasil

7 Oct

Never has Brazilian music been as funky as this. The colour and hustle of Rio de Janeiro’s streets sits alongside the tight funk of James Brown and Fela Kuti on an album increasingly being thought of as Jorge Ben’s crowning achievement. The glittering guitar work, insistent vocals and bursting melodies are the same as he’s always used but there’s a power to the band that wasn’t completely there before and a rawness which would soon be lost in the eighties.

Opening track “Ponta De Laca Africano (Umbabaraúma)” starts the album with one of the densest grooves Ben has ever concocted. It also continues one of Ben’s main lyrical themes, that of football. Umbabaraúma is the name given to dribbling the ball past the opponents. It’s almost startling when you see the English translation of lyrics as the song is built like a chant. Here’s one of the verses:

Play ball play ball ball player
Play ball I want to play ball ball player
Jump, jump, fall, get up, go up and get down
Run, kick, find a hole, thrill and give thanks
See how the whole city empties out
On this beautiful afternoon to watch you play

Another two songs take football as their main theme on this disc; “Meus Filhos, Meu Tesouro” and “Camisa 10 da Gavea”. It’s one of his enduring qualities that Ben has always stayed clear of songs with political intent, choosing instead to write about themes from which any Brazilian can find joy. That he’s held in the same regard as heavyweight songwriters such as Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso is testament to how good these songs actually are.

This album includes two particular songs which have gone on to become stoned-on classics. “Taj Mahal”, which had featured as an improvisational jam on his collaboration with Gilberto Gil from the previous year, was here reinvented as a disco-funk tour-de-force. Some people see this as the step that Ben made away from Samba Funk and towards Samba Disco. It is definitely true that later albums would be far more disco’d up, but this should in no way detract from this track. It is impossible to sit still as the beat kicks in on this number, before the hushed words ‘Taj Mahal’ get the ball rolling and both an irresisitible verse and chorus leave no moment of rest for the song’s entirety.

“Xica da Silva” is another song which has gone on to become a staple, appearing in different guises on future Ben albums. It also brings up one of the other themes of the album, it’s African roots. I’ve tried to find out more about this record and where the African influence comes from but have failed to find anything substantial. Has Ben been to Africa? Were African musicians used on the record? After many listens I would have to suggest that the African influence comes more from the African influence within Brazil, a country which bought more slaves than any other. Xica da Silva, more commonly written as Chica da Silva or Francisca da Silva, is the name of an African slave who managed to work up the class ladder by marrying one of the wealthiest colonialists in Brazil. In some ways her story is very controversial as she kept slaves once she became wealthy but Ben chooses to concentrate on the paradigm of her being a black slave treated like loyalty, and with such a slinky, soulful groove this was perhaps the better choice.

Although I’ve alluded to James Brown and Fela Kuti these are just some touchstones in terms of understanding this album because it seems to have it’s own unique flavour. On first listen I was quite adamant that I’d never heard anything like it. Even other Ben records written around this time don’t seem to quite grasp the raw funkiness of this, a funkiness which does undeniably make you think of Fela Kuti rather than any of Ben’s Brazilian contemporaries, but then at the same time the album is undeniably Brazilian. From the songs about football to the Afro-Brazilian drums and rippling samba he learnt in Rio it has to be Brazilian, but then songs such as “Cavaleiro do Cavalo Imaculado” seem to come out of nowhere and you get lost once more in this album.

It has to go down as one of the greatest Brazilian albums of all time. I have no doubt about that despite only so far having a limited exposure to Brazilian music. There is put simply just some music which breaches all boundaries and exists on its own pedastal. Africa Brasil has to be one of these albums.

In 1989 David Byrne released Brazil Classics Vol.1: Beleza Tropical, a collection of classic MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) songs. “Ponta de Laca Africano” was the opening track and made a lot of people in America investigate more of Ben’s work, and especially Africa Brasil. This video of the song was produced when that CD was released:

New Music from Pernambuco

21 Sep

The past few weeks have been spent furiously listening to music from the Pernambuco province of Brazil. The result… this compilation:

Musica de Massa! New Sounds of Pernambuco

It’s been getting some good attention in Brazil and might even sneak a mention in a Sao Paulo newspaper, but we shall see. I’ll keep you all up-to-date.

The Music Scene in Sao Paulo

9 May

It’s now been a couple of months since I got back from Sao Paulo but I am still working on material from my time there, and this has manifested itself in a number of ways.

The most exciting result from my time in Sao Paulo is the article I wrote for The Wire, which has been published in the May edition of The Wire. You can read that article here. However, as well as featuring in the print edition I also collected a number of mp3s for their website. You can listen to those mp3s here.

Even more exciting though is the compilation I made for Sounds and Colours, which was released today. This features 18 tracks by artists from Sao Paulo, highlighting the truly eclectic, amazing mix happening in the city at the moment. The compilation is entitled Nossa, Cara! New Sounds of Sao Paulo and can be listened to and downloaded from here.

I have also published a few interviews with singers from Sao Paulo, for both Sounds and Colours and JungleDrums. These were with Juliana R, Lulina, Blubell and Tulipa.

I’ve still got a few more articles to post too so keep your eyes peeled!

I wanted to leave you with a video from Criolo. He’s a rapper from the Grajaú neighbourhood of Sao Paulo and has just released Nó Na Orelha (you can download it for free from here), one of the best hip-hop albums I’ve ever heard! Here’s his video for “Nao Existe Amor Em SP (Love Doesn’t Exist in Sao Paulo)”:

A selection of recommended and not-so-recommended books about South America

27 Apr

My obsession with South America continues to power on, leaving me with little choose to spend the majority of every day either reading about the Peruvian elections, listening to Brazilian music, trying unconvincingly to make milanesas, watching films about indigenous tribes and reading book after book about any subject that has some vague link to South America. Therefore, I thought I would share a few of those books here, the majority of which I would recommend.

Tropical Truth by Caetano Veloso

Start with the best! This is Veloso’s autobiography from childhood upto the modern day, though most of the content is the story of how tropicalia was borne, and then Veloso’s incarceration by the Brazilian government. There’s something incredibly easy about reading this book, Veloso will vary the subject from personal traumas to discussing the avant-garde or even talking about masturbation, yet always he comes across as informal yet incredibly knowledgeable, and with a serious passion for music. The sections about tropicalia and his role within the movement are truly revelatory. Far too little has been written about that particular period in Brazil’s history, but this does help to fill that gap somewhat.

Viva South America! by Oliver Balch

This is a selection of articles by Oliver Balch as he travels throughout South America. Written in a journalistic style, it follows Balch as he goes from country-to-country and subject-to-subject, all the time relating the experience to Simon Bolivar’s idea of how South America would evolve. This is a very interesting book that underwhelmed me for the first three chapters in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. For some reason the overly-political tone disengaged me and I found it hard to relate to Balch and his stories. This changed though once he visited Paraguay and it’s disastrous human rights record and then Brazil, where he looked into attitudes towards race. Even better though are the last two chapters on Colombia and Venezuela where he somehow managed to show both in a bad light, yet through the warmth of the natives involved, made me want to visit these countries as soon as possible.

This is highly recommended for anyone visiting South America who wants to get under it’s skin and begin to understand how the continent functions.

Travels in a Thin Country by Sara Wheeler

A travel diary devoted to Chile, this is a really well-written, well-researched book, though left me cold in places. Yes, Wheeler travelled to many of the most interesting spots Chile has to offer, including Easter Island. But somehow I always feel like I want someone to truly engage with a country and the author never does here. She is great at studying it, and its people, and telling some nice stories along the way, but for some reason it never gets beyond that. All said though, this is very readable and is worth reading if you’re heading to the Chile for the detail alone.

Amazon Watershed by George Monbiot

This is almost the opposite of Wheeler’s book on Chile. Here, Monbiot goes completely over-the-top in his examination of Brazil’s Amazon. At times he is chased by landowners, caught by hired gunmen, beaten up at one stage, etc., etc. Monbiot knows how to be a true investigative journalist, and thankfully his writing is as thrilling as his research is thorough. Through the book Monbiot looks at some of the factors that have led to the destruction of the rainforest, and goes to both the people who the destruction is affecting and those that are doing the destruction.

In short, I can’t recommend this book enough. I can’t imagine a more evocative and informative book on this great rainforest.

Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life by Alex Bellos

All I need to say about this book is that if you have any interest in football or Brazil you will love it. Months after reading it I am still boring my friends with all the ridiculous anecdotes I have taken from this one.

We all know Brazil is crazy about football, but it’s not until you read this book that you really just how crazy!

The Condor and the Cows by Christopher Isherwood

Isherwood is an old-school author – this was written in the 40s – and it shows. This is a South American travel diary from a time that I struggle to evoke. Isherwood travels across South America (minus Brazil and Uruguay) staying with dignitaries and fellow authors and artists. The sections which talk about the social circles he finds himself can be a little suffocating but there is something very warm and erudite about his descriptions of the landscapes and cities, especially as his often barbed, sarcastic tones are the perfect antidote for anyone sick of the normal hyperbolous guff that finds its way into many travel journals these days.

Brazilian Popular Music & Globalization (edited by Charles A. Perrone & Christopher Dunn)

A selection of essays about Brazilian music. Some of these are very interesting, i.e. those on tropicalia and mangue bit, but some can be a little analytical. I don’t really want to talk about this book too much as it’s really only something that people with an academic nature and interest in Brazilian music will enjoy. If you’re not interested in the academic style but want to know more about Brazilian music then you should buy Veloso’s Tropical Truth instead, it’s far more enjoyable!

Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard

Yvon Chouinard is the founder and owner of Patagonia, the most respected of all outdoor clothes manufacturers. This autobiography tells how he started out rock-climbing in South California, got involved in surfing as he started selling his own climbing equipment, until eventually starting Patagonia and making millions with an ethical business model. The first half of this book is very interesting with Chouinard’s tales of the early days of surfing and climbing, includes his first experiences in Patagonia where he climbed Mount Fitz Roy. It was these experiences in Chile which led to his company being named after the region. However, the book tales off as Chouinard dissects one too many detail about how his ethnic business model is able to work and succeed.

Discovering Sao Paulo’s music scene on the web

27 Feb

I recently found a few social media sites on the web which reflected parts of the Sao Paulo music scene that I had not really encountered, mainly because they revolve around electronic music, but I thought I would share them here, as they do also show how people are trying to design different kinds of websites in order to connect people and ultimately connect a few bucks with their bank accounts.

SoundCloud, which is a pretty cool service for uploading a few tracks for people to listen to. It allows for folk to download the tracks, comment on them and also allows for people to upload music simply by the old drag and drop. It seems like they’ve begun trying to communicate with people via a blog service looking at music from different places. This week they chose Sao Paulo of all places. All of the acts chosen are new to me and they seem okay, but they’re in no way as creative as some of the other artists currently working in Sao Paulo at the moment. You can check out this article HERE. There is also a group page where people from Sao Paulo upload music, much in the way that on flickr you can throw your new photos into a Sao Paulo group.

There is also a page at City Sounds (or which features plenty of music from Sao Paulo. This is a service similar to but works geographically. I.e. I can check out London or Paris or Sao Paulo and find out what the people in those cities are listening to. It seems like everyone is listening to house and techno at the moment. Although this may be affected by the fact that mainly dance aficionados are signed up to the site, it may also be fact that dance and techno is more popular than the incredible, inventive pop music happening in Brazil right now. Why do people always take the safe option? Why are Coldplay so popular? I will never understand these things. For an update on what people are listenining to Sao Paulo right now just click HERE.

In way of respite, I would recommend checking out this article at Museyon, an interview with Flavia Durante, which reflects my kind of thing a little more, and also reveals a few more of the interesting things about Sao Paulo’s nightlife. She really does know her stuff.

And for an even greater respite just check out this video from Bodes e Elefantes:

Tom Ze at SESC Vila Mariana, Sao Paulo (25/02/11)

26 Feb

Like an excited schoolgirl awaiting new gossip on Justin Bieber the prospect of seeing Tom Zé in the flesh almost brought me out in hives. If I ever had any doubt this man is a genius this has now been put to bed.

The concert in Sao Paulo was to celebrate the release of Studies of Tom Ze: Explaining Things So I Can Confuse You, a compilation by Luaka Bop that combines three of his albums; Estudando o Samba, Estudando o Pagode and Estudando a Bossa. It’s songs from these albums that he would be playing, although he did stray into other albums quite a few times. One of the highlights was “To”, which is the video above, and also contains the line “Eu To Te Explicando Pra Te Confundir,” which is where the new collection gets the second part of its title. For some reason “Explaining Things So I Can Confuse You” just doesn’t quite have the same rhythm to it.

Here’s “Jimi Renda-Se,” one of those songs that isn’t actually on the Estudando albums, but is simply too good to miss out:

And here’s “Brigette Bardot.” It is said the cover of this album is actually a photo of a marble stuck up someone’s arse, something Zé did to amuse himself while the military dictatorship was at its most dominant.

For me, the concert at times was quite tiring. Mainly due to the fact that every song had an introduction, that would involve Zé pulling out a letter that he had written to Ronald Reagan, or explaining the contents of his new release, or putting a new jacket he had just made that he wanted everyone to know about. I’m pretty certain Ze’s brain works at 10 times the rate of mine, so even if he had been speaking English I would have struggled to keep up. As it was, in a rapid-fire of Portuguese my brain started to fizz and crackle trying to understand every nuance. It was these intros, which would often segue into the songs, that made the performance half theatre/half song, especially as he was playing with just a small quintet of performers, as opposed to some of the larger groups he’s been helming lately.

And for a bit more background information, this is the little promotional nugget Luaka Bop put together for the release.

Lucas Santtana at the Sonoridades Festival in Rio de Janeiro

23 Feb

Hey, I just saw my review of a Lucas Santtana gig is up at the Rio Times website. You can read it HERE. This one will be in the print edition in March also. Somehow it went a bit corporate that review, but it’s a hard publication to write for. They are very serious generally, maybe because they’re always looking for advertising and don’t want to upset anyone.

Anyway, I actually had a point about this concert. There is a very common practice in Brazilian concerts which is to have “convidados” or special invites whenever possible. What this basically means is that the main act will play a few songs, then a special guest will come on for a couple of songs, then they will do a couple more just with their normal band, then another special guest will come on, and so on, and so on, depending how famous the main person is or how many records they are hoping to sell (if the concert is going to be made into a DVD they will probably have at least 5 or 6 “special” guests (but how special can they be when there are so many of them is questionable!).

Ultimately this results in annoyingly disjointed shows where the main act spends half the time telling the audience how good their special guests are, and where the band never really get the chance to get juiced up as they have to spend half the concert just standing there. On the flip side, the promoter knows that all the internet people will send loads of excited tweets saying how excited they are that ? and ? and ? and ? and ? are all going to be playing, that they will get loads of photos of musicians together looking very happy. Somehow the quality of music at the show seems less important than these two things.

I watched Karina Buhr perform last week. It was an unbelievable show; amazing band, great performance, really good songs. At the Lucas Santtana show she played one of her songs, sang back-up on one of Lucas’ songs and then danced around at the back during one of the others. What a waste!

As if to prove I also can’t resist a cheap promo shot, here’s Karina with Lucas at the show (photo by P Eduardo):