Brazilian music rediscovers its roots

International Herald Tribune
Brazilian music rediscovers its roots
Monday, January 29, 2007
A visitor to a São Paulo exhibition, left, listening to music recorded by Brazil's Folklore Research Mission in the 1930s.

From the mid-1930s onward, the American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax led expeditions into the Deep South, searching for authentic blues and folk singers. Thanks to those efforts, Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie made their first recordings and a template for American popular music was set.

Early in 1938, Mário de Andrade, the municipal secretary of culture here, dispatched a Folklore Research Mission to the northeastern hinterlands of Brazil with a similar objective. His intention was to record as much music as possible as quickly as possible, before encroaching influences like radio and film began transforming the region's distinctive culture.

Traveling by truck, horse and donkey, they recorded whoever and whatever seemed to be interesting: piano carriers, cowboys, beggars, voodoo priests, quarry workers, fishermen, dance troupes and even children at play.

But the Brazilian mission's collection ended up languishing in vaults here. Only now, after nearly 70 years, is the registry of what de Andrade called a "prodigious treasure doomed to disappear" finally available, in the form of a six- CD boxed set that documents the roots of virtually every important style of modern Brazilian popular music, from samba to mangue beat.

"This is an important event because all of the main tendencies, whether European, African, or Indian in origin, are represented and are detectable," said Marcos Branda Lacerda, the director of the CD project, organized by the government here in Brazil's largest and most prosperous city. "Everything is encompassed, and when you listen, you can hear the influences that would radiate outward" and make Brazilian music the global force that it is today.

The CD set, called "Música Tradicional do Norte e Nordeste 1938," consists of more than seven hours of music, drawn from the 1,299 tracks by 80 performers, totaling nearly 34 hours, that the folklore team recorded in five states in northern and northeastern Brazil during the first half of 1938.

Many of the styles documented on the records proved to be major influences on the Tropicalismo movement, which emerged here in the 1960s and today has international admirers who include David Byrne, Beck and Devendra Banhart. The founders of that movement, mainly Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé and Gilberto Gil, currently Brazil's minister of culture, come from the interior of the northeastern state of Bahia and openly acknowledge their debt.

"This is the music I heard as a kid in my father's store, and it's where all the richness and strength of Brazilian popular music comes from," Zé said in an interview. "As sons of the Portuguese, Caetano and Gil and all the rest of us tropicalistas absorbed this folk influence, transmuted it and then took it to the world."

Zé also noted that the music of the Brazilian northeast that came from Portugal was itself a result of cultural mixing, especially from the Arab domination there during the medieval era. The lyrics of some songs in the compilation date back to troubadours' tales from that era, but the Arab presence manifested itself mainly in a vocal style characterized by a fondness for bent notes.

"That influence is still there in Brazilian popular music today," he said. "I hear it most clearly and beautifully when Caetano sings. He has developed a sophisticated, inventive way to use these modulations that were quite common in the singers we heard there in the backlands of the northeast."

Though the expedition's main focus seemed to be on rhythms, guitarists are likely to be especially interested in the third and fourth discs, which include field recordings of duos known as repentistas. Like the blues, this guitar-based genre emphasizes call and response and often employs the mixture of braggadocio and insults that Americans know as "the dozens."

Thirty years ago, after a visit here, this reporter played some recordings of repentistas for the American primitivist guitarist John Fahey. As someone interested in folk music around the world, Fahey expressed curiosity about the tunings and scales they used and pointed out that some of the gruff, raspy, somewhat nasal vocals reminded him of Son House and Bukka White.

"It gives me chills just to think of the similarities" between American blues and the music of the northeast, Zé said.

Of the three main cultural streams that have blended to make Brazil what it is, the Amerindian element is less represented on the discs than the European and African components, Lacerda said. But the collection contains songs performed by bandas de pifano, the fife and drum groups that are Indian in origin, as well as recordings of praias, a largely Indian musical ritual that has all but vanished from modern Brazil.

The original project was the idea of de Andrade, one of Brazil's most prominent intellectuals in the 20th century. A poet, novelist, critic, art historian, musicologist and public official, de Andrade had studied to be a pianist but in 1923 became one of the founders of the modernist literary movement, which dominated Brazil's cultural scene for decades to come.

"By the 1930s, Mário de Andrade and others felt an urgency to register popular manifestations of culture before it was too late," said Flávia Camargo Toni, a musicologist who wrote part of the liner notes for the set. "Life was completely isolated, and few people had traveled. So he felt he had to take advantage of the moment."

During World War II, copies of the recordings were sent to the Library of Congress in Washington. A decade ago, Rykodisc released a single disc sampler, co-produced by Mickey Hart, drummer of the Grateful Dead, and called "The Discoteca Collection," as part of the Library of Congress' Endangered Music Project, but it was not until 2000 that restoration efforts began here.

"When I first saw the material back in the 1980s, the roof was falling down, water was leaking in, and I thought we were going to lose it all," Lacerda said. "But I was greatly surprised when I found most of the 78s to be in good condition, and when they weren't, we were lucky enough to find duplicates that we could copy straight to CD and then eliminate a lot of the hisses."

During its travels, the Andrade expedition also collected musical instruments and other objects, and filmed and photographed dances and festivals. The result of those undertakings have been put on display at the municipal cultural center here, including the team's notebooks from the field, the recording equipment that it used, and transcriptions of interviews with performers.

At the time the recordings were made, Brazil was ruled by a dictatorship that had outlawed Afro-Brazilian religious practices. As a result, the folklore team required a letter of authorization from the police in order to do its work, and "a goodly portion of the objects they collected, especially the drums, came from confiscated material at police stations," said Vera Lúcia Cardim de Cerqueira, a curator at the center.

For all of Brazil's musical sophistication and exposure to international styles of music in recent years, that heritage continues to be relevant. Zé referred specifically to "What's Happening in Pernambuco: New Sounds of the Brazilian Northeast," which will be released on Byrne's Luaka Bop label on Feb. 7 and which he said was saturated with rhythms derived from those the folklore expedition documented.

In the past, Brazil "has not had a culture of preservation," Camargo Toni said, complicating efforts to place the country's musical evolution in its proper context. But with the mission's recordings available at last, she said, Brazilians now have "the possibility of listening to the past thinking of the future."

"We can show what we were, what we are today and how that came to be," she said.

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