Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Brazil's music revolution: the new stars remaking a nation's culture

Ben Beaumont-Thomas/The Gaurdian

A tear gas canister bounces through the darkness towards protesters on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. One steps in and kicks it back at the police, connecting on the half-volley with Neymarian perfection. Caught on video online, it's a mix of passion and elan that encapsulates a new generation of Brazilians: not only have they been energised into political action, they're also creating a stylish, witty and invigorating new culture. Revolution isn't just on the streets.

In music, this is manifesting itself in new hybrid styles drawing from global influences online. There's the afrobeat of Rodrigo Campos, the soulful rap of Criolo – and then there's Gaby Amarantos, Graveola and Lucas Santtana, who are currently touring the UK together under the umbrella of their UK label, Mais Um Discos.

Santtana, from Sao Paolo, makes albums that draw on dub, Rio's raucous baile funk, European electronica and more – a blend that transcends his country's borders. "I don't see my music as Brazilian," he says. "For me, it's international. Brazilian music is built from crossovers: bossa nova, for instance, has a lot of jazz influence. So it's very difficult to understand Brazilian music as a 'pure' music. A painting is not linked to the country, but to the artist – it's like that in music."

Even his 2009 album, Sem Nostalgia, a take on the quintessentially Brazilian acoustic guitar playing of Gilberto Gil (with whom he performed in his mid-20s), is switched up with soft electronic glitches. "I wanted to show the classic style could be applied to a different format – there are other possibilities."

One of his tracks, Ela E Belem, pays homage to the "technobrega" sound of Belem in north Brazil. "I love the layers of this sound," he says. "The textures are like a painting." It's more punkish graffito than watercolour, though – a collision of Caribbean carnival energy and digitised Amazonian rhythms pioneered by singer Gaby Amarantos. Inspired by radio broadcasts drifting in from Suriname and Guyana, she made tracks on cheap equipment and pirated software, and let them get bootlegged to reach a wider audience; the video for the track Xirley, starring an "anti-piracy Jesus", was seen by a TV producer, who used the song as the theme music to a soap opera. "I cannot begin to explain how much this means in Brazil," she says. "It's huge, more important than topping the charts. The music spread like a fever – technobrega took over."

Amarantos has now been dubbed the "Brazilian Beyoncé" – though Beyoncé is unlikely to appear on an album cover with lasers shooting from her nipples.

With Brazilian radio rife with payola (paying for airplay) and focused on commercial hits, Santtana credits this newfound freshness and variety to the internet. It's a sentiment shared by Luiz Lopes, singer and guitarist in Graveola, a band whose songs hark back to the tropicália movement of the 1960s. "Tropicália opened everybody's minds to global influences – it mixed rock, mass culture and hippie ideas into a new ideal of art," he says. "But with the internet, our access to the world is now vast. We're deep into cultural multiperspectives – our minds are completely 'other'." This finds expression in Graveola's uniquely skewed indie aesthetic, using flutes, skillets and even musical Christmas cards to create a cosmopolitan sound.

Amarantos has a similar approach: using new sounds while acknowledging the old. "It's as if we were isolated and protected from the rest of Brazil until the internet – and when influences did arrive, they were too few, so they could not dominate. We kept eating acai with fish, and we kept listening to local rhythms." But even in their relative seclusion from western culture, there are weird similarities between the giant customised technobrega soundsystems of the Amazon and European dance festival stage sets: "The forest people are connected to the vibration of the planet and the trends of the world without even knowing!" she laughs.

Just like the tropicália movement, whose members criticised the US-backed administration of the mid-60s, today's musical energy is spilling into the current upsurge in political action. Santtana wrote his song Now No One Has Anything after witnessing the Occupy movement during his first trip to London, while Lopes says: "We're beginning to live in a different era of self-consciousness, in all senses. Artists haven't just been expressing these feelings through songs. They're connected to the protests. They're on the front line."

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