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A Nation of Cannibals:
Brazilian Music In 1991

by Chris McGowan

Many years ago, I was sitting with friends at a humble roadside bar high in the mountains outside the small Brazilian town of Guaramiranga. On one side of us was a banana plantation, on the other thick tropical rain forest. We drank Brahma beer under the stars and watched bats swoop down now and again to nab insects. I was having a great time until the proprietor turned up the radio and on came "Kung Fu Fighting," a particularly dreadful disco hit from the 1970s. I groaned and cursed the airwaves.

Well, if you enjoy something other than American (or English) pop and you've travelled to foreign countries, then you probably understand such a reaction. Do we really have to be subjected to Michael Jackson and Madonna everywhere we go?

Many countries have managed to maintain strong musical traditions--and sales of domestic albums--despite the overwhelming promotional clout of the multinational music marketing machine; yet others have been swamped by the slickly produced, expertly marketed foreign competion: namely, American-U.K. pop sung in English and distributed by WEA, PolyGram, EMI, BMG and Sony.

Quite a few fans of Brazilian music fear that Brazil is about to be overrun, once and for all, by rock and rap and other imported genres. They fear that MTV, installed last October in Brazil, will further accelerate an "Americanization" of the local music scene. And in May, there was even an article in Pulse magazine titled "Goodbye, Gal Costa; Hello, Paula Abdul" that discussed this perceived cultural invasion.

But I, for one, do not harbor such fears. Though there are indeed great changes currently afoot in música popular brasileira, they are complex, not necessarily obvious to those who live in or visit cities like Rio de Janeiro, and quite probably positive.

THE BREAK-EVEN: There are without doubt powerful pressures exerted by the multinational music companies in Brazil that distort the music business and give American pop a presence and success there it otherwise would not have. As many readers of The Beat already know, it is easy to "dump" ready-made albums in countries already familiar with American acts singing in English. You like what you know, especially if it has thousands of dollars in promotion behind it.

American and English acts, already developed and recorded here, can be repackaged for a relatively small amount and sold elsewhere. In 1987, Tim Rooney, the then-president of PolyGram Brazil, gave me the following breakdown: for an album by an international act, it took only about 3,000 units sold (not counting promotion) for the label to break even, since recording costs had already been absorbed back in the home market.

For an extremely low-budget Brazilian album ($5,000 recording cost), it would take about 3,500 units to break even; a star like Simone or Milton Nascimento might take 70,000 units sold just to cover $100,000 in studio expenses. This is not even taking into account artist development costs.

So, do you re-package as much Bon Jovi, Sinead O'Connor, Tina Turner and U2 as possible, and promote the hell out of it? Such "product" is proven (at least elsewhere), has incredible high-production music videos to give it sizzle, and has such a low breakeven that it's more than worth the gamble. Developing new Brazilian artists, on the other hand, is a risky business. It will get even a little riskier by the government's recent decision to do away with a wholesale tax break for labels on Brazilian releases.

The multinationals still sell both types of music, of course. But such ease of breaking even goes straight to the bottom line; they often release more international titles in any one year than they do domestic albums, even though the homegrown artists continue to sell more total units. Profit is the name of the game, and repackaging international releases is much safer than developing new Brazilian artists.

It also must be stressed that Brazilians are open by nature, and curious about other cultures. They are not as ethnocentric and culturally limited as we Americans. That trait, together with the business imperatives of the multinational labels, has resulted in international music accounting for 35-45% of record sales since at least the mid-1970s. With MTV, it could go even higher.

Yet, such figures do not necessarily show what most Brazilians (many of whom don't have record or tape players, let alone a CD unit) are listening to. But even if they do reflect what consumers with spending money are buying, it doesn't harbinge the end of Brazilian music.

For Brazil is a nation of cannibals.

UM PAIS ANTROPOFÁGICO: Brazil has always eagerly consumed foreign styles and songs, mastered them, and then "Brazilianized" them to create something new. Don't complain about Paul Simon raiding South African styles--the Brazilians have been doing it for much longer. Such tendencies were even codified and celebrated by the poet Oswald de Andrade in his 1928 "Cannibalistic Manifesto." Later, the late '60s Tropicalia arts movement--led by Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé and others in the musical area--reaffirmed these bloodcurdling aesthetics.

Blame it on the Brazilian instrumental style of choro, which developed in the late 19th century from the addition of Brazilian flair and syncopation to European genres such as waltzes, polkas, schottishes, and mazurcas.

Then after 1880, there was the dance-hall style of maxixe, which merged lundu with habanera, polka and--later on--tango. Choro and maxixe both influenced the urban form of samba emerging in Rio de Janeiro in the early part of this century, as did marcha, which in the 1920s would pick up elements from one-step and ragtime.

Later, variations of samba like samba de gafieira, sambolero and bossa nova would absorb additional influences from big-band jazz, bolero and West Coast jazz, respectively. And, the eclectic post-bossa generation of Brazilian musicians often referred to as "MPB" (Milton Nascimento, Gil, Veloso, Gal Costa, Simone, Djavan, Ivan Lins, João Bosco, etc.) heartily mixed rock, funk, bolero, reggae and other exotic colors with Brazil's own variegated palette from the 1960s through the '80s.

Brazilian music has long cannibalized music from around the world, and indeed has thrived on a steady menu of foreign songs. One can see the process continuing and yielding outstanding results in the music of young contemporary artists such as the Paralamas and Marisa Monte.

BEYOND A RIOCENTRIC VIEW: If one is trying to figure out what is happening right now in Brazilian music, it is mistake to make assumptions based only on what's going on in the cosmopolitan megalopolises of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. For example, if you spend all your time in Rio's Zona Sul (Botafogo, Copacabana, Ipanema, etc.), where most visitors go, you definitely will feel invaded by American-English pop.

You hear it in the discos, on the beach, at parties, and on the radio. There are stations that play just Brazilian music, like Radio Nacional, but most play everything and some play mainly international pop. But what the middle-class youth in Rio listen to is not the whole story, by any means.

While Rio's Zona Sul teenagers listen to Guns N'Roses, Information Society, and domestic rock acts Titãs and Legião Urbana, other areas of the city are listening to samba by Bezerra da Silva, Zeca Pagodinho, Martinho da Vila, and many others. Also very popular are romantic ballads by singers like Amado Batista, Wando, Fabio Jr., Rosana, Roberto Carlos, and Joanna. These slow, sentimental, tearjerking tunes are pejoratively called brega (tacky) by non-adherents and the name has stuck as a commonly used description of the genre.

Much less popular than brega but more important artistically is the superb instrumental music now being made by old and new artists such as Nó Em Pingo D'Agua, Aquarela Carioca, Uakti, Pau Prasil, Alemão, Zil, Egberto Gismonti, Hermeto Pascoal, Dori Caymmi, Marcos Ariel and Antonio Adolfo. They have developed small but loyal followings in and outside of Brazil.

Far from glittering Ipanema and the towering skyscrapers of São Paulo city, music of a much different type is being made. Deep in the interiors of states like São Paulo and Goiás, hundreds of thousands of albums are sold by música sertaneja artists, Brazilian "country" musicians who sing simple songs that mix rural idioms such as toada, moda da viola, cana-verde and catira with Bolivian, Paraguayan, Mexican and even Nashville influences.

Sertaneja acts often consist of duos who strum guitars and vocalize plaintively in thirds; two of the most successful sertaneja pairs are Chitãozinho e Xororó and Milionario e José Rico. Others include: Leandro e Leonardo, João Mineiro e Marciano Reunidos, and -- perhaps the best of them all -- Pena Branca and Xavantinho. Lately these sertaneja acts have been invading Brazil's urban centers and even getting radio airplay in Rio; but you can be sure the surfers in Ipanema wouldn't be caught dead listening to them.

In the South (states like Rio Grande do Sul), you can hear regional artists like Gaúcho da Fronteira and virtuoso accordionist Renato Borghetti. The Northeast has its many forro stars, who churn out a lively baiao and xaxado on accordion, bass drum and triangle. And farther north, in Amazonian cities like Belém, artists like Beto Barbosa, Márcia Ferreira, Alípio Martins, Carlos Santos and Betto Dougllas belt out lambada and a variety of other new styles. They are incredibly popular in vast regions of the North and Northeast.

In Bahia, they also have their own music and it far outsells everything else. An article in the Sept. 12 '90 issue of Veja magazine estimated that 95% of the music played on the radio in Salvador is Brazilian music; on weekends, 60% of it is Bahian sounds.

Blocos afro (Olodum, Ilê-Aiyê, and many more), trio-eletrico-inspired groups (Chiclete com Banana, Banda Mel, etc.), and solo singers like Gerônimo, Cid Guerreiro and Luiz Caldas rule Bahian airwaves and record stores. They don't need to conquer all of Brazil to be a hit; the biggest of them can sell 400,000 units of an album in the Northeast alone. Bahia has been a hotbed of musical creativity for the last ten years, and remains quite resistant to slick imported pop, thank you.

THE PASSING OF THE GUARD: Many fans of Brazilian music--both American and Brazilian--seem to fear that the great MPB acts like Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Djavan and Ivan Lins are being pushed off the airwaves and out of the Brazilian music scene by Brazilian rockers like Legião Urbana and imported canned acts like Madonna. These MPB artists also happen to be the Brazilian names that American aficionados currently know best and like the most.

The MPB legends are losing their hold, but for different reasons than many people think. Rock and roll is not the problem--in fact, it has been around in Brazil for more than 30 years now. Although Brazilian rock truly did come of age--artistically and commercially--in the 1980s, domestic roqueiros have had big hits since the 1960s, starting with Jovem Guarda and moving through Raul Seixas, Os Mutantes, Secos e Molhados, and Rita Lee. Sales of foreign rock also boomed in the '80s, but it's been around for a long time as well.

What is happening is the passing of time. MPB artists like Milton were extremely successful in Brazil in the 1970s and early '80s, and created some of the most creative, sophisticated, and compelling popular music the world has ever seen. But their heyday of mass appeal is gone, just as it passed for the big names of bossa nova.

Most of the MPB stars are in their late forties and success in pop music goes largely to those with a grip on the youth audience. Milton, Gil, Caetano and their peers are still producing fantastic music, but their audience is greying and has teenage children. What new fans they gain each year come mainly from outside Brazil, in places like the United States. They are classics--like Frank Sinatra, B.B. King, Ella Fitzgerald--but they no longer hold the middle-class youth under their spell.

So, perhaps the best headline for what is happening right now in Brazil, all of Brazil, is this:

"Goodbye Gal Costa, Hello Paula Abdul
Marisa Monte
Chiclete com Banana
Márcia Ferreira
and Chitãozinho e Xororó..."

Onward to Ano 2000.

© Chris McGowan 1991
Originally published in The Beat magazine, Vol. 10, No. 4, 1991