Sergio Mendes: Brasileiro
Best World Music Album, 1992
Original Liner Notes"In this album, I wanted to have everything I love about Brazilian music, the whole spectrum of styles and percussion and chants," says Sergio Mendes about Brasileiro. "I had always wanted to do something completely Brazilian and so this project came totally from the heart."
by Chris McGowan
The intricate and powerful percussive interplay that kicks off the first song lets us know that something special is about to unfold. From then on, each succeeding number holds its own surprises, as Sergio brings together the rhythms of Rio, Bahia, and Brazil's Northeast, and the superlative compositions of Carlinhos Brown, Ivan Lins, João Bosco, Guinga and Hermeto Pascoal.
Brasileiro is perhaps Sergio's most distinctive and compelling recording to date, in a career that has seen him explore everything from bossa nova and jazz (as the leader of the Sexteto Bossa Rio in the early 1960s) to the smooth crossover sounds of his groups Brasil '66 and Brasil '77 to the wide spectrum of pop styles that he recorded in the 1980s.
A musical expedition that charts some new territory, Brasileiro is the real thing, a coherent work alive with vitality and authenticity. It is both a rich introduction to Brazil's vibrant contemporary musical scene, and an album that creates new musical blends that will intrigue listeners in both North America and Bahia.
It is a recording that Sergio had long wanted to do, a full immersion in the Brazilian urban and folk music that he had experimented with to a lesser extent in albums such as Primal Roots (1972) and Arara (1989). When he moved to Elektra Records in 1991, he finally felt confident about undertaking such a project.
His new work would be a year in the making, with five months spent in Brazil and seven in the U.S. "It was the hardest I've ever worked on an album," notes Sergio. One reason was the sheer number of musicians involved; another was the meticulous approach that Sergio took in putting it all together. "I wanted to do it really well, the right way." That meant going to Brazil, rehearsing musicians there and recording with them at the studios of PolyGram and Som Livre, then bringing the tapes to Los Angeles for overdubbing and mixing.
Sergio's whole attitude towards the project is made clear in the riveting opening number. "Fanfarra (Cabua Lele)," which starts with a veritable rhythmic explosion courtesy of nearly 100 percussionists from Mangueira, Portela, Padre Miguel, Beija-Flor and other renowned escolas de samba, the samba schools from Rio de Janeiro. Each escola parades during Carnaval with some 5,000 members and about 300 drummers and percussionists.
The "Fanfarra" ("fanfare") opening features an incredible exchange between the repique-player Jaguar and the other percussionists. It is typical of what each escola plays as an instrumental introduction to the samba that it performs in Rio's sambodromo parade route.
"I always wanted to capture what you hear on the streets of Rio during Carnaval, that power, that energy," says Sergio. "So we got the best players, which was not easy to do, and then gathered them all together in a parking lot to record with 24-track equipment. Then I had the idea of putting something on top of that."
Layered onto the thundering percussion is a Bahian samba de roda (circle samba) written and sung by Carlinhos Brown, a noted young composer from Salvador, Bahia's capital. Behind him is a chorus of four women, three men and Sergio, all overdubbed in Rio. "So, it's an Afro-Bahian song with Rio Carnaval percussion behind it," says Sergio.
"Magalenha" is also written by Carlinhos, who shares vocals with Gracinha Leoporace. Rhythmically, the song is mixture of baião (a folk style from Brazil's Northeast) and samba-reggae (a hybrid popularized by Bahian artists like Olodum and Banda Reflexu's in recent years), with the standout 15-member Bahian percussion group Vai Quem Vem [founded by Carlinhos Brown] powering the song along. The lively vocals are in the embolada style, with the same nine-voice chorus backing Carlinhos and Gracinha.
"Indiado" fuses forró and samba-reggae in an upbeat romp, again with Carlinhos and Gracinha on vocals and Vai Quem Vem guesting. This time, L.A. musicians Jeff Porcaro (drums), Jimmy Johnson (bass), and Paul Jackson (guitar) add their licks, as does Sergio with funky synthesized horns from his keyboards.
"When I brought back all the tracks from Rio to L.A., to add more tracks with musicians here, there were big smiles in the studio," recalls Sergio. "They loved it and it gave them something fresh and different to work with. They played their best and it was a total integration of their work with the Brazilian Afro rhythms."
Vai Quem Vem is once more spotlighted in "What Is This?," in which group member Carmen Alice offers up a Bahian-style rap song, sung in English. With the rap rhythms played on surdos, berimbau, and other Brazilian instruments, and Sergio on synthesizer, Carmen offers up a song about her hometown Salvador neighborhood of Candeal. "It's their reading of the American rap style," says Sergio. "In Bahia, they hear everything -- rap, reggae, merengue -- and adapt it. Carmen's song is so raw and pure. I thought the simplicity and ingenuity and purity of it were really interesting. It's very Bahian."
The next two tunes, "Lua Soberana" and "Sambadouro," are written byIvan Lins, one of Brazil's most noted composers, and sung by Gracinha. The first song is a stirring afoxe with a haunting melody; the second is a sweetly flowing samba. About the latter tune, Sergio comments, "It has some of my old Brasil '66 sound, and also reminds me of a gafieira, one of Rio's romantic dance halls where couples dance to samba."
"Senhoras do Amazonas" features music written by João Bosco, who shares vocals with Gracinha. "This is the first time I've recorded João," says Sergio. "I love his stuff. This is a samba, but not with normal chord changes. There are lots of diminished chords, giving an unusual harmonic structure to the song."
"Kalimba" is the third Ivan Lins number on the album and about it Sergio notes, "Here you have tribal chanting in the lyrics with an R&B dance sound underneath." Sergio, Jeff Porcaro, Nathan East, Luis Conte, and Paul Jackson add the funk.
Carlinhos Brown is heard again with "Barbaré," in which he shares vocals with Gracinha. The gently swinging song is reminiscent of Gilberto Gil, and features an ijexá rhythm from Bahia and a pop-jazzy chorus on top. Carlinhos, Sergio, and bossa veteran Sebastião Neto handle the percussion. "I think this song is very beautiful," comments Sergio. "It has Bahia and also the flair of Rio, too. It makes me think of Rio's beautiful beaches, in the late afternoon of a summer day."
While in Brazil working on the album, Sergio met a songwriter named Guinga, who often works together with the lyricist Aldir Blanc. "Guinga is the composer who impressed me the most when I was there," recalls Sergio. "He's like Villa-Lobos meets Cole Porter. He made me cry. He's very shy, plays guitar, and writes beautiful stuff." One of his two songs featured on the album is the captivating, hypnotic "Esconjuros," which mixes the baião and maracatu styles, with Steve Tabalone's oboe and flute adding a classical mood at times.
The merry tune "Pipoca" showcases Brazil's wizard of instrumental music, Hermeto Pascoal, with Gracinha supplying the roller-coaster "vocalese." About Hermeto, Sergio says, "We go back so many years. We used to play together in bars in São Paulo, accompanying singers. He's one of the most incredible musicians I've ever met. This time, I asked him to write me a samba in 3/4 and he did! Here he plays acoustic piano and I play synthesizer."
"Magano" sounds like a speeded-up samba-reggae underneath, with touches of merengue on top in Sergio's keyboards. In the chorus, Gracinha and the other vocalists wish us "Axé," a Yoruban greeting that roughly translates as "positive energy" or "life force."
The next-to-last piece is the exquisite "Chorado," featuring the wordless vocals of Claudio Nucci, and the synth cello and oboe of Sergio. "Guinga strikes again!," says Sergio about the tune's composer. "It's a beautiful song and Claudio sings like an archangel on it."
It's an appropriate way to bring us near the end of a remarkable album, which is closed in fitting style by the all-star escola de samba percussionists, who perform "Fanfarra (Despedida)" and leave us with the lingering echoes of a hot Carnaval night fading into a Rio de Janeiro sunrise.
What Sergio Mendes has done with Brasileiro is create something that is totally fresh for both American and Brazilian ears, and to deliver the unexpected and often unprecedented with nearly every song (not an easy task). It brings us the remarkable rhythmic creativity of Bahia, the folkloric music of Brazil's Northeast, the samba sounds of Rio, and even a touch of North American funk.
Sergio is obviously happy with this album, a dream now fulfilled after a year of hard work, but he won't go so far as to say that it's his best album ever. "That would be too pretentious. But it has just about all of my favorite things from Brazil."
--Chris McGowan (February, 1992)