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Brazzil - Music - March 2004
 

Brazilian Cool Is Back in London

In London, these days, you can pretty much find any and every
style of Brazilian music. From samba to forró to bossa
nova
to chorinho, every kind of Brazilian sound is catered
for. The creativity unleashed between Brazilian and British
DJs and this music is really coming into its own.

Guy Burton


At first glance the London club scene seems to be on a downer. Everywhere you go the music is commercial, either mainstream pop or classic '80s' tunes. The venues all have sticky carpets, women are so drunk they fall over men all dressed in exactly the same Ben Sherman shirts; all for the utterly unreasonable sum of £10 or more.

It's enough to make me want to scream.

At first glance it really doesn't seem to be improving; whether it is the West End or down in Clapham, mainstream clubbing in London is dire. Only in Shoreditch, where the Shoreditch twat reigns supreme (visualise an early twenty-something, dressed in combats and a long-sleeved T-shirt, effecting an air of nonchalance as he mentions he used to work in the media and you get the idea), does there seem to be any sign of life in the indigenous London club culture.

But even here you need to be quite choosy or you could end up in a nondescript little room, paying over the odds to listen to mediocre music and paying twice as much again for a round of bottled beer.

Perhaps then it's just as well that I try and avoid the mainstream scene. And if you're prepared to look, there is some good music and clubs out there—but you have to be prepared to make an effort.

And it may be no surprise to learn that as people like me drop out, Brazilian cool is coming back in. Back in the mid-1990s the only place seemed to be Bar Salsa in London's West End. But even that was relatively mainstream and more generally Latin American in tone. Occasional Brazilian classics were interspersed with Cuban and commercial dance music.

But things now seem to be changing. For in London you can pretty much find any and every style of Brazilian music. From samba to forró to bossa nova to chorinho, every kind of Brazilian sound is catered for.

Samba and bossa nova are already quite well-known to foreign observers: samba being the kind of music played at Carnaval and the laid-back jazz sounds of bossa nova personified by the albums of João Gilberto and Stan Getz, which can be found in the bedroom of most Goldsmith University graduates.

Chorinho, meanwhile, is a variation of the samba sound, but the difference might not be so obvious to a casual listener (including this one!). And forró is a style of country music, common in the Northeast, and popularised a few years ago by Gilberto Gil's soundtrack to the 2000 film, Eu Tu, Eles (Me, You, Them).

But just as these styles of Brazilian music can be found in London, the kinds of audience who attend will vary. Samba and bossa nova remain popular among certain sections of the British residents in London while chorinho and forró are making great strides, in particular among the Brazilian-based community who miss home.

But I can't help but think how ironic this affection for forró is; a couple of years ago in Rio I asked some friends if we could go to the Asa Branca in Lapa, the largest forró club in the city; the subsequent glare and stony silence suggested I should leave well alone.

Beyond these classical strains though, there is a really interesting phenomenon sweeping London—if you know where to look. Whereas samba and bossa nova are to all intents and purposes, frozen, the creativity unleashed between Brazilian and British DJs and this music is really coming into its own.

And nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the Batmacumba and A Brazilian Love Affair club nights and the success of the Ziriguiboom label, which includes among its artists Celso Fonseca, Bossacucanova and the increasingly regarded Bebel Gilberto.

I've been going to the Batmacumba and A Brazilian Love Affair nights on and off for a few years now. They tend to be held once a month in venues which are less than obvious. Batmacumba takes over the slightly uncomfortable and cramped ICA on the Mall while a trip out to the Notting Hill Arts Club is necessary for the night that A Brazilian Love Affair is on.

British Hands

The music is Brazilian, including a wide range of influences ranging from the familiar, including bossa nova and samba to house and drum and bass, but the DJs usually aren't. Although guest DJs from Brazil occasionally appear, the nights remain the preserve of the British. Vinyl junkie DJ Cliffy spearheads the Batmacumba nights while Patrick Forge usually mans the decks in Notting Hill.

Both of them came to their appreciation of Brazilian sounds in their own ways. DJ Cliffy became interested in Brazilian music through his interest in jazz, in particular that of Quarteto Novo. He went out to Brazil for two years to try and find these sounds, many of which were bossa nova and samba-jazz tracks from the 1960s.

During his time in Brazil he found dozens of records relating to these styles, many of which had been thrown away by younger Brazilians more interested in mainstream pop and rock bands. He began fusing what he found together with other sounds, producing exciting tracks which overlay these jazzy tunes with the dance beats more familiar to British ears at the Batmacumba sessions.

Meanwhile Patrick Forge spent years playing different kinds of music, but at some point in the 1980s he became involved with Kiss FM, a radio station dedicated to dance music. But with an eclectic interest in music, he became involved with another musician, Christian Franck, who shared his interest in Brazilian dance music.

They and several others formed Da Lata. Their music fused those sounds with the others that he was churning out through his other activities. It is this strain which he and others continue to play once a month at the Notting Hill Arts Club.

But Forge's involvement with Da Lata took a step back when Franck became more active with another group called Smoke City. The group became known for their single `Underwater Love', which was used as the soundtrack to a Levi's ad in the late 1990s.

And Smoke City was one of the collaborators on Bebel Gilberto's first album, Tanto Tempo (Too Much Time), which was released in 2000. Most who have heard the album have reacted in different ways: friends of mine who expect classic bossa nova find themselves disappointed, while others love its jazzed-up version which makes the tracks more of a dance album.

Yet Bebel is not popular in Brazil.

Although she has the pedigree—her father is the original bossa nova musician, João Gilberto, her uncle the celebrated songwriter and poet, Chico Buarque—Bebel is almost unheard of in her home country. I recall a few years ago putting on her album to several Carioca friends, only for them to ask me who she was and why they had never heard of her.

The reason, it seems, is because Brazilians don't seem interested. Turn on any radio station or visit any club in Rio and chances are boy and girl bands with their anodyne pop pollute the airwaves like most commercial music here in London.

São Paulo is marginally better, not least because of the efforts of Suba, a DJ who was instrumental in helping bring about Bebel's first album. He died soon after the recording sessions were finished, but his influence lives on in the other artists who have sprung from the same label as Bebel.

The Belgium Touch

The label is known as Ziriguiboom. Based in Belgium—the idea that a country better known for its flat landscape, Trappist monks and their home-brewed beer and plates of mussels and chips—should be the Mecca of the new style of Brazilian music does seem rather fanciful. But the harsh reality is that there doesn't yet seem to be a market for Bebel's and her peers' music; ditto for another musician with a similar style, Celso Fonseca.

Or is there?

Two years ago, a friend, Vinicius, gave me a lift through the streets of Rio. He put on a CD, with a style of music which was suspiciously similar to Bebel's. It was bossa nova, but not as chilled as hers. There was remixing going on, overlaying classic songs with some beats here and there.

I asked him who they were. Bossacucanova was the reply. But they weren't popular at the moment. Few others knew about them. A few months later they played in London, at Ronnie Scott's in Soho. My then girlfriend and I were one of the few people present; clearly, much still needed to be done if they hoped to break it into the big time.

But maybe that's not the point. This music, whether it is off the Ziriguiboom label or British DJs spinning the decks to a fused hybrid of British-Brazilian sounds, has a niche. And it seems to be doing very well at the moment.

Samba's New Spin

The blend of contemporary with classical seems to be reaching beyond bossa nova as well. Last September, at Batmacumba's sixth birthday party, three of the top London-based samba schools performed. While the London School of Samba and Quilombo do Samba belted out some great percussion, the recently formed Paraíso School of Samba blew us away.

Listening to their drumming, it was clear this British-Brazilian collective have been influenced by the sounds coming out of club nights like Batmacumba and A Brazilian Love Affair. Traditional samba was mixed up with variations in the beat, one part of the bateria (orchestra) building up slowly while the other hammered away at a different rhythm.

Like the `nova bossa nova' (`new bossa nova') of Bebel, Celso or Bossacucanova, and the modified Brazilian tunes played by British DJs, Paraíso was putting a new spin on an established classic—but this time it was samba. Which musical style is next for the treatment? Forró? Chorinho?

Even if these genres are not yet ready to be picked up and remoulded into a different shape, new Brazilian music is reaching beyond the oases provided through Batmacumba and A Brazilian Love Affair. Cargo occasionally has Brazilian-influenced musicians play there, while newer sessions are popping up, most recently Sambatralia and the slightly dodgy-sounding Night Moves. And all three are based in Shoreditch's burgeoning clubland, rather than the West End.

But even as this new-found popularity for this `new wave' of Brazilian music grows, one question remains; will this new strain eventually break through and achieve mass recognition and appeal? Or will it remain what it has been for several years—a niche market with growing, but limited, appeal?

At the moment I have mixed feelings. If it does, then I will finally be able to get more friends to come along to what are exceptionally good nights on the Mall or in Notting Hill. But I hope to God that if that happens, we'll be spared the sticky floors, drunken women falling over and the Ben Sherman brigade.


Guy Burton was born in Brazil and lives near Shoreditch in East London. This is only his second article about music, his first being a dire review in his old student newspaper. Mortified it took him eight years to recover from that experience. He hopes this piece will not only encourage British-based readers of Brazzil to give London's Brazilian-influenced club scene a go, but persuade them to buy him a drink too. He can be contacted at
gjsburton@hotmail.com.


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