Alfagamabetizado, the long awaited first CD by singer, composer, multi-instrumentalist, and creator of Timbalada, Carlinhos Brown, has arrived in the stores. A factory of rhythms and sonorous ideas, the 32 year old Baiano has been a professional musician for 10 years and is one of the few personalities of Brazilian popular music that became famous through the recordings of other artists. In the past few years there has been a lot of talk about this character who seems to be full of creative witchcraft but never before released a disc under his own name.
Sérgio Mendes, Marisa Monte, Djavan, Daniela Mercury, Gal Costa, Elba Ramalho, Caetano Veloso and others I can't even remember have recorded compositions written by Carlinhos Brown. In Brazil, he is known as the composer of hits like "Meia-Lua Inteira" (Full Half-Moon), from Caetano Veloso's Estrangeiro, "Segue o Seco" (The Drought Goes On), on Marisa Monte's Green Blue Yellow Rose and Charcoal, and "Rimas Irmãs" (Similar Rhymes) recorded by Daniela Mercury on her disc O Canto da Cidade. In addition, he has contributed his talents as a sideman to hordes of recordings by other musicians including Paralamas do Sucesso, Lee Ritenour, and Sepultura -- the Brazilian head-bangers who sell more in the United States than any other Brazilian act. Brown is a rare example of a percussionist who moved into the foreground after being stationed for what seemed like eternity at the back of the stage and behind the stars.
The percussionist started getting attention in Europe eight years ago when he played in Caetano Veloso's band. Brown called attention to himself because he is a turbulent musician on stage and because his concert attire is always extravagant. With his fashion statement exterior, he was noticed on stage by a French publisher and received an invitation to be the star of a TV commercial for tonic water. The musician appeared in the advertisement making music on a soda can and in this way received an international calling card. Thus it was not coincidence that Alfagamabetizado was released simultaneously in Brazil and abroad bundled with a bombastic promotion campaign.
Brown's international career began to unfold in 1992 when he participated on the recording produced by Bill Laswell Bahia Black-Ritual Beating System with jazz giants Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. The project opened new doors for the Baiano in the international market. One of those was the invitation to participate in the opening of the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Through satellite, the event's organizers coordinated Brown playing in Bahia, with Chuck Berry playing in the United States, Youssou N' Dour in Senegal, and musicians from other continents including Australian aborigines playing simultaneously and conceptually dissolving borders through music and technology. It was this peak of exposure that prompted Sérgio Mendes residing in the United States to contact him. The following year Brown composed five of the 13 tracks for Brasileiro. Produced by Mendes, the project received a Grammy for the best recording of 1993 in the world music category. That same year the group Timbalada, with most of its repertoire authored by Brown, also received international attention when its first release was acclaimed by Billboard magazine as the best Latin-American release of 1993. Although Brown has been known outside of Brazil principally for his work with Sérgio Mendes and as a result of his participation on numerous world music projects (and to a lesser degree for the works he has inspired like the composition "Carlinhos" written, recorded, and dedicated to Brown by master percussionist Trilok Gurtu on his Believe CD); the situation will now change.
Some Brazilian musicians like Nana Vasconcelos have moved to Europe because they would not have the successful careers they do had they remained in Brazil. There are also Brazilian musicians who have had their recordings released in Europe and in the United States, but with little commotion. Carlinhos Brown has fallen into neither category. To arrive at that Brown signed two contracts, one with EMI of Brazil which takes care of his career in Latin America, the other with Virgin France, responsible for the release of Alfagamabetizado in the rest of the world. His contract value has not been revealed, but executives at EMI Brazil and Virgin France were startled when the first advance of 100,000 dollars was shrugged off and refused by Brown as a mere gratuity and not an amount commensurate for a project of this stature. Alfagamabetizado is just the first harvest to be nurtured by these two contracts whereby Carlinhos committed himself to spill his rhythmic cache onto three discs in six years.
Tom Jobim and Ivan Lins have had international contracts, but not ones that involved a partnership between two different record companies. For Brazilian artists with potential abroad, record companies have typically offered only to provide distribution of their recordings in other markets. This type of "promotion" almost always halts a release's progress and insures that it will be forgotten on the shelves of the bigger stores of Paris, New York, and Tokyo. This isn't what Virgin France wants for Brown. They have invested 700,000 dollars in France alone to promote the disc. The money has paid for advertisements on French TV, on radio (700 insertions on 36 stations), in magazines, and newspapers. The Paris newspaper Libération carried 10 advertisements. In addition, 5000 billboards will be displayed in Paris, Marseille, and Montpellier. EMI Brazil has spent close to 250,000 dollars to promote the release.
This type of commitment has never been made with a Brazilian artist. No other international release of a high profile Brazilian artist like Marisa Monte or Paralamas do Sucesso has consumed more than 100,000 dollars for promotion -- until now. Even the choice of France as the center of operations for the CD's release campaign happened for marketing reasons. France is a great consumer of ethnic music, a label used to define the music of artists from "exotic" countries like Carlinhos Brown's Brazil. The disc is also the first work by a Brazilian artist to be released simultaneously in Latin America, the United States, Canada, and Japan.
Alfagamabetizado was in part recorded, produced, and mixed in Paris by the French Wally Badarou and the Pernambucano/American guitarist Arto Lindsay but was remastered in New York. The cover photography, created by the fastidious lenses of photographer Mário Cravo Neto, is apropos of what lies within, including the provocative graphic layout, a number of intriguing photos, all the lyrics, and some remarkable performances by a dazzling lineup of guest artists and sidemen. One of the most notable is the revival of Os Doces Bárbaros (The Sweet Barbarians) -- Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and Maria Bethânia -- on the tune "Quixabeira," an anonymous song discovered by Brown on the streets of Bahia and the only tune out of the 16 tracks not composed by Brown.
Alfagamabetizado is an excellent demonstration of how well connected Brown is today with musicians around the world. The project brought together a constellation of African musicians like bass player N' Doumbe Djengue from Salif Keita's band, violinist Kouider Berkane from (King of Rai) Ched Khaled's group, accordion player Cadah Mustapha, and drummer Mokhtar Samba. Sizzling next to these unequaled musicians is the peerless sax work of Rowney Scott and a legion of Baiano percussionists. This musical miscegenation works beautifully in delivering a balanced menu of afoxé, xote, timbalada, acoustic ballads, and funk. It is spiced with remarkable percussive ornamentation, rock harmonies, elements from candomblé, and even some ideas taken from the rodas de samba where Brown started practicing his percussionist talents. And, of course, Alfagamabetizado, the greatly anticipated solo project by Carlinhos Brown, is served up hot.
The opening track "Angel's Robot List" has the Greek Alexandra Teodoropoulou reciting the alphabet in her native language above an ambient background texture of Kouider Berkane's unearthly violin intermingling with the high pitched screech of over 40 percussionists scraping their surdos on the floor of the Concha Acústica. The tune "Seo Zé," one of the CD's many partnerships, has Marisa Monte and Nando Reis (bass player for the band Titãs) sharing stunning vocals with Brown. The tune's first verse was the inspiration for the title of Marisa Monte's most recent recording and tour, Verde Anil Amarelo Cor de Rosa e Carvão (Green Blue Yellow Pink and Charcoal). "Cumplicidade de Armário" (Closet's Complicity) is a brilliant work which captures the atmosphere of the Miles Davis composition "Tomaas." Like "Fogo dos Ancestres" (Flame of the Ancestors) from Timbalada's disc Andei Road, the tune confirms Brown's reverence for the late Miles Davis.
That Alfagamabetizado has rhythmic appeal is unquestionable, but Brown's lyrics may not guarantee the disc success without trying the patience of some listeners. When he first started writing lyrics, many complained that they were the words of a madman. And Brown admits that he didn't write didactically constructed word-for-word story lines or try for intellectual levels but instead wrote lyrics for the common people. What was important was that within all the unschooled constructions existed an explicit rhythmic flow. Nonetheless, whenever his music was aired on the radio, it always exploded into a monstrous hit.
Similarly, most of the lyrics on Alfagamabetizado don't really say anything and function more as a type of disjointed percussive compliment or accompaniment to the pulse of the music. Brown's intent was to decipher street language -- dialect of the people -- and reveal its rhythm and color. But the language seems hermetic and gives the impression of hidden innuendo. In addition, the lyrics are written in Portuguese, French, Spanish, and English and are manipulated for their alliterative sound value, melismatic effect, and rhythmic punch. Words that do not make sense within a given context are onomatopoetic. I have included two examples of Brown's more lucid lyrics demonstrating that this isn't always the case.
More than just a percussionist, Brown is a whirlwind of musical activity. The Baiano is a creator of rhythms who composes in torrents and is capable of organizing a symphony of rhythms from tin cans, washbasins, and buckets. It is this characteristic that allows him to work as much as he does with groups ranging from Sepultura to the Senegalese musician Youssou N' Dour. At home, Brown is known as the Karajan do Recôncavo Baiano in reference to the Austrian conductor, Herbert von Karajan and the very fertile region in Bahia he is from. Brown has written over 600 tunes and directs no less than four groups, bringing together over 200 percussionists. The most famous being Timbalada which was created by Brown in 1993. Besides Timbalada, there is Lactomia, a type of Timbalada for 86 teenage boys who beat out rhythms on milk tins and kitchen pots and pans. Bolacha Maria, the feminine version of Lactomia, is a band comprised of 110 girls and was named after a sweet cracker. The fourth group which has not performed much is Gang-Ogã, a group named for the candomblé divinity that dwells in the heart and is the essence of divine justice and truth on earth. The group is dedicated to rescuing from obscurity the traditional rhythms of the African nations which formed Bahia.
Alfagamabetizado was conceived in Candeal, a former stronghold for runaway slaves in Salvador, Bahia. It is an extremely poor neighborhood where there is still no drainage for sewage. Even after earning a fortune, Carlinhos has decided to remain in Candeal where he was raised. The first born in a family of nine brothers, he has a biography much poorer than the luxurious sound he now defines. Antônio Carlos Santos de Freitas, his real name, left school after only one year. He learned to read and write without a teacher. Although his parents are evangelical, Carlinhos follows no defined religion. As a boy he would flee home to watch the candomblé ceremonies and listen to the drums which fascinated him. When the drums started to play, the priest at the Convent of São Francisco would blast Gregorian chant over loud speakers to scare away the devil. At 13, his adoration for the father of funk, James Brown, sparked Carlinhos to take on the famous surname. Carlinhos himself has disputed the veracity of this story, saying in a interview with Folha de São Paulo: "I don't know who gave me this name. I got it on the streets." Brown's music today is not only an expression of the mixed culture of Salvador where African rhythms coexist with the Catholic church and the indigenous influence but also of the trends in music that are taking place worldwide. His eclectic style is adverse to labels.
A native of this often ostracized part of Brazil, Carlinhos amassed his inventory of rhythms and the rare vision to evoke the day by day from its hard reality. The originality of the music and musicians from the Northeast (Dorival Caymmi, Gilberto Gil, João Gilberto, Luiz Gonzaga, Hermeto Pascoal, Caetano Veloso) has always been in sharp contrast to the conditions of poverty and misery there. But Brown, who comes about as the greatest artist of the new MPB (Brazilian Popular Music), says that he does not make Nordestina music, that to come under the Nordestina label of black and poor shackles musicians. He prefers to define his work as Música Popular Planetária (Popular Planetary Music).
Walking on the streets, Brown is greeted by residents and children who view him as a community hero. When he walks by the favela (shanty town) , kids surround him and ask for autographs and money. He gives autographs but not money and tells the panhandlers to work. He can do that without remorse. Brown has developed and supports from his own pocket a project of education and urbanization called Tá Rebocado (It's Towed) that has the objective of improving the quality of life in his neighborhood. In 1995 he donated 150,000 dollars to initiate the construction of a vocational school, the Escola Pracatum, which will assist street musicians to cultivate professional skills. The composer acknowledges that all the spontaneity of his rich musical expression came from the streets. In addition, he employs about 200 people including musicians and people in administrative positions of the various projects that he maintains. He does not consider himself an artist, but a channel that translates reality.
Those who do not know Carlinhos think he is eccentric. His attire on any given day could include a gigantic rubber pacifier hanging around his neck, a soda can pull-tab earring, torn and baggy shorts, rastafari dreadlocks, and the obligatory dark sun glasses. Brown's Technicolor appearance has become an indispensable part of the Bahiano Carnaval and is as much a postcard of today's Bahia as the Elevador Lacerda and Pelourinho were in the past.
Despite miscegenation, the capital of Bahia is one of the most racist cities in Brazil. Brown and his girl friend, Helena Buarque -- the youngest daughter of Francisco (Chico) Buarque de Hollanda -- often experience malicious comments about their relationship. Carlinhos says that he is accustomed to joking about this typically Baiana racist hypocrisy. Notwithstanding, by the time this article is published, the couple will have had their first child (to be called Francisco, in homage to the famous father-in-law), and with only a first grade education, Carlinhos will enter the literary and intellectually elite dynasty of Aurélio and Chico Buarque de Hollanda.
Herbert Vianna of Paralamas do Sucesso says that Brown is the most sensational musician to emerge from the sphere of Brazilian music, and that Brown is destined for an international career. For many Europeans and Americans, Carlinhos Brown is an exotic singer from a far away country who sings in a very strange language. But make no mistake. Alfagamabetizado was not taped by researchers with anthropological interests. Furthermore, geographic curiosity is not a prerequisite for savoring what is conventionally called world music, only a desire to hear the extraordinary.
A Namorada Carlinhos Brown
O broto do seu lado
Já teve namorado
E teme um compromisso
Há sempre um do seu lado
Se diz gato malhado
Mas não é nada disso
A namorada tem namorada
A namorada tem namorada
Grudado em sua cola
Na porta da escola
Mas não tem chance não
A leva pro cinema
Com mais cinco morenas
O que mais sempre quis
A namorada tem namorada
A namorada tem namorada
The girl at your side
Already had a lover
And is afraid of a commitment
There is always one on her side
Who calls himself stained cat
But this is not the truth
The girlfriend has a girlfriend
The girlfriend has a girlfriend
She has a brother
Glued to her tail
At the door of the school
But he doesn't have a chance
The father, a judge,
Takes her to the movies
With five other brunettes
What he always wanted most
The girlfriend has a girlfriend
The girlfriend has a girlfriend
A boiada seca
Na enxurrada seca
A trovoada seca
Na enxada seca
Segue o seco sem sacar que o caminho é seco
sem sacar que o espinho é seco
sem sacar que seco é o Ser Sol
Sem sacar que algum espinho seco secará
E a água que sacar será um tiro seco
E secará o seu destino seco
Ô chuva vem me dizer
Se posso ir lá em cima pra derramar você
Ó chuva preste atenção
Se o povo lá de cima vive na solidão
Se acabar não acostumando
Se acabar parado calado
Se acabar baixinho chorando
Se acabar meio abandonado
Pode ser lágrimas de São Pedro
Ou talvez um grande amor chorando
Pode ser o desabotoado céu
Pode ser coco derramando
The Draught Goes On
The dry cattle drive
In a torrent that's dry
The dry thunderclap
On the dry hoe
The draught goes on without noticing the road is dry
Without noticing the thorn is dry
Without noticing that to be dry is to be the sun
Without noticing that some dry thorn will dry up
And the water that is drawn will be a dry shot
And will dry your destiny of draught
Oh rain come down and tell me
If I can go up there to spill you
Oh rain pay close attention
If the people up above live in solitude
If we should end up not getting used to it
If we should end up still and quiet
If we should end softly crying
If we should end up half abandoned
It might be the tears of St. Peter
Or perhaps a great love crying
It might be the heavens unbuttoned
It might be a coconut spilling.
Bruce Gilman plays cuíca for Mocidade Independente Los Angeles, received his MA from California Institute of the Arts, and teaches English and ESL in Long Beach, California. You can reach him through his E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org