Mapping artistic currents of Brazilian traditional music and keeping them alive and creative has been Kuarup's mission since its conception.
Kuarup. I remember the first time I heard the word. It immediately struck me as odd and mysterious. It was hard to pronounce. A friend explained that for the indigenous people of Brazil, a Kuarup is a ceremony, a ritual rarely performed, that celebrates life, one that is reserved only for chiefs and warriors. The Kuarup is the highest tribute the Xingu Indians will bestow upon a person. But for musicians "in-the-know," Kuarup is a small record company in Rio de Janeiro that has mapped Brazilian traditional music and kept it alive and creative. Committed to and demanding excellence, Kuarup continues to set the standard by which other companies are judged. Since its inception in 1977, Kuarup has been the musicians' choice and has signified quality and artistic authenticity. Heitor Villa-Lobos, Raphael Rabello, Henrique Cazes, Altamiro Carrilho, Paulo Sérgio Santos, Xangai, Elomar, Joel Nascimento, Sivuca, Dominguinhos, and Paulo Moura are but a few of the chiefs and warriors celebrated at this Kuarup.
Until recently, only a fortunate few have been able to boast of Kuarup titles in their private collections because despite twenty-one years of recording and promoting Brazil's most important musicians and composers, Kuarup is still relatively unknown outside of Brazil. Every once in a while I come across a Kuarup title as I'm scouring the bins of my local record stores, and I buy without hesitation, not only because Kuarup product is rare but also because I am assured that the recording bespeaks the taste and elegance which is so much a part of Brazil's diversified musical landscape.
The Kuarup label was created by journalist Mário de Aratanha, bassoon player Airton Barbosa (founder of Quinteto Villa-Lobos), painter Janine Houard, and researcher Valdinha Barbosa (biographer of Radamés Gnattali and a pivotal collaborator in the creation of the Museu Villa-Lobos). They were spurred by a passion for music, a dream to map the country musically, and a bureaucratic fiscal necessity. And because they were not pursued by visions of expansion, increased capacity, or the accumulation of power resulting therefrom; they have avoided the aesthetic arthritis that many of the "major" labels have contracted by chasing illusive pop fads.
At last count there were over 150 record companies in Brazil. Standing out among them in sharp contrast is Kuarup. Staying power for this small company has had to do with character and culture. Jornal do Brasil has called their efforts "The most important cultural work on disc in the country." Indeed, Kuarup's Web page reflects this. It is a cultural resource center containing extensive information about Pixinguinha, choro, samba, and Villa-Lobos. Their catalog of choro is enormous, and they offer the largest collection in the world of the music of Villa-Lobos interpreted by Brazilians. In addition, you can find detailed technical information, background text, lyrics, cover art, the complete liner notes for each recording in their catalog. Even to amass knowledge of this sort, which greatly enhances the common listener's pleasure, takes more time and effort than most companies care to invest, affirming once again that at Kuarup things of the spirit bulk as large in the owners' minds as the latest market quotations. The Kuarup label is, and has been since its conception, intertwined with the cultural and artistic currents of Brazilian music. In the last analysis, all that matters at Kuarup is the music. Mário de Aratanha of Kuarup has chronicled Brazilian music for over twenty years, and speaking with him is always an inspiration.
BrazzilWhat is the biggest difficulty that faces the Kuarup label today?
MárioIt's very difficult for us to have a label that has no label. You know, it's an "unlabeled" label. We are not a world music label, or a dance music label, or a samba, or a bossa nova label, you know? We are just a good music label. And it's very hard to get into foreign markets, especially the U.S. when we're not a "labeled" label. I'm trying to figure out a way to get into this market. How will people know that in this country there is a very small "unlabeled" label that is very good?
BrazzilWell, your Web Page is incredible.
MárioYou really think so?
BrazzilI've never seen one like it. When I go to the web sites of most record companies, I see pictures and prices, but not all the recording and technical information, lyrics, musicians' profiles, and background information.
MárioWe still don't have audio or publish music through the Internet, mainly because of quality problems, you know? Our music is sometimes very delicate, and you don't put this kind of music in a low resolution Real-Audio file, you know? Not yet, but we will eventually. Technology is getting better and better. We're going to be there. But for the time being, what we want in our site, besides a way to buy our records, is the foundation of a small library where you can find good texts and good information about Brazilian music. What we're aiming for is a place where people can find good information about top-rate Brazilian composers, musicians, and instrumentalists. Of course, this purpose is aimed primarily toward the Brazilian market because we haven't finished translating all the text yet. We'll do this eventually, but we have over one hundred recordings, and it takes a long time.
BrazzilSo you are planning to translate everything into English?
MárioYeah, eventually (laughs), but, you know, this is a light operation with very few people. It's just me and my partner, Janine Houard, and the six people who work with us, plus sales people. We don't have a lot of staff, and we prefer to be that way. We prefer being a small, light company, so we can do whatever we want, whenever we want. We don't really have the time to make hundreds of highly technical translations just like that, you know? Some of our recordings have bilingual, even trilingual information, but it's not widespread. If we find that Americans are visiting us, and it becomes profitable, then we will invest in translating all information into English. Right now we have a gate in English and a gate in French. You can get into the page in English, and you can buy in English.
BrazzilA friend was over the other night, and after I played him Segura Ele by Paulo Sérgio Santos, he said, "Geeez, where do you find these recordings?" It made me think of some of the Brazilian labels that have made agreements with U.S. distributors, and I'm wondering if it would be worthwhile for Kuarup to make an agreement like that?
MárioActually, that's another difficulty we have in being an "unlabeled" label. The same confusion that we think the small potential public that could already be buying our product in the United States has, is the same problem distributors and record companies that could license our titles have. They don't know how to label us. We had some contact with the people at Blue Jackel, but they wouldn't treat our product as we wanted. We did license some records to Milan Music, and our Villa-Lobos catalog was successful in Europe, especially in France. But never, never, could we have managed to license these records or to market them in the States. It's a pity. We would be willing to do business with these guys, but it has to be worthwhile. The only experience we had that was worthwhile was one record with Rounder, a samba record. Rounder does in the United States, more or less, what we do in Brazil, of course, on a much larger scale. They go to the roots of American music, and they have a lot of good stuff. Do you know Gerald Seligman? Gerald was a journalist in New York at that time. He's a very close friend of mine who sold this record, this samba compilation, to Rounder many years ago. Gerald is now in London working for EMI Classics, so he doesn't have anything more to do with that. Rounder was the only experience that worked. With the others, I ended up owing these guys money just to stop the record. And, you know, that's how it stands.
BrazzilLast time we spoke you mentioned that the big record companies in Brazil were starting to import classical music. When you think of Villa-Lobos, it's kind of funny. I have this CD of the Bachianas Brasileiras on RCA Red Seal/BMG Classics. The liner notes are printed in English and Spanish, not Portuguese, and there's a picture supposedly of Villa-Lobos, but it's Ary Barroso.
MárioYes, yes. You've seen that, haven't you?
MárioDid I tell you that?
BrazzilNo, no, I have it.
MárioYou have it? Yeah, I saw that record. It's incredible. It's stupid. Kuarup probably has the largest Villa-Lobos catalog in the world, recorded by Brazilian musicians. And it's probably the bestperiod! We have the complete (string) quartet cycle. Now, only now, are people starting to record the quartets, but we started it.
BrazzilI remember you mentioning that the Quarteto Amazônia was one of the greatest achievements of your career.
MárioNo, it's not the Quarteto Amazônia. It's the complete Villa-Lobos string quartet cycle that we started up with the (Quartet) Bessler-Reis, and then completed with the Amazônia Quartet. The Bessler-Reis, which was composed of three members of the Bessler family and the cellist Alceu Reis, broke up with five quartets of the seventeen (quartets) to be recorded yet, so two CD's were missing from the collection. Then Alceu Reis formed another quartet (Quarteto Amazônia) with great musicians from São Paulo, and they recorded the five remaining quartets. This is a story you know. Completing the cycle, recording the seventeen string quartets in a row, was the biggest project of my life as a producer. Alceu Reis is the only Brazilian musician ever to record the complete cycle of Villa-Lobos string quartets.
BrazzilAre there particular studios that you prefer for recording different styles or do you
Mário(laughs) It depends on the money I have in my pocket. If I have a lot of money, I go to Nas Nuvens (In the Clouds), which is Gilberto Gil and Liminha's recording studio in Rio. That's just a funny thing because I like those guys. It's a very good studio. Normally, I settle for more affordable studios.
BrazzilIt's funny to say Kuarup's a non-label because amazing artists like Paulo Sérgio Santos, Henrique Cazes, Altamiro Carrilho, and Paulo Moura are attracted to Kuarup. What lures these virtuosi to this non-label?
Mário(laughs) It's not because we're a label. We just produce good music. We prioritize quality and excellence. We don't give a damn if it's commercial or not. We do some commercial records, of course, but we don't do them because they're commercial. We do them because they're good, and they become commercial as a consequence. And that's probably why. This has been our philosophy from the beginning, you know? Janine and I were, we are, radicals. We are radicals! And that's it. If it's not very, very good we don't press it. Of course, we've made some mistakes, but we don't like to remember them.
BrazzilTell me about one
MárioNo, no. I'm not going to tell you (laughs). I want to forget them. They're no longer here (laughs). We tend not to press anything unless we are completely satisfied. We're not the only ones. Lots of people do this kind of thing. There's another thing that's important. We tend to prefer Brazilian traditional music, not because we don't like avant-garde music, but because traditional music is a need. It's our mission to record, to register, and to leave to posterity the art of our culture. Mainly because if we don't do it, other people will do it from an ethnological point of view, a folkloric point of view, and I don't like that.
I don't want to make a recording of a guy playing a flute in the interior of the Amazon just because this is an Indian playing in the middle of the Amazon. This is funny, and I don't want that. I want to make records that can go into anybody's home and marvel people. I want to create works of art. That's the kind of music that interests me, that I want to register. I could be a rock `n' roll producer or a country music producer, you know? I could be making a lot of money. This is the country, which has We are probably together with the United States the two biggest, the most important, the richest countries musically in the world.
And, I'll tell you more. If we were rich, as rich financially, you know, money-wise as the United States, we would be richer musically. It's incredible. You know Brazil. We have a lot of music, really a lot of varieties all over this country. And if we had the means to really explore this, more than we already do, you can imagine the explosion there would be. It's incredible. I mean, it doesn't matter what home you go to in this country, there is music playing or being played. It's a mission that is unfinishable. I'm completely fascinated by this adventure.
BrazzilWhat about Brazilian jazz? Is there a market or any interest in distributing somebody like Hermeto whose music is so hard to find?
MárioWell, that's something else. Hermeto is a very close friend of ours. My partner, Janine, has produced his tours all over the world, and I've worked with Egberto Gismonti for many, many years. We have promoted and produced tours for the most important jazz musicians in this country, but we don't record them. I don't know exactly why. Maybe it's because this kind of music is a different world. Maybe it's because we would have needed the best, and the best were already taken.
You know Hermeto and Egberto are the greatest, but they were already recording for other labels. And our record company is... Actually we weren't only a record company from the beginning. We were a production company, we were agents, we were impresarios, we were tour managers who organized tours for Brazilian musicians abroad and within the country. The record label was a pocket in the company that became the company. This started about fifteen years ago. Then ten years ago we dedicated ourselves completely to the record company.
We don't do anything else but recordings now, and the company's personality is geared toward traditional and instrumental music. We went toward Northeastern music because of our friendship with Xangai and Elomar and because I have a great intimacy with the music from the Northeast. I was born in Rio, but my whole family is from Ceará. We also invested more in choro music, in classical music, in the choro aesthetic. Villa-Lobos called choro the Brazilian soulalma brasileira. This all happened naturally, little by little because of our personal tastes. We didn't sit around the table and say let's do this, let's to that.
But Brazilian jazz is something that we don't really market. It's mainly because we don't think these musicians need us that much. But that's just probably bullshit. I love jazz. I like all kinds of music. I like country. I like rock `n' roll. I like pop. I like good music. I don't care if it comes from India, from Japan, from Africa, or from Tennessee.
BrazzilNordeste and caipira are about 60% of sales and 20% of your catalog. I'm wondering if this is an indication of a trend in Brazil right now or has it always been like this?
MárioIt's kind of always been like this. It's like when you compare jazz to country music in the U.S.. Who are the biggest selling stars you have in the U.S.? They're country artists because the medium is song. It's closer to everybody's comprehension and sensitivity and demand. When you hear Willie Nelson singing something that's very popular, everybody likes it. I mean, it doesn't matter if the guy is a saxophone player in a New York jazz club, or he's a violinist in the Saint Louis Symphony, or he's just an everyday man who likes music. It's music for everybody.
But then when you go into instrumental and classical and choro music, which is very, very sophisticated, it's not for everybody. But it is essential for a very small, but very strong population in this country. Brazil is a country that adores music, so you have small pockets that are very deep. And for these people, the music we make here is essential. Of course, if I make music that pleases them and also pleases everybody else, it's great. When I do a caipira record, I don't just do a caipira record. I try to get the most truthful music that I can find, in any style that I deal with. I don't like the commercial compromises that you see, especially in the most popular styles. You find a lot of compromises and manufactured artists. I don't go for manufactured artists.
BrazzilClaudinho & Buchecha, É o Tchan?
MárioYeah, this is crap. Sometimes I have fun listening to them, not Claudinho & Buchecha, but É o Tchan. From time to time I go to a party and I dance and I enjoy myself for five minutes (laughs), and that's it. But, you know, you hear a lot of crap.
BrazzilCan you tell me about Kuarup's early days and about Airton Barbosa?
MárioAirton died many years ago, I don't even know how many, over ten years ago, more than that, fifteen years ago. He developed a cancer. He died very young. He was a very important pioneer in this kind of musical approach. He was the first guy to play a bassoon on a samba record. He played on Memórias Cantando by Paulinho da Viola, and on one of Cartola's first albums. You know, (sings the bassoon line)? I don't remember the name of the song. These were the first times bassoon was played in Brazilian popular music. Paulinho's two records were released at the same time, Memórias Cantando and Memórias Chorando. One was samba and the other one was choro, the two sides of Paulinho. You know these two records? They are landmarks. They are on EMI, among the Abbey Road re-mastered Paulinho da Viola collection. They're great, probably the two best records he ever made.
BrazzilWasn't Kuarup created through a grant from Banco do Brasil to record Os Choros de Câmara by Villa-Lobos?
MárioYeah, but it wasn't a grant. There is a custom with big companies here to give out special records as Christmas gifts. This is sort of a tradition here. Airton and I came up with this project to record Chamber Choros by Villa-Lobos, and we sold it to an advertising agency that was looking for somebody to do this record that Banco do Brasil wanted to distribute free to their clients at Christmas. We were paid to execute a project, a cultural, a musical project. We didn't have a company to receive the money, and it would have been very expensive for us to receive it in our own names because the income tax would have been too great, so we decided to open a company for this job.
There were a lot of records that we made for big companies as Christmas gifts, and for a while this was a funding, but not a grant. We would look for people who would hire us to do projects, and we would keep the rights for the records afterward. We would sell the project, they would give us the money, we would go to the studio, we would make the record, then we would give them a quantity that they would give out as Christmas gifts, and a year later, the rights to the record came back to us. Then we would put the title into our regular catalog. That's how we started.
But after some years, the sales of the records we had out already, started to fund the company. Then we started to do our own productions without the help of any projects, so it turned into an enterprise. Airton left a couple of years after the Banco do Brasil project because he wanted to do something else. He was completely into movie sound tracks, more than records. I went on with the company, and now it has been already twenty-one years.
BrazzilTell me about Marcus Pereira. Wasn't he a model for you?
MárioYes, yes, Marcus Pereira was an idealist, a publicist, an advertising man who thought of music as a cultural product for the first time. He was kind of a pioneer of what I do now. He was the first one to do it. And what he did was map the country in records, going around the country recording everybody he thought was good and putting them onto vinyl. He was a great man. The label (Marcus Pereira) still exists. EMI bought it. It's old stuff. Sometimes you find it; sometimes you don't.
BrazzilFor twenty-one years you've been in a market where there is tremendous competition from big companies like PolyGram and EMI and BMG that spend millions of dollars all over the world for promotion. And I'm wondering how you survive.
MárioFirst, because I don't fight them (laughs). I don't fight them. I want to be best friends with them. But mainly because what we do is something that doesn't interest them. If I do a record, and I sell two thousand copies, I'm happy. It comes back to the beginning of our talk. I want to be light. I want to be small because then I can do whatever I want. PolyGram has to sell ten to fifteen thousand copies of each record, otherwise it won't pay. They would lose money. I don't give a damn. I'm very light. If I sell a thousand, two thousand, sometimes three thousand, I'm fine.
Of course, sometimes I prefer to sell ten to fifteen thousand, but this is not common. Can you imagine a Villa-Lobos quartet selling more than ten thousand copies? If we sold three, four thousand of each of the quartet CD's, it would be an extraordinary result. Since we are small, we can do what they don't want to do. Some people in these big companies give a damn, and they are doing a lot of good recordings. But there is a lot of good stuff they can't do because it's not profitable, so there is a lot of good stuff left for me to do.
BrazzilWhat good stuff can look forward to in 1999?
MárioWhat we're going to do for next year is release more choro. Each day there are more choro artists who come to our catalog. It's very interesting. We're going to release Déo Rian the great bandolim player's CD Choro em Família. Déo and his son, Bruno Rian, who is a 16-year-old bandolim genius, are playing together on this recording. Clarinet player Mário Pereira's CD Gafieirando (Dancing Choro) will also be released. And I'm working on a series of compilations by instrument. We have an expression here "Os Bambas." It means the great guys, the really good players. How do you say this in English? The really top guys in each field. What do you call them?
BrazzilWe call them monsters. We say, "He's a monster!"
MárioYeah, yeah, exactly, the monsters, but it doesn't have the same connotation. It's lighter, and it's very Brazilian. Os Bambas do Bandolim, the bandolim monstersJoel Nascimento, Déo Rian, Ronaldo do Bandolim, Pedro Amorim, Rossini Ferreira, Reco do Bandolim, Hamilton de Holanda. Os Bambas do ViolãoRafael Rabello, Baden Powell, Henrique, Anes, Nonato Luiz, Canhoto da Paraíba. Os Bambas da Clarineta e do SaxPaulo Moura, Abel Ferreira, Paulo Sérgio Santos, Mário Pereira. Os Bambas do CavaquinhoHenrique Cazes, Jacaré, Waldir Azevedo. By instrument, we are starting out doing these guys. These are our immediate plans. The first ones will be the bandolim and the violão (guitar). Oh, and Nonato Luiz is someone else I'm putting out next year. He's my favorite Brazilian guitar player. Not many people know him in the States. He's from Ceará. Also, Teca Calazans singing Villa-Lobos is another sure thing for the first months of the year.
What really interests me is that people know that we exist, and they can get Kuarup product through the Internet. There is one form on our site where you just punch in your name, your address, and your credit card number, and request the recording. You just touch a button, and it sends us an e-mail with the request. So this is something that is practical. It's not exactly a shopping basket, but it's almost like that. It's a shopping form where you can buy, and then just sit down, relax and wait for the mail to come.
BrazzilMário, it's been too long since we've talked. I'm glad we had this opportunity. Thank you.
MárioThank you for the chance and good luck.
Kuarup. Tell it to the world!
Bruce Gilman, music editor for Brazzil, received his Masters degree in music from California Institute of the Arts. He leads the Brazilian jazz ensemble Axé and plays cuíca for escola de samba MILA. You can reach him through his e-mail: email@example.com
Kuarup Starter Kit:
(The Prêmio Sharp is parallel to the Grammy Award in the United States.)
Sivuca, Enfim Solo (Prêmio Sharp, Melhor Solista Instrumental - 1998)
Xangai, Cantoria de Festa (Prêmio Sharp, Melhor Arranjo (CD) e Melhor Canção: "Nóis é Jeca mais é Jóia"1998)
Guedes Barbosa, As 51 Mazurcas de Chopin (Prêmio Sharp, Melhor Disco Clássico -1996)
Turíbio Santos, Paulo Moura, Noel Devos, Orquestra de Câmara Brasileira, Bernardo Bessler, Concertos para Solista e Orquesta Villa-Lobos (Prêmio Sharp, Melhor Disco Clássico1995)
Monarco, A Voz do Samba (Prêmio Sharp, Melhor Disco de Samba1994)
Paulo Sérgio Santos, Segura Ele (Prêmio Sharp, Revelação1994)
Renato Teixeira & Pena Branca e Xavantinho, Ao Vivo em Tatuí (Prêmio Sharp, Melhor Disco Regional1992)
Quarteto Bessler-Reis, Quartetos 12,13,14 de Villa-Lobos (Prêmio Sharp, Melhor Disco Clássico -1992)
Quarteto Bessler-Reis, Quartetos 1,2,3 de Villa-Lobos (Prêmio Sharp, Melhor Disco Clássico1991)
Chiquinho do Acordeon, Raphael Rabello, Orquestra de Cordas Brasileiras, Retratos de Radamés Gnattali (Prêmio Sharp, Melhor Disco Instrumental1991)
Altamiro Carrilho, Paulinho da Viola, Joel Nascimento, Paulo Sérgio Santos, Henrique Cazes, Noites Cariocas (Prêmio da Crítica Fonográfica, "Deutsche Schallplattenpreis" Germany1991)
Orquestra de Cordas Brasileiras, Orquestra de Cordas Brasileiras (Prêmio Sharp, Melhor Grupo Instrumental -1990)
Orquestra de Cordas Brasileiras, Orquestra de Cordas Brasileiras (Prêmio Sharp, Melhor Disco Instrumental1990)
Quarteto Bessler-Reis, Quartetos 15,16,17 de Villa-Lobos (Prêmio Sharp, Melhor Disco Clássico1990)
Quarteto Bessler-Reis, Quartetos 4,5,6 de Villa-Lobos (Prêmio Sharp, Melhor Disco Clássico -1989)
Turíbio Santos, Villa-Violão (Prêmio Sharp, Melhor Disco Instrumental1988)