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Brazilian Cool Is Back in London

 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.
by: 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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