Until you hear the thundering bass created by two or three alfaias roaring in unison, the energy of a Nação Zumbi concert is hard to describe. There is simply no other rock-based genre that even comes close. The juice that they pumped off the stage that night was a sight impossible to forget.
In early 1997, a band from Recife, state of Pernambuco, was poised to launch into the international Latin music scene with one of the most impressive displays of musical miscegenation our generation has yet seen. Their first CD, Da Lama ao Caos (From Mud to Chaos), had landed them in the spotlight and created a buzz unlike anything previously seen in Recife. Their new album, Afrociberdelia, had been released earlier the previous year to extraordinary reviews and praise from all over Brazil and the world, selling thousands of copies immediately. They had completed tours of Brazil, North America and Europe, mesmerizing audiences at every stop.
By fusing a mad mixture of funk and hip-hop with maracatu and samba, psychedelic dub with metal-laced guitars and a soul thumping bass driven by three alfaias (a sort of strapped on bass drum), added to politically and socially charged lyrics, Chico Science & Nação Zumbi were quite simply the next big thing. The sound they had helped to create was uniquely Brazilian and intensely Pernambucano—they labeled it manguebeat. Mangue meaning mangrove in Portuguese, mangrove swamps covering their home base of Recife. This amazing percussion-driven musical explosion that only Brazil could produce was quickly establishing itself nationally and internationally. Chico was the mad scientist behind it all, the leader of this mangue revolution.
But on February 2, 1997, fate proved more powerful than art. While driving from Recife to nearby Olinda, the car Chico Science was driving spun out of control and crashed into one of the immense posts that line the highway. No one is sure exactly what happened. Chico Science, Francisco de Assis França, was killed instantly.
Traditional and Modern
Nação Zumbi began their journey in the early 90s when Chico Science together with Jorge do Peixe and the other founding members began to consolidate their ideas for a musical project based in traditional Brazilian music, but with an ultra-modern rock n’ roll approach. Coming from an early fascination with hip-hop, classic 70s funk, maracatu and samba, Chico developed this vision and by 1991 he had assembled what would become Nação Zumbi.
As their sound developed, so did Recife’s musical identity. Proudly showing off their Pernambucano roots at every opportunity, manguebeat was born through the voice and lingo of Chico Science & Nação Zumbi. From 1994 to early 1997 they constantly made national and international headlines, attracting everyone from Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben to Sepultura and the Red Hot Organization.
But since that horrible day in 1997, the past few years have seen limited press on Recife and what has become of this scene that was so close to making a Los Fabulosos Cadillacs-type impact on the Latin rock market. Without its charismatic leader, manguebeat seemed to fade from the spotlight. I had been thoroughly immersed in Latin rock for over five years and had never even heard the name let alone the music until this past winter. I finally came across Afrociberdelia by chance in February, having it recommended to me by a hip Portuguese professor.
Before finishing it three times, my conceptions of percussion driven rock n’ roll had been completely and permanently rearranged. The CD spun three to four times daily in my stereo for over two weeks. Only learning tiny bits of the story of Chico Science second hand, and with an upcoming trip to Bahia, Brazil about to commence, I dedicated myself to make the ten hour trip north to Recife to find out what had become of Nação Zumbi and to get a first hand look at Manguetown. It turned out to be a very wise decision.
Arriving in Recife on a Thursday, I immediately sought out CD Rock, a local music store recommended to me by a Brazilian music email group. Within minutes I was hearing the story first hand from the owner, Elcy, and had met about ten mangueboys involved in various music projects in Recife. As we talked, I felt that surge of energy that one only feels in cutting edge music circles. The pride in this underground scene and the now legendary local hero Chico Science was immense.
What did Chico Science & Nação Zumbi represent to Recife and Brazilian rock in general? Quite simply the most original and inspirational that modern Brazil has to offer. Much to my delight, I also learned that indeed Nação Zumbi had not disappeared despite the tragic loss of Chico. Far from it. The story of Nação Zumbi is not one of what could have been, but of what still might be. Coinciding perfectly with my five-day visit, the band would be performing at a free concert that Saturday night.
Set up on a beach in south Recife, wind tossing the salt and sand through the air, we came upon the stage that was to host the concert that night. Given my gringo concept of time, I had insisted on arriving early so as not to miss a beat. And miss a beat we did not. After grabbing a caipirinha (a margarita-like concoction) at a nearby restaurant and killing about an hour, we watched two mediocre punk/metal bands open the show.
As we waited, I scanned the area for anyone who seemed even remotely connected to the main attraction. Spotting a young woman sporting a backstage pass, I quickly approached her and introduced myself as a musician from the USA who had come here solely to see Nação Zumbi. She seemed impressed and said she would find someone.
Shortly after, a face I recognized from the Afrociberdelia album cover came out from behind the stage, saw me, and asked if I was the one who wanted to meet someone in the band. It was Toca Ogum, the percussionist/singer. Barely catching half of what he said in his slang-laden Nordestino Portuguese, I told him why I had come and gave him a tape of my own band. He said we could speak more after the show.
The next band, Lamento Negro, came on and instantly got my attention. They laid down an alfaia driven funk groove similar to Nação Zumbi—manguebeat in action. I later learned that they were also one of the original bands that helped create this magnificent scene developing so quickly in Recife. During their set, I saw one of the mangueboys from the store the other day and went to chat with him. He said he would introduce me to Jorge, the new main vocalist, and Pupilo, the drummer. We soon spotted them and made the appropriate introductions. I explained my journey and my admiration for this mad mixture of sounds that they had created. They also seemed impressed that I had made the trip. We had a brief discussion about the African backbone to so much American music, American as in the Americas—all of us.
Nação Zumbi took the stage after Lamento Negro had finished. I was instantly amazed by their set-up—drums and percussion lay everywhere. One could sense a sort of awe from the crowd before the music even began. Starting with a smooth dub groove, they ripped through an hour plus set that included now classic tunes such as “Antene-se” (“I am… I am… I am mangueboy!!”), “Etnia” (“Everyone united in alegria (joy), there’s nothing wrong with our ethnicity.”), as well as a few new songs from their upcoming release Radio S.AMB.A. The intensity of their explosive performance was addictive. Jorge commanded the audience with a presence that reminded me of a hip-hop MC directing traffic.
The mixing of traditional northeastern Brazilian music and percussion with funk, metal and dub is probably the most original sound I’ve heard in years. Until you hear the thundering bass created by two or three alfaias roaring in unison, the energy of a Nação Zumbi concert is hard to describe. There is simply no other rock-based genre that even comes close. Put a samba batucada underneath a funk metal-fueled maracatu psycho-dub groove and you can start to grasp the sound. The juice that they pumped off the stage that night was a sight impossible to forget. Nor was the homage to Chico with hundreds of mangueboys and manguegirls shaking their hands in the air, as if to let him and the world know that the beat has not stopped and that his crew is alive and well.
Today, three members of the band share lead vocal duties, constantly rotating between percussion and vocals. After the show I had the pleasure of cruising to a party in Olinda with Jorge, his wife and some of the Zumbi Nation crew. We continued the discussion about the unifying force that “black music” has been within our hemisphere—from funk to reggae to blues to samba to salsa to maracatu to hip-hop. We shared our ideas about an enormous musical vision that combines the best of all these genres into a unified whole. Jorge spoke about the upcoming album and expressed their hopes of embarking on another US tour sometime within the next year. Keep your eyes, ears and minds open for the announcement.
Nação Zumbi is quite simply one of the most cutting edge groups to appear in the last decade. The experiment started by the mad scientist continues and grows and reforms itself in the creativity bursting at the seams in Recife. The mourning of Chico can and should turn into a celebration of the legacy that this band is going to leave on the face of contemporary music.
The funk-filled Mangroove has firmly established itself in Northeastern Brazil and is once again making headlines. Today CSNZ’s CDs are nearly impossible to encounter because the moment they arrive at any music store from Recife to Rio de Janeiro they sell out. Your best bet is to check the international sections at major record stores. Or what the hell, send me a blank tape or two. I can probably hook you up. And hooked you will be.
Chico Science & Nação Zumbi / Nação Zumbi selected Discography:
Da Lama ao Caos (1995) Sony Music Brazil
Afrociberdelia (1996) Sony Music Brazil
Red, Hot & Rio compilation (1996) Polygram Latino US
CSNZ (1999) Sony Music Brazil
Radio S.AMB.A. (2000) Independent
Jeff Duneman is finishing his Masters in Latin American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He is a musician (drummer) and full-time music fanatic. 28 years old, hailing from the Midwest, temporarily transplanted to New Mexico, he has lived and traveled extensively in Mexico as well as visiting other parts of Spanish Latin America. Currently beginning what is sure to be a long-term romance with Brazil. You can reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org