Los Angeles is a city with more than a thousand live-entertainment options every night and several thousand armed incentives that make staying home an appealing alternative. Anyone striving for self-expression in L.A. can call themselves an artist by performing on a sidewalk, in a bookstore, or paying a club owner for the opportunity. If there is anything good about the music scene here, it’s that weak bands die off quickly. Any act that lasts five years has to be relatively strong by virtue of its very existence.
Singer and lyricist Kátia Moraes has been active on this scene since the early nineties. Calling friends to come out to gigs and mailing flyers, she has worked hard for commercial success. Year after year, night after night, the various incarnations of Kátia’s band played the same circuit to the same crowd of faces without any sign that all this dues-playing would bring anything more than a typecasting of her group as a small venue act. She could fill clubs, but not concert halls or arenas. In the last year, however, Moraes’s new group has burst onto the broader music scene with their debut CD, Ginga.
Sambaguru is a consummate ensemble of musicians from Brazil, India, Sri Lanka, and the United States that plays an open minded and wide-ranging blend of original music. Their rich and extensive repertoire arises from the huge diversity in approaches and techniques that distinguish the personal and regional backgrounds of each band member. It is a vibrant band that has its own lively identity as well as a rapport that borders on the telepathic. Listeners can easily detect how stylistic inner tensions among these players from widely separated areas of the globe unite to express a remarkable depth and quality.
Gigging together for the last two years with almost no lapses, these players have opened their ears and sharpened their reflexes. In live performance they demonstrate a spontaneous quick ear equilibrium that both amazes and intoxicates listeners’ eyes and ears with the color and sound of a cinematic landscape. The repertoire, pulsing and driving with its jumping skein of rhythmic counterpoint, integrates a variety of sources and offers listeners dozens of opportunities to experience a group with prodigious chops that plays with a collective feel.
The metamorphosis of Sambaguru as an ensemble began in the late eighties when Tony Shogren, who was playing with Sônia Santos and the Obathalá Band, called Bill Brendle inviting him to fill the recently vacated keyboard chair. Brendle was at that time working with a number of jazz groups and was thoroughly frustrated with playing what had come to be called “wave jazz.” 1 He sensed that Brazilian music was the bright star that would show him the way out of the L.A. jazz scene, but allow him to remain living in Los Angeles. Brendle says, “I took the job to maintain my sanity.”
Through his work with Santos, Brendle met percussionist Meia Noite (another Sérgio Mendes alumnus) who was putting together a new band called Midnight Drums in which Kátia Moraes was singing. Brendle joined Midnight Drums and had been working closely with the singer for over a year when Moraes’s own group, The Rio Thing, started breaking up. Tony Shogren (who was then playing drums for Moraes) called Brendle and asked him to join a new project Moraes was starting. The three of them lured Hussain Jiffry to fill the bass chair, and Brasil Nuts was born.
The Brasil Nuts band gigged constantly, playing small clubs three or four nights a week, performing cover tunes from the repertories of Djavan and Elis Regina as well as leftover arrangements from The Rio Thing. The material was good, but after a couple of years it became a little tiring for both the players and their followers. Brendle wanted to see the band grow. He was at the point where either the band was going to mature musically or he wasn’t going to continue with it. Says Brendle, “Everyone agreed because they were also tired of it.” At this juncture, he and Moraes collaborated on a tune they titled “Tonto” (Dizzy). Audience response to the tune brought them the validation and encouragement they needed to continue. They found that by tacking Brazilian dance grooves onto their own material, they could get paid to play original compositions in the same clubs and for the same audiences that had previously requested tunes. Taking advantage of this surprising situation, they wrote even more.
The band’s only CD, Ten Feet and the Sun, was recorded in studio with almost all parts tracked as if the band were playing a live show. Some keyboard parts were overdubbed, but there was no layering, or stacking, of strings, piano parts, or solos. The CD reminds the listener more of a live concert than a studio session. The tunes are early Brendle/Moraes compositions that lack the sophistication of their later work, but their intention was simply to produce a demo, a calling card to give to club owners to get more gigs. After almost 80 percent of the demo was recorded, the band realized that a few hundred dollars more—for packaging and liner notes—would allow them to produce a CD, if for nothing else, to sell at gigs. Thus, the demo became a CD, and although Ten Feet and the Sun received good reviews when it was released in 1996, it remains an incomplete work in progress, flawed by embryonic writing and a lack of resources to take production to a higher level.
Over the next two years, the Brendle and Moraes writing collaboration continued to change and develop, as did the evolution of the group. The other players were encouraged to bring in new instruments, to contribute their own compositions, and to become visually and vocally more active in live performance. Moraes was interested and altogether accepting of everyone’s talents and wanted each member of the group to shine in his own way. A dancer/background vocalist left the band, but a percussionist and a guitar player were recruited. These changes triggered the next step in the budding group’s identity—figuring out exactly what to call themselves.
Clarifying the name Sambaguru, percussionist Kevin Ricard explains, “The music that we play is danceable. It obviously makes you want to move, because it’s rooted not only in folkloric music, which is tied to dance anyway, but also in your soul, in the spirit. We’re playing our music to lighten your spirit. There is a cerebral element—chord structure, arrangements—you know? But the bottom line is, you’ve got to make your butt shake. It’s all about making people happy.”
Sambaguru, a six-as-one collective that is greater than the sum of its parts, is Kátia Moraes, vocals; Sanjay Divecha, guitars; Hussain Jiffry, bass; Tony Shogren, drums and percussion; Kevin Ricard, percussion; and Bill Brendle, keyboards, accordion, and cavaquinho. Although these musicians record and tour extensively with today’s top artists (see biographical sketches below), the idea of a group identity appealed to them, as it gave the players creative control of the music and the chance to express their individual voices. Says Brendle, “When you’re working for someone else, you’re a hired gun and have to shape the sound and interpret tunes the way the boss hears them. He’s paying you to deliver what he wants. With Sambaguru those kinds of limitations have vanished. All new ideas can be and are brought to the table. We shape the sound and choose whatever directions or opportunities gratify us. This band is our baby.”
In addition to their musical roles, each member of the group has also assumed specific adjunct responsibilities in relation to the band’s business affairs: accounting, contracting, scheduling, bookings, public relations, and media contacts. Moraes had been handling all these arrangements, but it was difficult for one person to cover all these bases. Besides, artists who represent themselves in L.A. aren’t always taken seriously by club managers and festival promoters, especially if that artist is a singer, female, and Brazilian.
Sambaguru’s debut CD on Sugarcane Records, Ginga, is a vigorous mixture of bold rhythms, gutsy writing, and innovative arranging that conveys an atmosphere of effervescent excitement. Parallels between Ten Feet and the Sun and the new CD can hardly be drawn. Ginga is a furious cross-pollination of distinct styles and musical innovation with infinitely more musical value and insight. It distinguishes itself by the consistent care given to every phase of production, from the amount of time devoted to recording—one part at a time in the studio with melody changes up to the final cut of the vocal—to the recording engineer’s techniques and the quality of his recording equipment. “In general, the recording is a constant letting go of the ego,” says Moraes. “This is about the songs, about a cohesive sound, and not about someone taking a lot of glorious solos.” On Ginga, the six sources of Sambaguru amalgamate in a fusion that clearly demonstrates how well musicians from different corners of the world can work together, especially when they have Brazilian music as the center of their magnetic field.
Ginga contains 13 original songs stylistically ranging from the serenity and subtle intensity of an afoxé titled “Sarando” (Healing) to a catchy choro called “Pra Tocar Pandeiro” (To Play Pandeiro) to the humorous samba-reggae “Fofocada” (Gossip) with its strains of California surf music. Ginga’s strongest offering, and the last song the band decided to include on the CD, is “Convite Pra Bituca” (Invitation for Bituca). The piece is dedicated to Milton Nascimento and propelled by a drum groove Shogren brought back from Minas Gerais. Playing a surdo-type drum called caixa de folio, percussionist Kevin Ricard seamlessly weaves the rhythm into the tune’s larger fabric and renders a sort of rhythmic Rorschach test. “Convite Pra Bituca” features three brilliant guitar parts played by Heitor TP whose aggregate rhythmic complexities are better listened to than described. Also joining Sambaguru on Ginga are Steve Tavaglione on flutes and synthesizers, Justo Almario on flute and clarinet, and Cássio Duarte on pandeiro.
What is unusual about Ginga is that it is almost impossible to classify. One cannot simply categorize it as pop, world beat, Brazilian pop, world beat pop, or any other one denomination. Says drummer Tony Shogren, “Sambaguru is much more world influenced than Kátia’s last band. We’re incorporating many more instruments and getting out from behind our instruments, our safe zones.” Brendle feels this is one of the reasons the band has had a hard time acquiring good management and a good record deal. “No one knows exactly what to do with us.”
Ginga confirms that the future of eclectic, vibrant music lies with the independent labels who have always been the first to recognize and record real talent. Ricard points out, “There is a growing backlash to the way the industry has been concentrated in four or five goliath companies. People are fed up with how corporatized and formulized the industry has become. It has created a real creativity crisis. But with the ‘indies’ (independent record companies) and downloadable music, the situation is changing daily.”
Sambaguru has plans to include more traditional Brazilian percussion instruments and exploit their acoustic performance possibilities to create as warm a sound as possible. They also intend to move in unexplored compositional directions and toward new sounds, possibly incorporating more African and Indian elements. “But we have to do this in the right way,” says Sanjay Divecha. “I have too much respect for classical Indian music to fake it. What is most important to me is getting the music out there for people to hear. The studio is fun, but when we’re playing live, there is a chemistry that constantly changes our music, and we begin to hear things we haven’t actually played yet. These songs, even though they’ve already been recorded, are still changing. They sound different live than they do on the recording. Things change for the better.”
As these words are written, the most successful year of Kátia Moraes’s career in terms of artistic achievement and popular recognition is drawing to a close. It hardly seems possible that a full decade has elapsed since her arrival from Rio. Sambaguru has responded to the challenges of its singer with a creativity and skill that is only possible with the highest caliber working bands. With Ginga, Sambaguru has produced a meaningful musical landscape and situated themselves at an arresting vantage point. It is a recording with depth, richness, and color, delivered from a unique perspective. And with Sambaguru, Kátia Moraes has arrived at her optimum musical setting, an inspiring setting that has taken her to the threshold of a difficult art—and art it is, albeit at the level of alchemy.
1 Wave jazz is a derogatory term that developed in reaction to the gutless Kenny G style of soft jazz fusion in which formats, grooves, and order of solos are all dreadfully predictable and that a particular Southern California radio station airs continuously.Biographical Sketches:
Kátia Moraes began her career in Rio de Janeiro where she performed in musical revues and recorded background vocals for top Brazilian acts like Rita Lee and Banda Cheiro de Amor. After moving to Los Angeles in 1990, Moraes started lending her voice to films and television for dubbing and “voice-overs.” About Moraes the Los Angeles Times says, “She comes on stage like an explosion, her body in constant motion, her voice excited and dynamic.”
Kevin Ricard, an intensely talented percussionist whose family’s roots lie in the Louisiana bayou country, has toured and appeared on recordings with scores of musical luminaries—Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Kenny Loggins, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, Paula Abdul, Sérgio Mendes, The Temptations, Roberta Flack, Lionel Richie, and Crosby, Stills & Nash among others. Ricard’s ability to fragment the beat and increase rhythmic pressure is especially gripping, potent. Interacting with the other Sambaguru musicians, he infuses each performance with a special vibrancy, conjuring up the effect of power wedded to relaxation.
Guitar player Sanjay Divecha, a native of Bombay, credits his family for his early appreciation of music and fondly recalls childhood memories of his grandfather playing Indian folks songs on the harmonium. When Divecha was 8 years old, he began formal musical training on the tabla, gravitating eventually to the sitar. After his exposure to North American rhythm and blues and English rock ‘n’ roll, Divecha took up guitar. At the age of 17 he was touring India with his own band, and by the time he had finished college, Divecha was earning his living composing jingles for radio and television commercials. In 1987 he moved to California where his eclectic approach and forcefully mature playing enabled him to obtain work as a recording session musician. Divecha has recorded with world renowned West African vocalist Angelique Kidjo.
Sri Lankan bassist Hussain Jiffry began his musical path by singing in his school choir and by age 10 had taken up the piano, switching to the accordion at 12. When he was 17, he realized his real passion and talent lie in the electric bass. In 1982, Jiffry was invited to tour Europe with a rhythm and blues band, eventually spending six years on the European club circuit. He moved to Los Angeles in 1988 where his reputation as one of the most authoritative and absorbingly original bass players keeps him busy freelancing. Jiffry’s career, which continues to develop, includes countless performances with some of the scene’s most respected musicians, including Tom Scott, Kenny Kirkland, Chaka Khan, and Whitney Houston. Jiffry is currently touring with Sérgio Mendes.
Drummer and percussionist Tony Shogren is the springboard both rhythmically and emotionally for Sambaguru. He plays with the same distinctive power and originality as his teachers—Alex Acuna, David Garibaldi, and Vinnie Colaiuta. Shogren began studying drums when he was five years old and played his first professional gig at 12. When he was 15, he moved from Fresno, California, to South America where he began compiling rhythms distinctive to the various regions, an avocation that he continues to pursue and which has led him to other parts of the globe as well. Over the course of his career, Shogren has toured and performed at numerous jazz and world music festivals throughout the United States. In addition to playing drums and percussion with Sambaguru, he is the band’s recording engineer.
The band’s resident scholar and co-founder, Bill Brendle, began his musical training on the piano at age 3 under the guidance of his father, a professor of music at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Brendle’s work has appeared on more than forty CD’s with such legendary Brazilian artists as Simone, Gilberto Gil, Maria Bethânia, Caetano Veloso, and Hermeto Pascoal. He has composed and performed more than eighty television and radio commercials and counts Suzuki, Nike, Honda, and ABC News among his clients. In spite of his busy performing and recording career, Brendle has found time to arrange and orchestrate more than thirty pieces for João Gilberto and the London Symphony, a project slated to be recorded in the year 2000. Brendle has been the musical director for Sérgio Mendes since 1994.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
When love possessed
I faced my pain
Love is healing
When love comes to shine on you
It leaves nothing hidden
A butterfly poses on
You see and cry without
All the world
Waves break and clouds
All things laugh
A gentle breeze is blowing
from your heart
Healing and forgiving
Hate is wrenching slavery
Tranquility and your soul are friends
Blue and green, water of the sea
And your hug blessing me
To Play Pandeiro
I never thought it would be easy
To play this little thing
But God in heaven
Gave me the courage to
see and learn
That if I keep trying,
I will play
And He also gave me some friends
Patience and discretion
I will improve
Because in my life, I already
know that seeking
Is more important than succeeding
Thinking it over, I’ve tried
To play piano, guitar, all
to show off
But this time is different
I play the pandeiro only
to make myself happy
Soon I’ll go back to Rio
And play for my godfather
He might think that I should
just get married
It doesn’t matter, now that I’ve learned
I play just to make myself happy
Beto came here just to loaf around
On vacation with daddy’s money
He went to town with his credit card
Thinking only of getting laid
Lia came here to study
But went to the samba to celebrate
And, sister, there was so much gossip
She couldn’t stand it
Beto is doing it with who?
Hey, wait. She’s my girlfriend!
Those mean spirited ones
Talk to you today, won’t tomorrow
And what’s worse, they’re dying of envy
What a drag!
Disneyland is so boring
People are so cold
And this business of getting a ticket
For drinking beer on the beach
And for jaywalking
What a drag!
More criticism and
The Brazilian temperament
shows no respect
Lia is doing it with whom?
Hey, I already said that she is
My God, what nasty
And who can deny
Those who gossip
Are full of envy
Invitation for Bituca
(For Milton Nascimento)
I open my arms to receive you
I sing and dance because life is to be lived
I open my arms to receive you
I sing and dance because life is to be lived
I walk by the sea
I go there happily to find you
To heal your body and your heart
Of this pain that torments your soul
I sing and dance because life is to be lived
The voice that sings and plays
Sets fire to my beating
And stars stream from my mouth
Empty was my life before
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