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Reggae from the Badlands

Brazilian pop has traditionally been a product of mauricinhos,
young people from upper-middle class families who always dress fashionably,
look as if they just got out of the shower, carry cellular phones…a kind
of Brazilian yuppie. These mauricinhos have exerted a vigorous reign
over the pop landscape for some time. But this privileged class stronghold
has finally been shattered by a group from Rio’s badlands. Ascending from
the most violent region in the state of Rio, as the first group to break
the middle-class pop monopoly and become the principal reference of Brazilian
reggae is Cidade Negra.

The group hails from Belford Roxo, a city stuck in the middle of the
low plains area known as Baixada Fluminense. The site is one of the most
unkind places in the world where the streets are dirt; and guns, violent
crime, and poverty are worn out cliches. It is a city where there are few
paths young people can take. Aside from the inconsequential sum of money
that hard work brings, there is the evangelical church, drug trafficking,
and music. Everyone starts out the same, but the path a person takes as
an adolescent seals an unalterable fate.

Most bars in Belford Roxo continue to be frequented by older people,
lovers of samba; clubs cater to teenagers who like funk. The few small
reggae bars in the area have had a precarious existence, but their numbers
are growing. And it is here that the latest music from the world’s top
reggae groups can always be heard playing in the background.

Devotees of reggae come together in these bars or in garages where their
favorite bands rehearse. Young people whose hearts beat in time to the
pulsating rhythms of Bob Marley and who mirror the habits and dress of
Jamaica pack these sites. Some wear dreadlocks and articles of clothing
that bear green, yellow, and red colors. The better informed use words
extracted from the Rastafari religion. One of the most often heard is Jah,
the Rastafari word for God.

How the habits and music from a distant island in Central America could
influence a dusty town in the Baixada is still difficult to fathom. But
the process seems to have started in the middle of the 1980s when the movement
of black consciousness was growing around Rio. In that climate of social
criticism, reggae fell like the bomb of love and spread like radiation.
Jamaican reggae star Jimmy Cliff played soccer and rode a bicycle around
the streets of Belford Roxo during a break in his 1991 concert tour of
Brazil, commenting later that he felt at home, that it was exactly like
his country.

Although the influence of Jamaican culture in Belford Roxo goes beyond
reggae and wearing dreadlocks, few reggae fans actually follow the rigid
precepts of the Rastafari religion. Among other things, the Rastafari beliefs
preach a total abstinence from the consumption of meat and dictate isolation
for long periods of time. Notwithstanding, Belford Roxo’s city government
initiated a project last year that will research important similarities
and draw comparisons between Belford Roxo and Jamaica.

Among all of the traces of Jamaican culture, what excites the young
people of Belford Roxo most is without a doubt the music. There are in
this small town no less than ten top-notch reggae bands. Several of them
are now recording demo tapes for the major record companies, and all are
dreaming of repeating the success of Cidade Negra. For people who considered
Belford Roxo the capital of world violence because of the number of bloody
killings that occur in the region, this trend is a sizable step in the
right direction. Today, mothers in Belford Roxo are encouraging their kids
to learn how to play guitar.

Cidade Negra’s guitar player, Paulo Roberto da Gama, used to paint cars.
Vocalist, Antônio Bento da Silva (Toni Garrido), was a delivery boy
for a pharmacy. Until a few years ago, Lázaro da Cruz (Lazão),
the group’s drummer, and André de Farias (Bino), Cidade’s bass player,
carried cleaning brushes and buckets to wash the windows of office buildings
in the center of Rio, or they offered their cleaning services to car owners
on the streets. They all came from families where the mothers were domestic
maids and the fathers were laborers.

The members of Cidade Negra managed to escape from a brutal destiny,
but have not abandoned it. Today on blistering afternoons, Cidade Negra
is not in Belford Roxo. Success has brought this band from the periphery
to apartments in Barra da Tijuca, Copacabana, and the exclusive Lagoa area.
They all have cars and cellular phones. Still, they continue working for
change in the same Babylon that devoured their peers. Among other ventures,
da Gama is planning to open an independent record label to promote new
talent and give some Belford reggae bands a first chance. He already pays
for their studio time, coaches their performances, and has produced a few
shows. So if Cidade Negra displays a little pride nowadays, if nothing
else, it serves as a good reference for other poor kids who live in the
Baixada Fluminense.

From the time of their first release Lute Para Viver (Fight in
Order to Live), which contained the hits “Falar a Verdade” (To Speak the
Truth) “Nada Mudou” (Nothing Changed), “Assassinatureza” (Nature Killer),
and “Nos Jardins Desta Nação” (In the Gardens of This Nation);
the group has remained close to the limelight. Lute Para Viver was
a masterpiece of Brazilian roots reggae. But to be completely honest, the
group did need some time to emerge from problems they had with their misunderstood
second project, Negro no Poder (Black in Power). Many radio stations
refused to give the disc airplay for reasons that could, at best, be construed
as racist. A good example of why Negro no Poder was misunderstood
can be seen in the lyrics from the tune “Zumbi.” Zumbi was the military
commander of the Republic of Palmares, a remarkable political and economic
state comprised of nearly twelve thousand runaway slaves in Alagoas in
Northeastern Brazil between 1630 and 1697:

Aqui onde estão os homens

De um lado cana de açúcar

Do outro lado cafezal

Ao centro senhores sentados

Vendo a colheita do algodão branco

Sendo colhido por mãos negras

Eu quero ver

Quando Zumbi chegar

O que vai acontecer

Zumbi é senhor das guerras

É senhor das demandas

Here are the men

On one side sugar cane

On the other a coffee plantation

In the center the masters are sitting

Watching the harvest of the white cotton

Being collected by black hands

I want to see

When Zumbi arrives

What is going to happen

Zumbi is the master of wars

He is the master of the conflicts

After the disappointing sales of Negro no Poder, the group was
forced to accept some new conditions from their multinational record label.
An excessive work schedule was just one concession of their agreement with
Sony. The band pushed their live performance schedule to the limit, at
times performing 22 shows in one month, not including radio and TV appearances
and interviews. A sad aftermath of the group’s concessions to Sony was
Ras Bernardo’s decision to leave the group.

Ras [1] Bernardo (Sebastião Francisco Bernardo), the first vocalist
of Cidade Negra, embarked on a solo career with the disc Atitude Pátria
(Civic Attitude). Bernardo discovered that the reality in Jamaica had everything
to do with his reality and today divides his time between performances
and the preparation of the União Brasileira Rastafari (Brazilian
Rastafari Union), a kind of study center dedicated to Jamaican belief systems.
He commented last year that he doesn’t want to establish a temple, only
a home for debates and the dissemination of information.

Toni Garrido, the vocalist who joined the group in 1994 after the departure
of Ras Bernardo, has added not only new energy and ideas, but also a commercial
consciousness and a politically correct position. Garrido feels that the
group is not yet in a position where they can comfortably discuss the circumstances
surrounding Negro no Poder, but intends to one day reveal the names
of the DJs at the particular stations, who were responsible for preventing
the project’s exposure. In the meantime the band is being careful about
voicing their opinions on controversial issues. After all, the message
of reggae is about love, energy, and establishing a peaceful and harmonic
climate.

In his critique of their third disc, Sobre Todas as Forças
(Above All the Forces), Sérgio Martins, critic for Show Bizz
magazine, described Toni Garrido as mediocre and inexpressive. Despite
the jab, Cidade Negra sold 400,000 copies of the disc in the first four
months after its release. A feat like that is usually reserved for artists
like Roberto Carlos. Six tracks from this project were constantly aired
on the radio and became major hits for the group: “Onde Você Mora”
(Where Do You Live?), “Downtown,” which includes an appearance by Jamaican
reggae star Shabba Ranks, “A Sombra da Maldade” (The Shadow of Your Malice),
“Pensamento” (Thinking), “Querem o Meu Sangue” (They Want My Blood) by
Jimmy Cliff, and “Mucama” (Slave Woman), which mixes reggae with rap and
includes a guest appearance by rapper Gabriel O Pensador. In addition,
the video for the tune “Onde Você Mora” was number two on MTV’s Top
20, preceded only by “Love is Strong” by the Rolling Stones who were performing
in Brazil at the time.

Composed by Nando Reis (Titãs) and Marisa Monte, “Onde Você
Mora” is different from the roots reggae the group had been performing
with Ras Bernardo. It mixes elements of soul music with romantic lyrics:

Amor igual ao teu

Eu nunca mais terei

Amor que eu nunca vi igual

Que eu nunca mais verei

Amor que não se pede

Amor que não se mede

Que não se repete

Love like yours

I will never have again

Love like I have never seen

That I will never see again

Love that’s not asked for

Love that’s not measured

That doesn’t repeat

At first glance the music and lyrics of Cidade Negra seem like nothing
new, since many of these same elements have been the benchmarks of Brazilian
pop. What is new is that Cidade Negra’s approach, their kind of spirit,
has been completely absent from the Brazilian pop music scene. Theirs is
not audacious post-modern or concrete poetry, nor is it the poetry of Chico
Buarque. On the contrary, Cidade Negra’s lyrics are about common life,
about simple, thought-provoking everyday events. Another good example of
Cidade’s style is the lyrics from “Mucama” (Slave Woman) off the Sobre
Todas as Forças disc:

Mucama

Na cama do patrão

Me paga

Salário de bufão

Mas come

O que a população

Não come.

Slave woman

In the bed of the boss

He pays me

The salary of a clown

But he eats

What the population

Does not eat.

Whereas Negro no Poder forced the group to make some compromises
and “Onde Você Mora” began a controversy with Cidade’s critics, O
Erê (The Child) has reopened the floodgates of success. With
arresting lyrics, melodies that differ widely in formal outline and emotional
impact, overpowering rhythmic vigor, and boundary breaking horn arrangements,
Cidade Negra’s fourth disc reveals the range and depth of their reggae
concept in a style that overshadows their previous work. Although there
is some concession to commercialism, like the bonus track “Free” sung in
English, there is embedded in each of the tracks a scorching passion for
reggae music.

O Erê underlines not only the group’s considerable writing
talent, but also their knack for selecting material by composers of fresh
and durable melodies. Half of the tracks from the new disc are receiving
extensive radio exposure: “Cidade em Movimento” (City in Motion), “Jah
Vai Providenciar” (God Will Provide), “SOS Brasil,” “Firmamento” (Heaven),
“O Guarda” (The Cop), Jorge Benjor’s “Negro É Lindo” (Black Is Beautiful),
and the title track, “O Erê.” According to Jorge Davidson, the project’s
artistic director, O Erê is expected to generate more sales
than Cidade Negra’s past three releases combined by the end of this summer,
an extraordinary mark for the band considering their humble beginnings.

“SOS Brasil,” the disc’s first track, opens with the persistent stimulation
of Cidade’s rhythmic foundation (Bino and Lazão) bonded to a tightly
syncopated horn section arranged by Laminha. Garrido is simultaneously
lyrical and virile. It is an unusually satisfying performance—the essence
of electronic 90’s reggae.

The disc’s paramount work is “Cidade em Movimento” by Pedro Luís,
a prolific composer known for defining a kind of Northeastern regional-punk
music with the group Parede (Wall), for his compositions “Tudo Vale a Pena”
(Everything is Worthwhile) and “Dois” (Two) on Fernanda Abreu’s 1995 release
Da Lata (From Tin), and for his musical direction of singer Arícia
Mess and the group Boato (Rumor).

A somber atmospheric prelude acts as a decoy until Bino’s bass grabs
the spotlight in a performance that reflects clear-cut articulation and
an incisive individuality of expression. Here the impeccable Bino is as
fluid and fiery as ever, but in a more overt manner than usual. He obviously
knows his instrument and is capable of instantly executing ideas. In fact,
this quality characterizes his playing throughout the disc. Fantastic polyrhythms
and intelligent construction of ideas are juxtaposed by mixing DJ scratching,
Bino’s unrelenting bass, and an Eleanor Rigby-like string effect to make
“Cidade em Movimento” one of the group’s all-time best.

It is on “Jah Vai Providenciar” that Garrido demonstrates his technical
finesse and expressive lyricism. In addition, each member of the group
performs with authority, something that comes from comprehensive musicianship,
to capture a trace of their earlier roots reggae sound. I found myself
humming the tune’s refrain at unexpected moments and futilely speculating
what would have happened had Ras Bernardo stayed with the band.

Virtuosity and versatility again combine for the no-holds-barred “O
Guarda.” Lazão, Bino, and da Gama, as always, lock down an unremitting
rhythmic foundation. The performance here is amazingly mature and completely
confident demonstrating that Cidade Negra’s approach is always evolving.

The success of the new disc does not mean that Cidade Negra is making
reggae any more or less pure. It only verifies that the band has reached
a place in popularity that allows them to record what they want. Besides,
they have never followed the existing trends that so many other reggae
bands have succumbed to. Sales of O Erê are showing that the
reggae of Cidade Negra is at a peak whatever the classification the public
gives them. And judging from the latest numbers, it’s safe to say that
O Erê will not create any disturbing negotiations with Sony
in the near future.

Speaking the truth and grasping the purpose and the philosophy of reggae
has taken Cidade Negra a long way from Belford Roxo. The group has achieved
superstardom in Brazil. Their following consistently fills up stadiums.
Furthermore, the band is beginning to establish a broad following outside
Brazil. They have performed in Europe and in the United States. But what
I assume was even more satisfying was their trip to Bob Marley’s Jamaica
where they were the only band from South America to participate in the
Sunsplash Festival, the world’s most important reggae celebration.

For the band to release a new disc after the phenomenal success of Sobre
Todas as Forças was an enormous responsibility. But this band
from the outskirts of Rio has demonstrated they have talent and breath
enough to remain high on the charts for a long time to come. With the release
of their forth disc, O Erê, Cidade Negra has made reggae the
best bet for this summer.

[1] The name Ras in Jamaica means prince. In Belford Roxo it is applied
to those who admire reggae or to those dedicated to the Rastafari belief
system.

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: cuica@interworld.net

Cidade em Movimento

Words and music by Pedro Luís,

Roberto Valente,

and Rodrigo Saad (a.k.a. Rodrigo Cabelo)

O sol acorda a cidade

Mistura a cor da massa

Que vai na velocidade

Da luz do astro rei do olhar

Sou da cor da cidade

Caminho junto com a multidão

Que pulsa ao som da verdade

Tambor da nossa comunicação

Que toca no sangue

Que toca os sentidos

Espalha no ar o batuque das tribos

Na força do vento um só movimento

Deságua na onda que invade e transborda

No som que acorda a cidade

Coração de paz

Coração de pão

Tudo coração de irmão

Coração rei

Coração de irmão

City in Motion
The sun wakes the city

It mixes the color of the people

Who move at the speed

Of the King Star’s light.

I have the color of the city

I walk together with the multitude

That vibrates with the sound of the truth

Drum of our communication

That touches our blood

That touches the senses

Spreads in the air the beat of the tribes

The strength of the wind in only one movement

Cascading like a wave that invades and overflows

In the sound that wakes up the city

Heart in peace

Heart in bread

Every heart of a brother

King heart

Heart of a brother

SOS Brasil

Words by da Gama, Lazão, and Bernardo Vilhena

Music by da Gama, Lazão, and Bino

Há muito tempo que eu queria te dizer, ouça

Vontade de te ver também

Não vale se esconder

Verdades sempre vêm

E as coisas que passei

Já ficaram para trás

Eu tenho que viver

A minha ansiedade cada vez aumenta mais

Eu tô vendo na cidade, ódio, amor, guerra e paz

Alguém da sua idade no caminho encontrei

Falando dos atalhos descobertos pelos reis

O rei da sua história e até o rei sol

Todos eles dizem que existe uma lei

Mas eles não sabem de uma coisa que eu sei

Mas eles não sabem de uma coisa que eu sei

Cachorro magro e criança na rua, corra

Pra tentar salvar alguém

Mulher bonita é feitiço da lua

Seu relax me faz bem

A gente avança e também recua,

No balanço desse trem

Desempregado a luta continua

Resistindo esse vai e vem

Rua é a escola

Rua pra jogar bola

Nua a criança chora

Nua pedindo esmola

Agora eu vou contar

O que ninguém nunca ouviu

O futuro é agora,

SOS Brasil.

SOS Brazil
For a long time I’ve wanted to tell you, listen

I want to see you also

You are not allowed to hide

Truth always comes

And the things that I passed

Are already left behind

I have to live

My anxiety grows more each time

In the city I see hatred, love, war, and peace

I met somebody your age on the way

Talking about the shortcuts discovered by kings

The king of your history and even the sun king

All of them say that there is a law

But they don’t know one thing that I know

But they don’t know one thing that I know

Skinny dog and child on the street, run

To try and save somebody

Beautiful woman is a spell of the moon

Your ease makes me feel fine

The people move forward and also retreat

On the sway of this train

Unemployed the struggle goes on

Resisting this come and go

Street is the school

Street is to play soccer

Naked a child cries

Naked asking for charity

Now I am going to tell you

What no one has ever heard

The future is now

SOS Brazil.

Jah Vai Providenciar

Words and music by Serginho Meriti

and Caca Franklin

Pessoa, ainda sinto as mesmas coisas fortes por você

Meu sentimento mais profundo ainda insiste em te querer

Mas sei que não tem sido nada fácil sobreviver

Tanto para mim, quanto pra você

E aquele nosso jeito apressado de querer vencer

Quase nos deixou mal

Mas nada há de abalar nossos planos

Você vai ver que com o passar dos anos

O que falta pra nossa felicidade

Jah vai providenciar, Jah vai providenciar

Pessoa, não duvide que na vida tudo pode acontecer

E o sol pode estar quente de repente, trovejar e até chover

Mas chuva lava a alma, tenha calma, vai acontecer

Saiba esperar, não se negue a crer

Que foi aquele jeito apressado de querer, vencer

Quase nos deixou mal

Mas nada há de abalar os nossos planos

Você vai ver que com o passar dos anos

O que falta pra nossa felicidade

Jah vai providenciar, Jah vai providenciar

Jah vai providenciar, Jah vai providenciar

Jah vai providenciar, Jah vai providenciar

God Will Provide
People, I still feel the same strong things for you

My deepest feelings still insist on loving you

But I know that it has not been easy to survive

As much for me as for you

And in that urgent way we wanted to succeed

We nearly lost ourselves

But nothing is going to shake our plans

You will see that with the passing years

What is missing for our happiness

God will provide, God will provide

People, don’t doubt that in life anything can happen

And the sun may be hot, and suddenly it thunders and even rains

But the rain washes the soul, be calm, it is going to happen

You have to be patient, don’t deny your faith

And in that urgent way we wanted to succeed

We nearly lost ourselves

But nothing is going to shake our plans

You will see that with the passing years

What is missing for our happiness

God will provide, God will provide

God will provide, God will provide

God will provide, God will provide

O Erê

Words by Toni Garrido, da Gama, Lazão,

Bino, and Bernardo Vilhena

Music by Toni Garrido, da Gama, Lazão, and Bino

Pra entender o Erê

Tem que tá moleque

Tem que conquistar alguém

E a consciência leve

Há semanas em que tudo vem

Há semanas que é seca pura

Há selvagens que são do bem

A sequência do filme muda

Milhões de anos luz podem curar

O que alguns segundos na vida podem representar

O Erê, a criança, sincera convicção

Fazendo a vida com o que o sol nos traz

Você sabe

Um sentimento não trai

Um bom sentimento não trai

Pra entender o Erê

Tem que tá moleque

Tem que conquistar alguém

E a consciência leve

Pare e pense no que já se viu

Pense e sinta o que já se fez

O mundo visto de uma janela

Pelos olhos de uma criança

The Child
To understand the child

You have to be a child of the streets

You have to defeat someone

And have a light conscience

There are some weeks when everything comes to you

There are some weeks that are pure drought

There are some hardened ones who are good

The sequence of the film changes

Millions of light years may heal

What a few seconds in a life may represent

O Erê, the child, sincere conviction

Making a life with what the sun brings us

You know

A feeling does not betray

A good feeling does not betray

To understand the child

You have to be a child of the streets

You have to defeat someone

And have a light conscience

Stop and think of what you have already seen

Think and feel what you have already done

The world seen through a window

Through the eyes of a child

Discography:
1990….. Lute Para Viver……………. Epic

1992 …..Negro no Poder…………… Sony

1994….. Sobre Todas as Forças…. Sony

1996….. O Erê………………………… Sony

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