Brazilian Jovino Santos Neto’s Northeastern Adventure

Jovino Santos Neto's Alma do NordesteIn his latest foray as a leader for Adventure Music, the multi-talented Jovino Santos Neto has turned his attention entirely to Brazil’s Northeast, to his grandparents’ culture and its idiosyncratic sonority. For those who love the sound, the tonal and coloristic possibilities, the energetic rhythms, it may come as a surprise that rarely, if ever, has there been a recording where its magic has been treated more daringly, where composer, soloists, and ensemble connect with more unerring intuition.

Like spicy gossip shared among friends, Alma do Nordeste is a close and creative collaboration among performers who play with passionate conviction and splendid risk-taking.  There is, among the hearty band of Brazilians who coalesce around and who are completely at ease in framing Santos Neto’s thirteen originals, an interactive immediacy that bespeaks an inspired as well as shared vision. 

Santos Neto has a characteristic style of writing, constructing radically shaped compositions with unexpected edges and angles.  His is a spiky and unpredictable music that makes soloists think, instead of casually whizzing through the changes.  Offering a broad spectrum of his ensemble writing, Alma do Nordeste includes pieces that demonstrate the composer’s love for twisting odd-metered lines and recall the whimsical phrasing of his mentor, Hermeto Pascoal.

The most interesting aspect of hearing new works by a musician irrevocably stirred by his 15 year stint with Hermeto’s ensemble, Grupo, is in spotting those inimitable harmonic fingerprints and translucent colors that define his own musical personality, and Alma do Nordeste is full of telltale signs; its near-cinematic flow neatly encapsulates hallmarks of Santos Neto’s style.  Few if any recordings spark or scintillate with such daredevilry, or are of such unapologetic voltage.  That daring Northeastern nature emerges with striking force on every track.

The opener is a characteristic example.  From its first notes, the listener knows he is in for a memorable musical experience.  Composed with traditional quadrilha phrasing, “Festa na Macuca” is a spirited baião in 7/4 dedicated to sanfona virtuoso Sivuca featuring Toninho Ferragutti’s accordion, the doyen flute flights of Marcelo Martins, and Santos Neto, whose surging melodic variation on piano catches our attention, all journeying over a consciously asymmetric terrain laid by the percussionists, notably Marcio Bahia, a Grupo alum, who excites some sparkling mambo-like interplay between himself and the ensemble.

“Saudade de Sua Gente” (Your Folks Miss You), dedicated to Marinês, the “Queen of Xaxado,” eschews a profusion of notes and chord changes, something uncharacteristic for Santos Neto.  Coaxing a variety of strongly personalized statements from their instruments, soloists Santos Neto, Ferragutti, and bass player Dudu Lima capture the air of resignation alluded to in the title.  Durval Pereira’s zabumba, the backbone of this xote, guarantees the right foundation; this is Northeastern music played with flair and imagination by musicians whose creative processes demand a clear and tangible base. 

“Amoreira,” a wordplay on percussionist Airto Moreira’s name, disguises its 7/4 meter behind a seemingly simple soprano sax melody played by Eduardo Neves and doubled by Santos Neto on a digitally distorted melodica.  Neves delivers a furiously unfolding solo, followed seamlessly by Santos Neto whose improvisation is invested with a rich strain of inspired ideas.  Energetic, edgy, swirling, allusive, the tune benefits greatly from the conviction and emotional commitment of Marcio Bahia’s rhythmic torrent.

Based on a syncopated 31-beat cycle, “Passareio” illustrates how fifes and percussion, full of jangling dissonance and strangely macabre overtones, contribute equally to the ingeniousness and evolution of the banda de pífanos.  Augmented with prerecorded ambient sounds from a street market in Recife, this truly spontaneous-sounding, atmospheric evocation of a treetop “conference of the birds” is as transfixing as a candle-flame’s hypnotic dance on the wick.

The Orson Welles film It’s All True, about four fishermen from Fortaleza on a 1600 mile ocean voyage, was the inspiration for “São Pedro na Jangada.”  Neto’s attention to melody on this programmatic baião in 3/4 proceeds not only in a straight line, but also in quick to curve phrases.  Anchored by percussionists Tiago da Serrinha and Durval Pereira, providing color as well as drive, the tune fashions an image of courageous Northeastern fishermen in flimsy rafts navigating rough seas.

Serene and with an unusual sense of underlying grace, the toada “Rede, Sossego e Chamego” spotlights Marcelo Martins (flute) and Gabriel Grossi (harmonica) riffing off each other to great effect.  It is always a pleasure to hear Grossi, whose only operating criterion is quality, solo with such beautiful tone and consistent inner logic.  Martins pursues the tune’s options with headlong, convoluted lines, delivering an astonishing display of flute virtuosity, while Santos Neto reveals his lightness of touch and feeling for subdued tone colors.

Introduced by an impromptu piano and soprano sax dialogue, “Fulô Sertaneja” is the second of three xotes on the CD.  Here Santos Neto, demonstrating he has plenty of time to execute ideas, and Marcelo Martins, initially caressing the tune’s gentle curves with typical inventiveness before driving on remorselessly, are tellingly juxtaposed with Marcio Bahia’s exquisite cymbal and stickwork whisking up a smoldering backdrop.

The title track, “Alma do Nordeste,” brings together three Grupo alumni (Santos Neto, Carlos Malta, and Pernambuco), who groove so hard it would be perverse for listeners not to tap their feet as this group gets deep into an infectiously buoyant baião.  This is a groove tune, raw and emotional – a delight throughout – with percussionists Tiago da Serrinha and Durval Pereira showing themselves to be perfect foils for the flute soloists.  Josemen Honaine’s extending the sound palette with his 10-string guitar and Dudu Lima’s ideas, strong and well-articulated, are much in sympathy with the tune’s structure and stylistic objectives.

Lima’s empathic bass sound is also apparent on “Biboca,” a tune on which Gabriel Grossi’s razor-sharp cascades of repeated notes are stunning, ideally fitting the spirit of this jaunty baião.  Santos Neto’s tightly-structured solo deftly works into the pulsing texture, providing shifting peaks and valleys of intensity, underpinned by the sheer rhythmic strength of Tiago da Serrinha’s triangle and the cymbal work and sudden felicitous side drum interventions from Marcio Bahia.

Bahia’s powerful style proves itself equally effective and at the heart of “Forró Vino,” a tune on which Serrinha’s pandeiro bristles.  Marcelo Martins punches hard into this tune with his fiercely propulsive tenor, soloing beautifully, his lines dancing and adding spark to the scorching tempo.  Santos Neto embroiders the tenor solo with tiny percussive dissonances before contributing a full-frontal improvisation of his own that abounds with strange twists, clusters, and flurries of notes, an antecedent to a percussive explosion from Bahia–an adrenaline rush.

“Borborema,” a baião inspired by the Borborema mountain range in Paraíba, features the sinuous soprano sax flights of Marcelo Martins as well as the innovative keyboard talent of Santos Neto, who ascends to the summit with spare and linear playing verging on the minimalist.  Dexterous and imaginative, his conception is more original than most and crammed full of ideas, both as a soloist and as an accompanist.  Dudu Lima’s large, sensual bass tone and Bahia’s off-center delivery capture the unpredictability and peculiarities of the setting.

“Donkey Xote” wordplays on Don Quixote, the tragicomedy by Cervantes and brings out all of Quixote’s endearing and aggravating qualities (Northeastern style).  With numerous hints of exaggeration and a large sense of humor, Marcelo Martins on soprano sax sustains a willowy line around angular intervals punctuated by the coloristic grit emanating from Santos Neto, while Bahia disrupts and dislocates the beat with counter-rhythms abetted by sudden percussive flurries.  Dudu Lima’s slippery imagination is unmistakable here in the fluid density of a bass solo, which even quotes Ari Barroso’s “Na Baixa do Sapateiro.”

“Vermeio Agreste Lampião,” another programmatic tune, quick cutting moods and colors à la cinematic montage, evokes images of Lampião and his band of outlaws riding horseback through the night to avoid capture.  The collective improvisation over its relentless groove, a wonderfully hectic romp representing the spirit of Brazil’s Northeast, is near-telepathic, an exploration that unfolds with freely alternating solo and ensemble segments, where tastefully rumbustious melodic and rhythmic motifs bounce like billiard balls.

Never one to travel in a straight line when there are curves to consider, Jovino Santos Neto brings to his composing and arranging an open-minded, eclectic approach which has borne fruit here in a rich, vigorous, and fresh-sounding CD, packed with ideas and bursting with vitality.  In his effort to explore a dialogue between music of the 21st century and firmly-rooted Northeastern rhythms and modalities, Santos Neto has found the perfect balance. 

He and his musicians exude an easy familiarity with the two musics, the two cultures.  They have an authoritative ease in execution that only comes through complete mastery.  This is contemporary music that retains strong links with what has gone before; in many ways the CD, uniting old and new elements with absolute stylistic consistency, represents a logical extension of the progress made by the 1970s Música Armorial movement.  What comes across most on this disc is a sense of committed and thoroughly enjoyable music making. 

However much Hermeto may have influenced his work, Alma do Nordeste catches Santos Neto at his best and most characteristic, and provides a revealing glimpse of him moving off in his own melodic and harmonic direction.  And however complex the ground-plan, the ensemble is so well attuned to it and to each other that the music remains gloriously alive as it dances through a brilliant flow of colors, dramas, and flashing outbursts of fiery intensity.

The music of Jovino Santos Neto comes from no forced or academic effort.  His music is too spontaneous, too inevitably human.  No composer’s music stands to benefit more from extensive exposure, not so much because of its quality (which is beyond question), but because of an almost tangible connection with its traditions, which are recast anew and carried forward.  This is real music with the emphasis on communication and with players who can stretch odd-metered time to the point of extinction.

Journalist, musician, and educator Bruce Gilman has served as music editor of Brazzil magazine, an online international publication based in Los Angeles, for more than a decade. During that time he has  written scores of articles on the most influential Brazilian artists and genres, program notes for festivals in the United States and abroad, numerous CD liner notes, and an essay, “The Politics of Samba,” that appeared in the Georgetown Journal

He is the recipient of three government grants that allowed him to research traditional music in China, India, and Brazil.  His articles on Brazilian music have been translated and published in Dutch, German, Portuguese, Serbian, and Spanish. You can reach him through his e-mail:


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