Brazil’s Mercury Rising

Daniela MercuryDaniela Mercury, the "Queen of Axé" broke into stardom at the beginning  of the 90’s rippling her petite body and wavy elbow-length,  reddish-brown hair from the heights of the trios elétricos.  Recently,  with familiar purpose and with her sights on the ever-changing  marketplace, Mercury released Carnaval Eletrônico, a collection of  up-tempo electronic dance music.

Taking on an urban sound – heavily  influenced by hip-hop, house, trance, and techno – the twelve tracks are  dominated by drum and bass rhythms, but personalized by prominent  Brazilian syncopations and polyrhythms.  

The result is a very immediate  and clear opposition between refinement and ferocity.  On Saturday,  October 15, Daniela Mercury brings her dynamic sound continuum to Los  Angeles, electrifying UCLA’s Royce Hall.

Often referred to as the "Queen of Salvador" and the "Queen of  Samba-reggae," Mercury moved beyond these disposable labels and left  the axé music ghetto for the international market in 1996 when she  released Feijão com Arroz, a project that revealed a Daniela Mercury  more attentive to the details of production.

The elaborate repertoire  had been researched for over a year and a half by Mercury, collecting  and scrutinizing hundreds of compositions that displayed an inventory  of unique Brazilian rhythms.  

Disassociating the fiery Daniela Mercury  from the accentuated Bahian percussion that had vibrated throughout  most of her music was hard for some fans, and listeners may experience  a subtle tension upon hearing Carnaval Eletrônico, which moves  absorbingly between turbulence and poetic reflection.  

But like fellow  Bahians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, Mercury is a musical  "cannibal" who never vacillates when absorbing diverse musical  elements.

At a time when electronic dance music tends to have deliberately  artificial, robotic, and repetitious drum beats mixed with sampled drum  loops, for Carnaval Eletrônico, Mercury uses a highly respected pool of  DJ/producers chiefly as providers of a sound palette.  

Rather than just  mimic arrangements playable by live musicians, the producers, in  striving to achieve a listenable, dance floor-friendly balance, build  layers of syncopated, rhythmic harmonies and mingle them together in an  palette of compatible textures, bringing layers of sound in and out,  and equalizing the effects to create ever-more hypnotic and propulsive  combinations.  

The project’s strength derives from its extraordinary  variety of textures, ranging from light washes of synthesized sound to  muscular backdrops, against which Mercury delivers her lyrics with  power and conviction.

The project, nominated for the Latin Grammy, opens with Carlinhos  Brown’s "Maimbê Dandá," a tune that swept the Best Song awards at  Bahia’s 2004 Carnaval and became one of the biggest hits in the history  of Bahian Carnaval.  

Its quixotic combinations continued to resonate  throughout Brazil as one of the most performed songs during the 2005  Carnaval festivities.  "Que Baque é Esse?" (What beat is this?) finds  Mercury dovetailing well both with singer/songwriter Lenine and the  tune’s sharp-cornered arrangement.  

Although her delivery can sometimes  have the caged animal intensity found in "O Canto da Rainha" (The  Singing of the Queen), this is contrasted by a rendition of Gilberto  Gil’s "Amor de Carnaval" (Carnival Love) where the lyrics are perfectly  cushioned by the arrangement.  

Rather than just adding a veneer,  Mercury gets deeply into the wide range of Brazilian percussive and  electronically-influenced grooves.  Not an easy strategy, but Carnaval  Eletrônico, as sensuous as it is complex, packs infectious energy.  And  Mercury, in sparkling form, opens a new chapter and captures a fresh  space within Brazilian electronica, one that guarantees visibility and  affirms her groundbreaking image.

From her early days, the fiery young singer seemed completely at home  giving her interpretations the solid foundation needed to move freely,  spontaneously, and, at critical moments, to take off.  Her voice was  full and her elasticity of phrasing and confident control of it  remarkable.  

Not surprisingly, concert promoters rushed in to engage  this gifted singer, and record producers pricked up their ears.  Her  debut recording literally burst upon the musical world and was soon  followed by her first contract recording for Sony.  

Mercury’s  intensification of dynamic and rhythmic momentum remains one  explanation.  Performing every show as if it were her last, she injects  her listeners with vitality.  Her spontaneity and total commitment to  the audience, something she first demonstrated aloft the trios  elétricos, is magical and something that comes to her naturally.  It is  also part of the reason she got to the top and has managed to stay  there.

Journalist, musician, and educator Bruce Gilman has served as music editor of Brazzil magazine, an international monthly publication based in Los Angeles, for close to 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: cuica@interworld.net.

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