Brazil’s Backland Resonance

Brazilian band Cordel do Fogo EncantadoThe most penetrating Brazilian music originates in the country’s proving ground, the Northeast, in particular, the state of Pernambuco, a reservoir of good music and musicians.

Whether it’s baião king Luiz Gonzaga, Bossa Nova pioneer João Gilberto, Música Armorial with its banda de pífanos, Tropacália protagonist Gilberto Gil, Mangue Beat groundbreakers Chico Science & Nação Zumbi, or artists like Jackson do Pandeiro, Lenine, and Hermeto Pascoal; the sounds emanating from the Northeast are rich not only in their (Iberian and Moorish) sonorities but also in their remarkable, highly original mixtures of rhythm.

Weaving together the passionate and the primitive in a powerful amalgam of theater, percussion, and poetry, Cordel do Fogo Encantado (Poem of the Enchanted Fire), exposes the newest link in this rich cultural chain.

The group hails from the city of Arcoverde, 250 kilometers from Recife, entryway to Brazil’s vast arid interior, the sertão, and its domain of enchanted ancestral spirits. This is where the historic stage was set for bloody conflicts between indigenous people and the press of civilization, and where a disseminating terminal for cult forms of religion propagated.

Always present here is the enchanted (encantado), the apocalyptic, the prophetic, the otherworldly. Its archetypal element, be it from a lamp’s light, the blazing sun, or the perennial drought, is fire (fogo), inconstant, eternal, and always changing.

Here, a word synonymous with imaginative writing, Cordel, weaves together the beliefs of poor and illiterate people. Literatura de cordel (string literature) refers to popular and cheaply printed pamphlets, neither bound nor published professionally, that are produced and sold at fairs by side street vendors who hang them on cords, allowing potential clients to peruse, or to read aloud for those who can’t, poems, stories, and songs.

In this archaic locality a troupe of artisans, embracing prophecies and a ritualistic ambiance, caught the public’s attention with their theater piece entitled Cordel do Fogo Encantado.

The group – Lira Paes, Clayton Barros, and Emerson Calado – toured the state for two years, their theater performances punctuated with poetry and music. In Recife, they were augmented by Nego Henrique and Rafa Almeida, percussionist cousins who had been attending umbanda rituals since childhood, rituals that were repressed in the backlands.

At the Rec-Beat Festival, Pernambuco’s showcase for innovative talent, Cordel, with its charisma and riveting dramatic effects, further propelled by an Afro-Brazilian rhythmic and melodic force, surfaced as a local sensation.

Their mixture of rhythm, drama, and poetry, speaking to the spiritual side of the listeners and furnishing a lift away from the everyday constraints of reality, crossed frontiers, catching critics’ attention, receiving greater visibility, and earning Cordel fitting acclaim as a revelation.

Bearing strong impressions of the sertão by speaking of fear, desire, and love, Cordel, with certainty, is one of the most creative and successful bands to surface in Pernambuco over the past five years; however, they reject being pigeonholed as “regional.”

And though their comprehensive grasp of Northeastern tradition fits in well with the ethos of the Mangue Beat movement, Cordel is heir to no movement. (Mangue bit, a phrase figuratively used to contrast the bit of a computer with the region’s poverty, is a movement that became known as “Mangue Beat” through mistakes made in the Brazilian press.)

Their trajectory has been similar to that of Mangue Beat bands like Mundo Livre S/A, Mestre Ambrósio, and Chico Science & Nação Zumbi, bands that emerged on the coast, amidst Recife’s urban chaos. But Cordel arrived on the scene with music assimilated from the backlands: indigenous ceremonial dancing, samba de côco, liturgical drama, and poetic-musical forms.

To its theatrical base, enhanced by (often improvised) poetry and a percussive arsenal, Cordel interweaves rock, maracatu, embolada, frevo, pop, samba, ciranda, and reggae, creating a hybridization that has no name and is perplexing to dancers.

Employing a guitar (the single harmonic instrument), percussion, and their voices, Cordel bewitches their audience, achieving with showmanship and instrumental bravura more power and authority than groups equipped with towering Marshall amplifiers. The power to create both a hushed order and an almost frenzied excitement, a paradox of settled calm and of deep disturbance, has been central to their success.

The group’s relationship with its following is one of sending and receiving messages. Crowds, flocking to their performances, relish the group’s unearthly, faintly menacing aura, devouring their imaginative textures like penitents released from fasting.

Though the contrast between diffuse and almost delirious density does take some getting used to, to miss Cordel is to miss one of Brazil’s most unconventional bands, a band whose shows are spine chilling.

The power, the pacing, the textures, and the almost unbearable spiritual grandeur of their shows, notwithstanding, left some doubt about Cordel’s ability to transition from the stage to a CD format without losing vitality.

Cordel’s first self-titled CD, produced by Naná Vasconcelos, captures all the textural imagination and richly varied language of the backlands, achieving the perfect balance between folk wisdom and ferocity.

This CD, a culture shock for newcomers, is impregnated with the profound roots of the sertão. First time listeners may sense the absence of conventional instruments, but not the enormous conviction of percussion without clichés and of poetry without pretension.

Connecting with quick musical resourcefulness, the disc loses none of Cordel’s power to entrance, stimulate, and provoke. The set of eighteen tracks, extracted from their original theater piece, many with dual titles in the manner of literatura de cordel, opens with one of the sertão’s starkest sounds, a cowherd’s chanting sadly, enclosed by a cow bell and sundry studio effects, leaving no doubt about its source or what is to follow.

Clayton Barros’s vigorous, swirling sound-collages are especially well displayed on “Boi Luzeiro” ou “A Pega de Violento, Vaidoso e Avoador” (“Enlightened Bull” or “The Fight of the Violent, Vain, and Flyer”). His strong lyrical sensibility enables him to unify the unruly material, despite its angularity.

The track also reveals an important reference to the sertão – the poetic improvisation employed by those who live there, sertaneaw6kx, as does “Chover” ou “Invocação Para um Dia Líqüido” (“To Rain” or “Invoking a Liquid Day”). Reaching the summit of five-way interaction, “Alto do Cruzeiro” ou “O Auto do Cruzeiro” (“The Cross Heights” or “The Play of the Cross”), full of jangling dissonance and with strangely macabre overtones, is perhaps most mood-provoking in terms of the textures established between guitar and percussion.

“Profecia Final” ou “No Mais Profundo” (“Final Prophecy” or “In the Deepest”), affecting a farewell in prophetic tones, cites the bandit-hero Lampião, the mystic Antônio Conselheiro, and under peals of profane laughter from the candomblé jester and agent of magic, Exu, the litanies of religious pilgrims. ”

Ai se Sêsse” (“If it Were”) by Zé da Luz, a poet idolized in the sertão, though unknown outside that universe, brings closure to the CD with unexpected atmospheric compassion. From the disparate flute and percussion ribbons that wind through “Salve” to the stabbing percussion lines of “Pedrinha” to the taut incisive quality of “Catingueira,” the playing is fierce; nothing can hide Cordel’s unostentatious versatility and fearsome intensity.

Until now, an official DVD of the group hasn’t existed, so for those who have never caught the group live, prepare to be bowled over by the perfect marriage of the music, poetry, wit, and witchcraft captured on MTV Presents Cordel do Fogo Encantado.

Stunningly filmed, it is a hotly uninhibited documentary. Cordel’s electrifying performance and sheer energy, acutely alive to voluble expressive freedom, is astounding; their hyperactivity provides its own fascination and visual commentary.

More intense than a CD, the DVD experience, quite apart from being more convenient to access, offers added material: irresistible physicality and moment-to-moment shifts of camera angle and color are effectively complemented by illuminating commentaries, interspersed with entertaining vignettes from group members. Subtitles are provided in four languages – Portuguese, Spanish, English, and French.

The tingle factor comes to the fore when Lirinha, trancelike, but sure in his pacing, recites with forceful declamation and emphatic meaning “Os Anaw6kx Caídos,” the piece he composed for the sound track of the Cacá Diegues film Deus é Brasileiro, which talks about an angel who fell from Heaven when the Creator cut his wings.

In addition to “Os Anaw6kx Caídos,” 10 other tracks from the group’s second CD, O Palhaço do Circo Sem Futuro (The Clown from the Circus Without a Future) are included. The most pithy and relevant aspect of the DVD is the impression conveyed of an utterly unpretentious group of artists performing with disarming frankness and an uncanny sense of drama – not to mention a lethal twinkle. The only flaw of this fascinating montage is that, though skillfully edited, it leaves one impatient to hear the group in person.

Cordel do Fogo Encantado’s performances are story-like, expressing, both the sacred and profound. Incendiary and sophisticated language, mixed with eclectic rhythms and furious percussion is unequivocally a sound born in the musical laboratory of Northeastern culture, from the lineage and legacies of its singers and poets.

In a climate of urgency and heat where rules are sacred, yet arbitrary, and so must be tested, the band steadily absorbs folk and popular art, varying, transforming, and combining their sources into live and recorded performances.

Dispensing with rules and the rational, raising emotional temperatures, improvising and arranging according to what intuition tells them, Cordel do Fogo Encantado functions as a sonorous block in the service of Northeastern oral tradition, creating a volume and tension without precedents in Brazilian music.

Poeira (ou Tambores do Vento Que Vem)

O pão que nasce do fogo
Na roda da saia
Na gira da  terra
O vento que rasga telhado
Tambor ritmado
Trompetes de guerra
A guerra que traz a poeira
Que bate na gente
Poeira que vem do sertão
Bafo quente

Vem poeira
Vem poeira
Vem poeira

Trago poeira da terra queimada e a fumaça
Ah! Sequidão* sequidão Pojuca
Malhada Craíba
Juazeiro torto
Moxotó velado
Serra das Varas

Trago poeira da terra queimada e a fumaça
Ah! sequidão sequidão Pojuca
Malhada Craíba
Juazeiro torto
Moxotó velado
Cabrobó, Floresta, Belém do São Francisco
Terra da massa

*Drought, inspired in a trope  by Ciço Gomes

Dust (or Drums of the Coming Wind)
(Lyrics: Lirinha / Music: Clayton Barros)

The bread that’s born from the fire
In the spinning of the skirt
In the spinning of the earth
The wind that destroys roofs
The rhythm of the drum
Trumpets of war
The war that brings the dust
That hits us
Dust that comes from the hinterlands
Hot breath

Come dust
Come dust
Come dust

I bring the dust from the burned ground and the smoke
Oh, Pojuca, drought
Quilted Craíba
Twisted Juazeiro
Veiled Moxotó
Varas Mountains

I bring the dust from the burned ground and the smoke
Oh, Pojuca drought
Quilted Craíba
Twisted Juazeiro
Veiled Moxotó
Cabrobó,Floresta, Belém do São Francisco
Land of the masses

Profecia (ou Testamento da Ira)

Salve o povo Xucuru

Na cumeeira da serra Ororubá o velho profeta já dizia
Uma nova era se abre com duas vibras trançadas
Seca e sangue
Seca e sangue*

Herdeiros do novo milênio
Ninguém tem mais dúvidas
O sertão vai virar mar
E o mar sim
Depois de encharcar as mais estreitas veredas
Virará sertão

Antôe tinha razão rebanho da fé

A terra é de todos a terra é de ninguém
Pisarão na terra dele todos os seus
E os documentos dos homens incrédulos
Não resistirão a Sua ira

Filhos do caldeirão
Herdeiros do fim do mundo
Queimai vossa história tão mal contada

Ah! Joana Imaginária
Permita que o Conselheiro
Encoste sua cabeleira
No teu colo de oratórios
Tua saia de rosários
Teu beijo de cera quente

E assim na derradeira lua branca
Quando todos os rios virarem leite
E as barrancas cuscuz de milho
E as estrelas tocadeiras de viola
Caírem uma por uma
Os soldados do rei D. Sebastião
Mostrarão o caminho

*Prophecy of Shaman Cauã (excerpt from the book Lampião Seu Tempo e Seu Reinado, Vol. 1, Frederico Bezerra Maciel)

Prophecy (or The Will of Wrath)
(Lyrics: Lirinha / Music: Clayton Barros)

Long live the Xucuru people

On the top of the Ororubá mountain, the old prophet used to say
That a new time, with two entwined fibers, will come
Drought and blood
Drought and blood

Heirs of the new millennium
There’s no doubt anymore
The hinterlands will become the sea
And the sea
After flooding the narrowest trails
Will become the hinterland

Antôe was right, flock of faith

The land belongs to every one and to no one
They will all step on this ground
And the documents of the unfaithful men
Won’t resist His wrath

Sons of the caldron
Heirs of the end of the world
Burn your story so poorly told

Oh! Imaginary Joana
Allow Conselheiro
To lean his long hair
On your bosom of prayers
Your skirt of rosaries
Your kiss of hot wax

And then, under the last white moon
When all the rivers turn into milk
And the river banks, corn couscous
And the stars, guitar players
Fall one by one
The soldiers of King Sebastião
Will show the way

Boi Luzeiro (ou A Pega de Violento, Vaidoso e Avoador)

Vem rodar no meu terreiro boi Luzeiro
Vem soltar fitas na seca
Vem tacar fogo no mundo
Violento Vaidoso e Avoador

Quando o dia nascer e morrer
Seu nananunrei*

Cigarro Pai Tomás cigarro (um trago)
Incensa a tarde baforadas de verão
Os retirantes já cruzaram meio mundo
Eu fico aqui esperando outro batuque
Uma mulher com dois olhos de trovão
A Nau mergulhou meu Bumba cadê?

Seu nananunrei *

Quando o dia nascer e morrer

*Expression created by Lirinha, Barros, and Cacau Arcoverde

Enlightened Bull (or The Fight of the Violent, the Vain, and Flyer)
(Lyrics and music: Lirinha / Clayton Barros)

Come spin on my ground, enlightened bull
Come release the ribbons on the drought
Come set fire to the world
Violent, Vain, and Flyer

When the day comes and goes
Mr. nananunrei

Father Tomás’s cigarette (a drag)
Perfumes the afternoon with breaths of summer
The pilgrims have already crossed half the world
And I stay here waiting for another drum beat
A woman with two eyes of thunder
The ship has sunk, where’s my Bumbá?

Mr. nananunrei

When the day comes and goes

Os Anaw6kx Caídos (ou A Construção do Caos)

Os homens são anaw6kx caídos
Que Deus mandou para Terra
Porque botaram defeito na criação do mundo.
Aqui, começaram a inventar coisas,
A imitar Deus.
E Deus ficou zangado,
Mandou muita chuva e muito fogo,
Eu vi de perto a sua raiva sacra,
Pois foram sete dias de trabalho intenso,
Eu vi de perto,
Quando chegava uma noite escura

Só meu candeeiro é quem velava o Seu sono santo
Santo que é Seu nome e Seu sorriso raro
Eu voava alto porque tinha um grande par de asas
Até que um dia caí

E aqui estou nesse terreiro de samba
Ouvindo o trabalho do Céu
E aqui estou nesse terreiro de guerra
Ouvindo o batalha do Céu
Nesse terreiro de anaw6kx caídos

Cá na Terra trabalho é todo dia
Levantar, quebrar parede, matar fome matar a sede
Carregar na cabeça uma bacia
E esse fogo que a Sua boca envia
Pra nossa criação

Ah, Deus
Esse terreiro de anaw6kx
Ah, esse errar que é sem fim
Essa paixão que tão gigante
Esse amor que é só Seu
Esperando Você chegar

Os Homens aprenderam com Deus a criar
E foi com os Homens que Deus aprendeu a amar

Fallen Angels ( or The Building of Chaos)
(lyrics: Lirinha; music and arrangement: Cordel do Fogo Ecantado)

Men are fallen angels
That God sent to Earth
Because they found flaws in the creation of the world
They started to invent things here
To imitate God
And God got angry,
He sent a lot of rain and a lot of fire
I saw his holy wrath from a short distance
And there were 7 days of intense struggle
I saw it from a short distance
When a dark night came

Only my lamp guarded His holy sleep
Your name and Your rare smile are holy
I soared because I had a large pair of winds
And one day I fell

And here I am in this samba yard
Listening to the work of the sky
Here I am on this field of war
Listening to the battle in the sky
In this yard of fallen angels

Here on Earth, everyday’s a working day
Get up, break walls, eat, quench the thirst
To carry a bowl on top of the head
This fire that your mouth sends
To our creation

O God, this yard of angels
Oh, these endless mistakes
This giant passion and this love that belongs to You
Waiting for You to arrive

Men learned from God how to create
And God learned from men how to love

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.


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