Lula, from Olodum to Hollywood

After almost a decade in the US, Lula Almeida,
who has ignited Yankee TV and movie audiences, is releasing his first CD.
It’s Bahia Legend. Lula has become a legend himself since his humble
beginnings in Bahia where he helped to start such movements as Olodum and
Timbalada.

Bruce Gilman

It’s past midnight on a warm Friday night in Los Angeles. The bateria
is starting its second set when Flávio, the bateria’s director,
pulls from the crowd a guy wearing a yellow soccer shirt, a beaded necklace,
baggy shorts, construction boots, and an incessant Cheshire cat grin that
beams beneath his mop of dreadlocks. The players nod to each other knowingly.
Things are going to heat up quickly. Lula is here.

For over nine years Baiano Lula Almeida has ignited audiences
across the United States with his concert, television, and movie appearances.
Lula’s first CD, Bahia Legend, has just been released and is a must
for anyone who craves the no-holds-barred sounds and styles of Salvador,
Bahia. With 18 tracks that alternate between haunting folclórica
styles, samba-reggae, Brazilian hip-hop, and the full frontal assault of
the trios elétricos, Bahia Legend is easily one of
the best releases of 1996.

A stratospheric colossus of sound, Lula is one of those people who can
express himself in the most beautiful way, putting across his feelings
and experiences for everybody to understand immediately with just body
language. Our interview, however, took place in English (Lula is fluent)
on Sunday, September 1, in Los Angeles, one hour before his performance
at the 11th Annual African Market Place and one week before his appearance
at the Brazilian Independence Day Celebration at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater
where he shared the bill with northeastern singer-songwriter Geraldo Azevedo.
Our talk touched on many points in his career. Starting at the beginning.

 

Lula, how did you learn to play all the percussion instruments?

I started when I was seven years old. I grew up in this place in Bahia
called Baixa do Sapateiro. Baixa do Sapateiro is the real center of Salvador.
I used to walk up a little hill and there was this capoeira school,
Mestre Bimba’s academy. Bimba had the first academy for Capoeira
Regional in Bahia. They had rehearsals all the time, and I was always there
watching. Mestre Bimba died a long time ago, but he was a good person.
He saw me watching and said, “Come here. Sit down there. Here!”
And he gave me a pandeiro. So I started playing pandeiro.
After that I started to play the berimbau and got involved with

capoeira. I used to go to the Mercado Modelo to do capoeira
for tourists. It’s one of the historical places above Pelourinho in Bahia.
It’s the down city. Pelourinho is the up city. This lead more and more
to my involvement in música baiana folclórica.

Playing all those percussion instruments must have been a real kick
for a seven year old.

Yeah. I started repenique (two-headed tenor) when I was still
very, very small, and the repenique was heavy for me. I had to put
it on a chair (laughs). And the surdo (samba drum), that was so
tall that I had to stand on a chair to play it. After that, I started playing
everything.

Did Mestre Bimba teach a lot of the neighborhood kids?

Not every musician learns how to play Brazilian folclórica
music. It’s so difficult. You’ve got to write it in your mind. You cannot
write it on paper. There are so many different things you have to know.
With Bimba I started involving myself in capoeira, in the whole
idea of Afro-Brazilian folclórica. You know; music, movement,
theatrics, play, martial arts, philosophy, and even spirituality.

You’re 35 now. Do you play the old songs differently today than the
way they were played when you were with Mestre Bimba?

Music is always changing because time is going. With the band and the
electric tunes we are always getting more ideas, better ideas. But with
the folclórica we continue the tradition of Mestre Bimba.
It’s still pure.

You’ve written many tunes for Olodum. Did you have to live in a particular
neighborhood to write for them?

When I was a kid in Brazil, I used to write songs for many different
blocos afro. We never belonged to any particular bloco. We
wrote songs for whichever bloco we liked. I used to write songs
for Muzenza, for Olodum, and for Alvorada.

How did people in your neighborhood feel when you started writing
for Olodum?

Alvorada was a bloco right there in my neighborhood. When I started
to write for Olodum, it created a big political situation in my neighborhood
(laughs) because Alvorada competes with Olodum. People started to get all
excited. They said, “Why are you doing that? Why did you move to a
different bloco?” I said, “Shit! You’re not giving me
any money, so I can write for whoever I want.” You know, I like my
freedom.

You never got paid for your compositions?

The blocos afro don’t pay you to write songs. You go to the festival
and go through the competition. That’s the only way. If you’re the first
one you get a trophy, but they never give you money. That’s why people
start to travel and to sell their songs.

Can composers in Bahia survive by selling their songs?

The small people in Bahia have few opportunities. Like Luciano Chaves,
the best Afro composer in Brazil, he doesn’t have anything. Luciano wrote
“Faraó” which was recorded by Banda Mel, but he’s a policeman.
Until a musician gets to the top in Bahia he never gets the right money.
So that was a difficult life.

But you continued writing?

I kept writing my songs, but I started to sell my stuff. I would sell
my songs to people who would enter them in the festival like they had written
the songs themselves. I sold songs to my neighbor, my people, everybody.
And I started making money. You know I got really excited. I’d go to the
festival with money. That’s why I didn’t care. That was the idea, man.
I was happy when I heard my songs playing on the radio. But I’m sad because
I sold a lot of my good songs. “União das Raças”
and “A Natureza” were the only two songs I didn’t sell.

Didn’t “A Natureza” win first place for Olodum’s festival
in 1981?

Oh yeah. The festival went on for three days. There were about three
hundred composers. And with all of that, my song “A Natureza”
won.

And “União das Raças” was another festival
winner?

Yes, that was in 1982. That was the second song I wrote for Olodum.
When I wrote the song I was thinking about how I was going to get everybody
to sing it. We people from Bahia think about sharing the sound with the
crowd. You know, sing the song with everybody. That was the idea. I wrote
this song, and when I went to the festival, I won the festival for the
second year. The third year, I didn’t want to enter any songs because I
wasn’t making any money.

Olodum has received a lot of recognition. Were they any more involved
with politics and Afro-Brazilian culture than the other blocos?

Olodum had been involved in these events, but nobody really knew Olodum.
The whole idea, the whole atmosphere, you know, to build something, started
when Paul Simon went to Bahia.

Do you always write from personal experience?

Each song has different feelings. With each song we get different ideas.
Sometimes I write about nature, sometimes I write about feelings. It’s
not always about me. I recorded the trio eléctrico songs,
but I also had to show the African music, the folclórica
music. I always want to be doing something creative. I didn’t want to record
a CD that sounds like what everybody else is doing. I wanted to do something
different, something really involved.

What was it like to work as a government musician?

Before I came to the United States, I worked for the Brazilian government.
My job was to promote Brazil by traveling to different countries with the
folclórica group Viva Bahia. It was a government group. We
traveled throughout continental Europe, Asia, and South America. I had
that job for eight years. The money wasn’t good but the travel was very
nice. I didn’t do anything but play music every night. Doing that made
me very happy.

Did you have any opportunities to play in Bahia during that time?

My work was to travel outside of Brazil playing Bahian music. I was
like a musical ambassador. When I was traveling I couldn’t make a commitment
to Carnaval time. But if I was home during Carnaval, I played the trios
elétricos
. You know, there are all these blocos, groups
of people who parade during Carnaval. And many people in the blocos

don’t have costumes. They’re not involved inside. So we had trios elétricos
in the street for everyone without costumes. And everyone got involved
in the party. It was a promotional job. The government paid for the truck
to travel around in the city in the middle of the whole Carnaval, and the
government paid for the alcohol, for the whole thing. We made the music
that made the people happy. We gave them everything they needed.

Which Brazilian composers or musicians do you enjoy listening to?

From the popular music of Brazil, my favorites are João Bosco
and Milton Nascimento.

Has Dorival Caymmi influenced your music?

Of course! He is the legend. He wrote all the poetry.

What about Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and Maria Bethânia?

Now you’re talking about New Generation. Dorival Caymmi was the first
person of Bahian music. He always wrote poetry about water, about the stars,
about the land. Everybody else came after him. He’s a legend in Bahia.

Many say that Carlinhos Brown’s lyrics are a little unusual.

Carlinhos Brown is a good friend of mine, and I respect his work. He
right now is on the top of Salvador, Bahia, with his timbalada.
Timbalada is happening.

Weren’t you a part of the first timbalada?

Timbalada was a bunch of timbaleiros. You know, timbaleiros
play timbales. That was in the beginning of timbalada. One
day Carlinhos called me and said, “Lula, we’re going to have a meeting
of the best players here in town at twelve noon on the Elevador Lacerda.”
The Elevador Lacerda is the elevator going from the up city to the down
city. So we got all the best players from all the different trios elétricos

in Bahia to bring timbales and we had a timbalada.

So it was like a batucada for timbales?

Yes, it was. Everybody carried timbales and congas. It was great.
We were all taking solos. It was a concert for the percussionists. I was
helping him in the beginning to organize everything. And I said, “Timbalada‘s
a great name, man.” He went with the idea. Timbalada right
now is one of the best. And that’s the idea. You know? To always come up
with something new and be involved in the atmosphere. That’s my idea right
now.

How have musicians and groups like Carlinhos Brown, Ara Ketu, and
Olodum affected you?

Well, they’ve opened up the door for me, because they play the music
I’ve been involved with here in Los Angeles for a long time. Before, nobody
knew what I was doing. Now people hear something coming from Bahia and
recognize that it’s what I’ve been doing here for a long time. People are
now starting to realize what the Afro-Brazilian music is. It’s rhythm.
It’s rhythm, dancing music. That’s what were talking about. That’s the
idea.

The new disc gives the listener a pretty broad spectrum of the sounds
and the social contexts of Bahia.

What I’ve done is record a compilation of some of my songs and songs
of my best friends in Bahia. You know, it’s gotten to the point where everybody
wants me to record songs for them. When I was in Bahia two years ago, I
got together with some of my good friends who are good composers from Olodum,
like Luciano who was with Olodum but who is now with the bloco afro
Muzenza. Luciano is a very good friend of mine and a very, very, very talented
composer. And he’s a música folclórica man too. All
his musical ideas are about people’s feelings, feelings of the earth, feelings
of the ocean. You know. He had these new songs called “Muzenza”
and a great samba-reggae that starts and ends with percussion breaks called
“Freneico” that’s got some very heavy playing.

What does “Freneico” mean?

Freneico? Too much energy. (laughs)

The live shows by Lula and Afro Brazil are straight ahead non-stop
high energy dance parties. Is this the same band that did the recording?

Sure man. All the guys have played with the top players in Brazil. The
only one who hasn’t is me (laughs). I was always too involved with my government
job playing with trios elétricos and traveling from Bahia to different
places in Brazil. I did play with Gilberto Gil in Bahia. But I never played
with Gilberto Gil outside of Bahia. That’s very, very, funny. But that’s
the reality.

J. J. Brown sounds like the Jimi Hendrix of Bahia. And Antônio
Sant’anna is a truly astonishing bass player. He’s played with Emílio
Santiago, Antônio Adolfo, Alceu Valença, and Elba Ramalho.

Oh yeah. Sant’anna is one of the really talented Brazilian musicians
here in Los Angeles. He asked me, “Lula, can I write my feelings into
the songs?” I said, “Of course, man.” He wrote the arrangements
for most of the songs. Sant’anna is very creative. That’s one reason why
everything came out so clean.

Lula, let’s talk more specifically about the new CD. Why the title
Bahia Legend?

Because all the songs except “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Rey
Mandela” are important Afro-music styles in Bahia. Samba de roda,
samba-afro, maculelê , candomblé, capoeira
, samba-reggae,
maracatu, xaxado, everything is legendary Bahian music. I’m playing
all the different rhythms here. I want people to know about the different
things in Bahia that we’re doing. I don’t want to do only one thing. The
music is a compilation. We’re doing a lot of different things. You cannot
miss the communication. It’s Bahia music. The rhythm is right there.

The groove on “Umboio Umboio Badauê” really feels
more African than Brazilian.

“Umboio Umboio Badauê” is actually two different songs
that were derived from the music of the African slaves and that talk about
peace and sweet thinking. “Umboio Umboio” is sung in the Yoruba
language from Nigeria. In Bahia we sing in different languages. I used
to sing this in the different blocos afro in Bahia; Muzenza,
Ara Ketu, Olodum. The tune is in 6/8 but segues into the common 4/4 meter
of “Badauê” which is an afoxé, a song form
that evolved from candomblé ceremonial music. So I put the
two different ideas together because I really wanted to do something for
my faith, something that shows my life involvement in the folclórica.
“Badauê” was written by a friend of mine about 20 years
ago. When I went to Bahia two years ago I told him, “I want to record
one of your songs.” And he gave me a cassette with 20 songs. He told
me, “Hey Lula, which one are you going to record?” So I started
thinking about the song. You know I love the song. I love “Umboio
Umboio.”

“Bata” also sounds very traditional.

“Bata” is the beginning of candomblé. Every
candomblé ceremony has this opening rhythm.

Will you explain the mood and spirit of “Avaninha”?

“Avaninha” has the rhythm of the orixás, the
gods in Afro-Brazilian religions. When we sing this tune we invite all
the orixás to come to dance. The folclórica

group performs this song using only acoustic drums, singing, and dancing.
We’ve been doing this in our shows for the last five years at the Hollywood
Bowl.

How did you decide to do “Singin’ in the Rain”?

“Singin’ in the Rain” is the crazy one. When I saw this movie
a couple of years ago, with the guy singing with the umbrella in the rain
I said, “Shit, that would make a great samba.” I talked over
the idea with many different friends, but they couldn’t believe me. It
took a while for people to accept the reality that it would make a great
samba. Sant’anna helped me write the arrangement, and we put it right in
its place.

What is the concept of “Maculelê”?

“Maculelê” is a dance that the slaves, the Nigerian
people, brought from Africa. A large part of our culture in Bahia is Nigerian.
In performance, the dancers imitate the sugar cane field workers having
some entertainment on their break time. That’s the way they would relax
to forget the pain.

Tell me about “Vamos à Luta” (Let’s Go Fight).

 

A long time ago we all fought to get into the festivals. A very good
friend of mine named Aroudo Mitrati Bem (Aroudo Treat Me Right) wrote this
song. We had our songs entered and performed on the same day. He was a
police sergeant. You know, I was with him at the festival. His song took
second place. “União das Raças” won first place.
I cried because I loved his song so much. It talks about the feelings of
the slaves, as young boys in Brazil. You know, we’re not involved in politics,
but in antepassados (forefathers). In Bahia, in Brazil, we never
forget how our culture came about, why the people are so involved with
the music. So he wrote this song about when the Africans came to Brazil.
I never forgot this song. Whenever I went to Brazil, I always told Aroudo,
“One day I’m going to record your song. I’m going to send a copy to
him. He’s going to be so happy. He’s so busy that he’s already forgotten
about the song. He just totally forgot.

“Capoeira Angola” uses a lot of berimbau.

It begins with the sound of the berimbau. Capoeira Angola

was the first style of capoeira. And the berimbau is its
heart. It is a capoeira close to the ground. You cannot stand up.
You have to look like a cat. You have to roll on the ground. You know,
doing all the jumps on the ground. Mestre Bimba changed Capoeira
Angola to his new style Capoeira Regional which is
faster and more fight than dance. I start this song playing the Capoeira

Angola style. Then, I start playing the berimbau faster and
transform it into Capoeira Regional.

Who wrote “Seu Destino”?

“Seu Destino” was written by Miltão do Ilê, a
good friend of mine from Ilê Aiyê. I wrote the arrangement.
The song’s idea is that we’re always involved with the folclórica.
Because everybody’s got the same influence, the same feeling, the same
blood. That’s why we never get out, we never get off of the Afro stuff.
And with more time, we’re more involved in it. All the Brazilian rhythms
and dances and food, everything began in Africa. The first capoeira

to come to Brazil was brought by the people from Angola. Why? Because they
were brought to Brazil by the Portuguese as slaves to work the earth, in
the churches, and building the houses. You know what I’m saying? Back then
the Portuguese had a big military and they took what they wanted. So when
you go to Bahia, it’s mostly African. The whole Carnaval, the whole style,
you can see. I wrote the arrangement as a samba-reggae because all the
styles in Bahia today are in some way involved with reggae. Every year
the bloco Muzenza writes a tribute for Bob Marley, because everybody
is involved with samba-reggae. In fact, the samba-reggae style in Bahia
is called muzenza.

What about the Bob Marley song?

The composer of the lyrics is my good friend Confety. We wrote everything
together. He wrote the lyrics and I wrote the music. That was a funny thing
because I changed this song. I recorded this song first in a “funk”
style. Afterwards, I started to think about changing it. I wanted to have
the repenique doing something with a more Bahian flavor, so I started
rewriting it in my mind. I gave three different repeniques the sound
of a DJ’s scratching. And that’s what you hear in the background. (starts
singing) This is the song we sing with the kids, with everybody. Instead
of a samba-reggae, I made it Brazilian hip-hop.

There are so many new releases each year that Brazilian artists aren’t
given the same consideration in record stores as, let’s say, rap artists.
Is this due primarily to the language?

That’s one point of the situation. That’s why I’ve included two songs
in English. But what I’ve recorded is Bahia folclórica and
dance music . You know what I’m saying? People are not going to dance to
candomblé or to “Maculelê.” They’re going
to listen. But when they come to the electric, they’re all ready, “Yeah!”
So it changes.

Recordings which recreate the true complexity of folclórica

are rare. Many record company executives and studio technicians lack an
understanding of the contents and significance of song texts and encourage
musicians to make changes in the structure of the music. Is this why you
have released the disc independently?

I’m not looking for a label. I don’t care about record companies. I
just think about involving my feelings on the plate, on the menu, and putting
it out for the people who are interested. When you are involved with a
record company, they always come with an idea. And it doesn’t fit. You’re
a musician. You understand. They’re always going to change something. I
don’t really want to make my music commercial. I want to do Bahia music.
I want to show people the music that’s in my hands. Because I don’t have
a record company telling me what to do, people can hear that it’s not some
executive’s idea. The ideas are mine. That’s the reason Bahia Legend
will be distributed exclusively through a private channel.

Why do so many musicians want to hook up with you?

Oh yeah, there are many famous musicians who come to my house to play
with me. It’s about the reality. I have the ideas. The rhythm and everything
starts in my mind. I don’t know sometimes how come I can play all the different
patterns, the different rhythms. But everything is connected here (points
to his head and laughs). When I teach, I give my feeling to the people.
That’s why I have so many students right now and why I’ve been able to
go into the elementary schools and high schools to teach all the different
kids.

Are there many places in Los Angeles where people can go to hear
Brazilian music live?

Well, I started with the folclórica music here. Right
now I’m playing at the Los Angeles Zoo, the Hollywood Bowl, and at many
different schools here in Los Angeles. So, you know it’s getting there.
It’s involved because we’re working with the new generation right now.
I’m working more now than I have in my entire career. My job now is involved
more with kids than with adults. I’m doing shows in high schools and elementary
schools. That’s the thing. I like working with kids.

How is the club scene in Los Angeles?

I stopped playing clubs because we weren’t making any money. I hope
the scene will change, but I don’t know when. Besides, playing small clubs
is not part of my dream.

Lula, you listen to the radio here and you know what’s happening
in Brazil. What music influences you. Who do you like to listen to?

Who do I like?

Yeah.

Well my favorite music, the music I’m always involved with, that I always
love to really listen to…… Do you want to know my real feelings about
what I like to listen to?

Yeah.

………….It’s classical music. I love to listen to all of the instruments.
It’s a meditation, you know.

Really!!

(laughs) Uh huh.

Wow! That’s wild! That’s really interesting.

Yeah man. You know Mozart is my favorite composer. Oh yeah, man. That’s
the composer who really got me involved with electric music.

How did you discover Mozart?

I used to play in school when I was a teenager. My father put me into
the convent because I was a crazy child. I was doing capoeira in
the street and started kicking everybody. (laughs) You know, I used to
be a crazy kid. So in the convent I started to play.

What did you play?

You’re going to laugh about this. I used to play trombone. (laughs)
I started to play piano too. After that I started to play drum set. And
I bought a drum set and put it in my house. Everyday I played and made
too much noise. My father threw my drum set through the window. (laughs)
You know, that was a crazy life.

Lula, I know the show is going to start soon, so I’ll let you go.
Thanks for taking time.

Of course man.


THE LYRICS

 

União das Raças

 

É Olodum o bloco que comanda a massa

Ele também vem lutar pela

União das raças

Olodum simboliza madrugada

Na sexta-feira de Carnaval

Os negros de cabelos enrolados

Vêm mandando esse recado

Na avenida vem cantar

Me leva

Me leva, me leva preta linda

Com você, me leva.


 

Union of the Races

 

It is Olodum the group that leads the multitude

It is also coming to fight for the

Union of the races

Olodum symbolizes the dawn

On Carnaval Friday

The Blacks come with their hair in dreadlocks

They come and send this message

On the avenue they are coming to sing

Take me

Take me, take me with you

Beautiful black girl

Take me


 

Maculelê
(Música folclórica from Bahia
Yoruban and Portuguese)

 

Sou eu, sou eu, sou eu

Maculelê sou eu

e mauê, mauá

mauê, mauê, mauê, mauá

e mauê, mauê, mauê, mauá

Nós somos pretos na catanga

De aruanda

Na conceição viemos lová

Aranda ê, ê, ê

Aranda ê, ê, á

Sou eu, sou eu, sou eu

Maculelê sou eu


 

Maculelê

 

I am, I am, I am

Maculelê I am

I am going home

I am going home

We are the Blacks of the slave houses

We came to the Church of Conceição to pray

I am going home

I am going home

I am, I am, I am

Maculelê I am

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