Worldwide Artists Re-Imagine 1960s Brazil
Red Hot + Rio 2 is the new compilation from the Red Hot Organization, responsible for 2009’s Dark Is the Night compilation as well as Red Hot + Rio, a tribute to Brazilian music which came out in 1996, and No Alternative, a collection of songs from American indie bands in the early ‘90s. Red Hot + Rio 2 distinguishes itself from its predecessor of the same name by positioning itself as a tribute to tropicalia, the brilliantly-skewered brand of pop music that bubbled up from out of the cracks of Brazil’s dictatorship in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
However, it is quite clear that this is a broad defining of the album, as along with covers of songs from the tropicália era, we get bossa nova, afrosamba, afoxé and even ‘80s kitsch in the shape of a cover of “Freak Le Boom Boom”, as well as a number of original tracks. It’s no great surprise then that the album, despite having a number of highlights, doesn’t quite gel and struggles to hold together as a piece.
The first disc focuses on more soul-orientated material, beginning with a cover of a tropicalia classic, “Baby”, by Alice Smith and Aloe Blacc. It’s quite a brave decision to start the compilation with a song that many fans of the genre hold in their hearts and that is essentially a simple, love song. It’s a decision that doesn’t completely work. The decision to add extra strings and for the guitar to be lower in the mix than it was in the original version takes away from its perkiness as do the vocals, which are far too dreamy. Better is an alternative mix of the song later on, titled “Dirty Baby (Dub Version)”, this time with Aloe Blacc taking the lead and Alice Smith on backing, which tries to imagine the song as a trippy affair but crucially has a vocal with a real sense of urgency that the first effort missed.
Aloe Blacc also offers “Nascimento (Birth) - Scene 2”, a good song along the lines of Mos Def’s “Umi Says”, although one which has already featured on Blacc’s own albums. One of Brazil’s biggest stars also features on a number of tracks tracks; Seu Jorge offers his croon to a remix of Beck’s “Tropicália” which adds little to the original, and on a collaboration with Vanessa da Mata and Kassim using his group Seu Jorge & Almaz. The result is a soul-samba which unfortunately isn’t quite to the standard that any of these musicians normally provide.
Of greater originality is Superhuman Happiness and Cult’s version of “Um Canto De Afoxé Para O Bloco Do Ilê”, a song Caetano Veloso wrote for David Byrne’s Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical compilation in 1989. Essentially a chant featuring a group of youngsters from northeastern Brazil, the song is re-imagined with deep bass and trumpet blasts which leave it sounding closer to a dance classic from the New York Underground. Quite a feat if you know the original.
Prefuse 73 contributes with a remix of Veloso’s “Terra”, doing little more than adding ridiculous amounts of reverb to this classic, acoustically-strummed number. Yet, it works, increasing the song’s grandeur, and providing one of the album’s standouts, perhaps because it sounds so different to everything else on the disc. Other standouts on the first disc are the motorik modern soul of Quadron and their version of “Samba De Verão” and Mia Doi Todd’s Los Angeles-based spirituality spilling out into her cover of the afro-inspired “Canto De Iemanjá”.
The second disc starts with one of the highlights of the whole projects, “O Leãozinho” by Beirut. Another Veloso composition, this one is from Veloso’s early career, before tropicalia even started, and is a perfect fit for Beirut, who add to the quirkiness of the song with their own European take on a simple but gorgeous melody. It’s testament to just how original tropicália was that even Of Montreal, who notoriously push boundaries, can’t get their version of “Bat Macumba” anywhere near the sheer exuberance of the original. The naive approach that Os Mutantes brought to the original, as well as their ear for shocking sounds, was just too singular to be copied, and though Of Montreal try their best, this never gets close.
One of the most thrilling live bands in Brazil is Orquestra Contemporânea De Olinda, whose northeastern grooves are impossible to resist. Here they cover Gilberto Gil’s Roda with the assistance of up-and-coming Sao Paulo rapper Emicida, for a version that reeks of the musical playfulness of rural Brazil. It’s one of the few points on the album where we get to appreciate the musicality and originality of Brazilian music. Too often artists interpret samba or bossa nova as being soothing or suave and forget that it’s music with heart and with it’s own unique style of guitar playing and rhythm. Only rarely, such as on the cover of João Gilberto’s “Aguas De Março” by Atom™ and Toshiyuki Yasuda with Fernanda Takai and Moreno Veloso do we get to hear musicians who understand what makes a great Brazilian song; there’s a swing to the groove, there’s feel to the vocal, there’s a naturalness to the playing. It’s something which would need to happen more to make this album a true success.
That said, this is an album which should raise awareness in Brazilian music of the late ‘60s and’ 70s as well as a few of the upcoming artists, though it doesn’t get close to showing the sheer fearlessness that made tropicália such a unique genre and such an influence to many musicians across the world in the first place.