For most people outside South America, traditional Brazilian music means the summery, effortless bossanova jazz of seminal artists Stan Getz and Joao and Astrud Gilberto. That their creative and commercial peaks came almost 40 years ago has done little to hinder the ongoing popularity of their music in hipster cocktail bars and swinging bachelor pads. It’s a telling sign that in 2005 the international face of Brazilian music is Joao Gilberto’s daughter Bebel.
But there must be more to Brazilian music than that, which is what Putumayo’s Acoustic Brazil sets out to prove. Actually, its 12 tracks offer mostly subtle variations on the by-now-familiar theme. But expecting anything but laid back rhythms and softly cooed vocals from an album called Acoustic Brazil would be like expecting an apple to yield grapefruit juice.
Sure, the sound is predictable: Guitars are strummed elegantly, the occasional woodwind or brass instrument adds color, syncopated percussion shuffles in the background. But, despite the overall familiarity, the relaxed, somnambulant atmosphere is beguiling nonetheless. Some music makes you want to sleep for all the wrong reasons, but Acoustic Brazil makes your eyelids heavy for all the right ones. Take Paulinho da Viola’s “A Voz do Povo”, for example. With its samba rhythm (in itself a nice break from bossanova) and deep-throated vocals, it feels like a chill-out remix of one of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat adventures.
The set is split almost exactly between male and female vocalists, and the back-and-forth sequencing helps to highlight the nuances between, say, Monica Salmaso’s throaty, controlled emoting and Lucas Santtana’s almost-whispered croon. Furthermore, everything is rendered in the native and naturally-smooth Portuguese, adding to the authentic feel.
Amid what is basically a fluid collection, a few songs at least stretch the mold. The best of these is Márcio Faraco’s “Ciranda”. Its gently swaying verses and simple chorus featuring some playful, melodic fretless bass playing make it a pure pop pleasure that transcends cultural pigeonholing. It delivers that happy/sad sugar high so well that it could almost pass for the latest indie sensation. The final two tracks, Glaucia Nasser’s “Lábios de Cetim” and Lula Queiroga’s “Noite Severina”, add some surprising weight to the otherwise airy mood. The minor key, chanted vocals and noir violin of “Noite ” bring to mind none other than a tropical Nick Cave, if that’s not a contradiction in terms.
This being a Putumayo release, the presentation is an exercise in tastefulness, complete with the soft lines of the idyllic cover painting, the pristine sound; and the multi-language, track by track liner notes. You could debate whether the overall esthetic behind Putumayo’s homogenous presentation of such a vast array of cultural music celebrates diversity or plays into stereotypes. Or you could just sit back and relax, thankful for something new to play alongside those Getz and Gilberto records.