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Various Artists

What's Happening in Pernambuco

New Sounds of the Brazilian Northeast

(Luaka Bop; US: 5 Feb 2008; UK: 12 Mar 2007)

The Sound of the Mangrove Swamp

Vast, multicultural Brazil has always been a place where artistic traditions meet, combine and split off from one another, where African, Latin, and Western styles converge in interesting and ever-shifting ways.  The northeast province of Pernambuco has been a particular hotbed for such combinations, playing a role in the emergence of bossa nova in the early 1960s, tropicalia in the late 1960s and early 1970s and, beginning in the 1990s, manguebeat, a hybrid of rock, funk, hip hop, and traditional styles like maracatu and samba.  This 13-track compilation provides a tantalizing glimpse of manguebeat’s many avatars, sampling the work of genre founders like Nação Zumbi, Eddie and Mundo Livre S/A, alongside lesser known artists.


Nação Zumbi is, perhaps, the best known outside Brazil, formed in the early 1990s by manguebeat originator Chico Science.  Like Tropicalia, manguebeat was more than a musical style, but rather a way of looking at the world, complete with its own manifesto, written by Chico Science and Fred Zero Quatro of Mundo Livre S/A.  The manifesto, known in English as “Crabs with Brains”, was quoted on the first Nação Zumbi album, saying:


“In mid-1991, a nucleus of research and production of pop ideas began to be generated and articulated in various parts of the city. The objective is to generate an “energy circuit” to connect the good vibrations of the tidal mudflats with the global network of circulation of pop concepts. Symbolic image: a satellite antenna stuck in the mud.”


Nação Zumbi became huge in Latin America through the mid-to-late 1990s, bringing its very percussive (three alfaios, or bass drums, are in play most of the time), funk-slinky take on Brazilian pop to massive audiences in and around Brazil.  Tragically, Chico Science died in a car accident in 1997, but the band continued to play at large Festivals.  When I talked to Clint Conley about Mission of Burma’s first-ever concert in Brazil two years ago, he singled out Nação Zumbi as the best band on the bill. 


Nação Zumbi is represented on this compilation by ” The Carimbæo”, a sinuous, sensual beat, splattered with splayed surf chords and overlaid with a laid-back, rhythmic vocal, more spoken than sung.  A break, mid-song, incorporates synthetic, electronically generated sounds, yet overall the feel is organically warm and immediate.  You could, by picking the sounds apart, find bits of hip hop in the vocals, hints of funk and jazz in the guitars, and something very authentically Brazilian in the percussion, yet it melds rather seamlessly into one sound. 


Mundo Livre S/A also makes an appearance on the disc, its “Maroca” more subdued and trip-hoppy, soft, traditional Brazilian guitars and melodies spliced with electro beats (and the sound of the ocean).  Another genre heavy-weight, Eddie, opens the disc with the jazz-funky “Pode Me Chamar”, its electric keyboards pulsing around hip-swaying, easy-going Brazilian call and response.  Otto, yet another mangue beat originator, contributes one of the disc’s trippiest and best cuts, the luminous, psych-tinged “Bob,” with its dreamy keyboards and soft-focus wordless harmonies. 


Lesser-known artists—with the caveat that even the most famous of these bands are relatively unknown outside Brazil—also make impressive contributions.  Wado E Realismo Fantástico’s ” Se Vacilar O Jacaré Abraca” breezes easily along on tropical rhythms, punctuated by syncopated funk and jazz rhythms.  Vates E Violas’ “Instant Feliz” incorporates folkloric violins and accordions into its driving rhythms, while Tiné‘s “Cobrinha” folds a modern sense of discord and quick-paced angst into hauntingly pretty staccato guitar interplay.


All these songs work with the same basic elements—traditional rhythms and melodies, 21st century rock, pop and rap—yet all feel distinct and separate.  Even a casual listener would identify these songs as Brazilian, yet I think few would class them automatically in the same subset of Brazilian music. 


Yet maybe that’s what’s so fascinating about manguebeat’s whole philosophy, that you never know what sounds the antenna in the sand will bring in, or how they will combine with the cadences booming in from the streets of Recife.  It’s an open-ended experiment in melding styles, traditions and sensibilities, and it can lead into any number of directions.  What’s Happening in Pernambuco surely only scratches the surface, but in a way that makes even the least expert listener want to hear more.

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