Brazilian music: how big is it? Too big for one album. The country is immense—it has the fifth largest landmass and population in the world—and musical. The best a compiler can hope to do, faced with an assignment like this, is to turn out an anthology that covers some significant styles and draws people in. Grab a bunch of flora from the musical field and flourish it above your head, letting people know that there’s more to Brazil than bossa and samba and tall, tan girls ignoring gawking young men on the beach at Ipanema.
Our host John Armstrong is a DJ who specializes in Brazilian music (a quick Internet trawl finds him DJing a regular Nu Brazil night at a Brazil-themed UK bar called Guanabara, after the bay that borders part of Rio de Janeiro), and he’s aware of this Rough Guide’s shortcomings. “Where is the modern pagode-samba?” he asks, getting indignant on our behalf. “The favela hip-hop, Paulista drum ‘n’ bass and rock-Brasil, or samba-reggae, axé and dancehall from Salvador and Maranhão? Recife’s burgeoning mangué-beat movement? Belam’s blessed Carimbó, with its Jamaican-ska-meets merengue undertone?” He offers “no apology”: the answer is simply that space is limited. The CD is only 60 minutes long.
Its predecessor, the first Rough Guide to the Music of Brazil, came out in the late 1990s. I don’t own that album, so I can’t make any educated comparisons. Often I shy away from Brazilian music because so much of it that gets released over here is bossa nova—the Bebel Gilberto sort of thing, warm and muzzy and sleepy-sounding, as if it’s inviting the listener to climb into a cozy bath, slit their wrists, and drift off.
This album has its bossa moments, but not a lot of them. The genius of Brazil, according to Armstrong’s collection, is intricate and involved, often backed by hard percussion but profoundly light. For most of its length this Rough Guide has the joyful springiness that you might expect from a DJ who wanted to keep the crowd in a good mood. Its idea of darkness is the booping rock-darkness of Vanessa Bumagny in “Ta Começando”, and its idea of classical is the Italianate sound of Jussara Silveira on “Caravela”, a sweet, very faintly mournful piece of music, fado without the agony. (A fado singer would let you imagine that the love of her life had died, without warning, at midnight, in the rain, leaving her forever weeping, weeping in a graveyard filled with blackened roses. Silveira’s voice suggests that he is a bit late home from work and the mashed potatoes are going cold.)
When seriousness shows up, it’s not a seriousness that asks you to come into a concert hall, sit down, and listen carefully. It’s a seriousness for radios: flip, catchy, and coaxing. When Chico Cesar decides to denounce racism he begins by telling white people to respect his pineapple-topknot hairstyle. (“Respeitem Meus Cabelos, Brancos”.) Only afterwards does the subject of slavery come up. “I wanted to touch on racial topics but with humor,” he explained during an interview with afropop.org. “The song works with this.” Voices are friendly or intimate. The murmuring women sound as if they’re singing straight into your ear, lips only millimeters away from the scapha. Brazil’s collection of Portuguese settlers, African slaves, and miscellaneous others, has grown itself one of the most unTeutonic music scenes on the planet. The rapid upward tempo is African, the lightness is stereotypical South European, warm and eager.
Voluptuousness grows around the drums. The Orchestra Popular de Camara’s “Correnteza” is eight minutes of piano, smooth singing, and flute, buttressed and buoyed at the ends by the sound of Cesar and the percussive chuckles of Nereu Gargalo on the samba-funk “Balança Menina”. The other songs are shorter—three minutes, four, four and a half. Bebel Gilberto coos Peggy Lee’s “Wandering Swallow” backed by Forro in the Dark. The members of O Karaiva bring out the traditional forro accordion on “Coração” (a better choice than “Xote Das Meninas”, the song that got them into the French charts, thank you Mr Armstrong) and give the song a maritime lilt. Clarinet player Paulo Moura (“arguably the most significant artist in this collection, of one measures significance by means of sheer dogged achievement,” writes the compiler in the tone of one who knows) rolls out a swinging big band chorinho to the rattle of live applause.
Other artists who might have had some arguable significance of their own have been left off. There’s no sign of Gilberto Gil, the tropicalismo musician who became the country’s Minister of Culture, and nothing from the winsome, plush tongue of Caetano Veloso. This is not an awful deprivation—it’s not difficult to find the missing names on other compilations—but it’s enough to leave me wondering why. Were the rights too expensive, or did none of their songs fit into Armstrong’s idea of a well-varied mix? Did he decide that Gil had been lauded enough and it was time to introduce the world to Marcos Sacramento instead? As he warns us, there are gaps to be filled. This Rough Guide is a teaser, can only be a teaser, was only ever going to be a teaser, but it’s a pleasing one, ephemeral in its happiness, yet rhythmically solid and exciting.