[3 August 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
You don’t have to be familiar with the cultural background associated with Black Rio 2 to enjoy it, but it doesn’t hurt. In many respects, it’s amazing the Black Rio movement isn’t more well known, considering its close connections to American soul and its huge impact on Brazilian music and culture.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Brazilian populace was suffering under the severe repression of a dictatorship. Black Brazilian culture was marginalized and discriminated against, much like blacks in America at the time. The response became the Black Rio movement. Black Brazilian culture, primarily young people, rallied around a new group of DJ collectives and bands. The Black Rio sound incorporated American rhythm and blues into traditional Afro-Latin music, and the results were completely unique. Scores of Black Rio records were released during the late ‘60s and throughout the ‘70s. Then, as most movements do, it faded quickly, replaced by less politically minded 1980s trends.
The first Black Rio collection, compiled by London-based, Brazilian-bred DJ Cliffy, was released in 2002 and featured many of the movement’s biggest names. Now, the better part of a decade later, the vaults and vinyl racks have been scoured exhaustively, yielding the buried treasure of Black Rio 2. Much more than just a historical document, this jam-packed, 18-track compilation is a revealing, eclectic, funky and sometimes thrilling experience.
You don’t have to get very far into Black Rio 2 to figure out James Brown was the movement’s primary hero. Brown’s 1970s-era trademark, whiplash-inducing, heavy funk sound plays a big part in many of these tracks. Some of these co-opt the brassy funk sound so completely that not much “Rio” remains in them. For a moment there, you could even be forgiven for assuming the grunting and emoting that introduces Renata Lu’s “Faz Tanto Tempo” is the Godfather himself. Similarly, Os Diagonais’ “Nao Vou Chorar” and Cry Babies’ “It’s My Thing” go heavy on the JB sound. This is not a bad thing at all, especially with the added twist of girl-group vocals. But Black Rio 2 ultimately has richer treasures to offer.
Some of the strangest, most intriguing tracks here are basically unclassifiable; however, in all cases, bossa, samba, jazz and soul all come together to mesmerizing effect. Watusi’s “Oi Gere” takes on a Martin Denny, exotica-like quality, which means it also brings to mind present-day fey pop and pure pop indie acts—Saint Etienne or Acid House Kings go tropical, maybe. Claudia’s “Salve, Rainha” is sublime, Fender Rhodes soul with a Brazilian backbeat and Portuguese vocals, until it stops on a dime, launches into a discofied second movement and then goes back again.
Speaking of disco, of course you couldn’t make it through any 1970s-spanning pop-music compilation without the movement rearing its head, and so it goes here. Thankfully, mercifully, the high-pitched synthesizers, wah-wah workouts and boogie rhythms are complemented nicely by the more earthy samba sounds. In fact, disco forms the basis for Black Rio 2‘s superlative moment, a true buried treasure in the form of Pete Dunaway’s “Supermarket”. (And, no, that wasn’t his real name. Some Brazilian artists adopted Americanized aliases in hopes of more mass appeal.) Anyway, all you have to do is listen to the way Dunaway whispers “Supermarket!” during the third of the song’s several movements, and you can tell he’s legit. With a disco groove underpinned by some of the most effortlessly wondrous bass playing you’ll ever hear, “Supermarket” features soaring strings, yes, but its in service of chords too melancholy and pretty for disco. There’s acoustic guitar and Dunaway’s soft, earnest voice crooning some of this set’s few English lyrics. Really, this alone is worth every penny you pay for the entire album.
This isn’t the only highlight, though. Try listening to Emilio Santiago’s cover of Gilberto Gil’s “Bananeira” without twitching a muscle or tapping a foot. You can’t do it. The song’s too funky and too fun. Then you have the creeping, flanged bass, languid tempo and trance-like vocals of Azambuja & Cia’s “Tema De Azambuja”. It’s not pop at all but almost as enthralling in its own singular way.
The free interplay among sounds that were so inherent to specific genres is symbolic of Black Rio’s aims. These artists came together in the name of music, to rebel against oppression and celebrate race while simultaneously transcending it. Many of them were prosecuted and persecuted.
You might not listen to Black Rio 2 straight through. It’s a whirlwind of sounds, genres and ideas. Some have dated better than others, in terms of both production and recording fidelity. Yes, you get some scratches and clipping here. But, history or not, you’re guaranteed to come away from it feeling better and looser than when you went in.