Brazilian Funk and Cuban Soul Heat Up the Northern Climes

A killer samba beat and an irresistible Cuban Sway: Brazil's futuristic Otto and Cuban expat Alex Cuba deliver soulful sounds.

Remaking Brazil

There’s this run-down Cuban joint on Avenue C between 4th and 5th Streets in Manhattan that’s a favored late night spot of policeman and drunken revelers. I’ve walked by it innumerable times on my way to DJ at Nublu, the cozy lounge and musical hotspot founded by Turkish saxophonist/keyboardist Ilhan Ersahin seven years ago, which sits directly next door.

I’ve only ever stepped inside the Cuban diner because my DJ partner, Bill Bragin, would be chowing down before a set, as he was prior to our June gig a few months back. (Cubans and vegetarians don’t always see eye-to-eye.) The room is oddly shaped, comprised of a few mismatched wooden tables and chairs thrown into one half the restaurant, while the kitchen sits in the back and the thievery-proof counter (Loisada Ave, as it’s also known, has only recently reached gentrification status) rests to the left. It smelled of pork, heat, and soda.

A man and woman sit next to Bill. The woman, I’m told, is a singer. I recognize the man before I’m introduced, first because he’s a hard man to mistake, second due to the Condom Black tattoo plastered on his forearm. So far Brazilian singer Otto has two album names inked onto his flesh. If he’s brave enough, and I’m guessing he is, his latest will demand valuable real estate: Manhã Acordei De Sonhos Intranqüilos (Nublu) is a mouthful, not to mention an armful. I’m not sure where he’ll slot it in.

Otto - photo (partial) by © Vladimir Radojicic

Late that night, after he had partaken in a drunken love fest on the microphone with Shitty Shitty Jam Band—actually an excellent outfit, comprised of half the Brazilian Girls—we sat in the corner comparing chest tattoos. I’ve got him beat in quantity, though again I suspect that won’t last long, especially if his album titles continue to grow. His full name is, after all, Otto Maximiliano Pereira de Cordeiro Ferreira.

Artist: Otto

Album: Certa Manha Acordei de Sonhos Intranquilos

Label: Nublu

US Release Date: 2009-09-01

Image: name is certainly growing, as he recently played a soggy show at Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors series with a new DJ Dolores/Siba collaboration, Blind Date. In preparation for that show, The New York Times wrote a favorable feature on the youthful troubadour. At 41, he cites the mixture of Dutch, Portuguese, Indian, and mulatto blood in his veins to his open-minded outlook at music. His attitude in song-making seems to mimic his life: playful, friendly, always ready to party. After making his way as a percussionist he journeyed into electronica, because, as he told The New York Times, “I started in electronica because it was easier, something you could do quickly and cheaply, and that made it the ideal path.”

Thing is, he wanted to transform electronica, which is different from merely playing it. I don’t know how successful he was at that—I wouldn’t necessarily think his beats are groundbreaking. This particular album in fact, has a much more live feel than his previous. What is fascinating about Otto’s sound is the amalgamation of influences he manages to throw inside a song. It’s not even his voice that drags you in, though it is damn unique. As Bill Bragin told me that evening, it’s Otto's on-stage presence that captures you. I can vouch for that from the jam he partook in. The boy has some passion inside of him, and he knows how to present it.

That Brazil should unite so much in its music is not new. The Tropicalistas started this over four decades ago. As Caetano Veloso, another singer known more for his aura and appeal than for his voice, wrote in his book, Tropical Truth, “It was true that American music was always competing with the Cuban rumba, the Argentine tango, and the Portuguese fado, even as Brazilian music remained—as it still is—the most consistently popular music in Brazil.”

I think Otto would agree with this sentiment. Being of the next generation, he has digital means that Veloso and Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa and others didn’t have (and still do not employ in the music they make today). Otto makes the most of what he can get his hands on, but his music remains unapologetically Brazilian.

Only in that country could a song like “O Leite”, which features another important modern Brazilian singer, Céu, be created. Using a penchant for strange, science fiction-sounding space effects, Otto hangs in and around his counterpart as they make their way through the lyrics. It reminds one of Veloso as well, the way he wove his voice into a more pitch-correct female singer, and the way that makes the song sexier instead of detracting from it.

Not everyone can pull that off. Not many at all. Mexican-American singer Julieta Venegas joins Otto for two songs, and while not nearly as sexy (more folky, more upbeat), those songs are gorgeous.

On his own, Otto has no lack of inventiveness. “Janaína” features a killer samba beat. He bounces from it brilliantly. He can spread out a rock track like his Tropicalia forebears (“6 Minutos”), and he can fake scream with the best of them (“Filha”). Later in his book, Veloso wrote, “We had to rid ourselves of Brazil as we knew it. We had to destroy the Brazil of the nationalists, we had to go deeper and pulverize the image of Brazil as being exclusively identified with Rio.” Four decades later, the battle continues, with a perky, rough-hewn figure named Otto taking up the clarion call for a new Brazilian identity.

Alex Cuba - photo (partial) by ©David Ochoa

Reminiscing Cuba

Perhaps Alexis Puentes redefined himself as Alex Cuba to quickly explain his music to the British Columbia audiences he began facing a decade ago. He moved from Artesima, outside of Havana, Cuba, for love. Currently he lives in Smithers, British Columbia, quite north of Vancouver, with his wife and three children. Given the frigid disposition his warm blood must feel in that near-arctic air, temperature hasn’t stopped him from snatching two Juno Awards for World Music Album of the Year, one in 2006 for Humo De Tobaco, another in 2008 for the subject of this column, Agua Del Pozo.

Artist: Alex Cuba

Album: Agua del Pozo

Label: Caracol

US Release Date: 2009-09-22

Image:’s determination is commendable. He was courted by major labels, given his integrity on the touring circuit and growing fanbase. After a falling out with a label years back, he knew the indie route would work. Winning two Juno awards—the American equivalent is the Grammy—on your own label certainly merits attention. But you wouldn’t need to know that if you just heard the music. Agua Del Pozo is an exceptional album. Cuba looks like a sparky Maxwell circa 2001.

He’s got that lover’s rock feel, though his R&B isn’t as sultry. His funk is funkier. Critics have compared him to Marvin Gaye. I hear that in temperament, not musicality. Sure, he’s got jazzy soul down. What really invites you inside is the warm bass, the beats—that voice.

What I hear is Bill Withers in “Si Pere No.” I know, comparisons are lame, though they offer an understanding to a reader who may not be a listener yet. And I don’t think most male singers would mind being compared to Withers or say, Donny Hathaway. Cuba lets his voice linger in that manner. You want to hang onto it. “Si Pero No,” or “Yes and No,” contemplates the eternal masculine problem: she is no good for me, but it could be better than what I have.

Cuba does not gripe or groan about his lusting. He sings about it, beautifully at that, and he gets you to dance while meditating on the subject. Dance might be too strong a word. Sway. He sways a lot.

But he dances, too. “Agua Del Pozo” is an ode to dancing like you’re pumping water from a well. Something like that. Not a great image, per se, but the song’s got juice.

He doesn’t exactly go off the deep end lyrically. He croons about being turned into a vampire by a woman he desires. He’s also a butterfly wanting to love her. This her gets a lot of time in his music. Women deserve the praise, which is why love songs were invented. Cuba makes the expectable unexpected through timbre, syllables, whispers. You can never base a form of music on that alone, though. Think of it more as an amalgamation: drums, bass, rhythm, percussion, wicked guitar, undeniably soulful vocals. His package is simplicity, and he wears it well.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.