What were the odds, coming into this year, that the first album by a young Brazilian singer featuring thirteen songs by her grandfather, a folksinger I never heard of before in my life, would be one of my favorite discs of 2004? Well, actually, for me, the odds would be better than most, because I am a well-known Brazil nut. But even I had no idea how deeply this album would affect me. It's really really adorable and charming and swinging and rootsy and Brazilian to its very core. I love it.
Xerêm was a forró artist who died in 1970. Forró music (a great collection of which can be found on Luaka Bop's Brazil Classics 3: Forró, Etc.) is a Brazilian variation on the holy two-step polka-related bounce called "norteño" in Mexico and "cumbia" in Colombia and -- stretching it here a little but not really -- "reggae" and "ska" and "rocksteady" in Jamaica. In its Brazilian version, heavy on the accordion but light on the drums, the melodies of this music attain an almost unbearable momentum that takes away the need for pounding emphasis: the forró rhythm is light, zippy, breezy, easily digestible, even when songs of great seriousness are set in it.
While samba has had the imprimatur of "art" for ages (especially in its hyperreal bossa nova incarnation), forró was always considered "servant's music", the grooves of the lower class. It took massive witty hits, like Jackson do Pandeiro's "Chiclete com Banana", and the blessing of the MPB titans (Caetano Veloso covered "Asa Branca" on his 1971 album, Gilberto Gil has flirted with the form and soundtracked a recent movie entirely with forró classics) to raise it to the semi-respectable level that it now occupies.
But that semi-respectability is not why Aflalo decided to do this album, I think. This is not the work of someone who is trying on a suit and hoping it fits. It took this 27-year-old Sao Paulista six years to research her grandfather's work; she listened to old radio broadcasts, she read through more than 300 songs both finished and incompleted, she reconstructed half-finished tunes and figured out how to arrange the ones that people had heard but forgotten. She inhabits her grandfather's songs, lives them, even when she's laying in snippets of his voice, as she does on the first track here, "Pisa no Pilão". Yes, the hilarious opening cameo braying is his, and it's awfully sweet of her to let him take the first two lines of the last verse, but it's her voice carrying the bouncy tune, her voice backing up the first voice, her voice doubling and interacting with both those other voices. She, and her invaluable partner Luis Waack, control these songs, without letting nostalgia get in the way.
Plus, this is one of the only times that she pulls a Natalie Cole on us here, which is cool. It works, because it's not trying to pull the heartstrings, here or when Waack pulls the old guy's voice into helping with the rhythm on "Lamento do Sabiá". Waack, actually, needs to get a shout-out for his precision and restraint as a producer. He knows how to keep it minimalistic, and knows when to layer in the effects -- "Raymunda Patuá" has gentle wooshing and extracurricular noises that don't even register until the 10th or 20th time through it. Absolutely stunning, but in a low-key way.
Aflalo's voice is a crystal thing, sorry for the cliché but there's no other way to say it. Sometimes, she sounds like Marisa Monte, like on the perfect nugget "Giranda". (This song, like over half of the songs here, has never been heard before; Aflalo is introducing this piece from the unfinished and unreleased back catalogue of Xerêm.) The chorus goes "A giranda girou / Giranda anda gira / Gira anda girandou," and I have no idea what this means, or whether it means anything really or not -- but its mystical force when sung by Cris Aflalo is undeniable. It doesn't hurt that Waack's arrangements are simple: just a couple of basses, a twisting guitar figure that approaches afrobeat, a couple little kids chanting "le le le le le," and Sérgio Reze playing five different percussion instruments. Monte would throw in all kinds of extra stuff, electronics, tribal beats, and the like, and swamp the piece, and her own voice, for effect. But songs this pretty and fun don't need any such "help". It's beautiful even when naked, and that's the definition of true beauty.
Aflalo's tone is warm and lovely and fresh on sweet little things like this, or "Soca Passoca," turned here into a semi-rocksteady beat, with playful mouth-popping noises floating precariously across the stereo field. But it's not just the cutesy stuff that she shines on. She gets to stretch out a bit on the melancholy acoustica of "No Ceara Tem", especially as the doleful opening turns to folk-rock in its second section, where she sounds very much like Ann Wilson on early Heart albums (and on the new Heart album, by the way, which rules). When everything bursts into epic flower at about the 1:30 section with strings and a quietly burning horn section, the open-hearted emotionality of it all feels entirely earned. It's forró with the gloves off for a new century, and it soars. Wow I'm gushing here.
It's just that I feel like we're uncovering a major talent here. She turns Xerêm's "Mamãe Baiana", the original of which set to music a poem by Joracy Camargo -- does any language have better names than Portuguese? -- into a fado arrangement, just her and Waack on guitars. And here, I think, is where she makes the leap; her voice is sexy and strong and sad all at the same time. It's a perfect vehicle for saudade, that particular sort of Afro-Brazilian-Portuguese happy melancholy that defines the entire Brazilian worldview. Without saudade, you will go nowhere in Brazil. Aflalo can do it, and do it more convincingly than Bebel Gilberto on her new record. Aflalo, along with Cibelle and Andrea Marquee if she ever makes another record like her first one, has to be part of the conversation when we're talking about the next wave of Brazilian singers.
But forget history, forget the future, forget all that talk. Just find your way to this record, and join me out on the porch on a Saturday morning with a pot of coffee. Because there can be no better soundtrack for that important ritual than Só Xerêm. Somewhere, there's an old guy in a goofy straw hat looking down and smiling a big fat smile, because his granddaughter has done him proud.