It might be audacious to suggest that Bixiga 70 represents one of the highest peaks of Afro-Brazilian music, but their new album Quebra Cabeça makes it hard to imagine anything grander in scope. Thus far, the São Paulo-based ten-piece has enjoyed well-deserved critical acclaim and, in Brazil, some national awards. In the past few years, the group has not only been hitting the international tour circuit hard, but has had the invaluable chance to play with groundbreaking musicians Pat Thomas, Orlando Julius, and João Donato. The group’s growth is clear on this fourth album. While the basic elements that define Bixiga 70 – Afrobeat-inspired brass, Latin jazz melodies, and rhythms, measured electronic twists scattered throughout the music – are still there, the band is both tighter and more adventurous on Quebra Cabeça, and their forays further and further outside the box are ones marked by technical mastery.
Key to Bixiga 70’s style is how the group both breaks ground and can sling a universally appealing tune. As the album’s title track begins, the group does just that. Polyrhythms syncopate with a simple opening riff, and horns add a warm, winding melody to the track. Spacey keyboards lend out-of-this-world flourishes, balancing a sense of modernity with retro brass and hand percussion that draws on the centuries-old West African-Caribbean connection still so crucial to Brazilian musical aesthetics today.
And so it is across the board on Quebra Cabeça. Wavy notes and high guitar ostinato on “Ilha Vizinha” gives the track a tropical feel, while the rest of the ensemble maintains the weight necessary for Bixiga 70 to keep the music moving – and to keep the band’s audience in the throes of dance. “Pedra de Raio” begins in a synthesized haze, the instruments loosely in sync with each other before meeting for a midtempo waltz. Here, the guitar emulates West African lutes with delicate, lace-like motifs, and the texture stays at a simmer until the piece blossoms into brilliant moments of jazz horns and electric bass fuzz.
The spiraling urgency of “4 Cantos” comes to a sharp end; Areia is a heated jam with synths for days. “Ladeira” has a cinematic quality to it, a dramatic chord leading quickly into a full-on action sequence with continuous shifts in rhythm and tempo that make it feel alive.
For all that, the best is yet to come. “Levante” brings in an ode to the Eastern Mediterranean, and though it’s a slower piece, it may be one of the most interesting on the album. Shimmering and sinuous, it gilds Bixiga 70’s Afro-Brazilian roots in a way that speaks to growing diversity in the band’s repertoire.“Primeiramente” follows, a piece full of protest that starts slow and quickly becomes a genuine headbanger, with heavy rock buoyed by funk grooves and leading into ominous Kill Bill-esque sirens. The stylistic mix is an unlikely one and makes for an intriguing shift in tone.
Quebra Cabeça means “puzzle” in Portuguese, but its literal translation is something like “break head” – appropriately close to “mindblowing”, the perfect adjective for any Bixiga 70 release, especially this one, an appropriately diverse reflection of the streets of São Paulo and far, far beyond. If it is a puzzle, it’s a satisfying one, and the different pieces – so many of them – come together brilliantly.