"The Slowest Festival in the World" takes place every summer in Berlin. It's called "HeimatKlänge". Every year, they pick a different region of the world (the slogan is "home sounds from home planet Earth") and pick several acts that show the full range of music from that region. Each band gets a full week to play -- four shows at night and one on Sunday afternoon -- and the ticket prices are actually affordable. By the end of that summer, tens of thousands of European music fans have had the chance to go in-depth and really experience the music of another world. This year, the theme was centered around the intersection of American soul and African music.
This is a really cool idea. Americans would never do anything like that. Instead, we have things like Milwaukee's Summerfest, where everyone plays simultaneously on several crowded nasty stages scattered among carnival rides and brat stands. It probably brings in more money and moves more merch and it's certainly more likely to feature the BoDeans and Tower of Power, but it's just not as cool as HeimatKlänge.
So since Berlin is one of the biggest Brazilian centers in all of Europe (who knew?) and, since the year 2000 was also the 500th birthday of Brazil, HeimatKlänge chose Brazil for its focus last year. I'm not sure why they picked the acts they did; none of them are all that well-known outside Brazil, so maybe the organizers are brave or maybe Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa were busy. At any rate, they ranged from established stars like Elba Ramalho and Ilê Aiyê to up-and-comers like Cidade Negra and Cabruêra. All told, over 70,000 people got to hear these artists, several of whom had never performed in Europe before.
Now the funky little German international label Piranha has released an album called Sons da Terra, which collects live performances from these seven groups on one hour-long CD. All the artists' royalties from this CD go to something called "The Streetkids Research & Consulting Centre" based in Germany. I cannot claim to know anything about this group, but it's probably safe to assume that it's a real thing and not some kind of freaky pedophiliac ring.
So: cool festival, noble cause, and the chance to hear Brazilian artists you've probably never heard of before. Should you pick it up? It depends. If you are one of those people who demand that all Brazilian music be that kind of "swingin'" bossa nova exemplified by the Stan Getz/João Gilberto/Astrud Gilberto/Antonio Carlos Jobim nexus, then don't even bother, because this will not be your bag at all.
Similarly, if you have the equally faulty "noble savage" viewpoint that Brazilian music equals pounding African drums and wild Yoruban chanting, you'll be in for a shock, although Ilê Aiyê's steamy "Perola Negra" will be rocking your world. This group, founded in 1974, is pretty much eight drummers, two singers, and a whole lot of deep Afro-Brasil. It's too bad that they only got one cut on this disc -- there was room for another, and just about everyone else got two tracks.
Rio de Janeiro's Funk'n Lata is pretty tribal too in its own way, although it also incorporates its samba-band origins and some pretty nice afrobeat jivalistics on its two songs, although it would have been nice to hear something other than the overworked "Swing da Cor" for the album-closer. They are joined by a real old-school samba school, Rio's Velha Guarda da Mangueira, whose modern-sounding and delicate rhythms and pretty singing belie the fact that the group has been around for 45 years, and still features some of its original members. In "Tenha Pena de Mim", which translates as "Feel Sorry for Me", the beautiful melody carries all the glorious saudade and celebration of classic samba; the ragged way the vocalists exhort the crowd to follow along and the crystalline seven-string guitar work of Josimo Monteiro make you feel like you're right there in Berlin last summer, grooving right along.
This song segues right into one of the most interesting and excellent tracks I've heard all year. Cabruêra, a six-man band from Campina Grande, kicks it completely live with "Forró Esferográfico". This song choogles along nicely enough until leader Arthur Pessoa starts playing something called an esferográfico -- I cannot for the life of me figure out what this thing is, but it sounds like a demented accordion/violin combo and really takes the song into the stratosphere, especially when the tempo increases at the end. Their other track is also very cool, and I am looking forward to this band from the remote mangrove swamps (their name means "Backwoodsmen") breaking out huge in the next few years.
This disc isn't all perfect, though. The two entries from Cidade Negra, Brazil's top reggae band, are pretty weak to my ears. I don't have a problem with Brazilian reggae, but this is just soft pap with a semi-skank. Toni Garrido, the singer, reminds me a lot of Living Colour's Corey Glover: great look, great hair, great voice, but completely corny.
But that's about it. Elba Ramalho is a great vocalist with tons of energy, and her forró/axê style translates pretty well. She'll never be the international star she probably deserves to be, but you can hear her cook her way through two choice cuts. And you'll be pissed that the CD only has one track from Pinduca, an artist from Belém who is called here in the liner notes "the unofficial father of the Lambada rhythm". Pinduca turns it out.
This is a good way to introduce yourself to seven different little-known Brazilian acts and feel good about yourself for (probably) helping out street kids. And if you're in Berlin next summer, check out HeimatKlänge: whoever's there, it's gonna rock.