Greetings From the Third World: Revisiting Sepultura's Genre-Changing 'Roots'
Sepultura blew the doors open on our definitions of metal and so-called "world music", effectively creating a whole new paradigm. We haven't heard anything quite like it since.
In Héctor Babenco's 1991 screen adaptation of Peter Matthiessen's novel, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, two American explorers find themselves stranded deep within Brazil's Amazon basin after their plane runs out of fuel. Played by Tom Berenger and Tom Waits, the two characters agree to turn mercenary and bomb a nearby native village inhabited by the Niaruna tribe in exchange for the fuel they need to continue their journey. But after a change of heart, Berenger's character -- himself part Native American -- ingests a hallucinogenic substance, gets in the plane on his own, and parachutes into the Niaruna village as the unpiloted aircraft crashes.
The story builds to an inevitable collision between the Niarunas, a group of American Christian missionaries, and the local police commander who'd arranged for the bombing on behalf of gold miners moving into the area. Fittingly, the film's parachute scene would provide the initial seed of inspiration for Roots, the sixth album by the Brazilian thrash/death metal act Sepultura, and inarguably one of the most radical departures from convention in heavy metal history. As then-frontman Max Cavalera recalls in his 2014 autobiography, My Bloody Roots, he was watching the film while sipping wine on his couch one night in 1995, shortly before the band was to commence pre-production on its follow-up to 1993's Chaos A.D.
Though traces of a Latin approach to rhythm appear as far back as Sepultura's ultra-crude debut EP, 1985's Bestial Devastation, the band members identified so passionately with metal that, much like teenaged metalheads everywhere else, they rejected the music they'd heard growing up and focused instead on emulating their European and American thrash / black / death metal idols like Slayer, Kreator, Hellhammer / Celtic Frost, Venom, etc. If you listen closely to the first four Sepultura albums -- Morbid Visions (1986), Schizophrenia (1987), Beneath the Remains (1989), and Arise (1991) -- it's clear that the band was making its best effort to play in a "straight" thrash or death metal style. (The word sepultura is, in fact, Portuguese for "grave".)
But you can also hear a faint twist of something else. Even at breakneck tempos, the space between the downbeats creates a sway in the thrash groove that most likeminded bands from elsewhere just didn't possess as part of their musical vocabulary. With Chaos A.D., the underlying Latin American rhythmic sensibility came to the forefront as the defining component of Sepultura's sound. As author Jason Korolenko discusses in his Sepultura biography Relentless, also from 2014, the band's relocation to the States in 1992 amplified its collective awareness of the Brazilian textures that had been seeping into its music all along.
Chaos A.D. also foreshadowed what was to come with "Kaiowas", an acoustic instrumental named after and dedicated to the Kaiowa branch of the Guarani, a people who have repeatedly engaged in orchestrated mass suicide in response to forced displacement in Brazil's state of Mato Grosso du Sul. But in spite of its thematic inspiration, acoustic structure, and rolling beat that falls somewhere between Braveheart and Bahia, "Kaiowas" in no way prepares listeners for the chaotic splattering of musical elements that takes place on Roots. If Chaos A.D. marks the point where, musically speaking, Sepultura embraced their Brazilian identity, on Roots, the band dive headfirst into sonic terrain as unfamiliar and exotic to its own members -- and, indeed, to most Brazilian listeners -- as it would end up sounding to the sizeable international audience the album reached upon its release.
In fact, as Cavelera admits in his book, he and his bandmates were only marginally aware of Brazil's indigenous population. Through Angela Pappiani, at the time the communications coordinator for Brazil's Núcleo de Cultura Indígena (Indigenous Culture Center), he was stunned to discover that Brazil is home to hundreds of native tribes, each with their own culture and dialect and each facing threats of land loss and habitat destruction at the hands of aggressive governmental land-acquisition policies, industrial practices, and encroaching rancher settlements.
Watching Berenger plunge into the Niarunas' endangered world sparked in Cavalera an urge to do the same, both literally and creatively. In his book, Cavalera talks about his desire to work with tribes who harbored hostility towards -- and even tended to kill -- outsiders, but Pappiani suggested the Xavante people instead. Unbeknownst to the band, the Xavante (pronounced sha-VAHN-tee) were already known to a broader "world music" audience, thanks to an album of their traditional songs, 1994's Etenhiritipá -- Cantos da tradição Xavante, which had also been spearheaded by Pappiani (and distributed by Warner Bros).
Additionally, as University of Iowa anthropology professor Laura R. Graham explains by phone, the Xavante had long ago become a loaded symbol for Brazilians who were old enough to remember.
"In the '50s and '60s -- even the '70s," says Graham, "the Xavante were the most famous Indian group in Brazil. That has to do with the government of [longtime president] Getúlio Vargas, who was opening up the interior of Brazil to capitalist expansion. It was all part of his plan to conquer what he called the 'hinterland' and bring it under the control of the national society. It just so happened that that frontier expansion involved laying down a telegraph line across the country, opening up into the Amazon area and, basically, 'conquering' or 'pacifying' indigenous peoples -- what the government called 'contacting' them -- bringing them into the domain of the national society. The government chose to focus national media attention on the Xavante 'contact'. They actually embedded journalists into what they called the 'pacification team'. During the late '40s, they had these embedded journalists who wrote regular communiqués that were being published in the national newspapers."
Graham continues: "Those journalists' reports portrayed the Xavante as these savage, violent Indians. When the Xavante finally entered into peaceful relationship by exchanging arrows for metal goods the 'pacification team' had left in strategic places -- basically when the Xavante were surrounded and made the decision to 'succumb' (the government's view of their cooperation, not theirs) -- it was portrayed in the national media as a huge victory. This was a huge symbolic campaign that represented the conquest of the national society over the interior and its inhabitants. The generation of people who grew up in the '70s and '80s -- Sepultura's generation -- wouldn't necessarily know that, but if you talk to people in their parents' generation, the Xavante were this household name that everybody knew. It was like 'they're savages who live in the interior.'" (In her 2005 academic paper, "Image and instrumentality in a Xavante politics of existential recognition: The public outreach work of Eténhiritipa Pimentel", Graham also points out that "Mario Juruna, the first indigenous person to be active in national politics, was Xavante.")
It didn't require such extensive knowledge of history for Cavalera and his then-bandmates -- his younger brother Igor Cavalera on drums, lead guitarist Andreas Kisser, and bassist Paulo Pinto, Jr. -- to understand that they were making an overture to a marginalized community. With that in mind, in 1995 Sepultura set off for the interior, a foreign land within their own country. On a trip organized by Pappiani, the band -- along with a small party of people that included producer Ross Robinson, a photography team, and Pappiani herself -- boarded four Cessna prop planes, recording gear in tow, and made what Cavalera and Korolenko's books both describe as a hair-raising journey to Pimentel Barbosa, the Xavantes' reservation home, known to them as Eténhiritipa (also written Etenhiritipá, Etenhíritipa, Etéñitipa), and located on a patch of cerrado (tropical savanna) in the western part of Brazil.
The plane, writes Cavalera, "looked like a Volkswagon inside. You could literally open the door from inside and jump out if you wanted. It was really scary. It looked so shaky and old." Nevertheless, the band's excitement comes across in both books, as well as in video footage shot by a Portuguese crew that has since surfaced on YouTube. Received as honored guests, the band stayed at Pimentel Barbosa for several days, in the process recording a set of musical sequences that would end up providing a running thread on Roots.
Several questions jump out here: How much did the Xavante grasp what they were getting into? Did they have sufficient cultural background to "understand" metal? Did they even like Sepultura's music? What would they think of the final product? Would it sound like ugly noise to them? For all the benign intentions motivating Sepultura and Pappiani, was the band in danger of carelessly or inadvertently exploiting this community? Was this another example of "civilized" society acting paternalistically towards a pre-modern culture and playing into "noble savage" stereotypes? London-based sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris -- author of numerous books, newspaper columns, and academic essays that explore heavy metal, Jewish identity, and other sociological themes -- explicitly addresses these concerns in a 2000 article he wrote on the album, titled "Roots"?: The relationship between the global and the local within the Extreme Metal scene", for Cambridge University's academic journal Popular Music.
In the article, Kahn-Harris (who, incidentally, authors a blog under the nickname Metal Jew), writes:
Whilst the Xavante appear to have been treated with respect and receive royalties, it is unclear how they understood the project and what they will get out of it. The Xavante had little say on how the piece was set within the album (although ‘Itsári’ [see below -- Ed.] was not overdubbed at all). Neither can Sepultura ensure that those who purchase their albums will not exoticise the Brazilianness in the project. Nonetheless, Sepultura did approach Roots in a spirit of discovery that avoids many of the pitfalls that other artists have fallen into in such projects. The collaboration was not intended simply to add exotic ‘colour’ to their music, but was a sincere (if perhaps naive) attempt to collaborate and learn from Sepultura’s fellow Brazilians. Moreover [as Graham points out in several scholarly publications -- Ed.], the Xavante of Pimentel Barbosa have become skilled at dealing with non-Xavante Brazilians and non-Brazilians (Graham 1995) and Cipasse, the president of the Xavante of Pimentel Barbosa and Sepultura’s primary contact, had toured with Milton Nascimiento. The Xavante also released a statement warmly commending the collaboration.
Graham, whose work has focused on the Xavante and Wayuu people for decades -- specifically with respect to, as she explains it, "the politics of representation and the power dynamics that are loaded into that representation" -- is quick to point out that the Xavante have always acted as enthusiastic agents of -- as we say in modern pop-culture parlance -- getting their music out there. In point of fact, both parties were making what we can view as "benevolent" gestures, and both were "using", if you will, each other's music as vehicles for their own aims, which in both cases entailed a profound sense of responsibility when it comes to music.
"The Xavante," says Graham, "are very interested in having the world know about them. For them, music functions as a medium for entering into other realms -- whether they be other dimensions of existence or other cultures. In Xavante culture, it's the men who interact with these foreign domains. Well before they had any contact with white people, part of their culture has always entailed that men engage the spirit world, especially through music. This happens in their dreams. Having visions with the spirit world or the world of people who have died, for them that happens via dreams, and it's a male domain. One of the primary vehicles of that interaction is music. Not all, but most of their music is inspired -- you could say 'composed', although they say received -- in their dreams through encounters with other worlds."
"When people come and visit the community from the outside," she continues, "one of the things the Xavante ask them to do is sing them a song. Music is this medium for entering into relations with others -- others meaning spiritual beings or, for example, white society or other cultures. The Xavante want to be known and they want their culture to be known. They want their music to be known because they think it's beautiful and view it as a contribution to humanity. It's like, 'We have something beautiful to contribute to humanity -- and, by the way, here we are suffering. We want people to know who we are and that we exist.' And so when they got this proposal from a musical group that wanted to come jam and share music with them, they loved it."
Of course, it was a risky move for both parties. Roadrunner Records, the band's label at the time, initially expressed trepidation -- quite understandable, considering there was no precedent for how such an unorthodox fusion would be received by the band's metalhead fanbase. From the Xavante perspective, they were placing a lot of trust in the hands of people who might not accurately represent them. As Graham points out, "they didn't have control over what the band did with their sounds, but they did stipulate that Sepultura could not manipulate their sound. They didn't want it to be synthesized or distorted. It was like, 'You can play around it, but you can't change how it sounds.'" Max Cavalera remembers in his book that Xavante leader Cipasse made his terms explicitly clear, while Pinto, Jr. explained in a February 1996 interview for MTV Europe that Cipasse was very thorough in requesting that the band provide him with a detailed accounting of what they intended to do with the music. "They won't let anyone touch [i.e., deface] their culture," said Pinto, Jr. "That's the good thing about them. They're very [mindful] of their culture."