The word “brega”, in Brazilian, means “trash”, “tacky”, or “corny”. For decades, it has been used as a label for art and culture that embraces drama, intensity, and romance, moreover when produced by and for marginalized people. The origins of brega as a music genre in Brazil dates back to the romantic ballads of the 1970s. When fused with regional genres, brega takes different names and sounds, such as brega calypso, tecnobrega, and brega funk.
Brega is versatile because it carries Brazilian DNA. This DNA, however, also carries a feeling that Brazilians call “complexo de vira-latas” (“mongrel syndrome”): an inferiority complex that Brazilians feel towards the rest of the world. It makes Brazilians look down on themselves and otherize their own culture, claiming it as low-quality in comparison to certain foreign cultures.
Music assigned as brega is music that is not considered “good enough” to be “pop”, or to belong to mainstream culture. But this is changing.
Genres born in the margins, like brega funk and “pisadinha” (or “piseiro”), exploded in popularity in Brazil in 2020 and 2021. They also infiltrated Brazilian pop music, which now sounds more rooted in Brazilian regional cultures than ever. Baile funk MCs and brega funk artists are positioning themselves as part of the pop scene. The decade of 2020 has everything it needs to be an abundant period for the arts that embrace the deep roots of Brazil and brega as fundamental parts of Brazilian identity and culture.
Luísa e os Alquimistas (“Luísa and the Alchemists”) composes a harvest of Brazilian artists who claim “brega” as a non-pejorative label. Or they acknowledge the connotations that the genre brings and they have a lot of fun with it.
Their first EP, Gang da Leoa (Vol. 1) (2021), follows the path of brega psychedelia that they have been playing since their debut album, Cobra Coral (2016). It combines deliberately tacky aesthetics with psychedelic experimentation. Genres from Brazil’s south and northwest regions, like tecnobrega, piseiro, brega-funk, and forró, appear in their rawest versions. But there’s a pop spin to the melodies and vocals. It’s less a way to legitimate brega culture as “good enough to be called pop”, and more of a way to make it evident that brega is, and has always been, innately pop.
The apex of their ethos can be heard in the party track “Brega Night Dance Club”. Joined by tecnobrega singer Keila, vocalist Luísa ennumerates a myriad of genres in the lyrics: “Lambada, arrocha, bregafunk / Pagodão, toca forró / Tecnobrega, pisadinha / Batidão e Carimbó / (…) Make the move and it’s gonna be a hit / Follow me and it’s gonna be alright”. It’s a celebration of Brazilian music, culture, and lifestyle.
The star track of the EP is “I Love You Lulu”. Over the remarkable piseiro beats and brega guitar riffs, Luísa sings about herself as a fashionable TikToker and party girl — and also a “rapariga”, as she sings in the chorus. The word is often used as a misogynist slur for women in Brazil, as in “bitch” or “hoe” (not to be confused with how the word “rapariga”, in Portugal, is used to describe a girl without pejorative connotations ). But in “I Love You Lulu” it is used in an amusing, self-celebrative way when Luísa sings: “Luísa, you are the ‘rapariga’ that was missing in my life”.
In using the word “rapariga”, Luísa signals the character of the song as someone that is probably inserted in a marginal context, where the word is commonly used in Brazil. Yet, she also claims the word for herself, indicating that she’s not taking herself too seriously. But in some way, her use of the word is also a celebration of her own sexual agency as a woman. Notice how the male guest feature, MC Tchelinho, does not use the word when referring to Luísa in the song.
The MC, by the way, adds even more fun to the track. A member of the baile funk/dubstep project Heavy Baile, Tchelinho sings as a guy who, like everyone else, wants to earn a place in Lulus’ “busy schedule”.
All six tracks in Gang da Leoa (Vol. 1) have featured guests. One of them is the long-time collaborator of the group, Potyguara Bardo, whose fashion style, music, and background are kindred to Luísa e os Alquimistas’ (both acts are from Rio Grande do Norte, in northeast Brazil). Originally released in Luísa e os Alquimistas’ Jaguatirica Print (2018), “Cadernin” was remixed as a “piseiro” version in 2020, featuring Bardo. The version appears in Gang da Leoa (Vol. 1) as a closer for the brega portion of the EP. The last track, “WBYB” (an acronym for “Wanna be your bitch”), is a fusion of trap, R&B, and samba.
As if the inherent intensity of brega was not enough, Luísa e os Alquimistas’ adds more hot touches in Gang da Leoa (Vol. 1). They are inspired by hippie culture, psychedelic art, brega music, and Latin cultures, as heard in “Horizonte”. Sung in Spanish, the psych reggae track features the Mexican-Brazilian band Francisco, El Hombre.
With so many symbols and influences mixed in, Gang da Leoa (Vol. 1) may complicate perceptions of what Brazilian pop is. But that’s exactly why this album is outstanding in its embracing and celebratory vision.