Unless you’re really passionate about Brazilian music or you actually live in Brazil, chances are your references to Brazilian music are limited to samba and bossa nova. Depending on how much you’ve been paying attention to global trends, maybe you’ll mention funk carioca too. But Brazilian music is so much more than just these genres.
To depict Brazilian music through samba and bossa nova in 2021 is like choosing the Great American Songbook to represent the United States: it’s a valid angle and presents important sides of the country’s music, but it barely shows half of the picture, and it definitely doesn’t represent the current landscape of America’s music charts and popular preference.
In many ways, the Brazilian musical identity that populates the collective imagination is still deeply rooted in the image that was crafted in the 1940s through icons like Carmen Miranda. Or from the 1960s through Disney’s cartoon parrot, Zé Carioca, or the giant hit song, “The Girl from Ipanema” (a version of Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes’ Garota de Ipanema, from 1962).
In contrast with these symbols, a pop star like Pabllo Vittar brings much-needed representation in more ways than one. Since she broke through in 2017, she became Brazil’s first drag queen to successfully launch a singing career and reach national levels of success. Overcoming social class prejudice and rising LGBTQ-phobia in Brazil, Vittar’s songs were placed in TV soap operas, won awards, and paved the way for more Brazilian drag singers like Gloria Groove, Aretuza Lovi, Lia Clark, and more.
Ever since Anitta invited her to collaborate with Major Lazer for the 2017 track “Sua Cara“, Vittar is also one of the most well-known Brazilian names in overseas music markets. To date, Vittar amasses collaborations with Thalia, Charli XCX, Lauren Jauregui, and Lali (Espósito), to name but a few.
But less acknowledged parts of what Vittar brings to the table are the sounds and stories that inform her music. “Growing up in the North and Northeast sides of Brazil in the early ‘2000s, Vittar’s first inspirations were frontwomen of forró, brega and calypso bands” (Ribeiro, 2020). These bands and genres were all born in peripheral regions, far from the epicenter of Brazil’s mainstream entertainment industry (in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro). Vittar never hid how passionate and influenced she is by it all, but it might have gone unnoticed for a less attentive listener. Until now.
Vittar turns all spotlights upon her musical roots with her fourth studio album, Batidão Tropical (2021). The album features three original songs plus six covers of regional hits from the early 2000s. It ranges from Northeast’s forró and brega, to brega-calypso and tecnobrega from the State of Pará, in North Brazil (near the Amazon rainforest).
According to Vittar, the project started simply from her wish to perform these songs at her concerts. Later, the idea evolved into an album. “I grew up listening to these rhythms at home, at friends and family parties, and so I have very positive memories [about it]”, she tells Diário de Pernambuco. On her Twitter account, she describes the album as a “special” one for her. It was received with great enthusiasm from her fans, especially the gay fans who used to feel liberated by the sensuality of forró and brega-calypso female singers.
But the merit of Batidão Tropical goes beyond a revisit of personal memories. Vittar is turning the eyes and ears of Brazil (and the world) to sides of Brazilian music and pop culture that are, in many ways, still unknown, and underappreciated. “More than nostalgia, [Vittar is] resignifying what pop is in the country”, journalist Bruno Vinicius tweeted.
The first track of the album, “Ama Sofre Chora” is an arrocha song with lyrics that are partially sentimental, partially sassy. Arrocha is a rendition of Dominican Republic’s bachata that was born in the Brazilian Northeast State of Bahia, and became popular through singers like Vittar’s namesake Pablo, before merging with what was Brazil’s most popular genre at the time, sertanejo. “Ama Sofre Chora” dialogues with all these moments and scenes. It also evokes sofrência (basically a label for Brazilian heartbreak music); hints at forró songs’ lyrics like Calcinha Preta’s “Bebo e Choro” (2006); and recalls the arrocha-calypso fusion of Banda Calypso and Edu & Maraial’s “Doce Mel” (2008).
The second track, “Triste com T” , brings the same forró sound of Vittar’s hit singles “K.O.” (2017) and “Seu Crime” (2018). The songwriting is tailor-made for a charismatic and provocative singer like Vittar. The chorus is a hilarious wordplay with how capital T, in Portuguese, sounds like the Portuguese word for “horniness”. In the music video for “Triste com T”, Vittar emulates performance elements from brega-calypso bands (like when she’s carried by the dancers).
In “A Lua”, we get the last original song off Batidão Tropical. Co-written by the versatile Alice Caymmi (who comes from the lineage of some of Brazil’s most prolific songwriters and singers, such as Dorival Caymmi and Nana Caymmi), the track is dramatic with its lyrics, vocals and brass. Placed alongside so many obvious references to brega-calypso, it’s impossible not to think of Banda Calypso’s 2006 smash hit “A Lua me Traiu“.
From track four and on, all the songs in Batidão Tropical are covers. Some productions, like “Não é Papel de Homem”, are underwhelming compared to the versions that inspired Vittar. But they ring true to the sound Vittar is crafting since her debut album made with producers Maffalda and DJ Gorky.
The best moments of the album are when Vittar covers tecnobrega, in “Apaixonada” and “Ultra Som”. Her high-pitched timbre is fitting, and the instrumentals are powerful and exciting by themselves.
In the past, tecnobrega sparked the interest from niche, international audiences because of its intriguing Intellectual Property model (Lemos, 2008), and innovative sound. It sounds like a fusion of Kraftwerk-type of synthpop, electronic dance music, and Pará’s brega. The genre, a “musical landscape” born in peripherical Pará that “extends to infinity” (Nunes, 2021), earned the attention of the Pet Shop Boys, and has appeared in documentaries like Good CopyBad Copy (2007).
Batidão Tropical tells the story of Vittar’s childhood, but it also tells the story of the interconnectedness of Pará’s music industry. For example, “Apaixonada” was originally released by Banda Batidão, whose vocalists were a part of Banda da Loirinha, a “sister” band to Companhia do Calypso (whose songs “Zap Zum” and “Bang Bang” are in Batidão Tropical too).
Companhia do Calypso and its former lead vocalist Mylla Karvalho (who was for Pará what Britney Spears was for the United States in the early 2000s) are probably the most obvious references for Vittar. “Watching Karvalho on stage, it’s easy to see how she helped shape Vittar’s identity as a singer and performer” (Ribeiro, 2020) in singing, fashion, dance moves, and in how Vittar interacts with the audience.
Batidão Tropical comes at a moment when Brazilian Northeast culture is on a rise. Northern music, not so much — even though tecnobrega artist Gaby Amarantos is on Brazilian TV as a judge on the reality show The Voice Kids, and former Banda Calypso vocalist Joelma Mendes is now a nationally successful solo singer. For all these reasons, Batidão Tropical is an important landmark for pop music in Brazil. Vittar’s music, aesthetics, and social media-savviness are representative of a new generation of Brazilian artists that take pride in their local background, and present it in ways that are accessible and appealing to wider audiences.
“I hope brega goes mainstream”, Vittar tells Diário de Pernambuco. “Long live forró and all the regional rhythms”, she says on an Instagram Stories post. In a way, what Vittar is saying has already happened, but she is undoubtedly the best-positioned artist to take it to the next level.
Bento, Emmanuel. (25 June 2021). ‘Espero que o brega chegue no mainstream’, diz Pabllo Vittar ao lançar Batidão Tropical. Diário de Pernambuco.
Christensen, Ralf; Johnsen, Andreas; Moltke, Henrik. (2007). Good Copy Bad Copy.
Lemos, Ronaldo; et al. (2008) Tecnobrega: o Pará reinventando o negócio da música. FGV DIREITO RIO – CTS: Livros.
Luiz, Bruno. (24 June 2021). “Pabllo mostrando que o pop, quanto mais regional, mais global ele é. Mais do que nostalgia, ela ressignificando o que é pop no País“. Twitter. (personal tweet used with permission)
Nunes, José Leandro. (19 May 2021). “Caixinha de fitas: as preferências musicais nos ônibus de Belém do Pará entre 1970 e 1990“. Portal Embrazado.
Ribeiro, Ana Clara. (28 January 2020). “From Forró to Funk Carioca: The Brazilian Genres that Influenced Superstar Pabllo Vittar“. Remezcla.
Vittar, Pabllo. (24 June 2021). “antes de mais nada quero agradecer vocês! espero que se divirtam e curtam esse trabalho novo que me lembra minha infância e adolescência foi muito especial pra mim. BATIDÃO TROPICAL HOJE“. Twitter.