Salvador’s One-Note Music Scene

Everyone likes some form of music or another. I like to think that I like music even more than the average person – at least enough to study music industry in college and pursue several internships in the field. And that self-prescribed enthusiasm is what makes me especially ashamed to admit this: of the hundred plus concerts I have attended, only four of them have actually been in Brazil. Of these, none have been in my hometown of Salvador.

The problem is not that there’s not a music scene in Salvador. Rather, Salvador has such a strong cultural identity in Axé music that it leaves little room for other musical styles to thrive. The word ‘Axé’ comes from the Afro-Brazilian cult religion of Candomblé and it means ‘force’ or ‘energy’. Subsequently, Axé is a high-energy fusion of upbeat, danceable rhythms. The genre hit its stride in the early ’90s and has been going strong ever since. The beats and sheer infectiousness of the music makes it a perfect fit for Carnival and Salvador is a city moved by Carnival so it’s no surprise that Axé music would reign supreme. You see it or hear it at every turn. There are TV shows, concerts, billboards, clubs and bars and radio stations all dedicated to the Axé sound.

It’s hard enough to tune this all out if you don’t like Axé, but for a week in February or March it becomes inescapable. Major streets and avenues are closed for traffic so they can be part of one of the routes for the trio elétricos to parade through. These are modified trucks with stages built on the back where artists perform and lead a crowd of paying, cordoned-in fans all jumping about to the music. There are dancers yes, but also full bands and singers playing live as the truck rolls around. Participants on each truck must wear outfits called abadás, loud colored t-shirts (think lime-greens, bright pinks, and neon-blues) advertising the bands, so that everyone following the trio on foot is uniformly dressed.

Abadás for some trios go on sale at the end of every Carnival, selling out far in advance, with people willing to pay upwards of US$500 per abadá for the more popular groups, led by big names in the music like Ivete Sangalo or Chiclete com Banana. These prices are impossibly high for many of the genre’s low-income fan base which isn’t to say they get left out — this is a street party, after all. Low-budget revelers cram the sidewalks or trail along behind the rope held by the trios to discourage pipoqueiros (popcorners, a term used to describe party crashers who try to sneak inside the rope with the paying fans). It’s a sweaty, messy affair but those in the middle of the action don’t seem to care. They want more and they keep coming back for more, year after year.

Officially Carnival goes on for four days, but the partying atmosphere and the Axé music runs year-round. The months before Carnival are proceeded by all sorts of rehearsal shows and for days after it there are many other ressacas or hangover shows. The word ‘hangover’ is used not only because Carnival and booze go hand-in-hand, but also due to the fact that while the main party’s over, there are still vestiges of it to be found in these smaller parties. Micaretas are a sort of out-of-season mini-Carnival (Carnival only occurring on the four days before lent) thrown together sporadically throughout the year. Organizers know how to put these types of shows together, typically in gymnasiums and clubs, and they are immensely popular.

So you see, there’s little opportunity for developing an alternative music scene in, here. Salvador is a one trick pony kind of town. Even outside Salvador, the city’s image is so intertwined with Axé and Carnival that the perception is that we must not care about anything else and, as a result, it often gets left out of the national festival circuit that typically encompasses cities like São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, Belo Horizonte and Recife. These festivals don’t feature stages on wheels and the line-ups aren’t limited to Axé artists.

Alas, in Salvador, even major pop acts can be considered ‘alternative music’. Take RBD, a band spawned from the Mexican telenovela Rebelde. The band is hugely popular among teens and pre-teens in Brazil, so much so that RBD recently went on a 12-city tour through Brazil. Salvador was supposed to host one of those shows, but producers alleged logistics problems and pulled the plug on the show. Apparently, in Salvador, it’s easier to set up a band on the flatbed of a moving truck than in a stationary venue.

When popular national acts come through town they wind up performing at theaters, convention centers, or even at a nearby Wet n’ Wild theme park. As for venues or clubs dedicated specifically to rock music? Well, they are practically inexistent, or at best, struggling to stay in business. Miss Modular, voted one of the best clubs of 2005 by a Veja magazine city guide, shut down in April this year. I live about five minutes away from another rare venue, the Albatroz, and in the past 10 months I have seen it open for only three shows. It’s located off a very busy road, but the lights are always off and most people wouldn’t even give it a second glance. The parking lots are empty because there are never any customers around and the only sign of life is lone a security guard standing vigil in the shadows.

There’s definitely a catch-22 element to all of this. The public complains there are no places or shows for them to go to and the organizers aren’t going to spend any money on developing an infrastructure for an alternative scene until there’s evidence that there truly is an audience for it. Miss Modular is a prime example of this problem. It was popular, but it still struggled financially. It could have grown more popular, but it lacked the space. And to make things worse, the club was located in a residential neighborhood and didn’t have proper acoustic insulation. With neighbors calling local authorities frequently to complain about the loud music or sudden lack of parking spaces on their streets it wasn’t long before the club had to shut down. As the third largest Brazilian city it would be silly to say that Salvador doesn’t have the audience to support an alternative scene. What it lacks is organization and participation.

I, too, am guilty of this music apathy. The trouble is, as much as I don’t like Axé music, I don’t like what few alternatives are available to me, either. I’ve checked the daily newspapers for listings and I’ve looked up bands online and downloaded their mp3s. I’ve scanned the radio stations looking for something new, but Salvador doesn’t have any alternative radio stations. For all my searching, I still haven’t found anything that I really like. One of the few rock acts of Salvador to make it big nationwide, Pitty, just reminds me of a Brazilian version of Evanescence. But there’s nothing wrong with Pitty or it’s popularity, what I find hard to take is that here in Salvador the alternative is the mainstream, or at least the mainstream for a good chunk of the country.

Local newspaper columnist Luciano Matos regularly interviews people attached to the struggling alternative scene on his blog, El Cabong. The underlying question he poses is always the same: is there hope for those of us who want more from rock music? I certainly hope so, but what I have learned since moving back to Salvador this year is that if I want to escape this one-note Carnival culture, I need to go the extra mile. Or rather, extra thousand miles.

This past September I went to my first concert in Brazil this year. Two, three hours on a plane and I was in Rio de Janeiro to see Tortoise (an American instrumental rock band of all things) live at the Circo Voador. Just walking in there was a wholly different experience for me. It’s an open-air venue (there’s a dome-shaped tarp covering the main stage area) that holds a couple thousand people. There’s plenty of standing room to watch the show and upstairs bleachers for those who want to give their feet some rest. In between sets you can take in some fresh air, going from the main stage to the outdoors bar area, where you can have a drink or a nice chat. It’s the kind of place Salvador desperately needs, a space dedicated to shows, where people show up in droves, even for a fringe band like Tortoise.

It might seem odd that I would go to another state just for a concert but I’m hardly alone. Back in January a number of Salvadorans I know flocked to Rio, over 1,000 miles away, to see the Rolling Stones for free, and another group made the trip to São Paulo (another 1,250 miles) to see U2. By the end of the year acts like Beastie Boys, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Patti Smith, Black Dice, Ladytron and We Are Scientists will be gracing one of the cell phone company sponsored festivals in the country. Many Salvadorans will be there.