Music has long been one of Brazil’s most valuable natural resources — perhaps not from an economic standpoint, but most certainly in terms of cultural significance. Dating back to the popularity of bossa nova among American jazz audiences in the 1960s, the influence of Brazilian-born sounds has frequently been felt beyond the country’s borders. Brazilian artists have traditionally allowed international sources to inform their work as well, a trend that came to prominence with the Tropicalia movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s and continues to this day in all genres of music from hardcore to favela funk.
The second half of that equation is explored on The Sexual Life of the Savages, a compilation that pays tribute to the 1980s post-punk scene in São Paulo, Brazil. As radio programmer Bruno Verner describes in his informative (and slightly hyperbolic) liner notes, the story of this particular movement has its roots in the post-punk music of both the United States and England. Through a tentative connection with Brazilian expatriate Arto Lindsay — guitarist and leader of New York “No Wave” band DNA — records by the Contortions, Pere Ubu, Gang of Four, A Certain Ratio, and others began to make their way onto the turntables of São Paulo DJs and musicians. Shortly thereafter, bands like Gang 90, As Mercenárias, Akira S et As Garotas Que Errarem, Fellini, Smack, Patife, Nau, and Gueto began to spring up throughout the city, offering — as heard in the tracks compiled here — a diverse range of interpretations of the Northern Hemisphere’s cutting edge sounds.
Verner also makes note of the scene’s communal nature, detailing certain musicians’ dual, triple, and sometimes quadruple duties in the numerous bands active at the time. Yet he neglects to cover another matter of cultural significance that’s obvious from even a cursory examination of the package: the extensive role of women in São Paulo’s musical community. Over half the bands featured on The Sexual Life of the Savages have at least one, if not more, female members. Varner and his co-complier Eliete Mejorado even elect to start the set with As Mercenárias, an all-female quartet that makes the Slits sound tame in comparison; the energetic blast of “Inimigo” and “Panico” gets the disc off to an excellent start, barely passing three minutes combined. Nau also contributes some primal feminine energy to the compilation, with vocalist Vange Leonel perched snottily atop the raw guitar riff of “Madame Oraculo”.
If there’s one drawback to the disc as a whole, it’s the relative transparency of many of the bands’ inspirations, which doesn’t diminish its importance as much as it makes for an entertaining critical exercise. Patife, for example, takes a Talking Heads approach, mixing hectic polyrhythms with wiry guitar and pop sensibility on “Poema em Linha Reta” and “Teu Bem”. Smack is more like a streamlined Television, with Edgard Scandurra and Sergio Pamplona’s dual guitars snaking through the minor keys of “For a Daqui” and “Mediocridade Afinal”. The shadow of darker-hued post-punk bands like Joy Division and PiL also hangs over much of the work collected here, particularly in the keyboard-heavy dance-punk of Akira S et As Garotas Que Errarem — the double-tracked vocals and Jah Wobble bass of “Eu Dirijo o Carro Bomba” make for one of the disc’s more bizarre moments.
But there’s plenty of subtlety to be found — and it’s the groups that put an unusual twist on their influences that have the most impact on the disc’s overall story. Chance’s subversion of samba via a stock drum machine preset on “Samba de Morro” shows one of the compilation’s most original approaches, as the band layers it with atmospheric vocals and dissonant chords to create something more in line with the Tropicalia artists’ liberal experimentation with traditional Brazilian song forms. Similarly, Fellini’s “Zum Zum Zazoeira” substitutes a Farfisa organ for the era’s customary synthesizers, momentarily blurring the temporal context with a retro sound that was far from fashionable at the time.
As the disc focuses on one location, it’s certainly only a small piece of a much larger picture of Brazilian music in the 1980s — Verner is careful to note that the scene represented here is one of at least three concurrent movements in São Paulo alone, not to mention what was happening in Rio de Janeiro and other cities. But considering the fact that most of this music was recorded for independent labels that have long since folded, its availability — and impressively remastered sound — in itself is truly remarkable. And as with nearly any compilation, there are a few bands that were mercifully limited to one track, but that doesn’t make the collection any less vital to anyone who’s interested in Brazilian music or post-punk in general.