I first experienced Brazilian music subliminally when I was growing up in Lagos in the early 1980s. From his business trips to Rio de Janeiro, my father brought back videotapes of Carnival. My siblings and I were astonished by the spectacle of floats, feather headdresses and scantily clad bodies, but the samba that propelled the spectacle was there too, pulsing in the background. With college in the US came knowledge of bossa nova, at first through the ubiquitous Stan Getz and João Gilberto recording, and then from compilations during the ‘world music’ craze. Later on I visited Brazil and began to learn more – about MPB (música popular brasileira), choro, Candomblé, Tropicalismo, and the new electronic and funk subgenres – and the more I learned, the more there was to learn.

Is there a single characteristic that unites all Brazilian music? Perhaps not, but when I listen, I do sense a tilt, a feeling of the ground pitching underfoot, and I suspect that this slight unsteadiness is related to the openness of Brazilian Portuguese, the specific combination of cultures in the country, the openness to the international scene and the intelligent use of syncopated rhythms in all genres.


1. ‘Tiro Ao Álvaro’, performed by Adoniran Barbosa and Elis Regina

Barbosa’s is one of those voices that seems to be visiting from another generation, and indeed it is. Born to Italian immigrant parents in São Paulo in 1910, he helped pioneer the Paulista ‘brake’ samba, so called because of its frequent use of dramatic pauses. Barbosa’s Portuguese, too, was an innovation, mixed in as it was with Italian and street slang. On this recording of Tiro Ao Álvaro, a saucy, funny samba he composed in 1960, he sings a duet with the great Elis Regina. ‘After so many arrow shots from your eyes / My breast looks like you know what? A target practice board.’

Regina, a generation younger than Barbosa, is thought by many to be perhaps the greatest Brazilian voice of all. She was outrageously talented, bringing both power and control to the music in a way that reminds one of Aretha Franklin or Ella Fitzgerald, and her untimely death in 1982, at the age of thiry-six, was a shock for her multitudinous fans.


2. ‘Deixa Pra Lá’, performed by Cartola and Leci Brandão
Cartola, born poor to a black family in Rio de Janeiro, pioneered a form of samba characterized by slow rhythms and a proper use of Portuguese. He was prolific in the 30s and 40s, but fell out of the public eye until he was rediscovered, the story goes, by a journalist at a car wash in 1956. The revival didn’t really last: when he died, at the age of seventy-eight, he had fallen into neglect again. Leci Brandão, his duet partner here, described on one of her album sleeves as ‘mulher, negra e homossexual,’ has had a more consistent career as a singer of politically inflected MPB. This recording catches her in her early days, in the 70s. The singing is tender and unaffected, the instrumentation subtle (I particularly like the flute), and the song itself, ‘Deixa Pra Lá’ (‘Nevermind’), with its repeated refrain, is one to which I return to time and again. The video is a plus too, all shadow and close-ups.


3. ‘Eu Sei que Vou Te Amar’, performed by Caetano Veloso
Who is the famous Brazilian musician? MPB star Roberto Carlos was wildly popular in Brazil itself, and Vinícius de Moraes, Tom Jobim, and João Gilberto, the bossa nova innovators, have imperishable profiles. But the best known Brazilian singer on the international scene in the past few years is probably Caetano Veloso. With his good looks, androgynous voice, immense intellect and unerring musical instinct, he’s a god to most lovers of Brazilian music. After more than thirty albums in countless genres – constant experimentation is the core of the Tropicalismo he helped develop–the real problem is choosing just one Caetano Veloso song. Though I was tempted to include something from his strident phase in the late 60s, I’ve recently been listening to his acoustic version of the widely-performed classic, ‘Eu Sei que Vou Te Amar’(‘I Know I’ll Love You’), composed by Vinícius and Jobim. This song sidesteps the irony and displacement present on some of Caetano’s other performances. It is bossa nova at its most achingly sensuous, its most romantic and moving.


4. ‘Flor de Maracujá’, performed by Gal Costa
Like Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa is from Bahia, in Brazil’s northeast, the region that most powerfully retains the country’s African influence. She was also a pioneer in the Tropicalismo scene, and an early collaborator with Veloso in Salvador de Bahia. ‘Flor de Maracujá’ praises the flower of the passion fruit, one of Brazil’s most distinctive fruits, and favourite of many a caipirinha drinker. The instrumentation is a crush of influences: rock, funk, big band, a mid-70s brew that includes electric guitars, synthesizers, a full horn section and call and response vocals in the background. It is optimistic, expansive, fast, but underneath it all there is also a melancholy. It’s probably just my imagination, but I think Gal Costa’s beautifully modulated falsetto gives a hint of the defiance and sadness of those years in Brazil, years of military dictatorship and uncertainty.


5. ‘Tive Razão’, performed by Seu Jorge
Having gained a measure of local fame in Rio de Janeiro in the late 90s for his singing and acting, Seu Jorge came to worldwide attention in 2002 with his performance in Fernando Meirelles’s acclaimed film of favela life, City of God. His subsequent career took him in an unexpected direction, far from his own violent favela childhood. An appearance in a Wes Anderson film led to the release of his album of intriguingly odd David Bowie covers, translated into Portuguese and sung in his distinctively rough-hewn baritone with only an acoustic guitar backing and a hipsterish, DIY feel. The stripped-down acoustic continued on his album Cru (2005), which featured more of his own writing, including ‘Tive Razão’ (‘I Was Right’), a modern samba de morro made with the simplest ingredients: guitar, voice and cuíca (friction drum).


6. ‘Carolina Carol Bela’, produced by DJ Marky
The club scene is brilliant in Brazil, and the most popular genre at the moment is baile funk or, as it is known in Rio, carioca funk. I like it for its scattered beats and political volatility, but I’m drawn even more strongly to an older genre: drum and bass, one of the top exponents of which is São Paulo’s Marco Antonio Silva, aka DJ Marky. In a track like Carolina Carol Bela, he finds poignant source material (a 1969 bossa nova classic by Jorge Ben and Toquinho), alters it electronically and lays an irresistible beat on it. The result is not so different from what gets the crowd going in Ibiza or in London, but DJ Marky brings a Brazilian sensibility to the genre. He really should be experienced over the course of an hour or two, as a DJ’s art is all about transitions and the arc of a long set. An extended spell of DJ Marky’s music is somewhat like São Paulo itself: massive architectonic variations on a proliferating series of themes. In its relentlessness, it is a picture of the way we live now. It has taken everything in, cannibalized everything, and out of the ingested past made something genuinely new.

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