Samba With Soul

Most people who follow music have at least heard of tropicalia, the genre-blending Brazilian pop style that enjoyed a new surge of popularity in the States and Europe upon its 30th anniversary, in 1998. It was short-lived in its day; though its most famous artists, including Caetano Veloso and Tom Ze, are still active today, its moment was pretty much over by the 70s.

But while it was at its peak, another, more sprawling musical trend was taking root in Brazil. This summer the independent San Francisco world music label Six Degrees released Samba Soul 70!, a compilation of funk- and soul-influenced Brazilian pop recorded mostly in the late 60s and the 70s, and soul-steeped reissues from the same era have been trickling into specialty shops like Dusty Groove ever since. Now it seems this huge range of Afro-Brazilian music is poised to attract the same sort of retroactive hoopla tropicalia did.

Probably the first–and the most inventive–Brazilian musician to borrow from American rhythm & blues was the modern samba singer Jorge Ben, who now goes by Jorge Benjor. Three of his early 60s albums have been reissued as part of Universal Brazil’s recent “Samba & Soul” series, and while the lushly arranged recordings reveal little explicit connection to R & B, the rhythms were notably more aggressive than in other samba of the era. By 1976, when Ben released his masterpiece, Africa Brasil (reissued as part of the same series), he had achieved a thoroughly original synthesis of samba and funk, floating his breezy, graceful melodies over a bed of imperturbable fatback grooves.

But most Brazilian soul didn’t make such an effort to be Brazilian per se. The man who really launched the trend was singer Tim Maia, who’d been a member of one of Brazil’s first rock ‘n’ roll bands, Os Sputniks, in the late 50s. When Os Sputniks broke up Maia immigrated–illegally–to New York, where he hoped to become a movie star. Instead he worked day jobs, learned English, and became obsessed with American soul music. In 1964 he was caught and sent to Rio de Janeiro, where he began working on music in the same vein. His early 70s album for Polygram, Tim Maia, drew heavily on classic Chicago and Philly soul, and although it was inferior to the music he was copying, it certainly planted a seed.

By the mid-70s, Black Rio, a cultural consciousness movement inspired by black power here, was under way, and it catalyzed an explosion of acts doing blatant emulations of American black music. Some of the music produced in this time was heavily criticized for its lack of Brazilian cultural authenticity or for reducing the movement to commodified entertainment–but much of it was nonetheless good stuff. Among the artists whose best work is being reissued now are Cassiano, an early associate of Maia who delivered a slick mixture of Curtis Mayfield-inflected soul (minus the falsetto) and predisco hedonism; the Gerson King Combo, who played a mixture of hard James Brown-derived funk and woozy hot tub jams; Banda Black Rio, often called the Brazilian Earth, Wind & Fire, who perfected a highly danceable, funked-up samba with lots of lightweight jazzy solos; and Hyldon, a contemporary of Maia whose elegant pop-tinged soul was distinguished by languid grooves, spare arrangements, and the singer’s acoustic guitar figures.

Strangely, of all the artists I’ve mentioned so far, only Banda Black Rio is included on Samba Soul 70! The disc isn’t so much a primer on key players as it is an illustration of how far into Brazilian culture the influence of R & B seeped during the 70s. Bebeto’s “Princesa negra de Angola” is undeniably funky, and Orlandivo’s “Onde anda o meu amor” has a low-key soul feel not unlike Shuggie Otis’s recently resurrected Inspiration Information. But many tunes adopt the trappings of soul only superficially–despite the warm soul brass charts, the Milton Banana Trio’s “Fato consumado” is bossa nova through and through. Tunes by MPB (musica popular brasileira) stars like Elis Regina and Gal Costa and samba singer Elza Soares don’t really get on the good foot–their songs just get more aggressive arrangements than they normally would have. Much of the comp has an easy listening sheen to it, making it a fine Christmas present for folks who think a chocolate martini is a real drink–but if you’re interested on a deeper level, you might do better to start with Ben, Maia (who has several collections available), and Hyldon.


Reissues aren’t the only records of interest coming out of Brazil these days: the excellent second album by contemporary genre-blender Otto, Condom Black (Trama), relies less than his first on electronic dance music and more on songwriting; the shuffling groove of “Dias de Janeiro” is bolstered by a horn line straight outta Young-Holt Unlimited’s “Soulful Strut,” while the Fender-Rhodes-driven “Armadura” sashays like 70s lounge soul. Every song is built on inescapable grooves, but Otto also dips into hooky pop-rock on “Pelo engarrafamento” and experiments with clave rhythms and son-tinged trumpet on the aptly titled “Cuba.”

Daniela Mercury also has a new album, Sou de qualquer lugar (BMG Brasil), but she gets further into electronica this time, enhancing her slick Afro-Brazilian pop-funk with chilled-out breakbeats. She continues to enlist some of her country’s finest songwriters–Lenine, Carlinhos Brown, and Gilberto Gil among them–but her throaty singing doesn’t connect with the programmed grooves like it has with the monster rhythm section of previous records.