Bixiga 70 Credit: Courtesy the artist

My first impression of Bixiga 70—which I’m a little embarrassed to say came just last month, almost ten years into their career—was something like, “Hey, it’s the Brazilian Antibalas.”

Both bands have double-digit rosters, with squadrons of horn players and multiple percussionists, and both take inspiration from Afrobeat. But while Antibalas collide Afrobeat with Black American, Nuyorican, and Afro-Caribbean sounds, Bixiga 70—named after their São Paulo neighborhood—refract it through the vast, multifaceted prism of Afro-Brazilian music.

Baritone saxophonist and flutist Cuca Ferreira explained the group’s underpinnings to Bandcamp in 2018, on the occasion of Bixiga 70’s most recent studio release, Quebra Cabeça. “The first important thing to say is that there is no Brazilian music without African influence,” he said. “Gilberto Gil was a bigger influence for us than Fela Kuti—of course, there’s a lot of Fela Kuti in Gilberto Gil’s music, but we came to know it via Gilberto Gil. We only found about the Afrobeat guys after listening to Brazilian music for years and years.”

Bixiga 70 formed in 2010, and Quebra Cabeça is their fourth album (they’ve since released their first live record, Sessões Selo Sesc #5). For a ten-piece ensemble without a leader, where every choice has to pass muster with every musician, that’s an impressive rate of output. They used an outside producer for the first time on Quebra Cabeça, working with longtime friend Gustavo Lenza (Céu, Marisa Monte, Lucas Santtana). The title translates to “puzzle,” or more literally “break head.”

“Some of us come from candomblé, others from jazz, reggae, dub, everything,” said Ferreira. “The whole idea of the band has been to take all these different elements that form us, from Africa and Brazil, and create a hybrid from them.”

Unlike a lot of beat-driven music, the songs on Quebra Cabeça have elaborate structures, with bridges, interludes, and sometimes distinct movements. It’s not just about stacking vamps and riffs—though the vamps and riffs definitely bring the heat. Bixiga 70’s stanky, frothy, lovingly decocted grooves aren’t even trying to communicate with the top floors of your brain; they go straight for the meat in the basement that controls the rhythms of your heart and lungs. This stuff is like the electric juice that can make a frog’s legs dance, even without the rest of the frog.  v

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Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. You can also follow him on Twitter.