From the Amazon rainforest to a thousand miles of tropical beaches; the metropolis of São Paulo; Pele, Socrates, Josimar; Rio-bloody-de-Janeiro — and to think I grew up never really being that bothered about Brazil.
There is nowhere more thoroughly mixed anthropologically — descendents of the African slave trade, European colonisers, and the ancestors of those who migrated from Mongolia over the Baring Strait during the last Ice Age to become the Americas’ indigenous people, all co-mingle. African, European and Asian physiology all mixed up. There’s even a whole bunch of Germans and Japanese knocking about. Yet it wasn’t until the last few years that I actually began to give the country a second thought.
I’m not sure what the first piece of Brazilian music I ever heard was — Mas Que Nada probably, or some bossa nova that never really grabbed me. I had a Sergio Mendes record, probably because I picked it up for a quid somewhere and it had a Beatles cover or something. I also had an Os Mutantes record, but I didn’t even consider them Brazilian — they were just a weird psych band and the fact that they were from Brazil was just one of the many weird things about them.
Anyway, a few years ago a friend of mine started playing a lot of Brazilian music around me. Again, I didn’t much like it. The words sounded alien and a bit Russian or something. My back-listening hadn’t given me the proper foundation to appreciate the instrumentation, the melodies, the modality of it all. However, I stayed with my mate’s recommendations — since we were 14 his tips had been spot on: Stereolab, Can, MF Doom. He’d not been wrong yet. “70s Brazil’s got everything,” he says.
So, when I ended up in São Paolo in 2016, I gave it a punt and went on a dig. Unfortunately, Brazilians got a whiff of vinyl buyers from Europe, Japan, and the States coming to plunder their reserves of black gold years ago, and now market stalls proudly display original copies of Clube da Esquina and Africa Brasil by Jorge Ben at eye-watering prices. But stay hunting and there’s stuff to be had.
Digging often involves a great deal of luck – charity shop finds are fewer and farther between these days, but when a beautiful specimen turns up in its natural habitat it’s so much more thrilling than tracking it down on discogs. For me, I didn’t have much luck in Rio. There were guys selling records in stalls, aimed at the likes of me, for silly money. I had more luck in São Paolo.
Not only is luck important, while on the hunt you can also be directed by your instinct. For example, in a huge second hand vinyl market in the middle of São Paolo I kept turning up a lot of records by Paul Williams and knew that the Phantom of Paradise soundtrack was going to be there, I could smell it. And sure enough, about half an hour and endless Barry Manilow and Bobby Gentry records later, there it was, in all its glory. I felt like Indiana Jones at the start of Raiders, holding the golden Peruvian bust. You can also get a sense, just from walking into a place.
There was a place, somewhere in São Paolo run by a Londoner who had moved to Brazil in the early 80s with 20,000 records. At the back he had the most amazing exotica by the likes of Yma Sumac and Les Baxter as well as curios like self-pressed records like The Percussion Orchestra of The University of Chicago, and such like. I’d never have a baldy how to find that shop again.
But if you’re after vinyl in the third biggest city in the world it’s best to save yourself a lot of hassle and just head to the vinyl quarter where there is literally a shopping mall full of record shops (I mean dozens!) specialising in everything under the sun (Galeria Nova Barão). Across the road there’s another shopping mall (Galeria do Rock) with record shops on the top floor. You could spend days between these two malls, so if time is a factor on your trip to Sao Paulo, just go straight there.
If you’re new to Brazilian music, as I was a few years ago, and not sure where to begin, there’s a whole internet full of top tens with the same lists featuring the first Tropicalia compilation, Nascimento and Borges’ Clube Da Esquina, Tim Maia, Tom Ze etc. and those records are super, and well worth checking (particularly Clube Da Esquina), but there’d be no point in me reproducing such a list, or even trying to cover genre bases across a musical spectrum that goes from Sergio Mendes to Sepultura. Instead, here’s a few Brazilian records I most enjoy. I think all of these are quite well known, I picked some up while I was in São Paulo, but most I picked up easily enough on reissue.
Moacir Santos – Coisas (1965)
An orphan, self-taught, Santos had mastered saxophone, banjo and mandolin by 14 when he ran away from home and spent some time in Bahia, home of Brazil’s African tinged music, before setting in Sao Paulo. Coisas combines swing Duke Ellington jazz syncopation with Afro-Brazilian rhythms. The first song on the second side of this is one of my favourite ever pieces of jazz.
Antonio Adolfo – Viralata (1979)
Again, like a lot of the records on this list, this is jazz with a real sound all of its own. A big favourite of the likes of Gilles Peterson and Floating Points, and a proper anthem on the London jazz scene the first track, Cascaveal, was the last song played at the legendary Plastic People club. Love the keys on this – jazzy, funky, dancey, individual.
Miguel De Deus – Black Soul Brothers (1977)
Even alongside my Funkadelic records I must say that this 1977 sleaze platter is the filthiest sounding funk record I own. I remember playing this on the radio once and Gareth (my partner on the show) being quite unnerved by how dirty it sounded – he had a bad reaction to it. Miguel comes across as a hybrid of James Brown, Mark E Smith and Shaun Ryder, coked-up and stoned at a favela party, vocally riding the groove in Brazilian Portuguese, looking like one of The Warriors. Love it.
Hermeto Pascoal – Slaves Mass (1977)
Jazz, jazz and more jazz. Being described by Miles Davis as the best musician on the planet is high praise indeed, but for the uninitiated, don’t start here, it’s a challenging listen in places, with mad wig-outs and sounds of actual pigs. Like Trout Mask Replica, though, keep listening and it gets better and better. Definitely one for the jazz heads, though.
Burnier & Cartier – Burnier & Cartier (1974)
It really is a toss up between the eponymous debut and their second, but I’m opting for the former on the strength of Parte Capital, the last song on the second side alone. These consummate journeymen, affiliates of the legendary Clube Da Esquina, 70s Rio’s crucible of genius musical endeavour, which gave its name to Nascimento and Borges’ classic. Like the Nascimento and Borges record this is an utterly beguiling mix of folk, jazz, orchestral flourishes, and the Portuguese language in beautiful harmony. Both are Mary Poppins records: practically perfect in every way.
Edu Passeto & Gui Tavares – Noite Que Brincou De Lua (1981)
More Clube Da Esquina luminaries, Passeto and Tavares have produced the perfect accompaniment to the records mentioned above. Beautiful harmonies, acoustic instrumentation and sunshine.
Maria Rita – Brasileira (1988)
A holy grail reissued by JD Twitch of Optimo’s Optimo Music Brazilian side-label, Selva Discos. Cantico Brasileiro has appeared, and for me was the stand-out track, on Outro Tempo: Electronic and Contemporary Music from Brazil 1978-1992. This one’s more of a curio than the other records on the list: Amazonian instrumentation meets processed sounds with Maria Rita’s vocal sung like a warrior queen, the emotion and personality dripping off it. Mixes great with modern 4/4 dance music too. Moody as hell. I don’t know what she’s saying but it sounds like a call to arms.
Abrao – Aguas Do Ganges (2016)
Quite recent one this, and while the country of origin is Israel, I think this counts as Brazilian. Abrao’s from São Paolo but has been living in sort of self-imposed exile in Tel Aviv for many years. This is co-produced by Red Axes, one of the more interesting outfits in house music. Intensindade sounds like White Album/Peppers era Lennon/McCartney at their best.
Jose Mauro – Obnoxious (1970)
This is another perfect record – guitar, sublime orchestral arrangements, gorgeously produced, beautiful melancholic songs that never out-stay their welcome, sounding all the more bewitching in Brazilian Portuguese. The sound of this record is the exact opposite of obnoxious.
Azimuth – Azimuth (1977)
None of the records on this list are particularly hard to find or undiscovered. I haven’t mentioned any Tropicalia, but in a straight up choice between, say, Os Mutantes’ eponymous debut and this jazz-fusion monster I’m opting for Azimuth every time. It’s just a beast. A big, jazzy beast.