Elijah Wald – Latin American music 1997
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By Elijah Wald

At 30, Marisa Monte is the top-selling female singer in Brazil. Despite this, she is something of an anomaly. Though a product of the rock generation, she bases her sound in the acoustic instrumentation of the older MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira) style. Her albums include original material, and covers that range from MPB stars like Caetano Veloso to Lou Reed. Her last album had guest appearances by Gilberto Gil, Laurie Anderson, and Philip Glass. Famed for her cutting-edge live shows, she chose to decorate her newest album with a crude drawing of a topless woman by an underground comic artist of the 1950s.

To Monte, this is all completely natural. “I am from Rio de Janeiro, and grew up listening to all this traditional information of Brazilian music, and also my generation had a lot of pop, international influence,” she explains in slightly broken English. “So I represent this young music, which is based on mixes, like our culture. Talk about Brazil is talk about variety, diversity and mixes, because we are such a big country with a lot of different styles of music. We had these mixes in our traditional music, and we are still creating new ones.”

Monte, who appears at Berklee Performance Center this Sunday, became interested in a singing career in her early teens. She received formal classical training, and appeared in school shows and as a backup vocalist for friends who were forming bands and making demo recordings. Her decision to devote herself to Brazilian pop came while in Italy, where she had gone at 18 to pursue her vocal studies.

“I was thinking of living there and doing a classical career,” she says. “But when I was alone there in Italy, I saw Brazil for the first time from outside and I realized how important it was for me. I realized how I missed Brazilian music, and how impossible it would be to have a classical career and live outside of Brazil.”

She returned to Rio a year later, and immediately attracted attention with her dynamic live shows. For over two years she resisted making a record, letting her reputation spread through the press and by word of mouth, then recorded her first album as the soundtrack to a live TV special. It was a sensational success, heralding a new era in Brazilian pop. Since the end of the military dictatorship in the early 1980s, rock had dominated the national charts. “There was the political opening, and it was the opportunity for a lot of young people to get into the musical area and to reestablish the freedom of expression,” Monte says. “So they did it through the rock movement; the music was powerful and screamed, and it had to be like that.

“At that time, we had a break in our music. MPB had a temporary decadence, because this rock movement took all the market. When I really started, in ‘87, I was one of the first artists to put together the new artists, the new poets of the rock movement, and the traditional music, so young people could listen to MPB again and a lot of old people could enjoy the rock compositions.”

At its best, Monte’s music combines disparate elements in fusions that seem completely natural. “Cerebro Eletronico,” off her new “A Great Noise” album, sounds at first like techno-pop. It is only after a moment that one realizes that the pulsing beat comes not from a synthesizer but an accordion. Her voice on the chorus is electronically modified, providing a striking contrast to the fierce cry of her unmodified lead vocal, and the whole is driven by pounding drums and acoustic guitars.

“Accordion, percussion, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and voice, these are the most popular instruments in Brazil,” Monte says. “So I made this choice to make all the songs in this atmosphere. The idea was to be very organic, acoustic, without synthesizors, because the most important character of our music is to be human, not to be electronic. We also use a lot of synthesizors, but it is not our best. The best in Brazilian music is the human feeling, and that’s what I was searching for.”

Asked about the album cover, a smiling nude who, for American release only, has been censored with a black bar over her nipples, and the naked couples who cavort through the pages of the CD booklet, Monte explains that they are also an element of her cultural message.

“These are by an artist, Carlos Zefiro, who has a great historical importance,” she says. “He produced these little erotic books during the peak of the moralism and the dictatorship in Brazil. He produced clandestinely, nobody knew who he was, and he distributed millions and millions of these magazines, and he created a school of pop Brazilian art and drawing. What I like in his work is he talks about Brazilian values and Brazilian behavior at that time, and the way he does it, it is simple, it is black and white, it is cheap, not something expensive and sophisticated. It is accessible to everyone.

“In Brazil, I’m kind of a sophisticated singer, you know. So the normal, expected thing would be to have a photo, on brilliant paper, colorful. And I wanted to go against that, doing something for everybody, not sophisticated, but popular, that everybody could get and understand. Then I took Zefiro’s work.

“It’s so naive, this kind of drawing. It’s something from the ‘50s; it’s not something that can really excite someone nowadays. So it’s different from Playboy and the photo-magazines; there’s not this objective anymore. I think it’s pure, and it represents the popular culture in Brazil. For me he is like our Roy Lichtenstein.”

“A Great Noise” includes seven studio tracks, but is mostly a live album, and Monte considers it a “Polaroid” of where she is now, ten years after her debut. With it finished, she is reassessing and relaxing before moving on to her next stage. “I don’t have plans to do a new record,” she says. “I’m just taking a break now. I’m composing, I’m just thinking and talking and listening to a lot of music.”

Bale Folclorico da Bahia (Brazil 1997)

Elijah Wald

As a rule, the World Music production company avoids bringing the same group into town two years running, for fear of exhausting its audience. The striking exception for this season is the Bale[get accent] Folclo[get accent]rico da Bahia, whose two shows last year at John Hancock Hall were so successful that it is back for a four-day run this Thursday through Sunday at the Emerson Majestic Theatre (876-4275).

Recalling last year's visit, it is easy to see why the Bale[get accent] is getting this sort of treatment. It is the most polished and exciting African diaspora dance company to come through Boston in recent times. Walson Botelho, the co-founder and director, is an anthropologist and dancer from Brazil's northern province of Bahia, the heartland of Afro-Brazilian culture, and he has a gift for combining ancient traditions with a sure theatrical sense that makes them come alive on stage.

This year's program includes most of the highlights of the old show, plus a new introductory section, "Oxala[get accent]'s Court,'' which has already won international awards. "It is a piece about Candomble, the Yoruba religion brought to Brazil with the slaves,'' Botelho explains, speaking with a thick Brazilian accent. "We show some of the most important rituals. We start with the offering to Exu, the god that makes the bridge between the human beings and the gods, then we show the initiation of the new adept in the religion, 'Yao[get accent]'s Initiation.' In Yoruba, Yao[get accent] means woman, but in Candomble, even if you are a man, you are considered the wife of the gods, so we use the same word for a man or a woman.''

This section ends with "Pantheon dos Orixa[get accent]s,'' a procession of the main Candomble gods, from Ogun, the god of iron and war, to Iansa[get accent], the goddess of storms and winds, and Oxala[get accent], the supreme creator of the universe. Botelho, who is himself a priest in the Candomble church, says that it was only in the last year that he felt capable of putting together a piece of this sort.

"This was something that I wished to do since I formed the company,'' he says. "But it was very difficult. Before, I felt I was not prepared to work with this kind of ritual. Because they are very sacred, and it's not possible to work with these without permission of the gods.''

Because of his personal beliefs, Botelho approached the piece quite differently from his earlier work. "It's almost in the pure state,'' he says. "Even the fabrics for the costumes are the same that we use in the original religion. I told to the dancers, 'I don't want technique in this piece. I want this piece like we can see in the rituals.' Because in the rituals, we don't have choreographers, we don't have rehearsals. Of course, if you put a thing on a stage, you have lights, sound, microphones, you have many things that are not natural, but I wanted it as natural as possible.''

As for the rest of the show, there is a traditional fishermen's dance that ends with the dancers squirming like fish in the net skirt of the sea goddess, Iemanja[get accent], the dramatic "Maculele" stick dance, and a piece based on the martial arts form capoeira. There are also three contemporary Afro-Brazilian pieces: A modernist depiction of the creation of the universe, the acrobatic showcase "Afixire,'' and the final "Samba Reggae,'' a carnival dance that ends with the dancers snaking through the audience and urging everyone to join in.

For Botelho, such outreach is at the heart of his work. His dream is to bring Bahian culture to the world, and to forge links between African Americans, both North and South, and their root traditions in West Africa. His only regret is that, for the moment, the company is touring so constantly that it is virtually impossible to develop new pieces. In the next year, they will have only a month and a half in Brazil, between tours of the U.S., Europe, Lebanon and the Caribbean.

After years of obscurity, however, Botelho is not complaining: "Three years ago we had none of this. We had many difficulties, in terms of how to survive in Brazil with minimal money, how to maintain the company. So now we are in the right moment to do this, and we cannot lose it. We are far from our families, and it is very difficult for many of us, but this is our moment, and I think it is our life.''

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