Thursday, July 21, 2005

post-punk from brazil

Sometimes you get the feeling you're better off reading about a record than actually listening to it. I've been reading lots of reviews of a couple of CDs which document the lively post-punk scene in the mid 1980s in Brazil, of all places. Sao Paulo to be precise. The first of them, the wonderfully titled The Sexual Life of the Savages, is on Soul Jazz (which is as good an assurance of quality as I need), the second, more simply named Nao Wave, on Man records, looks equally fascinating.

The general thesis is this; Brazil, as one often hears, had an extremely fertile period of distinctive musical innovation - the 1960s, and the music of samba and tropicala, so influential and immediate, was the result. By the 1970s, however, the country’s oppressive governments had squeezed much of the life out of Brazil's musical heart, until the country was reawoken by revolution and the downfall of the dictatorship. Brazil began to express itself again, and by the 80s, the country's musical heritage had begun to reassert itself.

But in the clubs of Sao Paulo (partly due to the influence of DNA's Arto Lindsay – a Brazilian himself) the sounds of samba could not be further away. A small, excitable post-punk scene, fuelled by imported records by Talking Heads, The Gang of Four, Devo and others, began to establish itself . From this a series of local bands formed, and the musical output of these bands, spanning roughly three years (1983-86) is documented on the CDs.

What is most exciting about the records is also, however, their downfall. It's Brazilians playing post-punk, rather than Brazilians playing Brazilian post-punk. I've listened to a number of tracks from each compilation and what is immediately apparent is that, far from infusing the post-punk sound with exciting new rhythms (which, frankly, the likes of A Certain Ratio and 23 Skidoo were trying to do already), the Brazilian bands, despite the natural oddness of the entire idea, were essentially talented copyists.

Which is not to say that there's not plenty to offer. I'd take much of the music here over the recorded output of, say, The Rapture or Hot Hot Heat, and the extensive role of women in the Brazilian post-punk scene is a joy to behold. I didn't get to hear all the songs, but popmatters reckons that "As Mercen├írias, an all-female quartet … [make] the Slits sound tame", which is something I wasn’t previously aware was possible. The pop matters review (much of which informed this hastily written blog entry) goes on to say that elsewhere:

"there's plenty of subtlety to be found -- and it's the groups that put an unusual twist on their influences that have the most impact on the disc's overall story. Chance's subversion of samba via a stock drum machine preset on "Samba de Morro" shows one of the compilation's most original approaches, as the band layers it with atmospheric vocals and dissonant chords to create something more in line with the Tropicalia artists' liberal experimentation with traditional Brazilian song forms. Similarly, Fellini's "Zum Zum Zazoeira" substitutes a Farfisa organ for the era's customary synthesizers, momentarily blurring the temporal context with a retro sound that was far from fashionable at the time."

Listening to The Sexual Life of Savages is disappointing and rewarding in different measures. In places it's gratifyingly brilliant. What limits the success of the music documented on these CDs is the narrowness of scope being explored, the limited colours of the pallate. Dusted Magazine reports, a little pretentiously, that "the secret of tropicala's success is exactly what post-punk lacks: a quintessentially Brazilian sense of leisure. When you are a robot thrashing around in a solid lockstep rhythm, it's hard to notice the rainforest around you."

10 comments:

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Have a look at the website of Man Recordings, the label who put out Nao Wave (www.manrecordings.com). They even have a live video by Agentss (recorded in 1982) online streamed.

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