It’s hard for a true Brit to like Brazilian music. I mean really get into it, man, to really dig those rhythms. Samba drums are alien to us; they sound dark, primal, swampy – when we hear them, we expect to see a boiling pot of missionary soup. Then there are those tinny-sounding ukeleles being manically strummed (to a Brit, the ukelele sound goes back to George Formby and comic ‘Music Hall’ turns). To cap it all, there’s the language problem. What the hell are they going on about? All that chanting in slang Portuguese makes carnival music sound like a cheesy B-movie soundtrack. Samba is a ‘no no’, best left to the natives.
Besides, us Brits are blessed with our own prodigious array of musical talent. Forget the Beatles – there’s Genesis, Supertramp, Jethro Tull, Yes and U2 – to name but a few! Any one of these perennial artists have a string of albums to choose from and all of them are bound to liven up the proceedings, be it weddings, barbecues or funerals. To be honest, even when a Brit lives in Brazil, he’s so spoilt for choice that Brazilian music never gets a look in. The worst thing is watching an ex-pat pretending to ‘feel’ that samba thing. He sits there, all white and pink, with a plastic grin on his face, tapping his foot and trying to look cool. Of course, a few caipirinhas help to lubricate the illusion.
The truth is, there’s a little bit more to Brazilian music than samba. There is something called MPB, which translates as ‘Popular Brazilian Music’. Terrible title, I admit. It makes you expect the Latin equivalent of Cliff Richard, Susan Boyle or Adele. But once you get past the label, you discover a host of musical talent so vast, various and colourful that it amounts to nothing less than an embarrassment of riches. Brazilian popular music is world class – simple as that. Even if we restrict the head-count to just a few of the greats – Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Djavan, Milton Nascimento, Rita Lee and the godfathers Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes – we have enough astounding music to make André Rieu smash his fiddle and weep.
Brazilian song-writers, musicians and producers have listened to everything and know all the chops. They play like demons and have an irrepressible knack for mixing African, European and Indian roots to produce an exotic cocktail of sounds with a passionate lyrical undertow. In short, great songs that will make you twist and shout or laugh and cry over your beer and black beans. My favourite MPB song is Gilberto Gil’s Eu Vim da Bahia (“I came from Bahia”). Call me sentimental, but every time I hear it I marvel over its melodic complexity and its ability to tear my heart-strings to shreds. It must have been written by a god and passed into the mind of Gil by osmosis. Pure genius.
So what’s the message? Well, if you live in Brazil and don’t appreciate the glories that are Brazilian music you must be a kind of musical zombie; a Marmite Brit-packer who still thinks Bono is cool. Oh, and by the way, the white and pink guy with the plastic smile was me! Hey, hey!