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Kicking Music Scenes in Brazil: Mais Um Discos’ Lewis Robinson

For our program, “Party and Dissent: World Cup Brazil 2014,” we spoke with Lewis Robinson, founder of Mais Um Discos, a label devoted to the creative, experimental and underground side of Brazilian music. Mais Um Discos has just put out an excellent compilation called Rolê: New Sounds of Brazil. Lewis helped guide us through the abundance of great micro-scenes throughout the host country of this year’s World Cup.

Jesse Brent: For this show, we want to look at what the most exciting new Brazilian music is, and it seems like you’d be a pretty good person to talk to about that. How often are you in Brazil?

Lewis Robinson: I go once or twice a year and my wife is Brazilian, so I’m tied to the country now. My wife’s from the north of the country, so we always go there, but also I like to go to São Paulo, Recife and Belo Horizonte, Rio. Across Brazil now, each city’s got really good kicking music scenes, so whenever I go to Brazil, I try to go to as many different places as possible and see what’s going on musically.

For this new compilation, you’ve got two different CDs. The second CD is more electronic and party music. How would you describe the first half?

Well, I guess the first one is more indie, alternative, singer-songwriter. Going back to when I was a teenager, I was into indie music–guitars or whatever. And I’ve always been into that sound. Thankfully, my taste has improved somewhat, so I’m not as excited by Oasis as I was 20 years ago. I started the label four years ago to look for this newer generation of artists, who were fusing their roots–music such as samba and bossa nova–but also, more importantly for me, things like tropicália and mangue bit and genres that are less well known here in the West. I was looking for the newest artists. What I found was that there were lots of Brazilian compilations being released in the States, but it was mainly new bossa nova or new samba, and it was the typical pretty young girl singing slightly electronic bossa nova. It was things I’d heard a million times, and I was like, “Where are the dudes who were influenced by tropicália making new guitar music?” So, I made it my quest to try to find these people.

I was in Brazil at the end of 2009 and I traveled around in the cities–some of the cities I mentioned before–just meeting bands, going to gigs, getting CDs to do some research on the independent alternative scene. And I came across a really healthy, thriving indie/alternative scene. There’s lots of bands that do a really good job of looking to their roots, incorporating rhythms from Brazil, but in an indie rock way or alternative way. And if you look at my compilation Rolê, there’s a band called Dead Lovers Twisted Heart. Their name comes from a song by Daniel Johnston, who’s a quite well respected American singer-songwriter, who writes really tortured songs. Their track is Brazilian indie, but it’s got this incredible swing. The track’s called “Apocalypse do Amor.” They called it a special lambada–lambada is from the Amazon region. This is a kind of indie lambada. It’s got a great swing to it. It’s a guitar tune, but the swing on it is fantastic, and this is the thing you get. You know, if I listen to a lot of indie music in the U.K., it leaves me kind of cold because there’s no swing to it, but this track’s got a great guitar line, great percussion and it’s really funky.

There are a couple guys on the first half of the compilation that we’re already familiar with. There’s Arnaldo Antunes and Siba. And they both have put out excellent albums on Mais Um Discos. Arnaldo had the one with Toumani Diabate. And I really enjoyed that last Siba album.

Arnaldo’s great. He’s been around for years. He was in a band called Titâs, who were really big in the alternative rock scene. I think they were the first MTV rock band to come through in the early-mid ’80s. He’s kind of a post-punk. He does a lot of performance work, poetry. And he’s one of these guys who’s constantly reinventing himself. He’ll do a pop album with someone like Marisa Monte and then he’ll put out a more underground rock album with a lot of the new generation. He’ll do a record with someone like Toumani Diabate. It’s constantly inspiring to follow his career, and on the track that’s on Rolê, it’s a brega that’s written by Felipe Cordeira, who’s a singer-songwriter from Pará. And it’s this fantastic kind of groovy sort of dance track, but it’s very reflective of Arnaldo–the fact that he never stops innovating and he wants to listen to new stuff and I like how he champions the new artists coming through as well.

And what can you say about Siba? He’s one of the most influential figures in Brazilian music, especially because he’s from the northeast–from Recife. He was in this band Mestre Ambrosio, who were really big around the same time as Nação Zumbi. They were doing music from Pernambuco, but taking it to a Brazilian national level. Since then, he’s always been innovating. His previous project before my release was more folkloric. He had a big 15-piece brass orchestra playing frevo and maracatu–northeastern styles. And then for the latest album that we released, Avante, he left that band and went back to the guitar. He said he had to teach himself how to play the guitar again because he’d kind of forgotten since he’d been playing his rabeca–his fiddle. He gave up the fiddle and started playing with the guitar and made a rock record, but in a very Siba way–still using the rhythms from the northeast and beautiful lyrics. He writes beautiful folky lyrics and the record was also influenced by Congolese guitar records, which he’d been listening to a lot of before he made the album.

So, I guess in some ways Arnaldo and Siba are quite similar. They’re these pioneers of Brazilian music, but constantly pushing themselves to try new things and experiment and turn to new sources. Mais Um Discos is trying to show the world that Brazil has these artists–these very experimental, creative artists. While they may get far in the world music catalog in the record shop, they aren’t really world music artists. They’re Brazilian artists, who use various different styles and influences, but because they sing in Portuguese, they get lumped in this kind of peculiar world music bracket when really they’re not. They’re kind of alternative pop or whatever you want to call it.

I didn’t realize that the Arnaldo song was by Felipe Cordeiro, but I think it was last year that you recommended on Twitter that we check him out, and I really really liked that album he put out, Kitch Pop Cult, from a couple years back. That’s a lot of fun.

Yeah, check out his new one–it’s great. It’s not so rough around the edges as that one. It’s a bit better produced, but there are some really great tracks on the new one–particularly this one called “Problema Seu” (The problem is yours), which is fantastic. And he’s got cumbia on it too–his last one.

Cool. So then, jumping to the second half, you’ve got a couple groups that put out recent albums for you. There’s Metá Metá and Bixiga 70. Would you like to talk a little bit about them and the new albums they put out?

Yeah, so Metá Metá–meta means trio in the language of Yoruba–and Metá Metá are from São Paulo. In essence, they’re a three-piece, but live they play mainly as a five-piece. They’re three very individual characters. There’s Thiago França. There’s Juçara Marçal. And Kiko Dinucci, who’s the guitarist. Thiago comes from this jazz perspective. He’s an amazing saxophonist. Metá Metá veers off on various tangents during the recordings. And Kiko Dinucci’s got this quite punky guitar style–quite abrasive. And then Juçara Marçal’s got this killer–I guess she’s the one that pulls it together–she’s got this fantastic vocal–quite deep and earthy. And the three of them have got these contrasting styles, but when they’re together it becomes this unified whole, and they really are one of the most exciting live bands in Brazil at the moment. If anyone’s going to Brazil, you have to see them because they’re this force on stage, as are Bixiga 70, who’re also from São Paulo and are good friends of Metá Metá. In fact, it was funny, I was with Bixiga 70 last weekend in Paris and Mauricio from Bixiga 70 told me quite a funny anecdote about Kiko from Metá Metá. They’ve been friends for like 15 years and a previous girlfriend of Mauricio introduced him to Kiko by saying to him, “Mauricio, you’ve got to meet this guy Kiko. He’s the only other guy in São Paulo I know who likes both heavy rock and samba. You are two peas in a pod.”

Bixiga 70 are this 10-piece–I guess kind of a Latin funk orchestra. Their first album was slightly more influenced by Afrobeat, which led to them being labeled as an Afrobeat band from Brazil, which they’re not. Of course they’re influenced by Afrobeat, but, as Mauricio said to me, “You gotta remember that–I think it’s 40% of the slaves from Africa got shipped to Brazil. More went to Brazil than to North America.” So, in Brazil there is this huge African influence. Obviously it’s very strong in the north of the country–Bahia in particular–but it spreads out to the rest of the country. African culture is in the roots of Brazil. Obviously, they’re inspired by Afrobeat. The name Bixiga 70 is a direct reference to Fela Kuti’s Africa band, but it’s not like they’re trying to cover Afrobeat in some kind of hip way. They have a natural affinity with African music through their Brazilian roots. And their new album is much more pan-Brazilian, pan-Latin, pan-African. You’ve got influence from Guinea in there, from Ethiopia, but also from cumbia, salsa, across Brazil to the north of the country. It’s a really fantastic mix of styles and they’re a fantastic band–a fantastic live band.

Another track that I thought was awesome was the one by Russo Passapusso.

Russo Passapusso–he has a great name. He’s from Bahia. He’s in quite a few bands. He’s in this band BaianaSystem, who’ve had some success. They do northeastern guitar, Bahian guitar music mixed with electronics. But on this solo project, he’s much more old school sort of MPB funk-influenced–sort of a samba soul/funk vibe. That track was one of the last ones I put on the compilation. When I was gathering tracks together and talking to artists I was going to feature, his name kept coming up. People were like, “You’ve got to check this guy. You’ve got to check this guy.” When I heard that track I just fell in love with it. So, it’s really nice to be able to include it. And, for me, it’s a great pop track. That’s the kind of pop music I want to hear. It’s in a great groove and swing and references past greats of Brazilian music.

Yeah, it really has that great ’70s feel to it. Are there any other tracks or artists from the compilation you’d particularly like to talk about?

I really like track number nine, Madame Rrose Sélavy. They’re a kind of bossa punk band from Belo Horizonte. And I think that track’s beautiful. It’s “Só Um Beijo.” It’s just a little love song. It’s a twisted bossa nova and I really like that track. Who else? Trupe Chá de Boldo–they’re from São Paulo. They’re a nine- or 10-piece collective. That’s sort of Brazilian punk-funk. They’re great. The Os Tucumanus track–I like that just for the title, which translates as “Cat Barbeque.” They’re from Manaus in the Amazon. When you go to Manaus or other Amazonian cities, you find lots of people barbecuing meats on the street. So, I think it’s a little tongue-in-cheek reference to these meat barbeque sellers. It’s got a kind of brass tropical rock ‘n’ roll sound.

The track from Lurdez da Luz–“Ping Pong” has been getting a good reaction. It’s kind of hip-hop. We call it samba crunk, which seems to fit quite well. It’s quite crunky, but again, with that Brazilian swing. A track from Som Peba called “ARROZX.” It’s a kind of electro-axé. It’s got a Diplo feel with an axé vibe to it as well. I could talk about them all really. This compilation, to me, has been a reflection of these micro-scenes across Brazil and these contemporary artists doing interesting things–mixing their roots with electronics or rock or alternative or dub or really anything.

Yeah. So it’s really hard right now to say, “What’s Brazilian music like?” because there are so many different scenes. But, in terms of what you’ve seen in Brazil, what would you say are the new scenes that are the most happening, or the most exciting for you?

Belém in the north at the mouth of the Amazon has a really good scene now. It’s always had a strong music scene, but before the days of the Internet it was left in a bubble because obviously Belém is in the Amazon, so it’s naturally isolated. They’ve got Gaby Amarantos, who’s a tecnobrega singer. She’s had some sizeable international success last year and the year before. She’s paved the way for these new artists to come from Belém. This artist Lia Sophia, who’s on the compilation–she does northern brega. Brega is a style from Belém that’s–brega’s kind of cheesy pop, but, you know, good cheesy pop. Cheesy in a good way. She’s doing a new take on that. Strobo do a more electronic Belém sound mixed with calimbó in an electronic way. So, Belém’s got a really exciting music scene at the moment.

So has Belo Horizonte in Minas Gerais. There are quite a few bands I know who’re coming up there. Graveola, Dead Lovers, Juliana Perdigão, also Madame Rrose, who I mentioned before. Belo Horizonte is famously known as the home of Milton Nascimento, but you’ve got this new slightly more indie/alternative scene coming through now. Also, Recife–it’s always had–since Nação Zumbi came through in the mid-’90s, it’s been a real strong point for people mixing local roots music. Like Nação Zumbi did rock and hip-hop. Recife’s got a really strong scene. Bahia of course–the last compilation we did called Daora, which was more focused on urban tracks, had a number of tracks from artists from Bahia–more focused on black music, dub and hip-hop. That’s a good scene. São Paulo, of course, because it’s the financial center. It’s where a lot of people from the rest of the country end up coming to to make money and earn a living. There are 20 million people in São Paulo, so it’s got a really strong music scene–as strong as London or New York. And in that, obviously, you get a mix of different styles–slightly more cosmopolitan. In São Paulo there are gigs every night of the week to go to. And the Rio scene is doing really well at the moment. When I did my last compilation four years ago I didn’t find so much new stuff from Rio except sort of bossa nova blah-blah-blah. Now, there seem to be some quite adventurous, experimental artists coming out of Rio now, such as someone like Alice Caymmi, who’s the granddaughter of Dorival Caymmi. She’s doing more slightly experimental singer-songwriter stuff. Mahmundi–she does kind of electropop, but with a Brazilian vibe. Across Brazil there’s so many different artists–so much interesting stuff.

All right, so let’s talk about the World Cup a little bit. What is your opinion on it? You’ve been following it pretty closely, I take it.

I don’t live in Brazil, so I’m not seeing it on a day-to-day basis, but I know that a lot of artists on the compilation–they’re just upset really that the World Cup has come to Brazil and all this money has been spent on these stadiums when they really need basic social services that aren’t being provided, like education and health care,  and especially, some of these stadiums are really white elephants now, like the one that’s in Manaus–their team regularly gets like 2000 people or something ridiculous like that, so this stadium is just not going to be used after the World Cup and when you’re going into millions and millions of pounds, that’s a disgusting waste of public money. This is why everyone’s so upset. That’s why you see protests on the street because people are being denied these kinds of basic rights. If you look at the U.K. in comparison–when we had the Olympics here in 2012–our health service isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot stronger than what they have in Brazil now. People here were pissed off about the Olympics as well, but at least we have a basic good education system and good basic healthcare system. In Brazil they don’t have this now, so I think people feel it’s unfair to spend all this money on FIFA and the stadium.

Is there anything else that you’d particularly like to talk about?

If people like the music of Brazil, the best thing to do is go there. And if you go there, don’t just go to Rio or São Paulo. Go to the north, go to Recife, go to Bahia, go to Belém. Meet the people, hear some of the music there. It’s a great country–really nice people, really welcoming, keen to share their culture and their food, so I encourage people to go to Brazil–probably not during the Olympics. I’d probably go before or after because I think it will get quite expensive. It’s a great country with a lot to give.

Great! Thanks so much.

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