Can Brazil's gauzy image as a land of beautiful beaches, nonstop carnival, supernatural soccer and women so tall and tan and young and lovely that they inspire men to poetry -- or at least to bossa nova -- survive much more reality?
With a very public broken political system and a troubled Olympics coming up fast, it would seem that the "country of tomorrow" might be a day late and a few reais short. But the tropical mythology spun by its joyous and seemingly effortless music is still here to beguile us, so Brazil nuts may want to put on cachaça goggles and tune out anything that's not in harmony with the siren swing of its percolating polyrhythms.
In New York City, this year's Brasil Summerfest coincidentally coincides with the Rio Olympics -- a nice bit of timing. The multiple-venue festival sees the U.S. debut of Monobloco, a heavily percussive pop group from Rio that, of course, plays samba, but also takes on other rhythms and genres. Pop music in Brazil, though, can mean some sophisticated rhythmic interplay and Monobloco mixes its percussion orchestra with an ensemble of vocalists and brass. Monobloco's show at Central Park SummerStage in New York City this Saturday is actually the traveling version of an immense bloco ensemble that has been closing Rio's Carnival for several years without participating in the centerpiece competition among the traditional escolas de samba.
Also on the bill will be Cabruera, a band whose roots are in Brazil's northern rural styles, but roughs it up with an electric, experimental edge. The electro-acoustic band is an example of how Brazilian musicians are always reinventing the country's music, combining it with disparate elements that are either homegrown or from abroad.
Earlier this year, the venerable giants of musica popular brasileira or MPB, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, released Dois Amigos, Um Seculo de Musica, Multi-Show Live, on Nonesuch Records, a double CD set of acoustic duets performed in concert. While both men have had long, twisting musical journeys -- including Gil's stint as Brazil's minister of culture -- they prove that their magic is undiminished.
The two men have been friends and musical collaborators since they rose to fame from the state of Bahia during the 1960s tropicalismo movement and were exiled by the military dictatorship for their outspoken music.
While Veloso and Gil have played a variety of styles, here they are decidedly stripped down, yet both are able to conjure up a full and engaging sound from just their voices and acoustic guitars. They play many of their classic tunes, stretching back to Veloso's Domingo, from his first, bossa-flavored release of duets with the singer Gal Costa.
Where Veloso is sometimes a swooning romantic or an impish provocateur, Gil is always the sweet, smiling spirit, whether playing a gorgeous ballad or a swift samba. In their 70s, the two continue to be creative, vital, and have a dignity that sometimes escapes old rock 'n' rollers. The album might not be the perfect place to start to discover the two musicians, but it shows that their power to emotionally engage their audiences is undiminished. The two old friends have a palpable fondness for each other, making the set list a series of wonderful moments for their long-time fans.
The group Bossacucanova has one member who is the son of a noted bossa nova pioneer, but the trio has refashioned bossa into a modern electronic dance music -- not sacrilege, but definitely different than the gossamer sound of the late 50s genre that took the world by quiet storm. The trio has released a greatest hits album on Six Degrees that showcases their fleet playing and polished electronic sound.
Despite the "bossa" in their name and their heritage, it is a stretch to label this band as bossa nova or even electro-bossa, a subgenre that has popped up in more recent years. Whereas the original bossa nova performers distilled down the boisterous samba and creating a quiet but musically and lyrically sophisticated distillation, Bossacucanova transforms the music into the chill age, applying their sophistication to electronic soundscapes.
They also often add guest vocalists to their tracks, many of which make it to the greatest hits album. On "Previsao" (Prediction) Adriana Calcanhoto's silky vocals glide over the chattering electro-acoustic matrix of percussion.
The trio unapologetically creates an electronic whirl that hybridizes samba rhythms. Purists may recoil at the idea of using rhythm machines in a country that has so many brilliant percussionists, but Bossacucanova does a deceptively careful job of puzzle-piecing polyrhythmic beats, brass blasts and electronic curlicues to keep their propulsive tunes crackling.
Here's hoping Brazil can right itself and that its reality is soon as sweet and easy as its music.
Monobloco's percussion orchestra covering Jorge Ben Jor classics
Cabruera playing live in Brazil
Bossacucanova revving up some of their high-octane samba