She asked what I was doing tonight. Just gonna hang, I said, start a couple projects I’ve been planning and watch some hockey. So you’re one of those people, she said. Those people? Yeah, one of those people who make sure everyone knows you don’t watch Game of Thrones. Is that on tonight? Don’t patronize me, she said. Sorry, I said. So you’re going to watch it? But I’ve never watched it. There you go again, she said.
A music utterly alien to our own, like it’s from a different planet. But the cultures of the Amazon were as different from our own as time and geography made possible. If our music and this music held any common roots, it may have been in Africa. The roots of western civilization went one way, the roots of the Amazonian cultures went another. We and they may have been bands of peoples that had not been closely related in tens of thousand of years before they even left Africa. We’ve been so far apart so long this is probably some of the strangest sounding folk music you have ever heard, and we assume ours sounded the same to them when they first heard it. Before the Spanish arrived there were six million people living in the Amazon, in large towns, with expansive farms, canals and road systems. This album, the tunes collected by musicologist Marlui Miranda (an Amazon Indian herself) and transcribed for Brazilian musicians playing on acoustic instruments, is a survey of the music she heard sung and played by members of tribes throughout the Amazonian jungle. It’s a selection what remains of the music of those pre-Columbian cultures. The CD is annotated, with descriptions of the tunes and peoples and meanings. We lose the text on YouTube. All we hear is the beautifully alien melodies. I began with track four here because it is among the most jarring to western ears. I have to say that as a connoisseur of music from about the world and especially field recordings, I was never struck by a selection of music so different as this album, even if it has been scored and played and sung by a lot of Brazilian musicians. What a wonderful world the Amazon must have been before 1492. Within decades Old World diseases swept it like thermonuclear war. The population was reduced by 90%. The tribes that exist are all that remain. It’s a post apocalyptic world. A dozen or so bands yet remain uncontacted. They sings songs like these, oblivious to us, and then when the barrier between them and us is breached they too die, 70%, 80% even 90%. Who knows how many melodies disappear with the dead.
Uh oh. Nobody emote. You might weird out this Scandinavian piano trio on ECM. Not exactly Bud Powell or Monk, this stuff. Is this what a century of peace, socialism and drunken blonde sex culminates in? It’s so careful. So tentative. So pretty. It’s good, sure, but I never liked Bergman movies either.
Finland I can understand, but they’re not Scandinavian in anything but propinquity. They’re more like an Estonia’s hip, rich uncle. Or the people on the nice side of town pretending they are not distant cousins of those crazy Hungarians in the trailer park. (Finnish has fifteen cases, Hungarian twenty eight, now that’s crazy.) But I understand the Finns, I think, mainly because I can’t understand then. I mean they’re loud, party too hard, love hockey and crazy rock’n’roll and hate when people push them around. That I can understand. I just can’t understand what they are saying. Now Swedes, Norwegians, Danes I could understand fairly easily, would be conversant in a year’s time. Might even get to like lutefisk. But Finnish? I mean just how many ways can you say potato? Which reminds me that I was at a fun Finnish party once, above a sauna. They made greyhounds in a huge bucket and didn’t tell any of the girls–they invited mostly girls–that it was Everclear (jet fuel in a bottle) and not vodka. The poor things got smashed. One pretty little blonde–they invited mostly blondes–got her foot stuck in a waste basket and stumped around for a moment, bewildered, the most darling Jerry Lewis you ever saw. The Finns laughed and said potato fifteen different ways. Great party, but we left before the orgy in the sauna.
The computer is shuffling its little brain out and switches from Sven Svensson or whoever to Tania Maria. Piquant. It’s on Concord and is about as far from the ECM label as Rio is from Flekkefjord or Bodø. Sunny Brazil. Brazilians I can understand. They’re crazy, for one thing. I understand crazy. And everything they do there could possibly wind you up in bed or in prison. I understand horny and dangerous, too. And they have the best music. Some of the worst music, too (it’s too bad the military didn’t ban Arp synthesizers when it banned everything else), but also some of the best. Tania Maria is riffing up a storm here, pounding the piano with almost Monk like muscularity, such strong little fingers she must have, and the melody flows this way and that, like a borboletta going from flower to flower. Hips sway, undulate, go backwards, then that way, then the other way, and finally two steps forward. Uh oh, dig that bass. It’s huge. Now she’s doing a cuica with her voice, and the cuica is doing the voice beneath crazy hand clapped syncopation. Repeated figures on the piano, building and building. Now more of the clapping,and the cuica voices and voiced cuicas, and a pile of overdubbed vocals in ways that would just confuse and frighten Scandinavians. I hear they dig this in Finland, though. If they can say potato fifteen or twenty different ways, who knows how many ways there are to say samba. It’s so much simpler in Brazil. You say potato, eu digo batata.
Very few people up here know her, but Rosa Passos is I think the finest bossa nova singer I have ever heard. She’s not as musically radical as Joao Gilberto (who invented the genre by reducing sambas to their barest elements–he’d play one song for weeks on end, hour after hour, stoned out of his mind, camped out on various couches till the owners couldn’t take it anymore and sent him packing) but just listen to Rosa’s take. She is just so in the groove here, everything light and precise and shimmering like water, the syncopation hinted at, the raw strident samba down deep in there, shadows of a shadow. Dig the crazy bass lines, almost cuica like, dragging, no one ever walked a bass line in Brazil. Indeed, try walking to her guitar chords and you’d be staggering like a drunk man. We walk with a back beat, but this is propelled by a surdo–that big deep drum beat of the samba, boom, boom, boom–but a surdo reduced to a silent presence by Joao Gilberto. It’s there but you can’t hear it, yet you can’t possibly move along to this stuff without the surdo, every step you’d make is around the surdo, you step around it, bounce off it, shimmy, everything but set a firm footed pace. Walk a straight line to this and you fall right over. There is nothing in our musical culture anything like this, our musics come from different parts of Africa, different parts of Europe. We rock, they sway. We’re on the beat, they’re loosely all around it. We get where we are going faster, they get there eventually. Indeed, Rosa fades off at the end of this cut without having got anywhere at all, just stays lost in the melody as it shifts about, driven by the afternoon breeze. I hit replay and the chords begin again as if they had never stopped at all.
This is just a Facebook post from 6/27/15,nd while not exactly Pulitzer worthy, for completeness sake I’m posting it here….
Jose Rizo’s Jazz on the Latin Side All Stars and fireworks last nite at the Levitt Pavilion in MacArthur Park…what a perfect Saturday night. Damn those guys are good…Justo Almario going nuts on tenor. Andy Langham getting some room to move on the piano. Smitty Smith his usual bonkers self on the drums. Wonderful band, every time I’ve seen ’em…which is dozens of time by now going waaaaaaaay back. And then the fireworks. Fyl and I loved it. The band are at Hollywood & Highland this Tuesday June 30 from 7-9. That one is free too.
That was our second trip to MacArthur Park in three days since we saw Mexico 68 there on the same stage on Thursday and that was incredible…what a monster grooving band, playing AfroBeat for real. They could have played for hours. Mix of Fela and originals. They have a terrific four saxophone section. Very tight horn arrangements and a lock groove rhythm section, drummer doing the Tony Allen thing. Seung Park took a great tenor sax solo on that last tune, the cat can play. Certainly one of the very best bands in LA. Opening act was a surprise–all the shows we go to and a stoney cumbia band like Buye Pongo are somehow new to me. Dug them a lot too.
And I was tripping on MacArthur Park, man…there was a time when you wouldn’t have been able to have such a splendid scene down there, all was craziness. Killings, gangs, drugs. I knew guys who went down there to die. There was even a police riot. And now it’s one of my favorite venues. Oh yeah, summer in the city, baby. LA has so much free music all summer long it’s heaven.
And I guess the god of fools (well, goddess of fools, if I get a choice) was looking after me tonite. Left the house in Silver Lake at 8:05 and hit a streak of green lights from Temple to Wilshire. Every one a beautiful emerald green. Luck of the Irish. Turned right onto Wilshire and there was a parking space. Looked at the clock. 8:15. We got from Silver Lake to MacArthur Park on a Friday night in ten minutes. It was pleasantly surreal. Or a time portal. Beam me up.
Elis Regina and the Zimbo Trio performing “Zambi” in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1965. That’s Amilton Godoy on piano, Luís Chaves on bass and Rubinho Barsotti absolutely wailing on the drums.
The tune is by Edu Lobo with lyrics by the brilliant Vinicius de Moraes, and is about the legendary rebel slave, Zumba Ganga, who ruled a large swathe of inland Brazil during colonial times. This version was recorded in 1965. The military had overthrown the elected government the year before. When Elis sings Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! (Liberdade, Liberdade, Liberdade), the audience explodes in applause, then hushes quickly again. You can almost feel the eyes of the police, watching. At the close of the song the audience, swept along on the drums, erupts again and, with headphones, you can hear cries of viva a democracia! By 1969, though, you wouldn’t dare perform this song in public, and I have to wonder how many in this audience saw the inside of one of Brazil’s military prisons.
I cannot believe I have never seen this before…Elis Regina in an extraordinary take on Águas de Março that I assume was cut during the Elis & Tom sessions in 1974. Crazy phrasing, daring rhythm, and listen to that band, simultaneously so loose and always there. I really dig those drums, I’m such a sucker for Brazilian drummers, and it must be Paulinho Braga, one of the very best. Check out that over the shoulder shot of his brushes dancing off the snare. Cool. I love snare drums. Looking at that but listening to her phrasing, damn, I could listen to this over and over just to hear her phrasing. The track’s ending is a little better realized on the LP, but the gorgeously lilting surdo which propels it on vinyl is here a tad madder, a tad more oblique, more accidental and inspired, pure Elis.