São Paulo will never be Rio de Janeiro. Forever ingrained in the world’s collective consciousness as an epicenter for some of the most influential music of all time, Rio gave the world samba and bossa nova, jovem guarda, the Black Rio movement and, more recently, gained notoriety abroad for its racy favela-funk scene. The marvelous seaside city that lives for the illusion of Carnaval has an indelible past that it could easily forsake living up to for many lifetimes to come. Make no mistake – the music scene in Rio is as vital as ever.
São Paulo, the most populous city in Brazil, (and, for that matter, the southern hemisphere) on the other hand, is a gritty, concrete eyesore. It has long stood in the shadows of its peacock-feathered archrival. Suba, the late Serbian-born composer-producer and, by some accounts, the father of São Paulo’s electronic music scene, described the city best when he called it “Blade Runner in the tropics.” While Rio is defined by its lush, natural scenery, São Paulo is a mutant behemoth, an urban colossus where the 21st and 19th centuries have converged and catapulted the megalopolis as the standard-bearer for the future of Brazilian music.
And so the world’s ears are increasingly tuned to São Paulo, where forward-looking artists are converging from all over Brazil. European and, more recently, stateside indie labels such as Nublu, Six Degrees and the sharp-eared Sub Pop Records are releasing a very different brew of Brazilian music that appeals to first-world indie music fans, what Miami public radio host Gene De Souza calls “the Coachella crowd.” Collectives, side projects, singer-songwriters and bands like CSS, Bonde do Role, 3 Na Massa, Sonantes, Grammy-nominated singer Céu and venerable mangue punk band Naçao Zumbi have been embraced by a global alternative urban youth culture from London to Tokyo, cities that São Paulo has a lot more in common with than any other place in Brazil.
“São Paulo is obviously the media capital, the financial capital of Brazil and there is a very cosmopolitan youth culture there,” explains De Souza, host of Miami’s Café Brasil on WDNA (88.9-FM). “It’s like youth culture you would find in New York or London or Mexico City or Tokyo, so there’s a kind of music that they’re producing there that’s on that more creative and cutting-edge level.”
According to De Souza, Sonantes and 3 Na Massa, both of whom recently dropped albums in the States, are the most recent examples of the highly collaborative spirit governing the way music is being made in Brazil.
“What I feel is happening in São Paulo is like what happened in the ’60s or ’50s around the world, when musicians had time to spend with each other,” says Gui Amabis on the phone from Recife. (A movie soundtrack producer, Amabis is part of Sonantes, along with his brother Rica Amabis, Céu, and Naçao Zumbi members Pupillo and Dengue, all of whom also worked together in 3 Na Massa.) “Not even `necessarily` making music, just talking and hearing stuff and hearing what everyone thinks about things. I think that was lost for some time.”
While Brazilian indie artists are reluctant to confine the explosion of creativity in São Paulo by calling it a “scene” -– that would be antithetical to their amorphous, free-flowing dynamic – Rica Amabis, who also belongs to São Paulo-based hip-hop collective Instituto, concedes that the circles are interconnected, though not by a defining genre or movement in music.
“As I see it, there are different scenes happening in São Paulo and I can see a connection between them,” writes Amabis via e-mail. “People are more interested in the music than in the category that they are included in. I have seen Hurtmold, a post-rock band `guesting on` a Mamelo Sound System album, which includes a track with Naçao Zumbi who has, `in turn`, worked with Instituto, which worked with Cidadao Instigado, a band from Ceara in the northeast of Brasil. They recorded `on` the Zafrica Brasil album, a hip-hop band from São Paulo.”
This elaborately related web of friends demonstrates how the São Paulo scene is dictated by the human relationships at the heart of the music. As Gui Amabis says of Sonantes, whose album was recorded in his brother Rica’s home studio, “We did this `album` because we love each other’s work. Existe um carinho, sabe `There’s a love that exists, you know`?”
De Souza says there are no rules, just a labor-of-love vibe and the security of being able to expand on what many of these artists are already doing.
“I think these kinds of projects happen very naturally and people want to collaborate with each other and they like hanging out with each other,” says De Souza. “They go to each other’s shows and they hang out. They have home studios now. It’s not like the old days when you had to book some time in some big studio. So it’s like, ‘Yeah, you know, come on over and play.’ There is a lot of that collaborative spirit, and it’s the result of just friendship and of mutual respect and admiration. The recording of an album and the business side, that’s just a consequence of that friendship.”
Brazil first caught a glimpse of São Paulo’s experimental inclinations back in the mid-’60s when brothers Sergio and Arnaldo Baptista formed psychedelic rock band Os Mutantes. As part of the culturally cannibalistic Tropicália movement, the Baptista brothers and singer Rita Lee employed transgressive arrangements, far-out contraptions, distortions and home-concocted effects to produce mind-bending sounds.
More than forty years after tropicália’s short-lived cultural revolution, the movement resonates with a new generation of musicians who, like their Tropicálista predecessors, have melded the old and new regional sounds with international influences, the past with the future. “Me and Rica and Dengue and Céu, we are from Brazil, but we grew up in a world in which radio played music from everywhere,” says Gui Amabis.
“So it’s not like, ‘Oh, I play Brazilian music.’ No, I have my Brazilian roots, but I `also` had everything `else`.”email@example.com