In the early days of the Portuguese conquest of the land that would one day be Brazil, a Catholic bishop named Sardinha won a place in the nation's history simply by being the guest of honor at an unusual dinner. In fact, he was the dinner -- for a tribe of cannibals.
It was a menu that has resonated throughout 20th-century Brazilian culture. In 1928, Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade extrapolated the concept of "antropophagism," or cultural cannibalism -- taking the offerings of Europe, consuming them, assimilating them and using them for Brazilian ends. Sometimes the process has been undeclared and subtle, as with the bossa nova hipsters' merging of samba and American cool jazz. Sometimes it has been explicit: The Tropicalistas of the late 1960s cited de Andrade's concept as a direct inspiration when they took the music of the Beatles, Bob Dylan and European avant-garde composers, and pulped it with Brazilian musical forms and their own rebellious energy, creating a wholly unique culture explosion. Tropicália movement mouthpiece Caetano Veloso later went so far as to claim that "Brazil was born the day the Indians ate Bishop Sardinha."
The 1990s brought a whole new course of Euro fodder to Brazil's table in the form of contemporary electronic music. Now a generation of urban Brazilians and expatriates is busy rewiring electronic music with Brazilian guts, and a pair of U.S. labels are importing the sounds north.
A caipirinha is a Brazilian cocktail made with sugarcane brandy; a caipiríssima is a version made with non-Brazilian rum. The New York-based Caipirinha label, run by Brazilian-born filmmaker Iara Lee, serves up "Caipiríssima", a compilation of new music from Brazilian electronic-music culture.
The shuffling beats of batucada, Brazilian music's massed drum sections, have long provided exotic samples for record-bin raiders; "Caipiríssima" features "Sub Tropic," one such track from Brazilian-born/U.K.-based Amon Tobin. But the compilation also offers up "Pupila Dilatada," wherein São Paulo's Suba and Mestre Ambrosio use modern production techniques to turn a shuffling forro rhythm into a trancey, rumbling batucada dance track. It's a dizzying treat to hear up-and-coming artists such as Recife's DJ Dolores, BiD, and Apollo 9 put their mark on familiar old drum & bass, breaks and trip-hop; they bring both fresh and traditional Brazilian flavor to their tracks -- witness the samba whistles of Dolores' "Monica No Samba" ("She Loves Drum n' Cavaco" ). Several of "Caipiríssima's" cuts come from artists like Tobin, who spent formative years in Brazil and later relocated elsewhere on the globe, including DJ Soul Slinger (represented by the slinky, DJ Wally-assisted "Masterplan" ) and Arto Lindsay ("Whirlwind" offers a beguiling example of his technology-friendly neo-bossa nova).
After a recently unleashed Brazilian music comp ("Brazil 2mil") and a set of remixes of vintage classics ("Bossa Cuca Nova"), the San Francisco-based Six Degrees label leads off a trio of impressive Brazil-related releases with "Outro Lado" from Zuco 103, a threesome working on a new Euro-Brazilian fusion from the Netherlands.
Dutch drummer/programmer Stefan Kruger and German keyboardist/programmer Stefan Schmid cook up plenty of sleek, urbane beatscapes that wouldn't be out of place on Germany's jazzy/electronic Compost label. But cuts such as "Brazilectro" and the propulsive "No Bar do Samba" find the production duo bringing lively Brazilian grooves to their cut-and-paste studio creations, while Brazilian-born Lilian Vieira writes and sings (in Portuguese) words and vocal lines that mix fleet, rhythmic raps on the up-tempo numbers and sensuous torch singing and piquant harmonies elsewhere.
Zuco 103 may sound a bit self-conscious on paper, but "Outro Lado" bears no traces of it; there is something appealingly soulful and contemporary about the album's bipolar mix of club-ready hip-shakers and lovelorn blues. After all, overcrowded clubs and tiny, lonely apartments are pretty much the same all over the world.
Of course, Brazilian artists have been producing refined, complex, emotionally rich pop for decades without conspicuous sampler and computer use, and Bebel Gilberto has a better grip on that tradition than most rookie Brazilian artists ever could. Gilberto is the daughter of bossa nova Zen master João Gilberto, perhaps the best-loved male singer in Brazil, and the niece of Chico Buarque, the country's pop-song poet laureate; her mother, Miúcha, is a singing legend in her own right. The friends and collaborators who helped Gilberto put together "Tanto Tempo" aren't quite as Olympian, but they're impressive, nonetheless: The album was produced by Suba (him again), with additional board chores from Amon Tobin (ditto); Washington, D.C.'s foremost electronic Brazil-boosters, Thievery Corporation; and Beastie Boys aide-de-camp Mario Caldato Jr., among others.
"Tanto Tempo" doesn't sound like a globe-hopping, demi-celebrity-packed patchwork, though. If anything, it glides along on the spare, gripping clarity and lean-closer vocals of the early-'60s bossa nova classics with which her father quietly stormed the world. The Tobin and Thievery tracks in particular are right in line with the producing artists' usual styles ("Samba de Benção" recycles a track from Tobin's "Permutation" album), but their fingerprints are invisible -- the songs are all Gilberto's (she co-wrote seven of the 11 tracks). Suba himself programs the edgiest track, the loping, trip-hoppish "Alguém." The low-key but on-the-edge production helps "Tanto Tempo" sound timeless rather than retro.
While Gilberto's CD up-dates a tradition in fine style, Suba's "São Paulo Confessions" offers a compelling vision of Brazil's e-music future as well as a tantalizing glimpse of a career that might have been. Mitar Subotic built a career as a producer, composer and electronic-music maven in his native Yugoslavia long before transferring his in-demand talents to the turbulent metropolis of São Paulo in the late '80s. But, it wasn't until last year that he set about creating his own solo debut with an ambitious project -- a musical portrait of his adopted home city. Starting with "Tantos Desejos," a lulling civic love song sung by Cibelle Cavalli (one of several guest vocalists), Suba embarks on an sonic travelogue that is as engaging as it is sweeping in scope. Aided by veteran percussionist and longtime colleague João Parahyba (who appears on "Caipiríssima" and "Tanto Tempo"), Suba seamlessly combines local rhythms and sounds with contemporary electronic production and musical paradigms for a true portrait of a modern tropical city on the cusp of the millennium.
Sadly, Suba's debut is also his swan song. Last November, two nights before he was scheduled to leave for a European trip to promote "São Paulo Confessions," Suba's apartment caught fire and he died of complications from smoke inhalation soon after. Despite this devastating loss to an emerging scene, this new raft of American releases proves that Brazilian electronic music is bursting with energy and inspiration at a time when other sounds and styles in more established Northern Hemisphere scenes seem stuck in status-quo mode. Suba was in the vanguard of something, and he knew it; check out the bumping, batucada-fueled track of his concept album, a collaboration with Mestre Ambrosio. The title? "Antropófagos" -- which translates as "Cannibals."