World Music Reviews: Old & New Brazil, Plus Bush Music From Central Africa

In this issue: Bossa Nova beats from Brazil, more subversive beats from Da Cruz, and central African music from the real bush shows up in a movie soundtrack.

Putumayo Presents Brazilian Beat
Various Artists

We say: Old Rio gets an update

What’s not to like about Brazilian samba and bossa nova with a little extra oomph? 

If there’s one type of world music that both you and your dad will probably enjoy it’s Bossa Nova. Brazilian music got popular in the 1950s and then never really stopped being popular. It turned up in 1960s game shows, got funky in the 1970s, and then kept popping up in clubs around the world after that. One of the most interesting albums I’ve reviewed here was the 2006 collaboration between Sergio Mendez and Will I Am of the Black-eyed Peas, appropriately called Timeless.

This music is like bourbon: no matter what you mix with it, the original flavor shines through. So nobody is going to cry “blasphemy!” when producers and bands go nuts remixing classic songs like “Bananeira” (done as an instrumental here by Brazilian Groove Band). The beats in this collection, it should be noted, are not just electronic ones. “A Nega E O Malandro,” is pure analog, with a horn section and traditional percussion. When electronics are mixed in, as on Tita Lima’s “A Conta do Samba,” they take a back seat to the real stars.

Most Putumayo collections can’t be content to stay on one continent, but this one departs the home country less often than most. BungaLove is from Italy and there are a few mixed Brazilian-Americans, but the collection feels very grounded in Brazil. It also manages the tough feat of sounding fresh to jaded ears, yet still being a consistent enough introduction to appeal to someone exposed to this music for the first time.

Note that you can go download this collection instead of buying the physical CD with pretty pictures and helpful liner notes. Why is that a big deal? Putumayo has been the best-known holdout on the digital music front, refusing to put anything on iTunes or Amazon’s MP3 store. Times change though and 27 million CDs later, they finally bowed to the pressure of the marketplace with these “beat” collections. Go get your virtual copy now, before they change their minds!

Sistema Subversiva
Da Cruz

We say: Subversive Brazilian funk courtesy of a Swiss electronics master

If you put MIA, Sistema Solar, and Ojos de Brujo in a studio in Sao Paulo, you might end up with something like Da Cruz. 

This debut is assured and wonderful, even better than what you would get from the sum of those parts. The album brings together Brazilian singer Mariana Da Cruz and Swiss producer Ane H. (of Swamp Terrorists), with a great band lending some real organic propulsion. The result is hard to peg, but it’s infectious. In contrast to the laid-back beachy Bossa Nova grooves of the compilation above, Sistema Subversia is urban crunch, heavy beats, and sweat. Songs are noisy, brash, and in your face, daring you to just sit there and ignore them. It’s all funky and fun though, at home in a back yard or packed club.

Like Brazil’s population, the roots of this music range wide, from Africa to Europe to North America. In “Jangada,” there’s a head-bobbing funk groove with some 70s-sounding guitar tracks over the hard-hitting electronic beats. “Ethiopia” starts off sounding like the most Brazilian song of them all before mutating into something else entirely. “Tudo Bern Aqui” is a minor-key shuffle with a horn section that gets steadily darker as it goes on, with the vocalist eventually launching into shrieks. Through it all, Mariana Da Cruz’s sultry vocals deservedly keep the spotlight. When she doesn’t enter the picture until two minutes into horn-section-fueled Curumin, it feels like one of those stage shows where the star comes on stage just as the backing band reaches a frenzy on the intro song. Her voice isn’t all that distinctive, but with this band it doesn’t have to be: she just needs to play the part of the front woman and she does it with assured confidence and command.

Even when a song kicks off with a groove that sounds conventional, something surprising always comes along to keep you from thinking you’ve heard all this before. A baritone sax solo maybe, or some electric guitar feedback. The more conventional romps “Tschu Tschu” and “Faulo” have an enough of an edge to stand apart from everything on the radio and the one obligatory ballad is called “Balada.” The team doesn’t let their brain get the better of their booties though, so this is a fun album that will make you smile and move. It’s intriguing enough that you’ll hear something new on repeated listens, but is funky enough to get the crowd moving on first listen. Highly recommended, especially if all the Brazilian music you’ve heard dates back to styles from 60 years ago.


Chris Berry & The Bayaka of Yandoumbe

We say: Music rooted in the earth of central Africa

Most music coming out of Africa displays clear influences from elsewhere, from the desert blues of Algeria to the Afro-pop of South Africa. Of course much of what has become popular music around the world originated in part at least from this continent, so you could say it’s a case of what goes around comes around. When you do hear music that is purely African, it’s striking in its uniqueness, in its elemental bond with nature and natural sounds. Listening to this Oka! soundtrack is a delightful trip into the bush.

africa music

Some of the sounds on here are familiar nevertheless: they’ve been sampled, sliced, and remixed in lounge music from Deep Forest forward. It’s a delight to hear them in their mostly unadulterated form though: music captured in the field, without a synthesizer or drum machine to be found. Songs like “Yonga” are still layered and complex, but the layers are coming from the human voice and from handmade drums. “Waterdrum” combines the splashing of river water with drums made from animal skins and wood.

This Listen Oka! project is a movie soundtrack for a fild directed by Lavinia Currier. It’s the story of ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno, a leading expert on Bayaka music who ignored a life-threatening disease to live for three decades among “the pygmies” of what is the Central African Republic. The music was recorded in remote tropical forests by Chris Berry, who brought a multitrack recorder into the field—literally—and helped corral all the sounds into intense songs making use of all the local instruments. He does cheat a little and add some western instruments on “Bokete” and “Lari’s Song,” but usually he avoids the temptation to meddle.

Many of the songs follow cycles that are completely foreign to our ears and of course the lyrics, when there are any, are lost on us. That’s part of what makes this collection so fresh. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, along come the pygmies with their earth bows and tree drums. Unlike some “authentic” world music though that seems downright unlistenable to us (an hour of Tibetan horn players anyone?), this Oka! soundtrack is actually fun. It’s hard not to start moving when you hear a track like “Geedal.” Even with more than 20 selections on here, nothing feels like a throwaway—even a brief interlude that’s just a recording of jungle animal sounds. I hope the movie doesn’t suck because this is the most interesting soundtrack I’ve heard in ages.

Editor Tim Leffel is a former music biz marketer who became a travel writer and author of four books, including The World’s Cheapest Destinations and Travel Writing 2.0. See his last batch of world music reviews here.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Get in on our
Monthly Gear Giveaway

Subscribe to the insiders list and get a shot at scoring free travel gear

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.