Album Review: ‘Gilles Peterson Presents…Sonzeira: Brasil Bam Bam Bam’

Dear Reader,

I crave your indulgence in allowing me a very smug and pedantic pre-review whinge. All this intense interest in Brazilian culture in anticipation of the World Cup and 2016’s Olympics is rather irritating to those of us (well me, anyway) whose fascination long pre-dated the country’s winning bid to host these two international sports tournaments. Bah humbug to all bandwagon jumpers.

Still, no one could accuse DJ legend Gilles Peterson of cashing in. His love for Brazil’s sounds and rhythms stretches back over the decades, covering several compilations and online homages. I owe a lot of my Brazilian music knowledge to his tireless championing of it. It’s thus very fitting in this year of Brazil mania that Peterson’s latest project ‘Sonzeira: Brasil Bam Bam Bam’ is a sonic love letter to South America’s largest country, featuring brand new music from bona fide icons and newcomers alike. Peterson enlists help from both sides of the Atlantic including production credits from the likes of Floating Points’ Sam Shepherd.

Recorded partly in London and partly on what could well be described as a musical pilgrimage to Rio ‘Sonzeira’ revels in the confluence of African and European history and the cultural fruits this often very tense relationship has produced; beauty born from the struggle. Co-producer Rob Gallagher’s notes on the creative process behind ‘Sonzeira’ makes mention of instruments brought over by slaves that are still very much part of the Brazilian soundscape even though ironically, they are no longer prevalent in the motherland.

‘Sonzeira’ is not as Rio-centric as it might at first appear. Whereas the world-famous percussion is a thematic staple, not every arrangement calls for its presence. Indeed, Peterson and co.’s penchant for sonic minimalism bucks some of the Carnival stereotype. The first single, a serene cover of ‘Southern Freeeze’ is representative of the less-is-more approach. The frantic fun of the ‘80s Soul original is replaced by singer/actress Emanuelle Araújo’s vocals lightly bouncing along, intoxicated on an airy Samba groove. The legendary Marcos Valle’s Opening track ‘Americana Latina’ is a buoyant, double-time waltz, based on the 6/8 time signature favoured by Brazil’s North-East region.

Elderly coquette and Afro-Brazilian icon Elza Soares’ sinisterly seductive growl (think ‘Boomerang’-era Eartha Kitt) curls itself around a minor key version of one of the country’s biggest international successes, ‘Aquarela do Brasil’. She does it again when Os Ipanemas’ ‘Nana’ is given the sparse’n’spooky treatment, commencing with Soares’ gravelly, quasi-atonal vocals. Vitality is restored half way as the drums pick up the pace, ending in an almost frenzied berimbau solo. There’s more sense of foreboding on ‘City of Saints’, its skeletal production keeping the focus on the catchy, if a little eerie, chorus. An interpretation of Yusef Lateef’s ‘The Plum Blossom’ ambles along with the sexy, languid swagger of a Favela girl climbing the hills – a vivid image conjured by the simple combination of Finn Peters’ flute, some subtle pandeiro and rumbling bass drums.

Feel-good, mid-tempo instrumental ‘Ele e Ela’ alternates between time signatures (3/4, 4/4) as well as musical eras. A 1960s Big Band arrangement is inflected with ‘70s psychedelic Funk (notably an otherworldly Moog solo), plus interjections of soothing male vocals by none other than the track’s composer Marcos Valle. The also mainly instrumental title track ‘Bam, Bam, Bam’ featuring Celebrated Carioca Seu Jorge and Dutch soul goddess Giovanca  -is a different, more contemporary animal.  With its poppy, Carnival-themed refrain, this is samba for those whose sole exposure to it is on the streets of Notting Hill and surrounding areas every August.  Seu Jorge’s comfortingly familiar gruffness can be heard again on ‘Sambeio’.  The track very much typifies the hybrid flavours of Brazil’s arguably most famous musical export yet it’s a surprisingly underwhelming affair for the normally show-stopping Jorge.

Celebrated Carioca Seu Jorge’s comfortingly familiar gruffness can be heard on ‘Sambeio’. The track very much typifies the hybrid flavours of Brazil’s arguably most famous musical export, yet it’s a surprisingly underwhelming affair for the normally show-stopping Jorge.

New-school Samba queen Mart’Nalia’s beatific rendering of ‘Mystery of Man’ (made famous by Sarah Vaughan with lyrics by none other than Pope John Paul II) is quite the departure from her usually strident, cheerfully rugged vocals. A non-English speaker, she makes a good go of the Anglophone lyrics. It’s an experiment with rather sublime results.

It is possible that the decision to have Senhor Valle record a smoothed-out version of his ‘80s Aerobics-inspired classic ‘Estrelar’ presaged the song’s revival thanks to Southern Comfort’s (sacrilegious) use of it in a recent ad campaign. In any case the timing couldn’t be better. For its 2014 interpretation, Valle swaps the hard groove of the delicious Soul-Funk original for light-footed Samba-Jazz reminiscent of his Azymuth chums.

Album highlight ‘Um Toque’ captures ‘Sonzeira: Bam Bam Bam’ at its most jubilant.  As an enrapt Gabriel Moura sings of his complete devotion to a potential love interest, the message is persuasively reinforced by an inspired rhythm section and the chorus’ enticing harmonies.  This would quickly shake you out of any sombre mood.

For those of us with no intention of being swept up in football madness ‘Sonzeira…’ could be just the right distraction.  And for those with an inchoate curiosity in Brazilian music both contemporary and classic, this is a good place to start.

‘Sonzeira: Brasil Bam Bam Bam’ original and boxset out now.

Written by Tola Ositelu

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