As mentioned before: Recife is Brazil’s New Orleans (not just in both cities being equally close to total social chaos) – the home of enormous musical innovation and weird Afro-American religions. This is mostly a thing of the past. Still, I see the world’s most futuristic tags here (I couldn’t find any of them googling, sadly, and a friend claimed that it’s plain stupid for a white-skinned, blue-eyed person to walk around with a camera here – just take my word for it; the letters are much more complex and cleverly put together than anything I saw when wandering endlessly, mouth-open amongst the rune-like letters of the pixadores of São Paulo). That the great hope in American Rap represents New Orleans and named his first EP Style Wars surely means something as well. Erik Davis came correct in his Dub, Scratch, and the Black Star, drawing a line from the carnivals of Brazil to the soundsystems of Jamaica and further on to the Style Wars of Philadelphia, Bronx, and so on.
Such style wars show up in various guises across the African diaspora, from the taunts and “disses” of rappers to the yearly carnival competitions of Trinidad and Brazil, when various roving “bands” try to top each other and woo the crowd with music, dance, and costume. As Lee Perry said, “Competition must be in the music to make it go.”
Olinda, neighboring town of Recife, reminds me of São Luiz do Paratinga, but it’s bigger, more beautiful, and the carnaval is much better. Chico Science grew up here and learned hiphop on these streets, moving from the James Brown-parties of his childhood to breakdance and rap. This is also where he died, in a car accident during the carnaval in 1997.
We can understand the carnival through Batailles as a social system against profits and accumulation. As Potlatch. But also as refusal of work. The carnival also struggles to preserve the unique North-Eastern Brazilian culture. It’s in this light we should see the aggressive commercialization of the Carnival in Recife.
Frevo: carnival music concentrated on metal section, bass, percussion, call and response. Much faster than the music I’m used to from São Luiz do Paratinga. Most of it too cheezy and carnivalesque for my tastes, but the 19 man strong Spok played a jazz-influenced frevo that blew my brain to bits.
I saw Siba e a Fuloresta twice; should have made that three shows. He reminded me of Fela Kuti, with the generous musical backup, the call and response-singing, the way that riffs and grooves float into each other unexpectedly, and very fittingly.
Otto and Cordel do Fogo Encantado were disappointments. Former membership in Nação Zumbi and Mundo Livre S/A doesn’t guarantee anything obviously, except a taste-free mess of beach rock and regional influences. The guys in Cordel do Fogo Encantado seemed to be nice people, and they delivered a very raw underdog story to the audience (that becomes extra powerful in Recife, the fourth worst city in the world talking quality of life, a place where the class struggles are intensified to the point of absurdity) – but as time passes I have less and less patience for music involving elements of theater, clowns and stand up poetry.
It feels wrong writing about the carnival as a musical event. It’s much more than that. For me it was more important to see the city itself and the north-eastern Brazilian culture. The people were as friendly as could be and the level of violence and general fucked-upness was at an admirable low. If you’re not too into maracatu, coco, frevo or ciranda then Recife perhaps is not the best place in Brazil for music. Not for clubs and shows. Not for bastard forms of modern dance music anyway. And not if you’re content with hitting up random spots in the tourist areas. The important musical activity always seem to take place outside of the center of the city, in spaces where you need to know people to get there. Adventurous hybrid scenes must have continued in Recife since the days of Chico Science. Somewhere. Perhaps I can get back to this in the future.
The musical highlight of the Carnaval was Nação Zumbi. A free show in the outskirts of Recife was a very different experience from the two times I saw them in São Paulo. People screaming every word to the songs and jumping up and down, about a meter up in the air. Sweating like in a sauna. The air turning into uncut electricity.
They have improved as musicians. Still, the start comes off stiff – perhaps because they play mostly post-Chico material. His intensity and idiosyncratic lyrics has left a hole in the group. But you can do nothing but admire and respect the way that the group have carried on after his death. Each album gives us new takes on the same musical problem: how to bring the fertility of the mangue-swamps into the information Society. When I go through old live videos at the Chico Science Memorial the day after I realize that in a way their sound was weaker in the beginning. The live recording of the title track of their first album is missing that weight that bulldozered right through me the night before. Just like with Kraftwerk their old material is not something to rush through live. They understand that they’re dealing with holy material that must be perfected and updated as much as new technology and improved skills will allow. And Jorge du Peixe’s deeper voice fits the message better. “From the mud to chaos, from chaos to the mud / A robbed man is never fooled again”.
Nação Zumbi can go on forever. Like Rolling Stones. Like Kraftwerk. I just hope that they tour and record more frequently than their German predecessors.