Brazilian music is the rage these days, which means that for the average U.S. music fan there are suddenly hundreds of classic albums just waiting to be discovered, and more being made all the time. Yet from the preponderance of coverage for artists associated with the tropicalia movement of the late 60s--most recently the belated invasion of Os Mutantes--you'd think there'd only been three or four artists in the history of Brazil who really mattered. Tropicalia was over almost before it started, thanks to the oppressive government of the time.
But its aesthetic--a willingness to blend styles that took three more decades to sprout in this country--has influenced a great deal of Brazilian pop music since. And while highly visible albums by tropicalistas Tom Ze and Caetano Veloso--whose terrific 1998 record, Livro, was just released by Nonesuch in anticipation of his first major U.S. tour this summer--prove that the old guard still has the spark, an awful lot of great artists have emerged since, among them Daniela Mercury, Margareth Menezes, Marisa Monte, the late Chico Science, Lenine, Arnaldo Antunes, Daude, and Virginia Rodrigues. Yet few, if any, have attracted the attention of the sheep who write for Details.
I can't think of one of these artists who better represents contemporary Brazilian music than Carlinhos Brown. He's written for and/or performed with a who's who of his countrymen, from samba-jazz maestro Sergio Mendes to metal stars Sepultura, and on his second solo album, the new Omelete Man, he pushes the lessons of tropicalia to new limits. Born 36 years ago in Salvador, Bahia--tropicalia's ground zero and a music center in general--and raised in the poor neighborhood of Candeal, he was drawn to percussion early, and as a teenager he was swept up in Bahia's burgeoning black-consciousness movement. Most of the state's population is black, and the movement had a profound effect on Brazilian music. Percussion-dominated Carnaval groups called blocos--most notably Ile Aiye and Olodum (who'll be playing in Chicago this fall)--began to emphasize the African roots of Brazilian rhythms. By the 80s, pop-oriented artists began to incorporate soul, funk, and reggae as well, and a new style called axe was born. Young Antonio Carlos Santos de Freitas earned the nickname Carlinhos Brown because he had a big 'fro and could dance like James Brown.
In 1984 axe forefather Luiz Caldas scored a big hit with Brown's tune "Visao do Ciclope" ("Cyclops' Vision"), and before long Monte, Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Gal Costa had all recorded his songs. Yet as success beckoned, Brown retreated to start a percussion school for kids in Candeal. In 1992 he returned by appearing on Bill Laswell's Bahia Black: Ritual Beating System fusion project, in the company of Olodum as well as Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. The same year he wrote and sang five of the best songs on Mendes's Grammy-winning album, Brasileiro. His knack for melodies and his rhythmic sophistication were evident, but he'd yet to make his own mark.
Brown formed his own project, Timbalada, in 1993. A song-oriented bloco that could feature anywhere from 30 to 100 percussionists at a time, it made two slightly slick albums marked by sharp call-and-response singing, tropical horn charts, soulful vocals, and (obviously) thundering percussion. But the group recorded only a handful of Brown originals, and not until 1996, when he made his solo debut, Alfagamabetizado, with producers Arto Lindsay and Wally Badarou, was the depth of his talent revealed. He introduced that same dense percussion into swaying sambas (including "Quixabeira," which featured the lovely harmonies of Veloso, Gil, Costa, and Veloso's sister Maria Bethania) and African funk; for the breakneck stomp "Pandeiro-deiro" ("Tambourine-rine"), he borrowed the frantic tempos of embolada, a north Brazilian style that sounds a bit like rap; he undergirded the fragile ballad "Mares de ti" ("Seas of You") with trip-hop-sluggish but insinuatingly complex native rhythms.
On the Monte-produced Omelete Man, Brown cuts loose his percussion safety net--the lush orchestration on the gorgeous ballad "Musico" would make Nelson Riddle blush--and weaves in even more styles and sounds. He's more confident, sharper, and in better voice, nailing the beautiful Portuguese fado tune "Mae que eu nasci" ("Mother From Whom I Was Born")--previously recorded by Cape Verdean diva Cesaria Evora. He dabbles in Afro-pop on "Water My Girl," and makes like the Beatles on "Soul by Soul." "Vitamina ser" ("Vitamin to Be") is a chugging chunk of reggae samba driven by a relentless bass line, with funky organ and Clavinet by P-Funk alum Bernie Worrell. And though "Irara" is little more than a steady electronic pulse with light percussion, Brown croons the two-line lyric in a beautiful, flexible falsetto, changing inflection with each pass and turning a superficially minimal ditty into a sumptuous masterpiece. Like Veloso and Ze in their youth (and their latest experimental sambas, though wonderful, can't match his best work for youthful vigor) Brown is reaching out to the rest of the world. I hope it doesn't take another 30 years for the rest of the world to notice.