On December 5, Zankel Hall hosts a double-bill of contrasts from Brazil: Orquestra Imperial, a retro-chic homage to big bands from the 1950s, plays sambas and other dance classics, while poet and singer-songwriter Arnaldo Antunes’s hypnotically quirky vision of contemporary MPB (música popular brasileira) is on display in a set with his five-piece band.
Here, writer and critic Fernando González reveals the musical roots of both halves of the bill.
In his playful but powerful Manifesto Antropófago published in 1928, Brazilian modernist poet Oswald de Andrade used the metaphor of cannibalism to offer a strategy for creating a post-colonial culture that would be truly national, but also modern and cosmopolitan. Rather than fighting off the cultural products of, say, civilized Europe or the brash, omnipresent United States, he called on his fellow Brazilians to "eat" them and metabolize them Brazilian. It’s something Andrade brilliantly sums up in a line that appears in English in his text—"Tupy or not Tupy, that is the question"—which conjures images of the Tupy people (one of the original inhabitants of Brazil and practitioners of ritualistic cannibalism) considering matters of identity while dining on Shakespeare.
Without explicitly championing Andrade, and each in its own terms, the work of singer, poet, visual artist, and songwriter Arnaldo Antunes and the 20-piece Orquestra Imperial speak to the continuing influence of his ideas. Their music—vital, multilayered, and individually Brazilian and cosmopolitan—not only confounds notions of what is foreign and national, but also of what is modern and traditional, sophisticated and primitive, high and low culture.
A rock star in the 1980s as a member of the band Titãs, Antunes has spoken of growing up nurtured by musical influences as disparate as Chuck Berry, João Gilberto, The Beatles, Roberto Carlos, Led Zeppelin, and Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, whose Tropicália movement embraced Andrade's ideas.
"I come from a generation that didn’t search for the roots of Brazilian music," Antunes told Russ Slater in an interview for BOMB magazine in 2010. "Brazilian music was for my generation a mix of rock ‘n’ roll, reggae, samba, maracatú—it was impossible to hear the influence of foreign music. You could say that the only music that is uniquely Brazilian is the indigenous music. The most important thing for me is to be free to transmit the many different influences, either from Brazil or outside, and not worry about mixing them. I think this is a very Brazilian thing because Brazil has always been such a mix of cultures."
And in a previous conversation with poet and essayist Eucanaã Ferraz, also for BOMB, Antunes discussed how the cosmopolitanism of Sao Paulo, his hometown and a microcosm of Brazil in its diversity, informs his vision and his work. "I believe the experience with this ethnic, cultural, linguistic, architectural, religious, culinary, and behavioral multiplicity allows a certain detachment in relation to notions like homeland or cultural roots. ... At the same time, that huge mix of references perhaps represents, in itself, a form of identity, with which I could recognize and express myself."
Meanwhile, Orquestra Imperial is "a psychedelic version of a gafieira orchestra," explains Geraldinho Magalhães, manager and one of the founders of the band in a conversation from his office in Rio de Janeiro. Gafieira is a dancehall samba that emerged in Rio in the 1940s and took its name from the popular halls where it was created. It became, Magalhães says, “a very popular musical genre in the 1950s and ’60s—it was basically big bands playing samba." Gafieira peaked in the late ’70s; by the turn of the new millennium, he says, “but for two or three very traditional bands, this type of orchestra didn’t exist."
Orquestra Imperial was founded in 2002 by "a group of musicians from different bands and different music styles and traditions," recalls Magalhães, "who had the dream of putting together a typical gafieira orchestra—but much more psychedelic." Early lineups included both notable young pop musicians such as Moreno Veloso (who's still in the orchestra) and Seu Jorge, but also historic figures such as percussionist and singer Wilson das Neves (who also remains in the ensemble). As the band explains, the idea is "to interpret a varied repertoire, including boleros and songs from the ’60s—classics of the ballroom culture in new arrangements."
"In fact, the musical updating has led Orquestra Imperial to collaborate with artists as disparate as Caetano Veloso, Marisa Monte, and The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde. As for repertoire, the band has been known to pay tribute to classic samba and do a version of the rock group Yes’ "Owner of a Lonely Heart," but also feature Caetano Veloso and Jane Birkin on a show dedicated to the music of Serge Gainsbourg. "This is not a project about researching or preserving tradition," says Magalhães, chuckling at the notion.
Instead, the music of Arnaldo Antunes and Orquestra Imperial are celebrations of some of the improbable mixes, the many sources, the generous embraces that have shaped, and continue to shape, the culture of Brazil.
"It's "Tupy or not Tupy ... "—played out loud, with electric guitars, pandeiros, and trombones.
Fernando González is an independent music writer and critic whose work appears regularly in The Miami Herald, JazzTimes, and The International Review of Music.
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