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published on August 15, 2003

A Short History Axé Music in Salvador, Bahia

by Bill Hinchberger


Piers Armstrong
Carlinhos Brown
Salvador, Bahia - Between sessions, house musicians at a Salvador jingle factory threw together a spicy version of Simon and Garfunkel's Mrs. Robinson and packed the single off to local DJs. The jocks went for it.

So did listeners. That 1983 cover and the now defunct band Acordes Verdes (Green Chords) presaged a distinct regional style identified with the city of 2.1 million, capital of Bahia state in the Brazilian northeast. The recipe was simple but unique: add jazz-like solos to Afro-Brazilian percussion and lay over a simple melody. "What's noteworthy about this music is not the harmony and lyrics but the melody and rhythm," said Wesley Rangel, who owned the jingle factory and runs WR Discos, a thriving music production firm who has a label but mostly brokers Salvador acts to the majors.

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Percussionists Olodum (who backed Paul Simon on his "Rhythm of the Saints" album), singer Margareth Menezes (a David Byrne cohort) and percussionist-composer Carlinhos Brown (founding Acordes Verdes member) contributed to the estimated three million in annual CD sales in the mid-1990s by a new wave of Salvador artists. Daniela Mercury's 1993 release "O Canto da Cidade" sold 1.2 copies, ranking Salvador's most popular singer up there with perennial Brazilian crooner Roberto Carlos.

Bahia always contributed a generous share of conscripts to the Brazilian army of popular music: João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and Tom Zé all hail from the state. But only in the 1980s did Salvador develop and popularize a distinguishable sound.

Sometimes labeled Axé Music (using an Afro-Brazilian term meaning "peace be with you"), the sound owes its soul to Salvador's version of Brazil's popular pre-Lenten Carnival festival. Unlike the spectator-oriented parade in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador's Carnival features musical groups that circulate through downtown. Common folks can tag along; the line between formal participant and spectator is blurred.

Stirred by the US Civil Rights movement, a group of black activists founded Ilê Aiyê in 1974 partly as an outlet for their militancy during Carnival. "We were going to call it Black Power," said President Antônio Carlos Vovô, "but the police advised us not to." With Brazil in the middle of a 1964-85 military dictatorship, leaders relented.

Rather than play samba in the Rio de Janeiro tradition, like most everybody else in Salvador back then, Ilê Aiyê mixed in heavy rhythms that commonly accompany ceremonies of the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion. The concoction is called Ijexá. In 1982, composer Edil Pacheco and singer Clara Nunes popularized the form in their tune by that name.

Collectively dubbed blocos afros (African blocs), the pioneers engendered followers - each with its own twist. Founded in 1979, Olodum pioneered something called samba-reggae. "It was samba with reggae's (social and political) discourse," said Olodum President João Jorge Santos Rodrigues. "You needed more time to fit in your message, and therefore a longer measure. The rhythm approached that of reggae." It was a samba-reggae composition, Elegibô, that Margareth Menezes took to the top of the Billboard World Music charts in 1988.

About that time, Carlinhos Brown was backing a Cuban jazz band at a local club. Private jam sessions involving Salvador's top percussionists were thriving downtown. Soon, as musician-musicologist Fred Dantas recalls it, percussionists were playing jazz-like solos on Afro-Brazilian instruments. "Before the large tambours just kept the beat," said Dantas. Brown won an invitation to back Sergio Mendes on the Grammy winning hit "What Is It?" He then founded the percussion troupe Timbalada.

Back then, white folks tended to like their Carnivals set to frenetic frevo, a style imported from further north in Recife, mixed with rock elements. Bands played on giant stage-topped sound trucks known as a trios elétricos, invented by the father of musician Armandinho. Armandino perfected another of his father's inventions: the Bahian guitar, a dissonant electric bandolin-ukelele developed before anybody in Bahia had heard of Les Paul and his electric guitar. "Our band Cor do Som (Color of Music) was a hit in the 1980s," said Armandinho. "It took the trio elétrico gave it national standing."

The trio elétrico business is lucrative. In the mid-1990s, there were an estimated 200 of them in Salvador: together they earned an estimated $20 million a month for staging replays of Salvador's Carnival across Brazil during the course of the year. The Salvador Carnival has also been exported to Mexico and the United States.

Hurting for material in the 1980s, trio groups like Banda Mel borrowed the characteristic beat from the blocos afros and raided their library of compositions, earning commercial success. The 1988 album by a band called Reflexus sold a million copies. Daniela Mercury's first hit was a cover from a bloco afro.

Seeing others popularize their songs and garner dividends, the blocos afros - most of them, anyway - committed what some decried as sacrilege: they added guitars and keyboards to their heretofore singularly percussionist entourages. Soon trio bands and blocos afros were marching toward crossover middle ground, noted sociologist Milton Moura. "Olodum's beat is akin to war drums, but they made a deal with the opposing army," he joked.

As for the jingle factory, it was producing most all of these people. WR Discos became Salvador's version of Sun Records, the Memphis company that launched Elvis Presley and other rockabilly stars in the 1950s. Rangel claims to have midwived 400 new artists and recorded over 5,000 songs in his studio since 1985. By his count, WR Discos has been responsible for introducing Brazil and the world to 70 new rhythms, most thanks to musical mixing and matching that seems Bahian second nature. "There's lots of versatility here," noted singer Menezes.

Rangel hoped to keep the raw material flowing. He even hired academics to scour rural Bahia for undiscovered sounds and talent.

As Rangel worked to mine new sources of raw material, others feared that decadence was setting in. Ironically, it was the progressive militants in Olodum who opened the door to this creeping creative demise.

The hit song in the lead up to Carnival in 1994 was Olodum's "Requebra" (Shake Your Booty, roughly). The simple, upbeat Requebra came replete with a stylized, risqué dance. Quick butt moves and sexy grinds replaced the methodical, rhythmic dance steps reminiscent of Africa. "Olodum achieved commercial success, but it broke the link," noted musician-musicologist Dantas. "Before, the dances were all sacred, emanating from the Afro-Brazilian deities, or they represented motions from manual labor."

"Requebra brought change," noted Olodum's João Jorge. "It opened things up for these pagode groups that began to appear."

Pagode was once championed in Rio de Janeiro by groups like Fundo de Quintal, who led a march back to more melodic samba, distancing themselves from the rabid beat that now characterizes Rio's Carnival theme songs. In Salvador, pagode was speeded up, stripped down to the most basic chords, and transformed into Sex-music. One early hit song was an unabashed ode to the striptease. Others come with names like Dança do Bumbum (Butt Dance) and Dança da Garrafa (Bottle Dance). As their names imply, the songs come with ritualistic dances. The Bottle Dance involves the female partner grinding her hips while she lowers her crotch in the direction of a beer bottle. The biggest phenomenon, É o Tchan, sold two million copies of its album "Na Cabeça e na Cintura" (On the Head and the Waste) in just over two months after its 1996 release. The group's star was not a musician, but a wide-hipped, bleach blonde back-up dancer named Carla Perez.

Fred Dantas is no prude, but the musician decries the lack of creativity in Salvador's pagode. "There were great advances made by the blocos afros," he noted. "The musical gain with pagode is zero. There are only four chords. There's no way to work with it."

Pagode is pretty vacant content-wise, too, noted Dantas. Gone are stated or implied relationships to the black civil rights movement and the subtle sensuality emanating from Afro-Brazilian culture but common to most Bahian men and women.

Hope can emerge from unusual places, though. Once again, Bahia seemed ready to infuse itself with elements borrowed from the international musical cauldron. Carlinhos Brown made incursions into heavy metal, teaming up with Brazil's Sepultura on the popular rock band's last CD before breaking up. A Salvador band called Catapulta integrated Bahian percussion and a radical rock esthetic in its first CD. Lyrics of the band's first single dealt with capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art, and the arrangement made room for the berimbau (a twangy, single stringed instrument) and tambourine, instruments customarily played during capoeira exhibitions. "The beat of Bahian percussion is as heavy as rock-and-roll," said Catapulta's vocalist Moisés. Just as punk shattered rock-and-roll's stagnation in the 1970s, aggressive young Bahian musicians were preparing to help derail pagode.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in 1997. A slightly different version appeared in The Brazil Reader (Duke University Press).

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