Exploring the Fevered Experiments of Brazil's Most Overlooked Musicians
Music From Memory's 'Outro Tempo' compilation captures the post-dictatorship sounds of expression and release.
In 1985, the Brazilian people brought to a close 21 years of a right-wing military dictatorship, which had started with the CIA-supported assassination of a left-wing president. That leader was João Goulart, a man who had had the nerve to attempt to nationalise the banks and mineral resources of the country, while leading a campaign for nuclear disarmament across South America.
The fall of the dictatorship coincided with an explosion in experimental new music across the country, as artists explored the capabilities of newly available electronic instruments, while drawing on elements of field recordings from the Amazon, and of course jazz, in an attempt to reimagine the musical identity of Brazil.
In my own (admittedly quite limited) knowledge of the country's music, there was a big murky vague space between the Tropicália and Música Popular Brasileira movements of the 60s and 70s that spawned artists such as Os Mutantes and Gilberto Gil (who, incidentally, was exiled by the dictatorship), and the global pop bangers of the 90s that arrived with the monorail of globalisation.
It turns out that my negligence was shared by most. The music made during this era was fervently experimental, and perhaps unsurprisingly, wasn't a hugely successful sound internationally. Even in Brazil, much of the music made during this time had been overlooked to say the least.
In the last few years however, there has been more and more outside interest in this music, which has culminated in the recently released compilation Outro Tempo: Electronic and Contemporary Music in Brazil (1978 - 1992), which was thrust into the world by the good folks over at Music From Memory, who're doing the Lord's work, as usual.
For musicians, artists and writers in Brazil, the dictatorship had been a time of extreme political repression, a period known as "vazio cultural" (cultural void), where artists such as Milton Nascimento resorted to recording music without words in order to sidestep censorship. Listening to Outro Tempo however, there is a sense of real creative freedom, every artist wildly different to the next, from the proto-vaporwave bubbling synths of openers Piry Reis, to the Tai Chi-inspired music of Priscilla Ermel.
To find out more about this weird, undefinable music, I spoke to the man who compiled the record: the Madrid-born, London-based producer John Gómez.
THUMP: Hi John! Tell me, how did you first come to this music?
John Gómez: I had always loved Brazilian music, but I found the Maria Rita song from the record while in Japan, and it sounded like nothing I'd ever heard. What attracted me to it originally was that it was a collaboration with a group called Uakti who made their own instruments, made of tubes and stuff like that, who had collaborated a lot with Philip Glass.
Although all the instruments were actually acoustic, it sounded like electronic music in the rhythms. I bought nine copies of that record online and gave them away as gifts, but now they sell for a fortune. From there I started doing more research just to see if this was a one off, searching for records with similar textures.
I was looking for something quite specific, a sound that maybe was in my own head. I started wanting to put it together in a certain way that would be exciting to people who listen to electronic music and ambient music as well. After that I ended up getting in contact with a lot of musicians there over the internet in 2015, and then I went to Brazil in around February 2016.
How popular was this music within Brazil at the time?
It's hard to assess, because I think there are differences. A few of the releases were put out through Egberto Gismonti's label Carmo Records, who was really a central figure in all of this. I don't know how many were pressed of these records, but given that they had his affiliation, they would have sold pretty well. There were others though that were self-produced in really small numbers, as little as 500 or 1000 copies.
The song on the record by Andréa Daltro for instance, was made in a way like an early form of crowdfunding. On the cover of one of her records there is a note saying that it is a 'dependent production'. When I asked her what she meant by this, she explained that she had depended on friends—she couldn't afford studio time, so she approached friends to help her fund her studio time in return for a voucher, which they would then be able to cash in for a copy of the record once it was made. Those copies are mostly sat in the houses of her friends I suspect, but a friend of mine was recently offered one from a collector in Japan for 600 euros, people pay a lot of money for these records now.
The thing is though, when I was talking to Egberto Gismonti about this originally as kind of over-looked music, he was saying, "well, actually I've had a 40 year career and sold hundreds of thousands of records—what do you mean?"
Some of the artists are more successful, others really not very much, and many were quite shocked about someone from London turning up on their doorstep wanting to put out their music.
There seems to be a real counter-cultural ethic to the music, both in the way that it is made and the way that it sounds.
There is a slightly DIY feel to a lot of it. There were groups like Cinema and Os Mulheres Negras who had a really conceptual pop edge, they were living in a big arts scene in Rio, and were quite mocking of institutional success. I'm mindful not to overstep the significance of the possibilities of creating music within the dictatorship however, and the freedoms that came after it. Music was produced throughout the dictatorship, it certainly wasn't as if it was impossible, but there were responses to these conditions of course.
For me, it was tricky to bring it all together. I found a sonic connection between all of these artists, but then I needed to consider what the narrative was, and slowly I began to see dialogues between the musicians.
Some artists also had more of a political edge than others of course, and some were very vocal, but all felt suffocated by the dictatorship. Fernando Falcão, who is the only artist from the compilation who has passed away, was a member of a radical left wing group, and had to leave the country for fear of his own life, and he recorded his albums in Paris.
I think the countercultural elements however were more about responding to different problems in Brazilian culture at that time. The timeline is loose, it's not so much a pre and post dictatorship thing that you can easily split up.
So while the dictatorship ended in 1985, the compilation begins in 1978. Do you feel like there was any big change in the music after the fall of the dictatorship, and what do you know about the censorship that happened within the timeline of the dictatorship?
In the dictatorship, every song that was published needed to be approved by the government. If you go through the Tropicália in the '60s, even though a lot of those songs were essentially protest songs, the musicians had to invent these codes of expressing themselves in order for the songs to be recorded and published. But in the stuff towards the end of the dictatorship, there was a departure from these long allegories of oppression and a focus on specific themes, such as the state of the Amazon, towards deforestation, and towards the rights of indigenous populations.
Up until 1988 indigenous populations had no rights at all anywhere in the Amazon, and Brazil led the way in that. There was definitely a new world opening up with new problems after the dictatorship, because there was a huge financial crisis too, it was essentially the beginnings of globalisation. There were loads of new social problems arising, and the music definitely alludes to them.
Outro Tempo: Electronic and Contemporary Music in Brazil is out now via Music From Memory.