Sound advice 

Electronica, obscure syntax and Brazilian soul power

Nobukazu Takemura, Hoshi No Koe (Thrill Jockey Records)

Listen to what this guy says to me the other day: “Yeah, I guess it’s hard to explain electronic music to people like you who are bogged down in conventional styles.” Oh, guys like me? You mean the couple billion of us left who still hold in some esteem this outmoded convention of social interaction in the service of making music? Of honest-to-goodness people getting together to play music because they enjoy it?

Please. I say if it takes that kind of elitist attitude to consider yourself an electronic music fan, you can take your synth vectors and “sound palettes” and cram them with walnuts. Forward-thinking individual that I am, however, I’m trying to project myself 10 years into the future to such a time when music chroniclers might conceivably be discussing electronic/analog hybrid lone gunmen like Nobukazu Takemura in the same hagiographic terms that writers today reserve for music pioneers of bygone eras. Pioneers who, importantly, didn’t realize they were pioneering at the time. Hoshi No Koe is longer on the looping soundscapes and shorter on the rubbery dada skwootching of previous releases, and longtime fans of Takemura’s cut-up doodling will see a happy medium. First-time listeners, on the other hand, will make two or three trips to the stereo to see if the disc is skipping. Others might find it hard to dance to Hoshi No Koe while simultaneously clenching a baby pacifier between their teeth and nursing an energy drink in each hand. Kids, eh?

I’d just like to add one more thing: I had Hoshi No Koe in my hot little hand well before Lappy McLaptop saw fit to enlighten me about how the farts and whistles of some other bunch of spotty British art-school rejects are going to send folks with guitars packing back to the Stone Age. So at least I’m trying to care.

Various Artists, Black Rio: Brazil Soul Power 1971-1980 (Strut Records)

Some of these reissues from Strut Records have really been mind-blowing lately. Not only is the music consistently great, but the packaging sheds all kinds of light on musical movements that flourished for years in far-flung corners of the pop music atlas but largely escaped notice outside their national borders.

Or, in some cases, even city limits. The musicians of Black Rio were part of a scene by the same name that produced a supernova of sun, samba, funk and soul in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo for a decade starting in the early ’70s. The liner notes put it most invitingly: “Welcome to afros, black power and huge funk parties catering for up to ten thousand party-goers. Welcome to the story of Brazil’s most forgotten movement: Black Rio.” Ten thousand Brazilians listening to funky soul? Screw a rave, man!

Like the Tropicalia Movement, best exemplified in the work of Brazilian cult heroes Os Mutantes, Black Rio prospered in uneasy opposition to the ruling military dictatorship of the day and a conservative music industry that pandered to the tastes of Brazil’s middle-class whites. With samba music at a commercial peak in the early ’70s and samba schools charging accordingly for their dance parties, disenfranchised blacks in Rio and São Paulo began exploring other outlets for musical stimulation. American funk and soul were beginning to catch on, and the result was an explosion of mostly (but not exclusively) black artists playing a kaleidoscopic fusion of funk, soul and samba, their records played at dance parties where revelers numbered in their thousands. These bailes black were attended by mixed audiences, but they also served as rallying points for nascent black power groups and grassroots native organizations.

Those must have been some heady times. The CD booklet of Black Rio has a picture of one of these dances: a sea of bobbing afros as far as the lens could capture. Bailes black like this one were often broken up by police with machine guns, but while they lasted they gave young urban Brazilians an integrated social forum for talking about issues and getting seriously down with each other. 25 years after the fact, the rest of us can get down, too.

Also recommended: Segun Bucknor, Poor Man Get No Brother: Revolutions 1970-1974, yet another top-drawer afro-soul gem from Strut. Keyboardist Bucknor worked in the shadow of Fela Kuti in 1970s Nigeria, mixing hard-edged funk (“Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow”) with jazzy extended jams (“La La La”) and lyrics reflecting on life after the country’s civil war. Part of the label’s “Nigeria 70” series of compilations and re-releases, and definitely worth checking into.

90 Day Men, To Everybody: (Southern Records)

Everything about this band screams pretentiousness. In fact, I’m still trying to figure out what, apart from obscurantist syntax purely for its own sake, is supposed to come across from the title of their debut album, (it (is) it) critical band, besides the 90 Day Men being obsessed with their own importance, that is. It doesn’t strengthen their case with me that one of the members acted like a real dick when I tried to interview him for an Independent article last year. I have to admit, though, that To Everybody: is light years better than its predecessor. They seem to have abandoned the (it (is) now passé?) scraping guitar sound in favor of Andy Lansangan’s keyboards, tendrils of which plait into five minutes of thrilling reverie on “Saint Theresa in Ecstasy.” Magical. What vocals there are I could easily have done without, however. On the opening track, “I’ve Got Designs On You,” singer Cayce Key sounds like a drunken muezzin falling off a minaret. Elsewhere he mostly settles on that breathy, husky sing-whisper thing that instantly makes me reach for my pepper spray. Vocals aside, though, I’ve got to say: I’d written these guys off as self-obsessed art-school casualties, and on To Everybody: I was very nicely surprised.

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