I am a big fan of the Putumayo Kids music label and have done about ten interviews promoting at least ten of their albums. The label’s goal is to educate people – children and families alike – about music of other cultures.
When I saw that their next album was going to be about Brazilian music, I immediately thought of my sister, Ellen. She both lived in Latin America for several years and loved the music of Brazil, but she and my nieces are also often the recipients of my CDs as presents.
Ellen helped me choose questions which were answered by a musician and by a representative of the label.
I am listening to the CD as I type this up and the fact I have no idea what they are singing – and despite me being the type of person who focuses more on music lyrics than music – I’m loving these songs. I think that suggests they chose well.
It also helps that one of the great parts about the Putumayo label is their albums usually come packed with information. For example, this one includes a summary of the culture, a glossary of Brazilian music terms and then a one page summary explaining what each song is about and, sometimes, the history of the song. These are presented not only in English but also in French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Mona Kayhan, director of the label, answered most of the questions Ellen and I had. I’m excited to be able to include answers from one of the musicians from the album because he can speak directly to the other questions.
For most people in the US, the only song from Brazil they know is "The Girl From Impanema." With this CD, are you going to build on this knowledge or start from someplace new?
I would say a little bit of both! We definitely highlight bossa nova, which I imagine is what most people associate with Brazilian music, but the album ventures beyond that into other styles such as samba, forró and the mélange of Gilberto Gil’s “Expresso 2222,” for example. And yet, although we feature these popular styles of Brazilian music, we discovered songs within those styles that would appeal to both kids and families.
The songs on this album are from three of the best known styles: samba, bossa nova (like Impanema) and forro'. Are the styles equally balanced on the album, and are they mixed together? How will a listener know which style goes with which song?
We made a valiant effort to equally distribute these genres, and in the end I feel they are each well represented and flow well together. Our liner notes do explain what genres each song features, as well as where the song is from and its general meaning.
I have just looked at the Learning Guide that accompanies the album and think it is great. Who was involved in creating this? And which came first—the CD, songs or guide?
Putumayo Kids felt strongly about deepening the educational value of our music since the CDs are so widely used in schools, after-school programming, etc. We outsourced the Learning Guide to a fantastic company called CityLore, whose mission is to foster cultural heritage.
The Putumayo Kids team sent CityLore the framework of the album and then worked closely with them to capture the kind of activities we felt were appropriate. It is especially exciting that the Learning Guide is so accessible in that it can be downloaded for free from our website. We plan to continue to develop the guides for the majority of our future releases.
What were you trying to accomplish with this album? Did you pull it off?
We aimed to take these popular and accessible musical styles and compile them into a fun, upbeat album that all ages would appreciate and enjoy. And I feel that we definitely accomplished that. Also, we wanted the CD as a whole to expose people to Brazil’s diverse and fascinating culture. We added in some elements including photos, a map of Brazil and a glossary of musical terms to do just that.
If you could get people to give one particular Brazilian artist a chance who would it be and why?
I love all of these artists, of course! But, if I had to single someone out, I would pick Gui Tavares. I had a chance to meet him recently, and he is not only extremely passionate about his music, but he also does educational workshops and performances for kids. He is a perfect Putumayo Kids ambassador!
Luiz De Aquino, who performs the song “Morena” on the cd, answered the next three questions.
How would you describe Brazilian music to someone – like many of my readers – who have never knowingly heard it?
First of all there is the language and then there is the rhythm. Portuguese that is spoken in Brazil, has a very distinct sound, even the words are musical! Rhythm is a big part of the Brazilian music tradition, as are warm harmonies, and nice grooves. The most popular Brazilian rhythms world-wide are the Samba and the Bossa Nova.
But other rhythmic styles are becoming popular too like Baiao, Xote, Maracatu, the Lambada, Axe and Pagode. It’s getting more and more difficult to determine exactly where one or another type of music comes from, cultures mix and mingle so naturally today. Even so, I’m really surprised to hear bands with a Brazilian twist in their music coming from all over the world – Japan, the United States, Israel, Sweden, Norway, Morocco…
What distinguishes Brazilian music from that of other cultures? Am I right in noticing increased emphasis on tempo? And percussion?
Rhythm and percussion are very important elements in Brazilian music, but there is more to it than that. Perhaps as a prelude to this question, it is important to distinguish between what is considered “commercial” music and what one would call “cultural” music. It’s true that there are certain types of music from Brazil, I’m thinking about “Carnaval” music in particular, where the percussion is predominant. Every region has its own music and in certain regions, for example the North East of Brazil, rhythmic styles are countless.
I believe Brazilian musicians are very curious and open to diverse forms of music. It is not uncommon for us to adapt other musical traditions that captivate us, to our own music and in our own way. This creates character, to say the least, but also gives way to exceptional creativity. That’s one of the reasons Brazilian music has had such an impact world-wide.
In the North and North East of Brazil, there is a strong influence from the Caribbean which can be heard in Samba Reggae from Bahia or the Lamabada which is closely related to Zouk. I think that commercial music focuses on rhythm, it’s what gives the music a dance feel and helps stimulate record sales. But there is also a large movement in Brazil of rhythmically subtle and refined musicians who are influenced as much by regional music as they are by classical music.
Brazil has a very strong tradition of classical music. There is also Choro and Bossa Nova – rich melodically and harmonically – and yet, much less popular – but just as lively. These types of music continue to develop because they will always have a loyal public, and excellent musicians who practice this style of music.
What is the biggest stereotype about Brazilian music? This is your chance to correct any popular misunderstandings about this culture.
Perhaps the greatest stereotype would be Carnaval. This type of festive music has come to represent all that is Brazil along with its music, the people, their mentality, soccer, the beach, the parties. Of course there is always a grain of truth in stereotypes and the ones I mention here are not far from reality!
I can say that as with any type of music – and in the case of Carnaval music – there is good and bad material. There is Carnaval music that is truly excellent, with great melodies that are harmonically and rhythmically well constructed. And there is Carnaval music that is a lot simpler and principally designed to seduce the body to move. But that is also an important function of music – to create a desire to dance and to sway, to get away, to disappear, to dream.
I don’t think there is really any misunderstanding about stereotypes… Regarding stereotypes in music, it’s all a part of the marketing game and there is little an artisan like myself can do, to change that. I do my work as best I can, given my capabilities. Companies like Putumayo do a great service to artists and a multitude of cultures by producing and promoting attractive and culturally eclectic albums. These collections inform and educate the masses of all ages and help raise public awareness, stimulate curiosity, and promote truly authentic music. At the same time this provides a viable outlet for many musicians whose music does not fit the commercial “mold” and might otherwise not be heard.
For more information about the label and the album is at the label’s Internet site.
Thanks to Ellen, Mona and Luis for their help with this interview.