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theartsdesk in Brasilia: Music from the Melting Pot | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Brasilia: Music from the Melting Pot

theartsdesk in Brasilia: Music from the Melting Pot

This young capital city fuses the myriad cultures and influences of a sprawling nation

Meticulous, modern, open, elegant: Brasilia is a city of surprises

I know nothing about Brazil, I have come to realise. A Sergio Mendes album here, a Gilles Peterson compilation there, a blurred memory of catching City of God on Film4 once – these do not add up to even the beginnings of insight into a country big and diverse enough to be more like a continent in its own right.

As one person I meet early on in Brasilia says, asking someone to tell you what's happening in another of Brazil's regions or cultures “could be like asking someone in Athens to tell you about the scene in Helsinki”.

That said, Brasilia itself does bring together a strange blend from across the sprawling nation. I'm in Brazil as part of a cultural delegation, meeting musicians, managers and promoters, and trying to help them understand how they might be able to reach out to European listeners and industry infrastructure. Practically every musician we talk to at some point mentions how Brasilia's unusual history – the capital city was built from scratch in the middle of wilderness and inaugurated as the capital 51 years ago – means that it brings together sounds from across the country.

As people came from all over the country to staff and service the government, so they brought with them their musical styles – and the generations born and brought up there now find cultural fusion completely natural, in a notably different way to the vivid culture clashes of the sprawling megalopolises of Rio and Sao Paolo.

In fact, in every way, Brasilia could hardly be more different to the chaotic hodgepodge of those cities. Its meticulous planning, strict boundaries and the elegant geometries of the Niemeyer architecture make it the antithesis of sprawling slums and tangled roads. In one way it was built to be deliberately inhuman, its open spaces and boulevards made wide open specifically to ensure that anti-government protests would always look small and insignificant – and indeed if you try and walk around the city (which nobody does), it's easy to feel like an ant among the giant blocks.

A mischievous-looking, gold-toothed old man, referred to by all as “The Master”, played a traditional bamboo flute as young women performed circus tricks

This kind of denial of ordinary human life is always illusory, though – and despite the scale and weird zoned make-up of the city, whereby you would see an entire city block of pharmacies and another of grocery stores, that life became quickly visible. Chatting to people in cafés, I generally found a laid-back mentality and an amount of pride in the city's culture – as opposed to its grandness – that surprised me. The grittier side of Brazilian life wasn't hidden either; just two blocks from the hotel district where we and oil-hungry American and Chinese businesspeople stayed was a precinct where crackheads seemed to dominate, and across the city policemen stood around on corners with the attitude of people who were very happy to be armed and would be very happy to draw their guns.

The laid-back attitude prevailed among the musicians, too, though, and their variety made me dizzy. I met Lucy & the Popsonics, a cheeky electro-punk-pop duo with a mordant sense of humour despite their zippy music. Pé de Cerrado were a sprawling band fusing Afro-Latin and native tribal percussion with an intense love of Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull, which altogether made for some overwhelming shamanic rock noise.

Dudu Maia was a handsome and urbane mandolinist dedicated to showing the wider world the late-19th-century urban Brazilian music that was a forerunner to samba, bossa nova and the rest. Sacassaia were a stoner hip-hop duo with a taste for the surreal (and the occasional bizarre interjection of a south-east London accent as one had lived in Beckenham for a year). Mestre Zé do Pife e as Jevelinas spun my brain out yet further – a mischievous-looking, gold-toothed old man referred to by all as “The Master” who played a traditional bamboo flute and some 20 young women who variously accompanied him or performed circus tricks, they had all the appearances of being a cult.

In amongst these were more straightforward rock and heavy-metal bands, traditional music originating from across Brazil and even a teenage security guard who made an unofficial approach to me demonstrating his rapping skills – doing extremely creditable impersonations of Ludacris and Busta Rhymes. Club promoters approached me too, eager to explain the local techno and dubstep scenes, and how they were putting on events to provide employment for marginalised people.

None of them could name a British music festival other than Glastonbury or Reading, but then I certainly couldn't name a Brazilian one other than Rock in Rio

This was a government-sponsored event but there was an odd informality to it too, as to everything in the Brasilia music scene that I witnessed. Almost nobody but the few biggest acts make a living from music in Brazil at all, with piracy rife and incomes generally low – but it still seems to be something that is considered honourable to pursue, and most of the musicians that I talked with demonstrated great patience and pleasure in what they did.

Possibilities are opening up, though. While the rest of the world economy tumbles in freefall, I felt a sense of optimism – Brazil has new oil reserves, its economy is growing and it is staging the World Cup and Olympics in 2014 and 2016 respectively. It's not India or China yet, but the world's eyes are on it, and the musicians were quietly aware of the possibilities that this affords if not necessarily how to exploit them internationally. Innovation internally is rife, with hyper-modern schemes like alternative currencies and crowd-funding helping recordings and shows to happen without outside investment – but few that I spoke to had detailed ideas of how they could break through into foreign markets.

None of them, for example, could name a British music festival other than Glastonbury or Reading, but then I certainly couldn't name a Brazilian one other than Rock in Rio – so the workshops we were participating in felt valuable, like the chipping open of communication channels that would work both ways. While the large Spanish-speaking population in the USA is breaking Latin music through to wider audiences, Portuguese-speaking Brazil is another, undiscovered country. If we are to understand the cultural and geographical vastness and the wealth of stimulating sound and inspiration it has, then we need to understand the subtle multiculturalism that flows beneath and around the geometric architecture of Brasilia, just as much as the flashy vibrancy of other cities or the tropical exoticism of the Amazon basin.

As we left our hotel to move on we were confronted with a vast tour bus (pictured above, with Joe featured). The duo checking in to the hotel, we were told, played Brazilian country music – a monstrously cheesy sound all about the woes of life, performed at rodeos for the vast rural population, which is more popular by some degrees of magnitude than the country's more sophisticated, officially sanctioned cultural ambassadors like Caetano Veloso. Once again, I realise that despite what I've learned from my trip so far, I know nothing about Brazil.

As I write this, I have just arrived in Rio de Janeiro. Stepping out of baggage reclaim into the front concourse of Rio de Janeiro's aiport was a physical shock to the system. After the dry heat, clean lines, open spaces and considered attitudes of Brasilia it's a furious barrage of soupy humidity, shrieking police whistles, pungent smells, insistent hustlers, lights, car horns, clashing music and surging crowds. It really is another country entirely... and another story.

Brasilia was built to be deliberately inhuman. If you try and walk around the city (which nobody does) it's easy to feel like an ant among the giant blocks

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