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The 12th time I heard Erlon Chaves shout the name of composer Jorge Ben on “Cosa Nostra,” the lead track on last year’s ’70s Brazilian-funk comp Samba Soul 70!, it was a little like the sirens calling Odysseus. I had never connected with Brazilian music, however, and with my being more like Homer the Simpson than Homer the poet, it took me a while to pay attention. After all, I had already ignored Chaves 11 times.
A lot of Brazilian stuff had always struck me as loungy kitsch, even though I knew that the ’60s tropicalia movement, featuring giants such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, was as much a political struggle against an oppressive regime as it was a musical struggle against pop cliches. And even though I appreciated the jazz spin that Stan Getz and other Americans gave bossa nova in the ’50s and ’60s, I thought that other Brazilian idioms—the Portuguese-inflected choro and the African-accented samba—just sounded like the carnival music they are: a joy for a moment, tiresome soon after.
Then I absentmindedly spun Samba Soul 70! for the 12th time, it being stuck in my CD player at work because I couldn’t find the case, and I finally heard—really heard—Chaves’ call of “Jorge Ben” over the suddenly irresistible Afro-Brazilian big-beat funk groove that is “Cosa Nostra.”
I had fallen in love with Brazilian music.
I wiped the egg off my face—and the pizza off my shirt and the ice cream off my pants—and realized that I’d been missing out on an incredibly rich musical legacy. Ben, the man who wrote “Cosa Nostra,” has composed thousands of songs that people everywhere know and love. One of the most popular artists in the history of Brazilian music, he became a superstar in 1963 with the hit “Mas, Que Nada.” The next year, a coup turned Brazil into a military dictatorship and tropicalia was born, with Veloso and Gil facing government harassment because their power to sway large audiences frightened the military. Ben was a peripheral member of the movement, mostly because he preferred music to politics, but his experiments with synthesizing the sounds of samba, R&B, bossa nova, and rock were nonetheless revolutionary.
One of the primary places Ben and others experimented was the legendary Jorgal nightclub in Sao Paulo, which employed the band Trio Mocoto: vocalist-guitarist Luis Carlos Fritz, vocalist-traps player Joao Parahyba, and vocalist-percussionist Nereu Gargalo. The trio backed up samba legends Clementina de Jesus, Nelson Cavaquinho, and Cartola; American jazzmen Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, and Earl Hines; and just about anyone else who came into the club. Ben would also sit in with Trio Mocoto, and the threesome helped him create the musical hybrid that is now known as samba rock.
Ben and the band toured and recorded for several years and were wildly successful. Trio Mocoto also received its time in the spotlight with three albums made under its own name between 1971 and 1975. But the lights went out for the band soon after, when the performing and recording opportunities for samba rock dried up as discofied pop took over Brazilian stages and airwaves. The threesome disbanded, and it wasn’t until 2000 that the members played together again, reuniting for a televised anniversary gig.
Now, a quarter-century after its breakup, Trio Mocoto is back with a new album for a new generation. Everyone knows that reunion albums are never good, but Samba Rock is an exception to the rule. At 14 tracks, the CD is overly long, but Trio Mocoto apparently had 25 years’ worth of joie de vivre it needed to get out of its system. Every track is an upbeat party number: I look at my song-by-song notes for this album and they all begin with the word “peppy.” Even the balladic “Pensando Nela” and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s classic “Aguas de Marco,” a tune so gorgeous that I loved it even before my Brazilian conversion, are done at a relatively breakneck pace.
Trio Mocoto’s inability to really give in to a ballad tempo actually hurts “Aguas de Marco,” but the track is the only true misfire on Samba Rock. The band completely misses the song’s spirit and sentiment, instead shotgunning this fine wine as if it were a Pabst. On 1972’s Jobim, the master plays the song with all the suave subtlety he was famous for. The tune cascades like a gentle stream, Jobim’s guitar caught in a quick and seemingly ever-descending chord pattern, his hushed vocals evoking the profundity of his austere meaning-of-life lyrics: “A snake, a stick, it’s John, it’s Joe/It’s a thorn in your hand and a cut in your toe…/And the river bank talks of the waters of March/It’s the promise of life in your heart.”
Trio Mocoto, by contrast, interprets “Aguas de Marco” as a jaunty instrumental, using the traditional Brazilian cuica to carry the vocal melody. The cuica, a handheld friction drum that produces a strange birdlike whoop, is just about the worst thing you can imagine on a song this refined and delicate. But the instrument is used to better, and more appropriate, effect on the dance-ready “Kriola” and the laid-back samba funk of the instrumental “Mocoto Beat,” whose playful nose-flute lines rabble-rouse the already fiery proceedings.
“Kriola” showcases the swaggering vocal style that seems to be popular in the samba-rock world: Over deep organic grooves and electronic colorings, one of the trio sings from the back of his throat, throwing cocky-sounding “ha ha”s into the mix with a voice that sounds as if it’s in the middle of delivering an I-have-coveted-and-conquered-your-wife put-down. “Tudo Bem” also features a sly-fox vocal, lascivious laughter, and a swingin’ party atmosphere, its big-horn samba rock swimming against crisply articulated funk guitar and groovin’ electric piano. “Pensando Nela” takes the samba-rock vibe even further, with cascading Fender Rhodes, a schmaltzy croon, and gentle syncopated grooves comin’ at ya straight outta 1968.
I may be totally off with what the band is all about—there were no English translations included with my promo CD—but I know that the word mocoto is slang the band used to refer to the bare-legged, miniskirted dancers who used to groove to the trio back in the day. And even if the guys in Trio Mocoto are singing about helping the poor, going to church, and maintaining a balanced diet, they do so with a bluster that puts Lil’ Kim to shame.
Besides, the group’s music is far too festive to be about anything other than bacchanalian celebration. Songs like the dub-tinged “Voltei Amor,” the galloping “Os Orixas,” the swing-samba number “Nereu Nereu,” the Minimooged funker “Nao Sei Porque,” and the all-mixed-up “Kibe Cru,” which features both rapped vocals and stride piano in the middle section, are brassy musical merriments filled with so much energy that it feels as if Rio’s infamous Carnaval is about to bust out of the speakers. Even when Trio Mocoto brings it back home with a cover of mentor Ben’s “Adelita,” the band gives the samba rhythms a rocklike power and sing-shouts the chorus with enough verve to match the blaring Vegas-style horns that goose the tune along.
There might be better samba-rock records out there—hell, Samba Rock might even be the equivalent of Slippery When Wet to in-the-know Brazilians. But until I find the time, cash, and knowledge to flesh out my South American music collection, this disc will keep me pulling hammies as I gleefully do the Brazilian boogie. CP