What’s Happening in Pernambuco: New Sounds of the Brazilian Northeast
ore than anywhere else in the world, the music imported from Brazil, that is, the genres purported as vital artifact, are usually accurate aural reverberations of the surroundings in which they are created. Most notably Tropicalia, which sprouted from beneath military rule and trickle-down Beatlemania, was a vivid reaction to the country losing its cultural identity and as a result cannibalized bossa nova and samba, then spat it out in revolutionary technicolored psychedelia. It was the sound of the jungle succumbing to urban sprawl and political dissidence in the guise of carefree innocence.
What’s Happening in Pernambuco, a compilation assembled from groups who comprise the Northeastern state’s current Mangue scene, likewise, is indicative of its environment. Unfortunately, and unlike Tropicalia, Mangue’s reach is much smaller, providing only a local connection rather than universal appeal. The “Mangue Manifesto” written in 1991 by journalist and musician, Fred Zero-Four, was a call to arms for artists and bands to “inject some energy in the mud and stimulate what’s left of fertility in the veins of Recife.” Indeed the social and ecological history of Pernambuco’s capital provides enough proof that change was a long time coming.
Founded as a colonial city near Brazil’s golden coast, inundated with hundreds of thousands of African slaves, and plagued with the massacre of the indigenous population, it has slowly evolved into a melting pot that fails to share a singular culture. Paralleled with the American South, the Northeastern states have limped into the 21st century, though on a more extreme scale. The disparity between rich and poor is a debilitating chasm never sealed, the rivers and estuaries that are the lifeblood of the working class have become stagnant swampland due to rampant pollution, and the remnants of unspoken imperialism continues to pervade.
Consequently, along with support from Chico Science, who helms Nacao Zombi (credited as the Velvet Underground of mangue), the manifesto sparked a movement that revived traditional musics “that the tractor of time runs over,” and simultaneously embraced all modals of electronic ephemera transmitting from Europe and the U.S.
What’s Happening does succeed in its attempt to introduce forgotten regional traditions with a modern twist or two. Otto’s entrancing “Bob” transforms the vocal interplay of traditional forro (the Northeast’s version of Delta blues) into a drum n’ bass stunner, Nacao Zumbi’s “Carimbaeo” ducks in and out of a laid-back maracatu beat (a Afro-Brazilian drumming ritual) and comes up with a Morricone-esque soundtrack set on the arid sertao. And when nearly all traces of electronic influence are erased, as on Wado e Realismo Fantastico’s bossa send-up “Se Valicar o Jacare Abraca” or the afro-funk, chant-and-response of Eddie’s lead track, “Pode Me Chamar,” the vision of a healthy, beating heart, alluded to in the original manifesto, becomes clearer.
Part of the problem though, is that the highlights from the mangue scene, circa late ‘90s, haven’t aged all that well. While the prospect of integrating spacey synths and drop beats into a sunny samba framework is tantalizing, many of these experiments are jarring and predictable, or simply not as ambitious as anticipated, hindering the rich flavor already imbedded in the local folk the artists faithfully represent.
Junio Barreto’s “Amigos Bons,” from what I can interpret, is a melancholic lament towards the poverty that envelops his community, but the extraneous globs of phased keys and flute loops give off the stench of stale Zero 7 outtakes or smooth jazz with a complex underbelly. Elements of hip-hop also take precedence; in Mombojo’s “Cabidela” the group crudely welds scratching and rapping atop a suitable ode to the Brazilian soul of the ‘70s, rendering it novelty.
As NPR fodder, What’s Happening has plenty in the way of challenging world rhythms and studio-glazed anthropology, but to the average listener keen on unlocking a treasure trove of unheard psych or the crate-digging hipster looking for a bounty of untapped resource, skim at your own risk.