Azymuth — JID 004
Just before the release of their new album JID 004, Charlotte Algar spoke to these titans of samba jazz about the politics of bossa nova, the early years of Azymuth and how collaboration is the only way to procure the sounds of the future.
The release of JID 004, Azymuth’s newest studio album produced by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammed, saw giants of the Brazilian jazz scene seamlessly collaborate with two legendary hip-hop producers to create something fresh, imaginative and beautiful. There’s a lot to be said for the collaborative nature of Brazilian music. From it’s inception it has been fuelled by intersecting cultures and their respective sounds. Centuries on, this spirit remains at the forefront of the minds of the brightest Brazilian musicians. I spoke to Azymuth (Ivan ‘Mamão Conti’, Alex Malheiros and Kiko Continentino) over video call shortly before the release of the album. It’s fair to say I was rather starstruck, blushing at my student’s Portuguese, but their warmth, openness and great patience whilst I tripped over my soft Rs and slightly-too-similar Ls, made for an enlightening and exploratory discussion of the music.
I first ask about the creative process, how they all worked together in the studio. It’s incredible to imagine such titans of jazz coming together with top-notch hip-hop producers, and everyone I’ve spoken to about the album thus far has been struck by the effortless melding of samba, jazz and hip-hop qualities. About Ali Shaheed Muhammed and Adrian Younge, Kiko says: “I didn’t know their work yet, but researched it as soon as we were invited, and saw that Ali was one of the pioneers of the hip-hop movement in Brooklyn and Adrian is a producer who works with many movie soundtracks in California. I thought it was a cool idea, this concept of exchange between North American music, from its west and east coasts, and Azymuth, that has samba and Brazilian rhythms in it’s DNA. It was like Azymuth gave ingredients to complete the American producers’ vision.” Mamão continues: “They gave us freedom to do what we wanted, that’s very important, it’s a delight to work like that in a studio.”
The life-blood of samba is the quest for freedom. With roots in Candomblé (a Yorubaland religion that survived through syncretism with enforced Catholicism, imposed on enslaved West Africans across Latin America) it has long been a vehicle for revolution, protest and cultural expression. Samba is a sound soaked in joy. Dancing and deafening bands are part and parcel, but the lyrics are poetic laments of struggle and saudade (an untranslatable word related to sadness, nostalgia and the longing for something lost or imagined). A particularly famous, poetic example is Clara Nunes’ ‘Canto Das Tres Raças’ (Song of the Three Races) which roughly says: ‘Nobody heard a sob of pain in the corner of Brazil… It always echoed… This song that should be a song of joy is a song of pain’. Enough to bring tears to the driest of eyes, this yearning is bottled in swathes of music old and new.
“There’s always a musical connection here in Brazil to the outskirts of our cities, hip-hop also started in the outskirts of cities, the ghettoes of the USA. People here in Brazil are very aware of these movements”
This lament of struggle has grown into a treasured national music that resonates across the world. Jazz, with roots in the oppression and enslavement of West Africans, and its merging with samba post-revolution in Brazil, is an example of two streams of black music coming together to represent a time of rapid social change. Alex explains his take on this: “There’s always a musical connection here in Brazil to the outskirts of our cities.” It’s true that Brazil’s most treasured sounds, like samba, camdomblé, maracatu (and now baile-funk) were not born in city centres, but in the favelas surrounding cities, or altogether outside of them. He continues, drawing similarity with the music of Adrian and Ali: “I believe hip-hop also started in the outskirts of cities, the ghettoes of the USA. People here in Brazil are very aware of these movements, since the beginning of the 20th century with blues, rhythm and blues and other styles. I think America is very influential in music around the world. With time, this arrived in Brazil with people imitating the Americans.” This can be heard on many a radio-show here on Worldwide FM, with examples of funk, psychedelic rock and soul popular in the 70s and 80s. He goes on to make a connection with the similar colonial pasts of the two countries, after the respective European invasions. “We were learning with the world, a young nation, as young as the USA, but more confused. Here we don’t have any support for the artists, for music, but we resist.” Such discussion around the history of a country, harking back hundreds of years, might perhaps seem arbitrary when discussing a music that sounds so unapologetically modern and fresh. But this discussion is ubiquitous in Brazilian music, which has such a keen awareness of its roots in struggle, colonial trauma and saudade.
Unlike Azymuth’s other recent albums, this project was recorded 100% analogue. Alex says: “They went old school, which Mamão and I already had experience with. We started very young in studios with 2, 4 or 6 channels, until Azymuth’s first album which used 8 channels. We went back to this with these guys [Adrian and Ali],” Kiko chimes in: “The experience of recording an album analogue, without any digital support, was very interesting, without any digital support — it was like a return to old times.”
“After 47 years you already have your own formula, you create using all your references. I think this is just a quality that we have, its something from our core.”
And the old times are worth returning to. The trio grew up with the sounds of samba jazz already echoing from clubs in the centre of Rio de Janeiro. Mamão says: “Sambalanço Trio, Zimbo Trio, Bossa Três, Dom Um Romão, Edison Machado, Plínio Araújo, were all huge influences for me, they were pioneers” I ask about their distinct differences from these bands. For me, Azymuth has a more free, slightly more chaotic or rebellious sound. After an hour-long phone call with a jazz drummer friend, I discovered that there are clear musical decisions that create this, quite obvious to the trained ear, rather than just a ‘feel’. One of the most interesting pointers I was given during this frantic “teach me all you know about samba jazz, I’m interviewing Azymuth next week” conversation was to do with Mamão’s attitude to the telecoteco. A repeated rhythmic figure, it behaves like a clave, creating tension around the rhythmic progression and rooting the groove without the use of any four-to-the-floor simplification. Usually, the telecoteco is played solely on the hi-hat with the left hand, but Mamão modulates it freely across the drum kit, swapping between hands and drums. A very clear, transcribable example of Azymuth’s constant development and renewal of samba jazz from the core. When posed with this, Mamão shrugs it off a little: “I believe this is very natural, because after 47 years you already have your own formula, you create using all your references. I think this is just a quality that we have, its something from our core. We had a lot of time rehearsing, it’s very easy for us to mix these different samba styles. And you go making your way and create your own signature.”
Alex goes on to explain the position of Azymuth in the history of Brazilian jazz, putting the band in the context of Mamão’s list of inspirations. He says: “I agree with everything that Mamão said, but there’s the thing, we started a bit after them — we are old [he smiles] but they still started before us! We used to see them when we were teenagers, we saw all of them. Azymuth’s first album was instrumental, but also had vocals like Tamba Trio. We started the band with a singer, back when we still didn’t have a name. It was later that we knew that we wanted to make an important kind of music, not was just some product, so we started to look for new sounds, in Europe, in the USA, with progressive rock musicians. This, for me, is why Azymuth differs from other Brazilian groups, with this search for a more international sound.”
Alex says: “By the end of our childhood, Mamão and I had bossa nova. Bossa came as something modern within Brazil’s traditional ways. We caught the beginning of this very young, when we were 11 or 12 years old.” There’s a school of thought that labels bossa nova as something born from the white middle class. It was perpetuated by young people living in apartments in and around Rio, singing with acoustic guitars in the evening, probably with a couple of bottles of wine. For many, I think, there’s an air of champagne socialism connected to it. The lyrics to the songs are romantic and mostly apolitical, with any political inclinations that do appear draped in metaphor. The music is of course steeped in samba, but with samba being such a large part of musical life in Brazil, this perhaps doesn’t mean as much (in terms of social allegiance and ideology) as one with an outside perspective might assume. This opinion is consolidated by the writings of Ruy Castro, a Brazilian author and journalist known for his analysis of bossa nova and for his biographies (including those of Garrincha, Nelson Rodrigues and Carmen Miranda). I ask if the band know his work, and what they think of this perspective on one of Brazil’s most successful cultural exports.
“To think that bossa nova is one thing and the samba is another is wrong. No. It all evolves, it’s a mass.”
Mamão immediately jumps in: “To think that bossa nova is one thing and the samba is another is wrong. No. It all evolves, it’s a mass.” Alex continues, measuredly offering: “Ruy Castro is very cool, but sometimes he doesn’t get it, the musician is always the best one to tell the story.” Kiko goes on to further debunk Castro’s observations, saying: “It is said that bossa nova had a political and social aspect because it is a genre that was born in the rich side of Rio de Janeiro, in the Copacabana flats and so. But there are controversies about this, because the musicians all came from different social classes. Tom Jobim struggled to pay the rent every month. There were others that were very young, Roberto Menescal, Carlos Lyra. Even João Gilberto had some health problems, went back to Bahia, went to Minas, to Rio Grande do Sul. Personally, I don’t think there is a political issue with bossa nova. I believe it’s purely a musical movement. Bossa nova was middle class, but it embraced every class. Samba has this predominance of coming from the favelas, it was born like that — it also has a religious side, candomblé. It started in the beginning of the past century with Donga, João da Baiana, Pixinguinha, until it passed through Cartola, Nelson Cavaquinho, with many fantastic black songwriters contributing.”
One of the things I think about almost every day at work is the apparent separation between bossa nova (and psychedelic or funk styles from the 70s) from samba. Why is it that European DJs are drawn to the most popular Brazilian styles rather than digging deeper into samba, pagode, camdomblé, Brazil’s black music that continues to evolve and has continued social relevance? Especially because in addition to all of its social meaning, it’s just really, really good. I’ve had many theories, one being the ‘palatable’ nature of mellow guitar music to the Western ear, another being the idea that white music has historically always had more money behind it, meaning it gets pressed on record and shipped out to the rest of the world more easily. It’s my view that due to this, over the years the external imagination of Brazil has been soundtracked by bossa nova. Perhaps this cultural export is more helpful to a white and upper class government wanting to increase tourism and, as always, oppress the voices of the maltreated black, working class and indigenous people in Brazil. I think there’s a little truth in each of these theories, but I previously failed to consider the role of the inwards-facing Brazilian media. Alex explains how important songwriters that preceded bossa nova, with roots in the favelas, were forgotten: “The most political thing, really, is that the radio stations that existed since the ’20s until 60s/70s failed to recognise songwriters that played roots music there in the favelas — like Cartola, Nelson Cavaquinho — they were just forgotten during all those years leading up to bossa nova. Just after bossa nova these songwriters were rescued, like Cartola, who was brought to light by Beth Carvalho [a national treasure samba and pagode singer]. Beth Carvalho wasn’t bossa nova, but was responsible for shining a light on many of those songwriters. I’m explaining this to say that there was a huge separation, yes. Another example, Johnny Alf was homosexual and very discriminated against. Maybe he was the most bossa nova of them all, way before Jobim and everyone else. In 1946 he did ‘Diza’, on the same year that Mamão and I were born. It’s a marvellous composition, and one of the most beautiful songs Azymuth have recorded.” It seems that pre-bossa nova songwriters aren’t the only artists who were forgotten at the hands of a media ridden with vested interest and ignorance. Alex continues: “In Brazil there’s a big separation created by the media, the media never cared for names like Carmen Miranda, Aloysio de Oliveira, they just choose to forget. The media separates what they don’t want or what they don’t understand. With Azymuth is a bit like that, we hold off because they want us to hold off, they don’t want Azymuth to be an example. Many Brazilians don’t know Azymuth, even Kiko didn’t know Azymuth so much.” This points to a pattern evident in many post-colonial countries of one set of musical styles marketed for the people, and an entirely different set marketed to the rest of the world.
“Every year you have one new kind of rhythm, everybody puts a name to it, but this is only a caricature. Our root is true samba, the samba that comes from the favelas.”
Considering this pattern of what could be called a musical misunderstanding, exacerbated by media outlets at home and abroad, I ask about the hard lines drawn between styles. I ask about the fact that though samba and other styles are ubiquitous, unavoidable practises all over Brazil, from the radio you’d think that everyone was sat around with guitars in candlelit restaurants. Bossa nova is enshrined in the world’s imagination of Brazil, but samba and other black musics which never really get the airplay reflective of their huge popularity. Mamão speaks on this: “Every year you have one kind of rhythm, everybody puts a name to it, but this is only a caricature. Our root is true samba, the samba that comes from the favelas. It always progresses, and has always embrace other influences and ideas, like American and Italian culture. As a musician playing music like ours, you have lots of information and you modify it. I play samba, and I play bossa nova, jazz, mambo, rumba, waltz. I just recorded with Marcelo D2 virtually, we record hip-hop with many people.” It seems that though these lines in the sand have been drawn, Azymuth’s aim is to wash them away with a wave of collaboration, imagination and blatant disregard for what the media might or might not think. He continues: “I think this exchange is amazing, that’s what makes music evolve.” Turning back to the discussion around foreign DJs focusing on some genres but not others, Mamão remains resolute that, just like Alex’s thoughts on Ruy Castro’s analysis of Brazil’s musical history, musicians are the ones who can truly tell the story. In Azymuth’s catalogue of beautiful albums, you can hear the intertwining of Brazilian styles, the development of electronic production, constant collaboration and renewal. He affirms: “People in Europe think in a very cool way, but only the musicians will understand these changes and know how to mix them.”
After listening to JID 004 without prior knowledge of Azymuth, you wouldn’t expect three older guys to pop up on a video call. Their attitude completely relinquishes the importance of anything they’ve done in the past, they only look forward. Their quest for the “music of the future” isn’t out of ego, it’s out of their understanding of music as collaboration. Music as communication. Music as heart. Fresh music doesn’t form around an aesthetic, it doesn’t only come from young musicians, it doesn’t only come from one place or people. Mamão tells me: “Like Quincy Jones says, there are two types of music, the good and the bad. So we go on playing, receiving new information, new exchanges.” Kiko continues: “Azymuth always wanted something different, so it’s important to always be in touch with music from your time but from the past too. I listen a lot to classical music, that is fantastic, it’s inside everything. If you listen to Cartola and Nelson Cavaquinho, the samba guys from the favela, they had melodies that sounded like classical music, because somehow they listened to it on the radio.” They speak so effusively about the importance of collaboration and togetherness in music. “This exchange, this intersection, is super important. I think it’s more or less what happens in JID 004, it’s an exchange. Always bringing new information to the time we live in.” And they do it so well. It was a bucket-list moment to speak to these absolute titans of samba-jazz, and I definitely made my self a caipirinha afterwards.