Music Reviews: Two From Poland, One From Brazil

By Ernest Barteldes

mtv-unplugged-brodka-w-iext53694443

As I have written here before, Warsaw-based Monika Brodka has had an interesting trajectory over her career.  A winner of Poland’s version of Idol back in 2004, she started out her recording career with two very mainstream albums early on that got her a lot of radio play (the songs from those releases are still featured on pop radio to this day), but then she took a whole different direction: she went through a four-year hiatus and reemerged with Granda (2010, Sony Music), which took her music to a more alternative direction, and followed that up with the English-language EP Lax (Kayax,  2012) and more recently Clashes (Kayax, 2016), which took her music to even more experimental territory.

The last three releases are the focus of MTV Unplugged (Kayax, 2019), her first release captured live in the southeastern city of Lublin in 2018 in reimagined versions that depart dramatically from the studio versions of the same tunes, starting with “Can’t Wait for War,” which features what at first I thought was a Theremin but turned out to be a saw played with a bow – something that I have only heard before on the New York City subway. Her take on “Varsovie,” an ode to her adopted city is also surprising, with mostly acoustic elements replacing the mostly electronic feel of the studio recording.

Although it’s an “unplugged” album, there are several non-acoustic instruments on the record – Brodka plays a semi-acoustic guitar, and so does her lead guitarist. While her bass player performs with a ukulele bass for most of the set, an electric bass (probably a Fender P-bass) can be heard on some tracks.

Notable tracks include “Syberia,”which brings l guest Krszystof Zalewski on guitar and vocals – it’s quite an intimate setting, with Brodka playing a six-string banjo (tuned as a guitar).  The tune is not that different from the studio recording, which was also played on acoustic guitar, but the two-part harmonies and the banjo bring an extra texture to the song, which is mostly a filler on Granda, and also “Santa Muerte,” an English-language tune from Clashes that features fellow Idol alum Dawid Podsiało. The arrangement that is incredibly close to American bluegrass thanks to Brodka’s banjo, the strings and the wandering saw, which adds an eerie feel to the tune.

ulotne4

Anna Maria Jopek has a history of collaborating with many respected musicians including Brazil’s Ivan Lins, France’s Mino Cinelu and others, but Ulotne (“Elusive,” Universal Music Polska, 2018) is only her third album done as a full collaboration with another artist (the others being Upojenie, her 2002 collaboration with Pat Metheny and Minione, her 2017 album with Gonzalo Rubalcaba), in this case being legendary saxophonist Branford Marsalis, with whom she recorded a couple of tracks with on 2008’s live Jo & Co (Universal Music Polska).

Featuring mostly original material penned by Jopek and her husband and main collaborator Marcin Kidryński, the album flows beautifully track by track – the musicians (rounded out by Cinelu, Maria Pomianowska, Robert Kubiszyn, Pedro Nazaruk, Marcin Wasilewski, and Atom String Quartet) have all worked together before either on a live format or in the studio, and the chemistry can immediately be felt throughout. Marsalis is featured on every track, while the supporting band gives a solid backup without getting in the way. As in most Jopek album, there are a plenty of multi-tracked vocals, but they are subtler than in earlier releases – the direction here seems to be make everything as organic as possible.

The deluxe version of the album features four extra tracks, one being Pożegnanie z Marią, a song beautifully recorded as a tribute to recently deceased trumpeter Tomaz Stanko, who wrote the tune.

 

Carnaval in Brazil is fast approaching, and given the election of extreme right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro, who was voted in with promises of restoring “traditional values” to the country, it is expected that some will not be too happy about it. One of the first songs to reflect this is “Proibido o Carnaval,” a single by openly gay singer Daniela Mercury and legendary singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso.

The song, which translates as “Forbidden Carnaval” wax against censorship and the anti-LGBT attitude of Bolsonaro and his cabinet, turning his own words against him and vowing not to allow the right spoil the party for those who don’t want to become stereotypes.

I am not sure how the tune has been received in Brazil, but after several plays on my phone I can say that some will frown upon the words – but it’s not like anyone who agrees with Veloso and Mercury will care.

Album Review: Badi Assad/Hatched

By Ernest Barteldes

I’ve been following Badi Assad for about fifteen years, from the time she was doing more avant-garde instrumental-oriented music right into her shift into the pop-jazz-fusion material she started putting on her records, going from 2005’s Verde up to Hatched (QuatroVentos),  in which she reinvents pop hits in her own way – the tunes are still recognizable, but her personal imprint combined with her signature acoustic guitar chops – are undeniable.

It was fortunate that I was oblivious of most of the tunes on the disc so I could appreciate the music without any bias, approaching them from a completely fresh point of view. She kicks off with Mumford & Sons’ “Little Lion Man” with a bossa-nova vibe that contrasts to the much faster paced original.  She transforms “The Hanging Tree” (from the Hunger Games soundtrack) into an acoustic funk that showcases her guitar and vocal chops, leaving the original recording as floundered Joe Cocker did to The Beatles on “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

My favorite recreation was her take on Lorde’s “Royals” – Assad plays it double tempo, with Simone Sou’s strong percussion as a backdrop to the Assad’s fluid guitar and Rui Barossi’s upright bass.

I am looking forward to catching this material in a live format. The last time I saw her perform was during the Verde tour, when she played accompanied solely by her guitar – it was great, but I would love to see her stretching it live with a band behind her.

Not that she needs it at all – she is highly engaging on her own.

If you happen to live anywhere near where she’s touring, do not miss the opportunity to hear her live. I have already told my friends in Fortaleza – the only major Brazilian city she is playing in at the time of this writing – to go to the show.

And a note to my readers in Chicago – the publication there that I have contributed there for over a decade has a new music editor who thinks he is the last Coca-Cola in the desert. He is doing the usual house cleaning that commonly comes with change in the masthead, so you will not be seeing my byline there for a while. The solution? Subscribe to my feed, because I have not forgotten you.

My Brazilian Music Loot: Buying Music on Vacation

By Ernest Barteldes

Whenever I travel abroad I make sure to visit the local music stores to search for music  that is not easily available online or  simply to locate some long-lost  musical gem. That was true last year when Renata and I visited Poland and I went on a quest for records by singer Anna Maria Jopek and rock band Bajm, and it was especially true during our last visit to Brazil. The U.S. dollar is on an all-time high these days, which made travel to the country way cheaper than it used to be. Though this is clearly a disadvantage to locals  since it has made travel (and some other services) far more expensive, it was a huge plus for foreign travelers, who get to get a bigger bang for their buck at hotels, restaurants and shops.

Before I even left to Bahia, I’d read that legendary singer Gal Costa was releasing a new album featuring produced by Kassin (of +2) with tunes by Caetano Veloso, Tom Ze, Marisa Monte and younger songwriters like Marcelo Camelo. The release date was the very day I’d arrive in Bahia, so I made a point of purchasing it in her native land. I searched a lot of shops near our hotel with no luck, but was finally able to get it at the Salvador airport during our final hours there.  Since this was a new release it was a little pricey, but in the end it cost about as much as if I had purchased it on iTunes. Gal Estratosferica (Universal Music Brasil) is quite refreshing – she allowed Kassin to “ go nuts”  with the arrangement, and the result is a youthful album that seamlessly blends electronic and organic elements around her voice.  You can read my review published a few weeks back on this blog, written while I was still in Brazil. Once in Fortaleza, Renata and I headed to the nearby Shopping Aldeota, a mall that caters to the residents of the surrounding areas (malls are still a central part of Brazil’s social life and are in every major neighborhood) and when to Lojas Americanas, a discount franchise that is ubiquitous in the country. I immediately headed to the music department and raided the bargain section, where I found some great stuff for as little as $3 (10 Brazilian Reais).

One of the first I picked up was Cazuza’s excellent O Tempo Nao Para,  his only live album released in his lifetime (there was a posthumous live disc with Barao Vermelho that is not really good).

 

Cazuza was the poet of his generation, and he wrote many wonderful songs during his brief career, which ended when AIDS claimed him when he was 34 years old.  The album is cathartic – his voice is clearly hoarse, and he had lost an incredible amount of weight. Unlike other artists of his time, he did not hide his condition, but courageously kept on going until he breathed his last. I am a big fan of Caetano Veloso, and among the finds was his “Best of”  compilation  released in the 90s. It is clearly dated since it contains none of his inspired material from albums like “Livro,”  “Ce”  or “Fina Estampa,”  but it is a pretty concise document of his work up to the late 80s with songs such as “Alegria Alegria,”  “Sampa”  and the weird “Shy Moon,”  an English-language duet with British-born one hit wonder Ritchie.

Years ago you wouldn’t  have caught me dead with an Ivete Sangalo album, but  I have grown to admire the Bahia-born singer, especially after catching her live a handful of times over the years. Sure, she does not have the vocal chops of the likes of Marisa Monte or Gal Costa, but she rocks when playing live.  I made a point of attending her  May 31st concert in Fortaleza, where she paid tribute to Tim Maia alongside emerging R&B singer Criollo, and I am glad I did, because it was truly a memorable performance.

She has great charisma and completely dominates the stage – it is little wonder that she has become the biggest selling artist in Brazil and plays to sold-out stadiums wherever she goes – an example of this is her “Ao Vivo no Maracana,”  captured live at the world’s largest soccer stadium with guest appearances by Alejandro Sanz, Skank’s Samuel Rosa and others – again a stellar performance and a great album to party to.

It’s hard to find a bossa nova album I don’t have these days, but I was glad to get my hands on “Tom – Vinicius – Toquinho – Miucha Gravado ao Vivo no Canecao,”  a 1974 concert featuring bossa co-creators Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Morais alongside guitarist/singer Toquinho and vocalist Miucha (the sister of Chico Buarque and mother of Bebel Gilberto) in an amazing live performance featuring some of the best Brazilian music ever written done by the artists who introduced them to the world.

Disc Review: Gal Costa/Estratosférica

By Ernest Barteldes

Distorted guitars and rock drums kick off Brazilian singer Gal Costa’s 30th studio album, almost making a statement about the fact that the singer is not staying within the bossa nova comfort zone that she is best known to American audiences. The song, entitled “Sem Medo Nem Esperança” was penned by Antonio Cicero and Arthur Nogueira could be described as visceral and daring.

Costa takes full use of her vocal range, allowing her voice to crack at certain points. On an interview with Brazil’s G1 website, she said that she personally chose the tune to be the opener “because of Antonio Cicero’s lyrics that is really about my moment, it’s fuck-tastic. It’s an autobiographical song, it talks about me – it’s as if I were talking to people. Cicero did something that Caetano Veloso knows how to do well: to write for me, to say what is true for me.”

Gal Costa’s more traditional fans will not be disappointed – unlike her previous disc “Recanto” (Universal Music, 2011); she doesn’t really go into much experimentation. There are some hummable sambas, such as the Mallu-penned lead single “Quando Você Olha Pra Ela,” which has a mellow arrangement that reminds listeners of the material she recorded in the mid-70s after her early Tropicalismo phase. Another great moment is “Amor Se Acalme,” a mellow ballad by Marisa Monte, Arnaldo Antunes and Cezar Mendes.  The tune is quite characteristic of Monte’s work: lots of words crammed in a few bars and then long notes on a single vowel – this is certain to appear on local radio stations in the near future.

Some tunes left my head scratching – “Muita Sorte” has a very nice melody, but the mostly electronic arrangement does not do it justice. The same thing can be said about “Por Baixo,” a Tom Zé composition filled with extraneous sounds behind Gal Costa’s sincere delivery.

On the other hand, there are songs that are amazingly written – “Dez Anjos” is collaboration between Milton Nascimento and young singer-songwriter Criolo (who as of this writing is on a Tim Maia tribute tour with Ivete Sangalo) that is melodically and lyrically beautiful. Also notable is “Espelho d’Agua,” a Marcelo Camelo-Thiago Camelo (who frequently write for Maria Rita) rock ballad that has a well-constructed acoustic arrangement.

“Estratosférica” was produced by Kassim and Moreno Veloso of The +2’s, who gave the album a fresh feel without going too crazy on the arrangements. It is quite accessible, reaching out to younger fans without losing touch with her more classic fans – thus the presence of the bonus track “Ilusão à Toa,” a pre-bossa nova era song by the underrated Johnny Alf that could have been part of 2004’s “Todas as Canções e Eu,” which was dedicated to songs of the 1940s and 50s.

Gal Costa

Estratosférica

Universal Music Brasil

Available for download on Amazon and iTunes.

Disc Review: Discover World Music/Various Artists

By Ernest Barteldes

When it comes to music, I am a bit of an omnivore – I listen to almost everything with the possible exception of gangsta rap or death metal (then there’s the music played at the gym, but my earphones have solved that). As far as I can remember, I have always listened to music from all over the world. In school, I remember being the only weirdo who not only knew who Harry Belafonte and Elizete Cardoso were (I’ll let you Google that one) but also knew a great part of their catalogues.

Lila Downs

Attending concerts at Summerstage and Celebrate Brooklyn deeply broadened my scope – it was there that I first heard groups like Babasonics (Argentina), Amadou & Mariam (Mali) and Lila Downs (Mexico), and I was also blessed to have been present for what turned out to be the final performance by Celia Cruz.

My time as a contributing writer for the now-defunct Global Rhythm magazine was also an eye-opener. I recall that every month the editors (some of whom I am still in touch with) would send the writers a list of records to review, and I would always pick stuff I was not really familiar with so I could learn a bit more about them – during those years, so much music reached me that it is almost overwhelming to think about it. After some time, I started reviewing live performances – one of the most funs was The Pogues, who played a St. Patrick’s Day Concert at Roseland Ballroom back in 2007. I recall that I was probably one of very few sober people in the room (I don’t drink much while covering shows, maybe a beer and that’s it – you can’t really rely on just your notes if you have too much to drink).

World Music is, however, a hard sell in America. Just a few months back I remember talking about Lila Downs to some co-workers and getting blank stares in return – even if some of them HAD watched Frida. Never mind that her shows are completely sold out in New York, and that is also true about stars like Bebel Gilberto, Malian blues guitarist Vieux Farka Touré, Mexico’s Maná and Colombia’s Aterciopelados. From my experience, American audiences in general do not get ‘foreign’ music unless it is sung in English (one of the reasons why Shakira is big in the US and other Latin artists are not).

It’s not like folks don’t try –  World Music organizations and labels frequently bring artists stateside, but those shows are limited to centers like New York, Chicago (which hosts an annual festival every year during the summer), Los Angeles and Miami – some acts do make it as far as Phoenix but it’s not like they are filling halls in Topeka, KS.  I once had an argument with an editor who told me to stop pitching him African musicians – his readers (or he) were not interested – never mind that some of the acts were performing in one of the most popular concert venues in his town.

What would it take mainstream audiences who are not fans of NPR to pay attention? Maybe bringing everything together in a package would be a good start for World Music neophytes would be a good start – which brings us to Arc Music’s Discover World Music, a double CD that showcases different musicians from around the globe. Some are old favorites like Portugal’s fantastic guitarist Custódio Castelo, one of the most sought-out musicians in his country. He appears on “Inquietude,” a gorgeous instrumental piece that highlights his technique on the Portuguese guitar – the most important instrument in fado.  Brazilian music is also very present via Ceumar’s “Gotas do Norte,” a fine example of xaxado, a near-forgotten rhythm from the northeastern part of the country that has been pretty much dwarfed by more commercial fare I’d rather stay away from.

Other highlights include Egypt’s Hossam Ramzy, one of the most creative composers of his generation, and also Noel McLoughlin’s gorgeous “Song for Ireland,” a tune sung with so much passion that it gives you goose bumps even if you don’t have an Irish bone in your body.

Arc Music is one of these labels that always bring you something new – discovering their releases led me to learn about artists like Marta Gomez, Klezmer Juice and so many more. I really recommend you to get this one as your personal introduction to many other things out there.

Discover World Music

Various Artists

Arc Music

CD Review: Caetano Veloso’s “Abraçaço”

It took me a while for me to finally listen to this album, but it was worth the wait because I could get my mind off the cacophony around me so I could look at this without influence from anyone else.  For the third time, Caetano Veloso teams up with the youngsters of Bandacê to create what I would regard as a late-career masterpiece. For decades he relied on lavish arrangements (often under the direction of master cellist Jacques Morelembaum) and instead plays backed by a bare-bones quartet that is more indie-rock than samba. He still plays his bossa-inflected acoustic guitar, but his music is more visceral these days than it had been during his more commercial 70-80s days when he got British pop singer Richie to duet with him on the very radio-friendly “Shy Moon.” But I digress.

The Caetano I hear is closer to the guy I heard in the music he was writing in the late 60s and early 70s – the songs are highly biographical, and reflect memorable tunes like “É Proibido Proibir” or “Terra,” the latter being about a photo of the Earth seen from the perspective of someone who had been in jail for political reasons. This is evidenced by “Um Comunista,” a song that whose lyrics talk about the life and death of activist Carlos Mariguella, an activist who fought against the military dictatorship in Brazil and ended up assassinated by the police during an ambush. The tune also looks nostalgically at the dreams of the socialists of his era and the results today – one of the fighters is now president and no one seems to remember what the fight was about.

One of the most poignant tunes actually opens the album – “A Bossa Nova É Foda”(Bossa Nova Is The Bitch) – in just a few minutes, he looks at how the bossa movement changed his own perspective of music in spite of what “the poet from Minnesota” – a reference to Bob Dylan – could do to his writing. He seems angry at Joao Gilberto & Co. at times, but in the end he is grateful because they paved the way for him.

Many critics in Brazil derided the album as “too personal,” but what they missed is precisely that – I think Caetano doesn’t give a shit about what critics have to say. His real fans get him, and they will keep singing along to his songs even if the lyrics are somehow incomprehensible unless you understand his personal history.  Caetano has rediscovered his internal muse, and listening to him lay it like this is quite refreshing – even if you don’t understand the words.

Caetano Veloso

Abraçaço

Nonesuch