Forty years ago, you would not have found a "world music" bin at your local record store. The term simply did not exist. Except perhaps for some eccentric ethnomusicologists, the only non-American music that the general public listened to was European classical music. Whether it was based on arrogance, ignorance or a little bit of both is now irrelevant. With the incredible proliferation of interest in music of cultures from all over the world, it is hard to imagine a time when we were so provincial and apathetic about the enormous musical riches around the globe. Somewhere between the banality of early 60s pop music and the Beatles and the whole "British Invasion," there slipped in a sound that continues to captivate audiences to this day - that first wave of Brazilian music roared into American ears like a hurricane in the long-ago days of the Kennedy administration.
Upon his return from a State Department-sponsored tour of Brazil in 1961, guitarist Charlie Byrd almost immediately headed straight for the recording studio, with saxophonist Stan Getz. The result was Jazz Samba , an epochal recording that remains one of the best selling and most influential jazz sides ever laid down. What followed was a "Bossa Nova" craze so pervasive that it even led to a No. 1 hit record - the insipid "Blame it on the Bossa Nova." Stated very broadly and generally, much of this music combines elements of jazz harmonies with the "exotic," pulsating rhythms of Brazil - sensuous and evocative to anyone who has a pulse. Images of warm breezes at sunset on the beaches of Rio de Janiero, as epitomized by probably the biggest hit of that era, "The Girl from Ipanema," lend this music both a comforting and forbidding element.
Sometimes you hear a performance and feel lucky that you were one of the relatively few who stumbled upon such an event. Singer Luciana Souza and guitarist Romero Lubambo performed at the Carolina Union Auditorium on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus on March 25, and it was a unique and memorable occasion. Souza is a native of Brazil now living in New York. Lubambo, also a Brazilian native, has long been one of the most widely-respected and -recorded guitarists representing the Brazilian style of guitar playing. Together they recorded the Grammy-nominated (it should have won!) CD, Brazilian Duos . Despite that, they don't often appear in concert together, so we were especially fortunate here. Lubambo played a classical guitar that was plugged into an amp, and Souza, in addition to her vocals, played a variety of small percussion instruments.
Souza has the type of voice - both speaking and singing - you never tire of hearing. Her alto voice is able to reach into soprano territory without the swooping and screeching that often accompany such attempts by others. Her pure tones have very little vibrato and a hint of sultriness that never lapses into parody. Totally at ease and informal, she immediately developed a great rapport with the nearly-filled auditorium.
Brazil is a Portugese-speaking country, and all of the songs, except one written by her, were sung in her native language. Many of them had rapid-fire lyrics, and it sounded like every word could be understood by the few Brazilians in attendance. Souza gave brief explanations of what she was singing about and described a little of the culture and regions of her native country and how they applied to the music. She is herself the youngest of nine children of parents who were also musicians and composers. She sang one of her parents' songs that she said was a hit for a few months.
One of Souza's vocal techniques is her incredible scatting. This is primarily a jazz style in which the singer becomes, in essence, an instrument and improvises in a wordless manner. Ella Fitzgerald was probably the most famous proponent of this style. Souza did this within the context of Brazilian styles and appeared to simulate playing a saxophone while executing these incredible and spontaneous creations.
I'm confident that anyone listening to Romero Lubambo's playing was duly impressed, but as a guitarist I am even more amazed at his incredible fluidity, rhythmic drive, harmonic inventiveness and just plain jaw-dropping technique. This humble, charming and self-effacing man was, like Souza, simply loved by the audience. His style of guitar playing requires the ability to sustain the rhythmic pulse that is the heartbeat of Brazilian music along with altered harmonies that always surprise and delight the listener. Souza also described it, saying she would just be floating over this remarkable accompaniment by this single musician.
After a tumultuous standing ovation, the artists finally yielded and performed what was perhaps the highlight of the show. "Corcovado" was requested by an audience member, and they obliged with a beautiful rendition. If talent and musical ability alone were what determined popularity and success, these two artists would be at the top of the world. One left the concert almost expecting to step onto the beaches of Rio or into the midst of Carnival.