Brazil's Stagnating Pop Scene

`Brega,' a syrupy ballad style, dominates the field, blocking the emergence of vital trends. MUSIC

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ARMED with my little Walkman radio, I was ready for the best in Brazilian music as soon as I stepped off the plane in Rio. But when I flicked the dial I thought I was back in New York: Sinead O'Connor droning ``Nothing Compares 2 U,'' a cut from Iggy Pop's latest album, the Beatles and Rolling Stones, some big band music from the 1930s and '40s, and a smattering of country and classical music. Another flick revealed some Brazilian pop and rock - more or less clones of U.S. and British music, except with Portuguese lyrics.

After I got settled in, I made a few trips to record stores, only to find the same mix, and very little rootsy Brazilian music - samba, forro, maracatu, frevo, etc. I mentioned this to a Brazilian music critic, Arnaldo DeSouteiro, who said,

``I believe that people end up liking whatever they are bombarded with.'' DeSouteiro writes for Tribuna da Imprensa, Rio's fourth largest newspaper. We talked one afternoon in his beachside condo in Barra da Tijuca, a trendy suburb in Rio's South Zone. ``My housekeeper doesn't know how to read my notes to her in Portuguese, but she knows the words to Elton John's songs by heart!''

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Rock took hold in Brazil in the late '70s, when the military dictatorship was dissolving and there was a general feeling of loosening restrictions. Brazilian rock was like a glittering comet - more than 500 bands exploded out of nowhere - and then just as quickly, it vanished. Today there are only about five or six rock bands in all of Brazil that continue to record and tour.

DeSouteiro believes that there hasn't been any strong musical movement in Brazil since the bossa nova (typified by composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and singer/guitarist Joao Gilberto) of the '50s and the tropicalism of the '60s (a kind of electrified bossa nova played and sung by artists such as Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso). The '70s were dominated not by any particular movement, but by individual composers: Djavan, Ivan Lins, Chico Buarque. Then came the rock of the '80s.

But there has been a trend in Brazilian pop music for the past few years that DeSouteiro believes ``...could finish off Brazilian music for good.'' The name of that trend is ``brega,'' a kind of syrupy, formulaic ballad that has dominated certain sectors of the pop market. DeSouteiro claims that the style was pushed on the public as a money-making scheme, and that a number of artists were coerced into changing their styles to accommodate this artificial trend.

In the same way that rock closed off the market for many Brazilian musicians for the first few years of the '80s, brega has been narrowing the market for some of Brazil's most creative musicians, who refused to go along with the trend. Some of these people are trying new careers in the US. Artists like Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil, Jorge Benjor - artists who are considered somewhat ``old hat'' here - are finding audiences in the U.S. and elsewhere to be a breath of fresh air.

But the Brazilian public seems to be growing tired of brega. Now there's a new trend - country music. A friend told me that it's considered ``hip'' to be into country, and that everybody's listening to it. A couple of teenaged boys I met told me that they ``...love Kenny Rogers,'' and proudly showed me their cassette tapes of his work.

BUT it isn't just U.S. country that Brazilians like - they have their own brand of country music called ``sertaneja.'' It owes much of its current popularity to a prime-time soap opera, set in Brazil's interior, called ``Pantanal,'' starring Sergio Reis, a well-known and highly respected country singer and guitarist.

It may seem strange to outsiders, but the way much Brazilian pop music becomes popular in Brazil is via the musical sound tracks of these soap operas (called ``novelas''), which are high-class versions of prime-time soaps in the United States(''Dallas,'' etc.). Some of the top-selling albums in Brazil are soundtracks from these novelas.

``Novelas are the most important vehicle for bringing Brazilian culture to Brazilians,'' says DeSouteiro. ``The 'Pantanal' album sold 500,000 copies this year. Some of the novelas even use classical music, so composers like Chopin and Scriabin become popular!''

And then there's lambada, which faded fast in the U.S. Here it rages on, and on. Everywhere I went, loudspeakers were piping the band Kaoma's ``Dancando Lambada.'' Lambada is everywhere - in the record stores, on TV on talent shows, in ads, and even as the opener for a famous TV novela. I chatted with a salesman in a trendy boutique in Ipanema who told me that his two-year old cousin ``...dances around the house doing the latest lambada moves.''

The Brazilians don't see lambada as principally a sexy dance the way many Americans do. Here it's viewed as a difficult, challenging dance that takes a long time to learn and is a lot of fun and good exercise once you learn it. But some say that lambada's on its way out, too, not because of the dance itself but because people think the music is boring and repetitive.

I asked Mr. DeSouteiro if he thought the rampant inflation in Brazil had affected the entertainment and music business.``I have friends who are two or three months behind on their kids' school or college payments,'' he answered, ``but they go out every Saturday night and spend 10,000 cruzeiros [around $125.00].''

As far as buying records is concerned, he says, ``In spite of all the crises the recording industry has gone through, they don't suffer as badly as other industries, because people continue to buy records no matter what. And people with money always buy albums. They'll go into a record store and buy 20 CDs at a time, as if they were buying bananas at the market.'' In Brazil CDs can cost as much as $30 each.

MTV has now arrived in Brazil. Nationwide broadcast of the music network started last October 21, featuring the slogan, ``Oh Yes, Nos Temos MTV!'' (``Oh, Yes, We Have MTV!'') Instead of focusing on U.S. and British pop and rock, the programming will aim toward much MPB, or ``musica popular brasileira'' (Brazilian pop music) as possible.

Does all this activity mean that anything really new and interesting will happen to change the face of ``musica popular brasileira?''

``I think this coming year will be full of great surprises,'' says DeSouteiro. ``Things have to get better, because there can't be anything worse than brega. I think that all the people who have been stagnating in the same old rut are going to find new directions.''

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