An Answer to Rock 'n' Roll. Sounds of Brazil, New York club, moves to a `world beat'

IT'S Friday night in a lower Manhattan club, and I'm jammed right up against the edge of the stage. At my right elbow, a diminutive Japanese woman is gyrating to the music, and a black woman with a lilting voice is laughing and clapping her hands at my left. Behind us, the dance floor is packed, pulsating to a driving beat. But the dancers aren't trendy kids, and this isn't a disco. These are people of every age, race, economic group, and type, and this is Sounds of Brazil - New York's premier Brazilian, Latin, Caribbean, and African dance club. And they're dancing to the music of Kanda Bongo Man and his band, from Zaire.

On any night, you can go to Sounds of Brazil and catch up with the latest in third-world music - everything from the reggae rap of Jamaica's Yellowman, to the adventurous Brazilian-percussion of Nana Vasconcelas, to Ray Barretto's steaming salsa orchestra, to the Bhundu Boys, a ``jit'' band from Zimbabwe.

It's the place where you're likely to hear South African ``mbaqanga'' dance music, ``zouk'' party music from the French Antilles, North African ``rai'' rebel youth music, or Nigerian ``juju'' - all mixtures of roots music with contemporary Western rock, pop, and dance rhythms.

New York's huge population of African, Caribbean, Brazilian, and other Latin immigrants has always had a thriving, if underground, music scene. But Sounds of Brazil was the first club to bring the music of these cultures to a more general, mixed audience. It started as a Brazilian dance club, long before there was any broad interest in what is now called ``world beat'' or ``ethno-pop''music.

Owner Larry Gold opened Sounds of Brazil on a shoestring budget in 1982, after he'd become turned on to Brazilian music while living in Europe. Within nine months, he realized that Brazilian music alone wouldn't keep the club alive. In an interview at Sounds of Brazil's lively, harried offices in a warehouse next door to the club, Mr. Gold explained, ``We went into African music, which is really a natural extension, because so much of the roots of Brazilian music are African.''

Before long they added music of the French, English, and Spanish Caribbean - another logical move, considering that music's African origins. Meanwhile, the general interest in international music was growing rapidly, and, says Gold, ``By the fifth year we became the home here for third-world music.''

Gold has his own theory about why world beat is becoming so popular in the US: ``It's only been a decade since white America started buying black music, and black America started buying white music,'' he says. ``The music has crossed over the color barriers and the class barriers as well..., as we can see with what has happened with rap in the last five years.

``I believe that within the next five or 10 years we'll also cross the language barrier, and third-world groups will also be on the pop charts. The assumption has been, and still exists, that you need to make the music sound American for it to sell. I think that's going to change.''

Has a club like Sounds of Brazil helped make third-world music a trend? The club's press agent, Jonathan Rudnick, a white South African who moved to the US nine years ago, said, ``I can never use the word trend - there's too much of the music for it to be trendy. When you call it trendy, you've already signed the warrant, in a way. The reason Sounds of Brazil has gone on for so long is that it's not ``trendy.''

What attracts people to Sounds of Brazil can be summed up in the comments of a few people I talked with on my way out of the club.

``I've been here twice, and I'll come back, because the music is great to dance to,'' one woman said.

``I knew Kanda Bongo Man was playing, and I like his music, so I came,'' commented a young man who had brought a friend who hadn't previously been to Sounds of Brazil. Several people said they'd never been to the club before, but were curious about the music they heard from the street. It was different and, well, interesting.

``I think that there's an audience out there that is bored with mass-produced pop music,'' says Mr. Rudnick. ``And we all have to try and see that this music doesn't become the same kind of thing. ... There's always that danger.''

But there are other dangers and problems in the business of booking third-world artists that have nothing to do with music.

``Visas are one problem,'' says Gold. ``Take today, for instance. A group from Barbados had to cancel because they couldn't get visas. And there are cultural attitudes and differences.

``The classic one would be Jamaica: If you book a show for 9 p.m., and the groups start at 10, as far as they're concerned, everything is cool.''

But Gold believes that many of these problems will diminish as third-world booking becomes more organized. Besides owning and running Sounds of Brazil, Gold also runs an outfit called Third World Talent Agency, which books tours and larger venues for acts that have too big a following to fit into the club - acts like Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour and the West Indian band Kassav.

But Gold often finds that with bands coming to the US for the first time, there's another problem - unrealistic expectations.

``The first thing I tell a group is: You're not going to get rich in the US on your first tour. And these are groups that sometimes are very wealthy in their respective countries. You have musicians who play for 20,000 people in Brazil, who come here and play for less than 200. It's very difficult.''

But Gold believes the success of Sounds of Brazil proves that ``there has always been an interest in music other than rock-and-roll. If it's presented and promoted in a proper environment and marketed to the widest range of people,,'' he says, ``then people will come and spend money to check it out.''

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