From the Archives:
An Interview with Sérgio Mendes
For the Liner Notes of Brasileiro
Sergio Mendes at home in Encino, California
(photo© Chris McGowan)
In 1992, I was invited by Elektra Records to write the liner notes for the Sérgio Mendes album Brasileiro, which was unlike anything he had ever done. The trademark Sérgio Mendes sound (upbeat, with female voices singing in unison) was there but it was mixed together with the idiosyncratic Carlinhos Brown from Bahia, who contributed five songs and was the cornerstone of the album, three great Brazilian songwriters (Ivan Lins, Guinga, and João Bosco), and the instrumental wizard Hermeto Pascoal and his band O Grupo. Plus the 15-member Bahian percussion group Vai Quem Vem and a hundred drummers and percussionists from the top Rio escolas de samba (samba schools) were there to keep things cooking.
I showed up one morning at Mendes' home in Encino. We sat down and had coffee, and Sérgio put a Brasileiro demo CD onto the high-end stereo system in his den. I was expecting to hear a smooth pop rendition of a Brazilian standard or a recent American hit. Instead, something else entirely blasted out of Sérgio's audiophile speakers. Brasileiro opens with "Fanfarra" (Fanfare). The "call" of a lone soloist on repique (tenor drum) is answered by the thundering "response" of a hundred rhythmic masters from Mangueira, Portela, and other escolas. We were listening at high volume and the batucada (percussion jam), once it kicked in, was powerful, overwhelming. I had heard recordings of many samba schools before, but none with such high fidelity. They often sounded busy and muddy. Here you can hear the samba instruments clearly. The batucada stops and a Carlinhos Brown samba de roda ("Cabua-Le-Le") starts. We hear Alceu do Cavaco's cavaquinho and a female chorus. Then the batucada begins again and continues underneath the Brown song, merging with it. The female singing is rather cloying, yet the song works. It is an original and appealing proposition: a meeting of Rio's escolas, Afro-Bahian music, and Sérgio Mendes. All bolstered by state-of-the-art recording technology.
The rest of the album is also innovative and full of surprises, for the most part. I was delightfully surprised, even though Sérgio's hallmark sound—two women singing the lead vocals in unison—could have been used less, especially on Ivan Lins' "Sambadouro" and "Kalimba" (admittedly, those songs might be what many of his old fans like best on this album). And too many songs have smooth-jazz underpinnings by Mendes's L.A. studio musicians: Jeffrey Porcaro (drums), Nathan East (bass), and Paul Jackson Jr. (guitar). They are extremely competent studio players, but their slickness gives the music a gloss it doesn't need. The album works best when the studio guys are on the sidelines, such as on the opening number, or when the playing of others predominates. For example, Vai Quem Vem and Brown's percussion is the heart of "Indiado." And "Senhoras do Amazonas" has Porcaro on drums, but Bosco (guitar and vocals) and Arthur Maia (bass) drive the music. The opening of "Fanfarra/Cabua-Le-Le," Brown's "Magalhena" (a fusion of northeastern and Bahian music), the Bahian rap "What is This?," And Pascoal's "Pipoca," and Guinga's "Chorado" have a minimum of "Brasil '66" moments. On the whole, Brasileiro is full of a surprising number of creative risks.
This was a rare case in which one of Sérgio's albums had such a strong imprint of another musician – in this case, Carlinhos Brown (the other major example being his collaboration with will.i.am on Timeless). Carlinhos wrote five of the record's songs, singing on four of them, and the Carmen Alice tune "What is This?" bore his undeniable influence. And five of the record's songs feature the percussion of Brown and Vai Quem Vem, a group formed of former students in a percussion school that he founded in Salvador. For half the album, Brasileiro is a joint venture by Sérgio and Carlinhos, which was essential to its success. Brasileiro went on to win the 1993 Grammy Award for Best World Music Album. It may not have sold as well as Mendes' bigger albums, but it earned him credibility with many discerning fans of Brazilian and World music. It has remained my favorite of his albums.
Besides writing the liner notes, I also got to "coach" Sérgio as he shot video promos for the album. I sat next to the camera in his backyard and prompted him with questions; his answers were edited and used for promotional purposes. I had the sense he didn't realize what an original album he'd produced. Here is the 1992 interview we did that I used to write the liner notes.
Chris: Where did you record the album?
Sérgio: We recorded the basic tracks in Brazil at PolyGram Studios and Som Livre Studios. We did the overdubs and mixing here in Los Angeles. We were five months in Brazil and seven months here. It was the hardest I've ever worked on an album. I wanted to do it really well, the right way.
Chris: What was the point of the album? What were you trying to do?
Sérgio: I tried to have a nice variety, of everything I love about Brazilian music. I wanted to explore a wide variety of the incredible spectrum of rhythms and percussion, melodies and chants in Brazilian music. I had always wanted to do something completely Brazilian and so this project came totally from the heart. It's totally authentic.
Chris: Were you influenced at all by Paul Simon's use of Olodum (the bloco afro from Bahia) on The Rhythm of the Saints?
Sérgio: It's different from what people like Paul Simon or David Byrne have done. These are Brazilian songs and Brazilian songwriters. They're not American melodies with Brazilian rhythms. I didn't want to do a safari. I wanted to be involved putting together the whole thing, from arranging to playing on it to producing. I wanted to do a great presentation, from the heart.
Chris: There is quite a range of musicians and styles.
Sérgio: The escolas de samba, Bahia, Ivan Lins. I was selecting what I felt. The only thing that's missing is a Milton song.
Chris: Have you done anything like this before? Perhaps your album that compares is Primal Roots, from 1972.
Sérgio: Primal Roots was like a small version of this. I had always wanted to do something totally Brazilian, with all the stuff I loved down there. Luckily, Bob Krasnow of Elektra said 'Go do it.' It's rare to have that kind of support from a record company. That's how this album was conceived.
Chris: How did you integrate all recordings done in Rio with the musicians in L.A.?
Sérgio: When I brought back all the tracks from Rio to L.A., to add more tracks with musicians here, there were big smiles in the studio. They loved it and it gave them something fresh and different to work with. They played their best and it was a total integration of their work with the Brazilian Afro rhythms.
Chris: The album really has a distinctive sound, whether you are American or Brazilian.
Sérgio: The presentation of all this music is the way I hear it.
Chris: Tell us about the first number.
Sérgio: It opens with Jaguar playing repique, solo. He is answered by one hundred all-star percussionists from the top samba schools in Rio – Mangueira, Portela, Padre Miguel, Beija-Flor. I always wanted to capture what you hear on the streets of Rio during Carnaval, that power, that energy. So we got the best players, which was not easy to do, and then gathered them together in a parking lot with 24-track equipment. Then I had the idea of putting a chant on top of that.
Chris: So, take us to the Sambódromo in Rio [where the parades take place during Carnaval]. What is happening?
Sérgio: The "Fanfarra" is the opening, played before the escola enters the Sambódromo. One guy, Jaguar, is "calling" [with his repique solo] and the others are "answering."
Chris: And then you mixed that with a Carlinhos Brown song.
Sérgio: I recorded this in April. I wanted to add something on top of it. On my second trip I searched for songs to put on top and it wasn't working. I was stuck with this incredible piece of percussion. Then I went to Bahia and I heard Carlinhos Brown at this song festival and I heard his stuff and liked it very much. He had a samba de roda, "Cabua-Le-Le," that I loved and wanted to use. And he liked the idea of the [samba school] percussion underneath. I brought him down to Rio and we did a lot of overdubs. I wanted the rawness of the sound, but to organize it a little bit. It took a lot of work putting the pieces together. So, it's an Afro-Bahian song with Rio Carnaval percussion behind it.
Chris: Next is "Magalenha," also by Carlinhos Brown. This sounds to me like a fusion of baiao and samba-reggae, with embolada or calango in the singing part.
Sérgio: Carlinhos is singing and playing triangle, with the Bahian percussion group Vai Quem Vem, and a chorus of four girls, three guys and myself. I put Vai Quem Vem on a bus and they spent two weeks in Rio, rehearsing and recording.
Chris: "Indiado" by Brown is a lively romp, with some funky synth horns and a lively guitar on top.
Sérgio: The vocals are by Carlinhos and Gracinhas Leoparace. It's a mixture of forró and samba-reggae. Vai Quem Vem is playing, plus Jeff Porcaro on drums, Jimmy Johnson on bass, Paul Jackson, Jr. on guitar, and myself on synthesized horns.
Chris: "What is This?" by Carmen Alice of Vai Quem Vem is really something unusual. I don't think I've heard a Bahian rap song before.
Sérgio: It's their reading of the American rap style. In Bahia, they hear everything—rap, reggae, merengue—and adapt it. Carmen's song is so raw and pure, I thought the simplicity and purity of it were really interesting. It's very Bahian.
Chris: It's a lot of fun and so different. Big booming drums to open, very catchy. A rap song played on Brazilian drums and percussion, which we've never heard up here in North America. And a funky berimbau.
Sérgio: We were recording in Rio at Polygram, and having no luck with a couple of songs. Finally, I said, 'Can you play me something different?' And this young girl from Vai Quem Vem named Carmen grabbed the microphone and started doing this incredible rap in English! She is an English teacher from Salvador, as well as a percussionist and singer. Her neighborhood there is called Candeal, it's a poor place, and this rap is about it. It's her reading of the American rap style. It was part of their repertoire that I hadn't heard. I added my synthesizer. I call it organic rap. It's so raw and pure. Here we have the rap rhythm on surdos, etc., instead of on drum machines, giving it a different flavor. It's my first rap.
Chris: You follow that with two Ivan Lins songs. "Lua Soberana" is an Ivan Lins afoxé with a stirring, haunting melody. Then you have his sweetly flowing "Sambadouro."
Sérgio: "Sambadouro" is a samba with Gracinha on the lead vocals. It's very carioca, very Rio de Janeiro. It has some of my old Brasil '66 sound, and reminds me of a gafieira, one of Rio's romantic dance halls where couples dance to samba.
Chris: "Senhoras do Amazonas" by João Bosco has an unusual, beautiful sound with an interesting arrangement.
Sérgio: The vocals are by João and Gracinha. I'm on the keyboards, Carlos Bala on drums, and Arthur Maia on bass. This is the first time I've recorded João. I love his stuff. This is a samba, but not with normal chord changes. There are lots of diminished chords, giving an unusual harmonic structure to the song. And the drum part is somewhat partido alto. I said to him, 'I have to have one of your songs.' João did the music and Belchior the lyrics. All his songs have that onomatopoeia stuff. I said I wanted lyrics whose emphasis was more on their rhythmic value than on pretty words and poetical images.
Chris: Tell us about "Kalimba" by Ivan Lins, his third song on the album.
Sérgio: Here you have tribal chanting in the lyrics with an R&B dance sound underneath. Paul Jackson, Jr. is on guitar, me on keyboards, Jeff Porcaro drums, Nathan East bass, Luis Conte, conga. And Gracinha, Kevyn Lettau, and myself on vocals.
Chris: Carlinhos Brown's "Barabare" sounds Gilberto Gil-influenced, with an ijexá rhythm, a gentle swing, and a somewhat pop-jazzy chorus.
Sérgio: I think this song is very beautiful. It has Bahia and also the flair of Rio, too. It makes me think of Rio's beautiful beaches, in the late afternoon of a summer day. Carlinhos and Gracinha do the vocals. I'm on agogô and keyboards, and Carlinhos Brown on percussion, and Tião Neto on percussion and not [his usual] bass.
Chris: "Esconjuros" is nice, hypnotic, very interesting at end. The vocals sound to me like they're a little embolada in style, and underneath there's some faint maracatu. It feels sort of like classical music meeting folk. It's one of two Guinga songs on the album, I see.
Sérgio: Guinga did the music and Aldir Blanc the lyrics. Gracinha is on vocals, Steve Tavaglione oboe and flute, and Guinga guitar. Guinga is the composer who impressed me the most when I was there. He's like Villa-Lobos meets Cole Porter. He made me cry. He's very shy, plays acoustic guitar, and writes beautiful melodies.
Chris: Hermeto Pascoal's "Pipoca" takes us in another directly entirely.
Sérgio: We go back so many years. We used to play at the same bars and clubs in São Paulo, accompanying singers. He's one of the most incredible musicians I've ever met. This time, I asked him to write me a samba in 3/4 and he did! Here he plays acoustic piano and I play synthesizer. That's for the jazz fans. It's my thing meets his thing. Only Hermeto writes those kind of melodies.
Chris: Then comes "Magano" by Carlinhos Brown. A speeded-up samba-reggae underneath with merengue on top in your keyboards.
Sérgio: With Gracinha and the singers from Rio in the chorus. The vocalists wish us axé [good vibes, life force].
Chris: And your next to last song is the spare, pretty "Chorado" by Guinga. It sounds Milton Nascimento-ish with beautiful singing, the wordless vocals of Claudio Nucci.
Sérgio: Guinga strikes again. It's a beautiful song and Claudio sings like an angel on it. It's got Guinga on guitar and me on synth cello and oboe.
Chris: And you close with the "Fanfarra (Despedida)" of the samba school percussionists. Perfect. Would you say this is your best album ever?
Sérgio: That would be too pretentious. But it has just about all of my favorite things from Brazil.
I also interviewed Sérgio Mendes in The Brazilian Music Book, a collection of interviews with prominent Brazilian musicians in the areas of bossa nova, MPB and Brazilian jazz. Also see: Sérgio Mendes albums at Amazon.com.