Sunday, March 15, 2009

Journalist-Director José Emilio Rondeau on Brazilian Rock'n'Roll: Past & Present

Tropicalista band Os Mutantes

Brazilian rock and roll has a long and interesting history, and journalist-filmmaker José Emilio Rondeau was part of it during some of its most exciting times, from the '70s underground rock scene during the darkest days of Brazil's military dictatorship to the '80s breakthrough of now-legendary bands like Legião Urbana and the Paralamas do Sucesso. Rondeau has written about rock, cinema and culture over the last thirty years for publications such as O Globo, Jornal do Brasil, Folha de São Paulo, Rolling Stone, Veja, Bizz, and Set. In the 1980s, he also produced albums for Brazilian rock groups Legião Urbana and Picassos Falsos, and wrote and directed videoclips for those bands as well as Paralamas do Sucesso, Lobão, Kid Abelha, Plebe Rude, Paulo Ricardo e RPM. He lived in Los Angeles from 1987 to 2004, where he worked as an international correspondent and television producer for TV Globo. In 2006, he directed the feature film 1972, a rock’n’roll romantic comedy, which had a soundtrack full of period Brazilian rock, including obscure bands such as A Bolha. He is also the author, along with Nelio Rodrigues, of the book Sexo, Drogas e Rolling Stones (Sex, Drugs and the Rolling Stones, 2008). José Emilio writes a blog in Portuguese about international rock and pop called RONDEAUblog. For The Brazilian Sound, I asked Zé some broad questions about the history of his country’s rock’n’roll. –Chris McGowan

Chris: What did Tropicália mean for you? What was exciting about the songs for you?
J. Emilio: It was as if the Beatles had finally pollinated Brazilian pop music – which I was always hoping would happen. It was sophisticated, thrilling, imaginative, surprising, sometimes breath-taking pop music – and it rocked, even if sometimes in a totally un-rock and roll way! It was adventurous Brazilian pop that I would not be ashamed of – as opposed to the TV and radio pop idols of the time and to the copy bands that were sprouting all over the place. It was the music of the younger generations, and so fresh that, at that point, Bossa Nova, initially considered a revolution, immediately became “careta” [square] in comparison, even though it was one inspiration for Tropicália.
Chris: Why do you think there was the 1990s global interest in the Mutantes?
J. Emilio: Again, I bring the Beatles into the discussion – sorry. Had the Mutantes happened in an English-speaking country, they would have been cherished worldwide since day one – even if they sometimes tried too hard to sound like the Beatles. When the rest of the world caught up with them, thirty something years after their peak, everybody was much more open to non-English singing bands, and it was an epiphany. Their music was way ahead of their time, but, also, a perfect representation of their time: bold, different from anything else, their own. That’s why their best music is eternal – just like the Beatles’.

Chris: Do you still consider Renato Russo (leader of Legião Urbana, photo on left) and Arnaldo Baptista (of the Mutantes) the two biggest talents in Brazilian rock history? If so, why?
J. Emilio: Absolutely. Both were trailblazers – Arnaldo, during the heady 60’s Tropicalist surge: Renato, at the forefront of Brazil’s punk rock explosion – and both were unique in that they expanded Brazil’s pop-rock frontiers, lyrically and musically, in ways that no one else ever achieved. To this day. The difference being that Renato became something else, something more in the “pop prophet” vein that, to me, overshadowed his musicmaking. 
Chris: What was the significance of Raul Seixas for you?
J. Emilio: I was never into Raul Seixas – he sounded cheesy, contrived and plastic to me. He bought into his own pop prophet myth way too soon and way too much. But he helped bring rock, topicality and revolutionary ideas into the mainstream. He totally escaped me, though. 
Chris: Do you think Cazuza has merit beyond being a popular lyricist?
J. Emilio: Not really, other than the fact that he combined rock and roll attitude with MPB. And in my opinion – although I may be wrong - much of Cazuza’s work has to credited to Ezequiel Neves’ guidance, influence and nurturing, as producer, friend (and father/mother/older brother figure) and editor. 
Chris: What is your opinion of Cassia Eller?
J. Emilio: She had a rock and roll attitude – and the most unusual voice - that she used to interpret MPB, quite similar to what Cazuza did.
Chris: On MPB-FM, they play Cassia Eller, Cazuza and Renata Russo over and over and over. I believe they are the most played artists on that station, along with Lenine. Why such an intense continued interest in the works of those three deceased artists?
J. Emilio: They all died young, and at the top of their game – which always helps.
Chris: What do you think of the work of Lenine?
J. Emilio: He makes sophisticated, progressive, folk-tinged MPB with worldwide appeal – and has one of the most distinctive voices. And he’s smart. 
Chris: Is there any current Brazilian rock that interests you, and if so why?
J. Emilio: Not really. Like most everywhere else, everybody seems to want to sound like everybody else. There are exceptions, though: Pato Fu has a clear identity and has evolved into a strong, solid band. Same can be said about Mundo Livre S.A.. But neither should be considered a new band: they have a long career behind them. I have to think a little more about up and coming names, because nothing exceptional really pops up in my mind right now. Plus, I am way out of the loop, as far as new blood is considered. 
Chris: What do you think of Brazilian music in this decade? Is it dead, boring, exciting, innovative? Do you see any trends?
J. Emilio: Hype, soap opera exposure and jabá [payola] still rule, with average talent like Ana Carolina, Seu Jorge, Jorge Vercilo and Los Hermanos – and their respective and numerous imitators - dominating the market and taking up most spaces. But even though the big Southeast market still sets the pace and trends, several regional artists and styles surface in different parts of the country and operate on a local, self-contained manner, completely independent of and oblivious to the Southeast.  
Chris: You featured A Bolha in your movie 1972. What do you like about them? Why didn't they achieve a big career?
J. Emilio: I have a deep personal connection with this band: theirs was the very first all-out, real-deal, balls-to-the-walls, bona-fide rock show I ever saw. They normally played tons of covers – Stones, Humble Pie, Grand Funk – but plenty of original material, too – most of it very strong, and had this humongous stage gear, with piles of Marshall amps, and incredible stage presence. They were incredible, live – and they had bass player Arnaldo Brandão, a true rock star if there ever was one.
Chris: Why didn’t they take off and achieve a big career?
J. Emilio: Well, when they made the transition from bailes to shows/concerts, they remained in the underground – which was a cool thing to do, but a detah sentence, too. At the time, there was no infra-structure for a rock band to survive on its terms –minor label support, if you had the luck of having signed with anyone, no media support (other than the underground press, like Rolling Stone), basically no radio exposure, forget about TV (other than the odd festival – and A Bolha took the Melhor Interpretação prize in the 1972 Festival Internacional da Canção for a song penned by Geraldinho Carneiro and Eduardo Souto Neto, the progressive and heavy ”18.30.”
Only when the 80’s arrived did rock bands have a support system, so to speak – and by then bands like A Bolha – and Made in Brazil, and Soma, and Os Lobos, and countless others – had vanished or their members had split to form 80’s-sounding combos. For instance, Renato Ladeira, a founding Bolha member – with his older brother César – went on to form Herva Doce, a new wavish quartet whose big hit (and it was a big hit) was a ditty called "Amante Profissional."

© Chris McGowan 2009

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