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Brazil, connecting people through music

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Carnival in Sao Paulo (Carolina Teixeira)

In 2018, legendary experimental composer, Jon Hassell, spoke with me about his latest record, Listening to Pictures (Pentimento Volume One). A pentimento is a painting concept in which earlier images and forms reappear as different elements in a final composition. Past influences coalesce with the new. The sum is something entirely different, and the point is that this new creation would be impossible without the influence of those erstwhile images.

I likened the pentimento concept to Anthropophagy — historically, the custom of eating human flesh. Brazilian philosopher, Oswald de Andrade, reclaimed the word in the early 20th century. Through him, it came to stand for a symbolic devouring and digesting of external influences and information, as well as their ensuing transformation into something new, and in his instance, entirely Brazilian.

This last December I was in Brazil, specifically in Vila Madalena, a bohemian neighborhood in Sao Paulo. The Raulis, a “surf cumbia” band from Recife, were playing a short set in the Casa de Música, Escuta As Minas (House of Music, Listen to Women). Twenty of us were dancing in a circular, high-ceilinged room, with wurlitzers, speakers, microphones, and guitars outlining the perimeter around us. At the room’s focal point stood two keyboardists, bobbing behind an electronics table while a guitarist, wearing a luchador mask, played trebly, reverb-laden guitar textures.

The program Casa de Música, Escuta As Minas was a six-month partnership with Spotify to support female creatives just beginning their careers. For the 24 artists and 12 producers selected to participate, it was a forum for collaboration and an opportunity to be part of a project that involved renowned artists like Pocah, Negra Li, and Liniker. (Note: none of The Raulis are female, but while passing through, they played a couple tracks to support the program at its closing party.)

The music industry, like many others, is becoming more aware of its gender biases — or, perhaps more accurately, the issue is being rightly forced and the industry is responding. Pervasive throughout industries since industry began, gender biases have evolved and, insidiously, become codified in the algorithms that support our technology. Music tech is unfortunately no exception. People are discovering that an algorithm is only as impartial as the engineer that creates it, which explains the issue’s prominence in tech-driven innovations, like streaming platforms.

In an experiment, journalist Liz Pelly found that the majority of the most popular and visible playlists are male-dominated. What’s more, there are no artists on top playlists from artists that identify as non-binary. She showed that algorithms, despite their promise for unadulterated impartiality, uphold outdated notions of gender.

Pelly came on my radar when I saw her present these findings at a stand-up comedy show at Caveat, an entertainment venue in New York City. I now follow her work closely and she continues to do a fantastic job elucidating the shortcomings of mainstream music tech. Her work is important because, by championing music and its creators in the streaming age, the public gains access to tech’s flaws. The hope, then, is that tech adjusts.

One of the more notable instances in recent memory is Sofar Sounds, the music platform that allows people to temporarily transform settings — usually living spaces, like houses or apartments — into intimate venues. Prior to shows, most details are kept secret and so tickets are sold without guests even knowing the names of the artists they’ll see perform. Still, shows sell out. The valued commodity, then, is the intimacy.

At first glance, Sofar is a cooperative vehicle that allows artists to perform to an engaged audience in an intimate setting and gain valuable exposure. But below the hood there were issues. Musician Adam Schatz drew attention to those in a piece last August and Pelly expounded upon them in great detail a couple months later. In essence, the company was violating local labor laws — regularly relying on volunteer labor for events — and artist payouts were just a fraction of shows’ total revenues. In the face of those criticisms, though, Sofar adjusted and greatly improved both measures — a win for musicians and laborers, as well as validation of the good that journalism can do.

Sofar operates around the globe, and Brazil has a particularly strong presence. Before The Raulis’ set, I chatted with Dilson Laguna about that community. Alongside his sister, Juliana, Laguna runs Flow Creative Core, a Sao Paulo startup that merges experience and content in the arts. The duo created the partnership with Spotify for Escuta As Minas and helps operate Sofar in Brazil.

Laguna and I spoke about the importance of players like Sofar in contemporary artist marketing, noting its strong tendencies for community. And indeed, the intimacy of the living room show and the promise of an audience are valuable tools for a musician. There’s a lot of opportunity to build community within their ecosystem, and a lot of potential to cultivate that core commodity: intimacy.

Brazil’s Sofar, according to Laguna, operates relatively independently and has had fewer of the issues that have reared their heads in the US. Community sits at its heart and that shows in Brazil’s embrace of the platform. When I told him about Grey Matter’s community-driven ethos, he excitedly introduced me to Nando Machado, Founder and Director of ForMusic, a marketing company that helps labels and international artists — e.g. Nick Cave and Nickelback — find audiences in Brazil.

Brazilians are unique in that they listen to their national music more than any other country’s people — an attribute that’s supported by Spotify statistics. That makes marketing non-Brazilian acts difficult, which is where ForMusic comes in. Still, to be successful, the artists need some kind of Nick Cave-esque renown to leverage, which means that running effective campaigns for emerging artists isn’t all that feasible.

Machado noted that his primary concern is that most artists won’t be able to continue paying for the kinds of marketing services they offer. For good reason, marketing and monetization tools that compensate artists for subpar streaming payouts are one of music tech’s biggest focuses. “Connecting People Through Music,” ForMusic’s admirable motto, is indicative of why they’ve been successful: their mission is rooted in connection. And when that comes first, the rest flows around it.

To align tech with music, it needs to be that way. The opportunity for intimacy and connection is what attracts people to a platform like Sofar, and in Liz Pelly’s critiques of traditional music tech platforms, it’s what’s so often lacking. Tech’s value is that it can connect so broadly and so quickly, but the key is to remember that there is an actual human being on each side of every connection it makes.

In the hours that led up to The Raulis’ performance, people mingled throughout the spacious Escuta As Minas house. Smokers came and went between the plant-filled veranda and the adjacent main room. It was a pleasantly diverse bunch, colorful and stylish without pretense. And there was an equally diverse playlist: Alanis Morisette and Rage Against the Machine tracks were interspersed amongst Brazilian artists like Jorge Ben Jor and Maria Rita and Caetano Veloso.

That mix is one small example of the anthropophagy that Oswald de Andrade reclaimed for Brazil. Veloso, for instance, alongside other eminent artists like Gilberto Gil, and Gal Costa, was part of the seminal Tropicália movement, which built its identity upon de Andrade’s anthropophagy manifesto. And although the movement formally ended in 1968, its spirit never died.

When Spotify stats demonstrated Brazilians’ unparalleled love for their own music, the music researcher and Professor of Communication Sciences at the University of Sao Paulo, Eduardo Vicente, invoked de Andrade. He noted Brazil’s still strong “absorption culture” as part of the “anthropophagy” that continues to make Brazilian music so remarkable. And to this day, the old and the new are still married. The external is still devoured and digested toward a uniquely Brazilian sound. And every Brazilian still knows all the words to every Caetano Veloso song.

Those who have been to gatherings with Brazilians where there is Brazilian music will know the phenomenon I’m talking about. Brazilians know every Brazilian song. They know who sings it. And they know where it came from. It’s as if the country’s entire song catalog was mandatory learning material in grade school.

You’ll see this in action every night in the bars of Vila Madalena. It happened in the party at Casa de Música, Escuta As Minas. In 2016, at a techno show at an abandoned train station in Sao Paulo, I saw the talented Teto Preto, an “electronic jam session” outfit, augment their electronics with tribal drums, horn players, dancers, and vocalists, sampling tracks from popular Tropicálists—and the crowd sang along, at a techno show! In a particularly salient example in early 2019, I was gathered around a fire in Cumuru-xatiba, a beach town in the Brazilian state of Bahia, while amateur musicians played Brazilian songs by Veloso and Gil and Costa and Ben Jor and Rita all through the night, taking turns on instruments. Hundreds of people danced around them and sang every single word to every single song.

Unlike any other culture I’ve encountered, Brazilians embody their music as a community. Rather than a personal pentimento, it is collective, a shared identity. They know that as integral to a song as its rhythm and melody are the voices that sing along. The voices that inspire us to gather in houses to listen together, and to confront biases so that music continues to be representative of its communities. And even when we can’t physically gather, be it due to distance or social distancing, we can still rally around music and prop up its communities. So devour music, digest it, make it, connect over it. Play intimate shows in your living rooms. Sing with your neighbors through your apartment’s walls. And do what you can to support each other. Perhaps, even in our apparent isolation, we’ll end up looking back on this moment as a time that brought us together.