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World Music Features

Pernambuco Dreaming

By Paul Sullivan
Published April 24, 2007

If the ’70s and ’80s were all about Bahia—the picture-postcard beaches, the A-list music stars (Caetano Veloso, Gilbert Gil, Tom Zé)—the ’90s and ’00s have seen the focus shift inexorably to Bahia’s smaller, more unassuming neighbor, Pernambuco.

If the ’70s and ’80s were all about Bahia—the picture-postcard beaches, the A-list music stars (Caetano Veloso, Gilbert Gil, Gal Costa, Tom Zé, João Gilberto), the rootsy, dynamic carnaval of state capital Salvador—the ’90s and ’00s have seen the focus shift inexorably to Bahia’s smaller, more unassuming neighbor, Pernambuco. In the ’80s, no one took much notice of Pernambuco. Overshadowed by Bahia’s gargantuan reputation, the elongated state was regarded as a quaint, folkloric backwater, with the notable exception of the beautiful UNESCO-heritage city Olinda and its bustling, high-rise, crime-ridden neighbour, Recife.

It was out of Recife that Mangue Beat exploded, a music scene named after the city’s prolific mangrove swamps and led primarily by revolutionary bands such as Nação Zumbi, Mundo Livre S/A, Mestre Ambrosio, DJ Dolores and others, who fused traditional Pernambucano music (frevo, maracatu, ciranda, baião, coco, forró) with international sounds—punk, funk, hip hop, drum ’n’ bass or anything else that would get asses moving in the crowd.

The huge national success of the mangues transformed Pernambuco into a focal point for northeastern culture. The state’s mix of African, native Indian and European elements became celebrated. People–legends, myths and historical figures alike—came suddenly alive: the bandit-musician Lampião; the accordionist and forró founder Luiz Gonzaga; the cordel artist J. Borges. In particular though, it was Pernambuco’s music, old and new, that attracted attention.

By the mid to late ’90s, Recife and the surrounding areas were churning out so many innovative artists and bands—each intent on creating original fusions of the past, the present and the future—that the critics drooled and reminisced about the heady days of tropicalismo. Bahia, which by the end of the ’80s had become stuck in something of a musical rut with bubblegum pop acts and watered-down commercial music, looked quite dull by comparison. Throughout the ’00s, many of the mangue bands enjoyed global success, in particular Nação Zumbi, with former drummer Jorge du Peixe taking the place of the late Chico Science, whose tragic death in a 1997 car crash created an inspirational icon for the entire state. In the mangue bands’ wake, new generations of musicians arose to carry the torch.

Following the lead of low-key compilations such as Music From Pernambuco (Vols. I & II), Music From Northeast Brasil (all produced by Recife company Astronove/Sebrae) and Trama’s New Brazilian Music, Luaka Bop have profiled this profoundly engaging scene with Brazil Classics 7: What’s Happening In Pernambuco?

Put together by local impresario Paulo Andre (former manager of Chico/Nação, head of Astronove, and creator of the long-running Abril Pro Rock festival in Recife), the compilation features tracks by long-standing mangue acts including previous Mundo Livre percussionist Otto, Siba (former frontman of Mestre Ambrosio), Mundo Livre themselves, Eddie, and Nação Zumbi, as well as lesser known post-mangue up-and-comers like Mombojo, Vates E Viola Violas, Wado, Junio Barreto, Cabruêra, Cidadão Instigado, and Tiné. “I met Yale and David Byrne in 1995, when I was on tour with Chico and Nação Zumbi in New York,” recalls Andre from the Astronove offices in Recife. “They were interested in releasing their music back then, but unfortunately didn’t get the license from Sony Brasil. Last year I was in NY and gave them the other compilations I had done; the next day they called me back, saying they were interested in putting out a compilation. Luaka Bop will give great exposure to these artists, some of whom don’t even have managers.”

Despite the regionally-focused title, the album, according to Andre, intends “to represent a new generation of artists from Northeast Brazil who flirt with traditions in order to create their own music.” Thus, the track listing includes<