What’s a desk jockey to do?
It’s been five sedentary years since my last out-of-office experience (see Colombian stories; Picolandia and Vallenato) — much too long to go without nudging the equator, swizzle-sticking fuzzy drinks and scooping up rare petroleum based audio product. So at the end of March I took off for PercPan, the sixth annual Panorama Percussivo Mundial Festival in Salvador, the capital of Bahia State, Brazil.
The good idea of PercPan is to showcase the great percussion traditions of the world over a four day period. Free events include daily teaching workshops, as well as outdoor “encounters” where with a little luck performers can learn from each other and perhaps perform together. The first evening was staged in the public park opposite the Teatro Castro Alves, free to all, with bands occupying makeshift stages on the quadrants, all playing at the same time. Over the next three nights everyone moved inside the theater for more formal concerts charging admission. Thursday and Friday featured different lineups, while the closing concert on Saturday sandwiched everyone into shortened sets. This year eleven groups performed, highlighted by the focused cacophony of the Tambours du Burundi.
PercPan is a relatively new event in a city gearing up for its 450th anniversary on the same weekend. Begun and still run by anthropologist turned promoter Beth Cayres, in the second season percussionist Naná Vasconcelos became the artistic director. The following year he was joined by fellow Salvadorian Gilberto Gil. Since then the two artists have served as masters of ceremony, performers and real-time musical bridges. This proved to be the genius of PercPan — a continuous stream of acts performing without interruption for about three hours — Naná and Gil suggesting that the difference between cultures is little more than a short walk across the stage.
How goes it? PercPan dialy highlights
The first concert began with Naná stage right, shaking a cluster of small bell-like gourd rattles, chanting, skating, hitting a large symbol taken form a mass of percussion instruments at his feet. Out of the pit rose the stage front, with four Native North American Indians surrounding a large drum about five feet in diameter. Each smacked the surface with a single drumstick that looked a lot like a cat tail. Soon their chanting mixed with Naná’s and Naná exited. It was very dramatic — a terrific beginning. But the Silvercloud Singers’ repertoire was too rigid and redundant. Towards the end of the set ears perked and genuine smiles. Without skipping a beat the monotone sing-song evolved into a personal update; “Won’t you come back to me? You’re the only one I ever loved…”
As applause subsided Egberto Gismonte was already set to go, behind and to the left of the Amerindians. Gismonte, like the best known Brazilian musicians working in America and Europe, is working in jazz. The set began by treating the grand piano as the percussion instrument it is, rolling measured phrases alternating with hammered improvisations. Joining him were a restrained electric organ and Spanish guitar. Next Gismonte performed solo on a stick thin flute. Blowing across the breath hole, he adding lip smacks and mouth pops to keep the piece moving and emphasize the percussive elements of the instrument.
Gilberto Gil then made his first appearance in stylized African robes (vs Nana’s tee) playing an electric glass guitar without a pegbox (his brand spanking new Roland VG-8 Guitarra Virtual). Like Papa Wemba and Yousou N’dour, Gil possesses one of the great voices in pop music, but I believe is a more aware and informed songwriter. The guitar was set to sound acoustic and Gil did a simple and overwhelming solo version of, “Um Sonho” (A Dream). This impressionist tune, both anthem and homage to the folk culture and indigenous peoples of Brazil, approaches the weight of, “We Shall Overcome,” for many Brazilians. Soon Gil was joined by the entire theater in a song that ends with the repeated soaring line, “Long live the Xingu indian.” Wild cheers greeted a hesitant, elderly rainforest Amerindian as he walked onstage. I cheered, surprised at how effective this orchestrated moment was.
Musicians have been in the forefront of raising the awareness of the plight of the rainforest peoples. The hope is that Indian culture can flourish in traditional homelands. In truth South Americans have treated their indigenous population much like the colonizers in the rest of the Americas, yet in Brazil the romanticism, guilt and very real problem remains current. Time will tell as increased contact, government ‘control’, and business interests peck away at the protective forest canopy. You can hear “Um Sonho” on Gil’s Parabolicamaraacute (Warner, Brazil, 176292, CD, 1991) or the US release, Parabolic (Tropical Storm, CD3210A, CD, 1992). The very successful carnival hit, “Madalena,” is also on this disc.
Dressed in beads, paint, feathers and a speedo, the Xingu elder performed on a single reed flute with foot-stamping accompaniment. Eventually he was joined by three, then five other musicians, all playing long bamboo horns that produced a buzz like tone. Gismonte joined in for a while on a cluster harmonica, and for the windup five Xingu women came onstage to dance and chant along. The program notes explained that this was ritual music from the Alto Xingu tribe from the state of Mato Grosso, and that this troupe has been touring with Gismonte as Indios Camaiurás.
As if to prove there’s beauty without sentimentality or furrowed brow, Naná again took the stage with his recently formed modern trio, Techno Suggestion. The group represented the only big electric din heard at PercPan — by sheer force the only sound to rival the upcoming Burundi’s. The beatific Naná, the impassive Leon Gruenbaum (in Devo-ish nuclear cleanout jumpsuit) and the wild eyed Cyro Baptista occupy a musical plane halfway between the 3 Graces and the 3 Stooges. Nana moved from large marching drum to his delicate tambourine tree — a post with six small tambourines, each side of three activated at once by the two hand levers. Leon looped elaborate systems that were stored electronically and triggered by foot pedals and gentle, incremental finger movements on a kalimba-like hand hewn keyboard. Ciro just (justly) whacked an assortment of plastic products, à la NY street musicians, and delighted the crowd with a comic turn on the exotic (to Brazil) ‘frotoir’ (Louisiana rubboard).
As this gigantic sound cut off abruptly, Dalga Larrondo replaced it with the quietest moments heard at the festival. Perched like a bird and flanked by well positioned mikes, Dalga performed a history of flight in sound. In each hand he held giant seed pods of the aptly named ‘flamboyant’ tree. Through subtle shakes, rolls, flings, flicks, swirls, and slings the seeds moved inside the pods and the sound rollercoastered through the auditorium. He finished with some silly xylophone shtick and regained credibility with a subtle vessel drum solo on a former flower pot he called a ‘morinja.’
Next up the twenty strong Evocação, featuring Naná’s brother, Erasto. This is the first performance by this recently formed pickup group uniting three troupes of professional street musicians from the Brazilian state of Pernambuco.All eyes were on ‘the twins,’ part of the powerhouse triad of surdo playing gals, whose slight frames made their large sound all the more impressive. (soon to be pictured above: the real three graces photo : the twins Ana and Lourdes Freire with Veronica Pessoa). This surdo in Pernambuco is called an ‘alfaia,’ traditionally used for the dance rhythm ‘maracatu.’ The maracatu has strong African roots, performed with men and women facing each other in a line and in a bunch. Associated with carnival it is similar to the samba with a stronger emphasis on hand movements. The other two dance rhythms that Evocação specializes in are the coco and the cavalo marinho. The coco (duple beat, step-step, big-step forward (step-step, big-step backward, each big-step with a hard foot stamp) originated in the state of Alagoas, presumably first performed by slaves as they broke open coconuts. The cavalo marinho dance comes from Pernambuco, performed similarly to the coco, but with a triple meter. One element of a cavalo marinho dance band is the relatively small sound of the rabeca folk violin. All of these dances are joyous and very flirtatious. Proof that the on-stage fun was not an act came every evening at the hotel bar, the band playing music late into the night and doing their best to teach everyone the dances.
Drummers of Burundi
Suddenly the exit doors at the foot of the stage swing open and in march the drummers from Burundi. Barrage is a word invented for such occasions. With the conga shaped drums balanced lengthwise on their heads, the 13 members hammered a solid rhythm as they walked up the stairs and onto the stage. Placing the one slightly taller drum center stage, (inkiranya, the lead drum, the kings drum) the rest of the troupe formed a semi-circle behind. For nearly an hour the drummer-dancers rotated the pole position to play the inkiranya and showcase individual skills. The power of the ensemble comes from the precision of simple rhythms performed in unison. Each performer uses hand hewn drumsticks to strike both the cow hide drumhead and the sides of the waist-high wooden drums — a dull thud, a sharp smack in various combination. Moves towards the inkiranya involve showcasing dancing skill, one highly rated maneuver consisted of kicking the legs straight out and parallel to the floor while trying to jump as high as possible. Each new lead drummer then sets the drumming pace until his successor arrives. Sometimes the approaching drummer enacts a pantomime of a bird sneaking up to steal some food, nervously bobbing his head, starting forward and back. One really cool move consisted of comically rolling a drumstick round and round the neck between beats.
The troupe had been invited to PercPan in both ’97 & ’98, and only a more stable political environment allowed them to attend this year. (Since the early 90s Burundi has been rocked by the same ethnic violence as Rwanda to the north, only to a lesser degree ( as yet no civil war, with hundreds of thousands, not millions, dead.). This traveling version was 13 strong in a performing troupe that can number 25 players. Historically the drummers were in the service of the King designed to inspire awe, playing for ceremonial functions and traveling with him. Since independence the drummers have been in the service of the Ministry of Culture.
Ethnically a Hutu (Bantu) people, drumming was a hereditary position of the farmers from Karuzi in the northern portion of this Central African country. Their furious drumming earned them the designation as “Warriors of the Drum” and (as various liner notes explain) “the calling out is a plea for them to attack the instrument.” On the Ocora release the drummers are from Bukirasazi, while WOMAD releases say they hail from Makebuko. Nowadays even technical schools in the capital of Bujumbura have drum ensembles.
Much folklore once enlivened the drummer’s history and it’s hard to say how much of it is an oft told tale ( that each generation plants the trees to carve the drums for future drummers, and that, “the drums are stored in sacred lairs, anointed with libations and guarded by a priestess whose role included symbolic sexual union with the king at an annual ceremony”). That’s what drums do to people. By way of contrast the gentle ‘inanga’ (zither) is the national instrument of Burundi, and probably the next best known sound to come out of the region is the soft hocketed pygmy vocals.
But here in Bahia their thundering sound is overwhelming. Eyes shut, the irregular rhythms create psycho-acoustic shenanigans similar to Latin horn attacks. Heaven.
Digression dos — Burundi on record
The Royal Ingoma Drummers of Burundi were first recorded on the late 70s overview, Musique du Burundi (Various Artists, Ocora, France, OCR 40, LP, 1967). This recording has been repackaged and re-released many times, including, Burundi-Musiques Traditionelles (Various Artists, Ocora, France, 558511, LP, 1982). Almost immediately the sound was incorporated into pop music with a piano and guitar overdub on Burundi Black, (Barclay, France, ZXDR 646701, LP, 1971). Fear of authenticity led to the sound being mimicked as mere backbeat by proto new romantics, Bow Wow Wow and Adam Ant. In the US more ethnographic material was released, The Music From The Heart of Africa, Burundi, (Various Artists, Nonesuch, US, H-72057, LP, 1974) that was licensed from Italy where it was released as, Musica del Burundi (Vedette, Italy, VPA 8137, LP, 19??). The liner notes describe the players as the Hutu from Karuzi, and the yells are the exhortations of the lead drummer for his “fellow warriors of the drum… to attack their instruments.” This college favorite prompted an old hat romantic tape foray by Joni Mitchell on The Hissing of Summer Lawns (Asylum, 7E-1051, LP, 1975). In 1981 a real life new romantic, Visage drummer Rusty Egan reworked the same French backing track, as the also titled, Burundi Black, (our copy : Cachalot, US, BIG 3, 12″/33rpm/EP, 1981). The drummer’s first UK tour to attend the WOMAD Festival (July 1982) created interest anew, a few drummers performing live with Echo & The Bunnymen and on the Bunny LP, Zimbo. (Korova, UK, KOW 26T, LP, 1983). On this same trip the full troupe also opened for the Clash, playing before an audience of 5,000 punters. Oddly enough, the peace-loving English press objected to the troupes, “Warriors of the Drum,” characterization and much spin was devoted to making their motives cuddly. On this trip they were billed as the Drums of Makebuko and recorded slots resulting from the WOMAD experience include the Various Artists’ LPs: Music and Rhythm: A Benefit Double LP for a World of Music Arts and Dance (WEA International, UK, K68045, LP, 1982 / PVC, US, 201, LP, 1982), Raindrops Pattering on Banana Leaves and Other Tune, (WOMAD, UK, 001, 1982), and WOMAD Talking Book, Volume One: An
Introduction to Africa (WOMAD, UK, 003, LP, 1985).
Other appearances (although I have not seen these discs) include: Sacred Drums-Rukinzo Legacy. (World Music Library, 5200, CD, 1995), Les Troubadours des Hauts-Plateaux. Musique African du Burundi (Disques Vogues, France, LP, [1960s]), and Tambours du Burundi, Les Maitres Tambours du Burundi (Arion, 64016, CD, 1994). I have also seen the same Arion release with the number ARN 33682 and Ronnie Graham’s Sterns Guide, vol. 2 says that they are part of a Various Artist’s CD on Realworld, from 1991/2.
After hours and daylight excursions
As all the performers stayed in the same hotel there was a lot of impromptu music making and little get togethers after the concerts in the bar and around the pool. The Hotel Tropical da Bahia was a champ in thinking 30 people with drums playing very loud ’til 4 am was an OK idea! It was a cultural mix delightful in its improbabilities, like Amazonian Indians wearing Federal Police T-shirts or finding out that Cyro Baptista lives in Tenafly, NJ. One night we were invited to a twenty-something’s birthday party and had a chance to visit a home and see what a local DJ was up to. It was fun, heavy on Bob Marley and hard rock (Brazil is one of the largest markets in the world for rock), with a local fave, Otto, getting heavy rotation. Otto mixes Bahian drums (that surdo sound again) with rock and techno. His best stuff replaces samba snares with drum and bass percussion, an oddly familiar danceable mix.
Opting for these late evenings I never made it to any daytime workshops, but did catch a few of the encounters. These were held in a older colonial section of town, Pelourinho, that a few years back had been swept clean of poor people and recolonized with picturesque shops. Pastel colored and safe for outsiders, the area is patrolled by special Tourist Police. As many of the Afro bloco’s still reside and rehearse in the vicinity there is an outdoor performance area/plaza with music scheduled regularly. With no blocos performing this year at the festival, it was nice to see that an ‘encounter’ was scheduled between Olodum and the Burundi Drummers. While not ever managing to perform together both groups provided stirring sets.
Olodum is one of the many Afro blocos who parade at carnival and are the big drum sound that we associate with Brazil. They are best known for their appearances on record and in concert with Paul Simon. Bloco’s can be many thousands strong at Carnival, but split up into smaller groups for concerts, often performing at many locations at the same time. Some like Olodum are veritable institutions with souvenir shops offering a variety of commercial products. Most serve as social clubs and cultural organizations, the music often the only outlet for creativity in a world that offers few opportunities to Salvador’s poor. Bloco’s like Aru Ketu have moved full fledged into the pop world, while others like Ilê Aiyê work to preserve the afoxé sound –‘traditional’ African, only in Brazil this is a very fluid notion.
Most evenings before the concerts began we would visit Pelourinho for dinner or to sit outside at one of the many cafés;’s/bars. (Did I mention it was moist and about 95 the entire time?) Here we would sample them big strong beers and the national snack, ‘acaraje’. This hand held item consists of fried white bean paste formed in a sphere, fried in dende oil (palm oil). Then it’s cut, filled with vatapa’ (a mash of dende, bread, ground cashew nuts, green peppers), hot chili paste and mounds of dried shrimp, evoking the taste of New Orleans’ crayfish. Acaraje’ is always served up by the Baianas, elder women of stature, status, girth and always dressed in lacy voluminous white.
The very next day
The second evening of performance was as uneven as the first was remarkable. Maybe it was the fact that I was denied admission because I was wearing bermudas? Even though short shorts are a national pastime and the Amazon Indians were practically naked, I had to rush back to the hotel to change. When I returned 20 minutes after starting time all the gates were locked. The theater is unique in that the ticket office, the seating area and the stage are all separate buildings. Flying 500 miles to hear a concert means nothing to a man in uniform and none of the guards would let me into the theater. But the one constant in any closed system is that you can’t think of everything and people only do what they’re told to do. Consequently the gates going back stage were unwatched, unlocked. So I saw day two from behind the scenes where the sound was worse, the overview terrific.
Beginning the concert was Maria Bethånia. Maria is Caetano Veloso’s sister and a big MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) star. While her inclusion was good for filling seats (the theater seldom sells out), she was a weak link to the percussion theme. When her long set ended at least 20% of the audience left. It seemed that a set by Maria was reason enough for fans to buy a ticket, as the big acts do not visit Salvador all that often. Maybe because the ticket price needs to be high, and the region is poor. Gil pointed out another oddity; that many artists, because they make people dance, are not allowed to perform at this venue. This was a problem Gil faced in the US when he performed at Carnegie Hall, his show repeatedly interrupted to ask dancers to return to their seats.
The few memorable highlights of the evening include Gil doing an acoustic version of, “Dos, Dos, Dos,” as well as the little interplays between Gil and Naná as acts entered and exited. Zeca Baleiro & Tambores de Crioula do Maranhão also proved a delight.
Backed up by an all male choro and musicians with a distinctly Caribbean/Cuban feeling, the female dancers wore headwraps, flowered skirts and latex bike shorts. It was nice to see the Samba de Roda danced and the belly touch (semba) rumored to have inspired, or at least lent it’s name, to the Bahian samba. Within a circle one dancer would move towards the center where she was soon challenged by another solo dancer. Moving towards each other, alternating their weight from hip to hip, side to side, the challenge ends as belly’s touch and they throw their hands in the air. Sometimes the approach is a lazy shuffle, skirts swishing. At other times one of the dancers would grab their opposites’ shoulders and drag them forward authoritatively, and execute the touch. Over the decades this modest beginning has evolved into an unrecognizable samba as performed in Rio.
Probably the most accomplished percussion ensemble this evening, and maybe of the whole event, was that of Zakir Hussain. Arranged in a line of ghatam (jar drum), tabla, tambourine and dholak, they gave a tourist show rather than perform a piece of music. The reasoning was probably sound — that most Brazilians were very unfamiliar with Indian music. In practice, the crowd was treated to a series of incredibly virtuosic solos and a great deal of showboating.
The final evening was as good as the first, and there were a few performers who worked out some collaborative pieces. Notable was Gil improvising Eastern runs on the guitar and singing melismatic vocal exchanges with Zakir Hussain’s tabla. One real surprise, was Gismonte. After his flute act this evening he apologized, explaining that all his finger movements and bent notes, and even physically bending his twig thin flute was a sham. He had done it all with his lips. The flute was just a stick.
Like each night before it, the show ended with Gil’s composition, “Mama Africa.” It was a joyous finale with everyone on stage, singing and marching in a large. Like the audience the Burundi drummers never wanted it to end, playing long after they had left the stage.
The following day I spent some time on the beach (Palm Sunday under the palms) gearing up for the 450th anniversary concert. The show was to feature Tom Ze and my favorite bloco, Filhos de Gandhy, named after the Asian Indian leader. That afternoon we had visited Gandhy’s enclave and saw the men dressed in white sheets and having their heads wrapped in Sikh style turbans made of hotel toweling. In the evening as we passed the concert site we realized the crowd could well reach 450,000! Instead we ended up at an expat’s apartment, drinking beer and proposing that we should be going to the concert soon.
Next stop Rio
With the exchange rate nearly as exhilarating as the music, I did some serious record hunting and book buyin’ in Rio.Click below for some Rio recommendations of where to shop and a list of the 40 kilos of product I purchased to add to the ARChive’s 30,000 world music discs.P