There may be an awful lot of coffee in Brazil, but there's not an awful lot of Afrobeat. So here's some qualitative easing: the opening track on singer/rapper Criolo's Nó Na Orelha ("knot in the ear"). "Bogotá" has the rhythms, a turbulent horn arrangement, chopping rhythm guitar, booting tenor saxophone, politically-engaged lyrics and a rebel vibe. It is the real thing with a Brazilian twist.
"Bogotá" is the only Afrobeat track on Nó Na Orelha, but the rest of the album is delightful, too. Produced by bassist Marcelo Cabral and the splendidly monickered keyboardist Daniel Ganjaman (birth name Daniel Sanches Takara), it spans samba, dub, acid jazz, bolero, hip hop and Afro-Brazilian funk. Nine of the ten songs were written by Criolo, whose ballads are as prettily melodic as his up-tempo pieces are fierce. Some are rapped, some sung, and others part-sung, part-rapped; most everything is delivered in Portugese. The album is, by turns, angry and tender, urgent and chilled, tough and vulnerable. It is unusually diverse, but perfectly cohesive, and bliss from start to finish.
Despite Criolo's hip hop roots, the music is played by a cracking real-time band and is sample free with the exception of "Lion Man," which is built around part of veteran Ethiopian singer Tlahoun Gèssèssè's haunting "Sèlamtaye Yedrès" (from 1975, and included on volume 17 of Buda Musique's beg-borrow-or-steal Éthiopiques series). The chief instrumental soloiststenor saxophonist Thiago Franca and trumpeter Rubinho Antunesare superb, Franca shining on the hotter tunes, Antunes on the cooler ones. A small string section adds to the atmosphere on three tracks.
Criolo, 36 years old, has been an influential figure on São Paulo's hip hop scene for over a dedade, but this is only his second studio album. He writes music, he says, "out of despair"despair at the state Brazil is in, where brutal social inequality is worsening despite an economic boom. Non-Portugese speakers will struggle with the detail, but the vibe is palpable enough to overcome that.
Released in Brazil in 2011, Nó Na Orelha was voted best album of the year in the local edition of Rolling Stone magazine. It is surely destined to be on many best-of lists elsewhere at the end of 2012.
Tracks: Bogotá; Subirusdoistiozin; Não Existe Amor em SP; Mariô; Freguês da Meia Noite; Grajauex; Samba Sambei; Sucrilhos; Lion Man; Linha de Frente; Samba Sambei (Dub Mix).