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Mônica Vasconcelos: Brazil Songs of Resistance

Duncan Heining By

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Dark times and darker crimes, indeed. But these are songs of resistance and speak to the human spirit of resilience and survival. I speak no Portuguese but this is no handicap when it comes to music as rich and uplifting as this. David Treece, who teaches Brazilian culture and literature at King's College London, has provided excellent sleeve-notes and translations. As for the music, it is rich in the many colours of Brazil—of sambas, ballads, baião, ijexa and bossa nova.

The album opens with "Agnus Sei" ("Lamb that I am"), written by João Bosco and Aldir Blanc. It begins as a heart-stopping ballad but shifts into a faster-paced chorus section. Its title parodies the Catholic "Angus Dei" and uses the medieval crusades as a powerful metaphor for the CIA-backed coup and cold war rhetoric that brought an end to the left- leaning government of President João Goulart.

"Abre Alas," from Ivan Lins and Vitor Martins, is equally beautiful with its subtly complex bossa rhythms and some lovely guitar from long-time associate Brazilian Ife Tolentino and piano from Liam Noble. The song was recommended to Vasconcelos by Aldir Blanc and uses the metaphor of carnival to speak of liberation, a frequent theme in Brazilian song.

"London, London" was composed by Caetano Veloso in 1971 during his years of exile in the UK capital. Accompanied mainly by just acoustic guitar and Israeli-born bassist Yaron Stavi, it talks of the losses experienced by the banished and of the longed-for return home. But the lyrical ingenuity of Gonzaguinha's "Comportamento Geral" and of "O Mestre-sala dos Mares," by Bosco and Blanc, take the art of song-writing to new levels. The first tells of the personal degradation of enforced conformism imposed by the regime, while the second recalls a Afro-Brazilian naval uprising from 1910, a message that did not escape the censor. If anything, the contrast between the warmth and lightness of the music heightens rather than detracts from that message.

David Treece is an important figure in Vasconcelos' ongoing "São Paulo Tapes" project, which includes a series of workshops in association with Treece and King's College.

"The idea is that with these workshops we will create more resistance music, more resistance poetry," Vasconcelos explains. "We want to feed on what people tell us. We are working with a performance poet called Francesca Beard to create words, poetry and lyrics for new music that we are going to be writing. After The São Paulo Tapes, I felt this need to create a dialogue with this gorgeous music that was written fifty years ago. We need some resistance music for now—we really need it." Given the album's humanistic concerns, it's no surprise that it was produced by Robert Wyatt. The pair connected when Wyatt chose Vasconcelos' album, Gente (Candid 2004) as a personal favourite in a piece in the Times. The singer sent Wyatt a thank-you letter through their mutual friend trombonist Annie Whitehead. "He wrote back a lovely letter with all these different colours and smelling of incense," she says, "saying all sorts of lovely things."

Later, Wyatt agreed to collaborate on Vasconcelos' Hih (Triple Earth 2008), perhaps her hardest to classify recording so far, perhaps, as she suggests because of its distinctive combination of unique individuals and musical ingredients. Wyatt provided backing vocals and wrote songs with pianist Steve Lodder and bassist Dudley Phillips. Wyatt's partner, Alfreda (Alfie) Benge also wrote several lyrics for the album. Then, Vasconcelos contributed vocals to "Just As You Are" on Wyatt's Comicopera. In fact, it was through Wyatt that I first heard of the Brazilian singer.

"When I did the The São Paulo Tapes, I went to Sao Paulo with the lovely guitarist Ife Tolentino," she tells me. "I came back with the songs, just guitar and vocals and I wanted to try something different. So, I called Robert and I said, 'I can't afford you but can you recommend someone to produce it?' He said, 'I hear you Monica." Then, he said he would produce it and wouldn't charge me." (laughing)

And she continues, "The album, it's very Robert. Songs written in Brazil during the dictatorship, songs of resistance and refusal. That is everything to do with Robert and I knew once he heard these songs, he couldn't resist them. These people were gods of song-writing. They are really. I always think we have to expand the vocabulary of song, of what good song-writing is on the planet. We have to get out of the Anglo-Saxon bubble. We have to bring more things in. I think what these guys have offered, it's so unique and powerful."

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