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Mônica Vasconcelos: Brazil Songs of Resistance

Duncan Heining By

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Vasconcelos recalls a home that was filled with music and singing in her teens in a local bar with a very fine Brazilian group. She also sang in a group featuring sixteen singers, doing harmony arrangements of classic Brazilian songs and new material. These were crucial experiences of what she calls 'creative democracy and collective creation.'

I ask why she felt she couldn't pursue the kind of music she loved at home and needed to relocate to the UK.

"Well, I tried a lot to work in Brazil," she says, "but I had a feeling, especially when I was at university, that my peers were into rock and pop. What is considered cool comes from abroad. I felt that I was going the wrong way down a one-way street. In Brazil, especially after the end of the dictatorship, we tended to value what comes from abroad much more than our own stuff. It is very hard to keep that musical tradition going."

In fact, Vasconcelos struck lucky from the outset. "I came to London and one of the very first musicians I am introduced to is pianist-composer, Steve Lodder," she tells me, "and he wants to work with a completely unknown singer like me just because he wants to explore the music I bring with me. I find myself in a situation where I am sharing the Brazilian repertoire. And I met these amazing guys."

Through the nineties, Vasconcelos ran a nine-piece band called Nóis that featured those 'amazing guys.' Today, the very idea that a group of that size might work regularly is almost unthinkable. But these were the years of resurgence in jazz.

"We rehearsed and rehearsed," Vasconcelos says. "The gigs weren't incredibly well-payed but there were plenty of them, so everyone could survive. So, I had the privilege in the nineties of writing with these guys, making music with them and inviting them to create these amazing arrangements for my music. Now, I look back and we were so happy. We didn't know what was to come."

As well as Steve Lodder and Ife Tolentino, Nóis included three remarkably gifted musicians in German saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, trumpeter Shanti Paul Jayasinha and trombonist Paul Nieman. Nóis (Triple Earth 1996) was Vasconcelos' first release, a fine mix of original tunes with a few classics from Brazilian writers such as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Milton Nascimento and Caetano Veloso. It's a fine debut with influences from jazz, pop and soul. "Vestidinho" (Tolentino/Lodder/Vasconcelos) and "Outono" (Jayasinha/Vasconcelos) stand out amongst the original tracks, with Jobim's "Águas De Marco" and Djavan's "Asa" the best of the covers.

"Steve and I started writing songs together and Shanti and I began to write and I started writing with Ife," she tells me. "We had all this beautiful stuff. Because we were gigging, I felt we must record this to preserve it. It was organic. It was born out of what was happening."

Nóis Dois (Triple Earth 1999) is just as good, though Vasconcelos expresses doubts about the digitally-produced sound on the record. The Lodder/Vasconcelos original "Oração" matches a fine tune and arrangement with top-notch playing and vocals. The João Donato and Gilberto Gil's "Bananeira" is the other highlight, while the baião of Victor Simon's "Quase Maluco" is great fun. Vasconcelos' voice is a wonderfully expressive instrument and the solos from Jayasinha, Lodder, Laubrock and Nieman are hugely sympathetic and richly expressive. The sense is of collective endeavour and achievement and never that of singer and backing band.

The next three records were recorded and distributed for Candid Records. Oferenda (2002) again featured the nonet, sadly for the last time as jazz fortunes in the UK again began to wane. Bom Dia (2000) and Gente (2004 are quartet records (albeit with guests) that bookend Oferenda's soul-influenced stylings neatly.

"With Oferenda, I wanted to do more of a pop record," she says. "I didn't want this over-serious stuff. Nowadays in Brazil there is a polarisation. You have the entertainment thing focused on the very superficial, shallow side of the music. Then you have the other side, which sometimes I find too serious. I just wanted to make a record with a pop approach but with substance. Not long ago, Ingrid sent me an email saying she had spent the evening listening to Oferenda. She went like, 'My god, how much incredible stuff we've done.' And you know Ingrid can be quite critical. I was very pleased to hear that from her."

Robert Wyatt's recommendation of Gente is well-justified. Along with The São Paulo Tapes, it is my favourite Vasconcelos' album to date.

"The record company sent us to Sao Paulo and Rio to record," Vasconcelos explains. "It was a great experience. We had this amazing guitarist and composer Guinga on it and we did two of his songs. It has a lot of different grooves on it and rhythms from different parts of Brazil. It's very jazzy with a lot of improvisation."

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