Starting to catch up on texts now. Feeling better after Wednesday’s peocedure 👍. Last night i read one where someone, younger, had texted me asking me “how do you know if you want to be an artist? How do you know if you’re good?” I must have replied right before falling asleep, because I didn’t remember any of this until I saw it this morning. But I did indeed reply.
“Well to begin with, those are two totally different things. Im not even sure they’re related. And secondly, an artist never questions those things. An artist knows they’re an artist from early on. You know this, right? (Not to say it’s not a valid or interesting question… as a contemplation maybe…) but it’s not something an artist thinks about or asks… because it implies art as some sort of vocation one chooses. Like choosing a college to choose a major to choose a career….
“But art doesn’t work that way. There’s no choosing going on. Artists already know they’re an artist. Because every waking moment of their entire life since they can remember has been spent thinking about, planning and creating art. See? You either know because you KNOW, because you’ve always known, as any artist does, or you don’t know.
“Pretty much the same thing with being “good” as you called it. (Assume and see quotes around the word “good” from now on; because we can’t use that term without having it in quotes. It’s just too subjective and insignificant to the subject to not have in quotes.) Not sure being good is related to art to be honest.
“Craftsman are good. People can have good skillsets. But that doesn’t make them artists. And vice versa. We all know people who are really skilled at something, heck even like playing the piano or something “in the arts” but they’re not artists. And vice versa. Some of the greatest artists of all time were never very skilled at anything. You know? Because art transcends all that.
“That’s an important point. The other, perhaps more important here, is that being good is such a subjective idea, it’s so momentary and fleeting, completely dependent on the viewer the audience the culture and geography and time they’re from, their mood… artists know this… and trust me, artists are never wondering if they’re good. Number one, they’re way beyond that. They KNOW they’re good. Always have. What they’re focused on is getting better and being fucking great. On transcending the art form itself.
“You mentioned earlier that you’re “still working on your technique”. But remember, technique has very little to do with being an artist. It can’t hurt. Unless it does. Then you need to be prepared to scrap it entirely. If it ever threatens your art.”
“If I’m not focusing on technique what am i focusing on?”
“On creating incredible art! Silly. Look, technique is just one of those things along for the ride for a while. Until it’s no longer useful. Then you ditch it to create better art. Because you’re an artist. Not a technician. You wanna become a radiologist? Master a technique. You’ll do a lot of good in the world and you’ll make a lot of money. Both of which are awesome.
“So you didn’t practice a lot when you were a kid?”
“Hell yeah I practiced. Obsessively. From the moment I got my first guitar I did nothing but play guitar. And years before that it was the piano. Every day all day long. But once I got that guitar man all i did was practice guitar. First thing I did when I woke up, before getting dressed for school. First thing I did when I got home from school till dinner. And then all night till I fell asleep. Obsessively.
“And very soon after it turned into being more about songwriting. The guitar itself became secondary to the real art-form, writing songs. Creating. I realized pretty early on that there were a lot of people out there who were very “skilled” at playing the guitar, or any instrument, and they could practice twenty hours a day and may become great at it or not, but they weren’t creating anything new. They weren’t pulling new creations of artistic divinity out of thin air. They were just getting really good on the guitar. Or piano. Or violin. More power to them.
“But I recognized early on that wasn’t art. That was technical skill. I was about ten when that hit me. And if there’s one thing an artist doesn’t have its patience to develop technical skill. Too busy trying to create something out of thin air. That’s what artists do.
“Think of Einstein and his theory of relativity. Pulled that thing out of thin air. Or that John Lennon quote where he said “give me a tuba and I’ll create art with it… because that’s what we do.” See? His playing the guitar was totally secondary to his art form. Really just a tool. But he could have had any tool. It wouldn’t have mattered.
“How do you ever reach the point where you think you’re as good as the artists you really love and admire? Who inspired you?”
“Well again, with that “good” idea again. Look, an artist knows they’re the shit from the day they’re born. It’s a knowing. You’re not comparing yourself to anyone. You KNOW you’re incredible. You know you’re the future. You know you’re creating magic. And it’s got nothing to do with other people. You just know that what you’re doing, who you are, is important. Really important.
“And trust me, you need to KNOW this. Because artists sacrifice their entire lives for their art. They sacrifice fitting in, friendships, being a part of the gang, relationships, feeling a part of society, marriages and kids, feeling “normal”, having money…. on and on. Because you’re so completely obsessed with and committed to creating art, creating the next big thing, besting yourself, transcending art and life itself, you end up sacrificing almost everything else in life because of this obsession and commitment to being a great artist. So you HAVE to KNOW.
“And it’s not arrogance. It’s a confident knowing. People who accuse you of arrogance don’t feel that way about themselves. So they don’t know. To them it may actually seem like arrogance, because they’ve never felt that way about themselves. They don’t wake up living 24 hours a day thinking they’re one of the greatest artists in human history. Great artists do. It’s just part of their nature. No one is going to talk them out of it.
“Do art from that space. From that place of being. Like Mozart. Or Van Gogh. Or Eddie Van Halen. But as YOU. One of the greatest most important artists of all time. You know already if you’re that or not. You always have. Now just go be it and do it.”
There are a myriad of reasons why someone might exclaim “damn I love the internet!” Even in this age where there’s so much internet bashing going on. I have this ‘68 Hofner acoustic guitar that I bought used by auction years ago. It’s in rough shape, but it sounds amazing! The guys in the band already know this. But out of the 20-25 acoustics I have, even over Gibson, Taylor, Martin, Fender, Epiphone, this just might be favorite. It has this rich full body punchy sound that just gets you way down deep. I wanted to find out what model it is, look for others in similar years, and see if there were other models that might be even better to try. NOBODY talks about Hofner acoustic guitars. It’s just not a thing. The violin bass, sure. Mccartney made sure of that. But guitar players don’t rave or even talk about Hofner. Last night I found this guy in the UK who created a whole website dedicated to vintage Hofner acoustic guitars. He’s been maintaining it since 1987! He’s more obsessed than I am.
So I emailed him, sent him a donation to maintain his site. And he just replied back saying if i sent him some pix of my German handcrafted beauty he’d check it out and fill me in on the model and history of it. Damn I love the internet.
In the mid-90s just after Broken Spectacles broke up I felt a little lost for a while. We were all going to go solo from there. I wasnt quite sure what my “thing” was after being part of the “Eddie and Matt” monster for so long.
Caught a local Marilyn Manson show one night… Cant remember why. Brian was a fellow scenester, but it wasn’t our style of music. Just something to do. Turns out that show had a major impact on me and the direction I would go in over the next decade.
What I witnessed that night was similar to many other Manson shows thru the years. An onslaught of shock schtick pain hatred horror and extreme negativity. All in the name of doing something different to get attention. We were accustomed to it in the local scene, because we’d watched Brian and the guys come up since the beginning.
It was never about the music. It was more of a voyeuristic thing to see who he was going to hit or whip or torture or gag or what he was gojng to pee on or set afire. In the beginning, we were all so young, it was I suppose just another “thing” we did being part of the scene. It was a happening. Just like any other show.
But this night was a few years later. I remember standing there, as this loud pounding aggressive music raged against a backdrop of posters that read “your parents hate you” god hates you” etc. thinking to myself “well this is becoming a viable thing now, this kind of deep level negativity as an influence. Imagine the polar opposite of that. That… that could be YOUR thing man. That already IS your thing. You just need to develop it more overtly so it’s clear what it is and so it has an actual effect.
After hearing that in my head I left the venue. A song or two in. I got what I came for. I entered that show feeling a bit lost and without a mission. I left a half hour later with a very clear mission. I was the anti-Manson. The Ambassador. Ah hah! In any way i could i would use the albums and the shows as a positive influence to affirm life and joy and peace and love. It was simple.
True story. Hadn’t thought about this or even remembered it till seeing this story this weekend.
When it first happened I was at a spanish language school for a semester down in Costa Rica. With a bunch of mainly Europeans. We watched it happening live on the news like everyone. The Euros immediately jumped at the chance to make comments like “serves them right” or “it was only a matter of time”. And though I understood the sentiment, it was too horrific for me to go down that path in that moment. I was more in shock, and worried about all my friends in NYC.
The only other American at the school, a college kid named Heath, and I got called to the American Embassy in San Jose, where we stayed with a bunch of other Americans, tourists and fishermen mostly, for a number off hours. Eventually released and told it would be a few days before we could fly back to the US. Told not to go out and cause any trouble. Keep a low profile.
So off we went to a brothel where we spent the next two days passing the time trying to drink and fuck the pain away. What the Euros at our school didn’t understand was that although we were every bit as aware of and cynical about the last two-hundred years of violent American imperialism, America was still our home. Americans were still our friends family and neighbors.
When i got back to the States we hit the studio to finish working on the Sleep With You album. But we interrupted those sessions to record a song to help donate to various 9/11 charities. That songs being “Rebuild America”. What I was taken with the most back then was how resilient the country was in the face of such a horrific event. How much it unified us. We didn’t get down or depressed. We got all flagged up, amped up and proud. At the time it felt better than going dark.
So the song ended up being more patriotic and uplifting than our normal fare. I still find it hard to believe that a song called “Rebuild America” is associated with us/me in any way. If you would have told me five to ten years before that that I’d have a single out in the future called Rebuild America i would have asked “is it ironic? Did I lose my mind? Or go mad? Did i lose my cool?” If you would have then replied “no not at all. America got attacked. Like Pearl Harbor scale attack. You did the song in earnest.” Yeah. Perhaps I would understand.
Critics used the song as easy pickings to chastise me for a few years after. Implying that it betrayed “coolness”. Perhaps it does. But I don’t regret it. Because it was real. You had to be there. I always thought that was a cheap shot. Because that event was such a viscerally upsetting moment for many of us. And we needed the release. Regardless of where we lined up on the political fence, it hurt.
There was, looking back now, such a strong subconscious react to that kind of intense shock and violence that manifested in extreme positivity and patriotism. Even for those of us who knew the dark seedy underbelly of United States foreign policy. I had never seen anything like it, that kind of avid patriotism. Maybe Rocky IV Cold War era stuff.
Of course it all went down hill quickly from there and we turned all that patriotism into more violence and empire building. Used it as an excuse to finally take over the rest of the Middle East region of the globe sans Iran, and Saudi Arabia, where the attacks actually originated from, but as they say thou dost not shit in your own backyard and the United States has had Arabia in its backyard for fifty years. Hence allowing one little family to prop up a dictatorship and add their name “Saudi” to the name of an entire country. Disgraceful. But whatever.
further on down the road we learned about the dubious nature of the events themselves… and many now believe it to be an inside job. See the documentaries called Loose Change on youtube. But for a brief moment at least we saw potential in America. It just didn’t last. Very sad.
[So I spelled “Brasilian” wrong… At least if we are speaking English, which will prevent this post from ranking high or even popping up in search engines when beginners are searching for data regarding Brazilian music. Which admittedly sucks in a way. Because everyone should know about Brasilian music. The more the better. Brasilian music, like coffee or chocolate or Radiohead or sex or Avatar or God is something that everyone should have a chance to discover and experience and enjoy. It’s that good. It’s that great. That glorious. But Brasilian is actually how the word is spelled. Because the actual name of the country is Brasil. Not Brazil. regardless of what most of us are taught in the English speaking world. I don’t know if we want to go as far as calling that some form of racism or classism or just being careless and selfish, but it’s a dismissive act that we in the West have been guilty of far too many times for far too long when it comes to other countries. We heard “Brazil” so we just decided to call it that. At some point we learned how the people actually spell their country’s name and we never bothered to correct it. It would be akin to finding out that Brasilians call the U.S. the Y.S. by mistake and just never bothered to fix it. It feels demeaning. So, Brasilian it is. Because that’s their name.
On a good note, what we’ll find is that people who have made it at least to the point in their exploration of this glorious country and culture will easily find this post, as they’ll be spelling the name of the country right when they run their search for Brasilian music. But alas this post isn’t just for the already-converted. In fact, I’d prefer it hit the average person who’s always just been curious why every now and then we hear of yet another person who’s going gaga over Brasilian music…. Or better yet, perhaps even people who aren’t even aware of this phenomenon yet. Just to discover how amazing this very special music is. It’s that good.]
So… Where to begin. As some may know, I first got the Brasil bug about 20 years ago. And it hit me hard — in a major way. This is why I recorded and released 3 Brasilian classics on various albums over the last 20 years. I know it may seem a bit cheesy or annoying to the uninitiated, random songs in Portuguese popping up on our albums… You probably skip them. I probably would if i didn’t speak the language. I get it. But let me explain… It’s important. I can easily reflect back on the events and relay them here, though I’m not sure I can adequately explain the near supernatural way it all felt and went down. But I’ll try.
The first Brasilian song I ever heard was “Fio Maravilha” by Jorge Bem Jor. This is going back now over 20 years. Broken Spectacles was just breaking up. I was devastated. I hadn’t yet moved to New York to record Acoustic In New York. I was sort of lost musically for a few months. That breakup was hard. Those guys were my brothers. We had been together for 6 straight years. Lived together. So I was grieving. We all were. Though we weren’t speaking. Each of us holding onto our own personal grudges and resentments.
I was also thoroughly tired of western music — meaning anything pop or rock from America or England or Ireland or Australia. And yeah that included classical or avant garde or jazz or folk… Anything English or Western. Anything remotely “normal”. So i had already abandoned regular tuned guitar playing and was now completely immersed in creating my own open-tuned guitar tunings and writing only in those…. All of the Acoustic In New York album is in an open-tuning of some kind. Back then I pretty much only used my open D9 or a funky open A I came up with, both of which I still use a lot today. So yeah that whole album is either open D9 or open A. Funny now. But true.
I also had completely abandoned listening to anything western or even in English — other people’s music I mean. My answer to the band’s breakup was to still do music and explore and listen to music, but just not western music. So I started buying a ton of different album collections of what we were calling World Music. I just started soaking it all in. It was all so new for me. Music from France and Italy and Spain, Iran and India and Russia and poland, Nigeria and Senegal and Mali etc etc. Pretty much any and every country. Some spoke to me. Some didn’t. But i dug the process of discovery. A whole new world was opened to me that as a band we had explored very little, because we were so focused on “making it”…. We just didn’t have room for “world music”. We were so busy either making music or keeping up with our peers and perceived competitors, all Western music artists.
One day I’m listening to this World Music collection — and I believe it was one of Putumayo’s (they really deserve all the credit for this World Music explosion that happened in the States in the 90s. They don’t get enough credit for what they accomplished IMHO). And suddenly I hear this song… “Fio Maravilha”. The artist was Jorge Bem Jor. How do you even explain it? That feeling? Well it was very similar to how I felt when I first heard the Beatles. Or Dylan. Or Bowie. Or Kate Bush. I was just totally knocked out. Chills. Electrified. There was something supremely special about this song and this artist. I knew it was deeper than just digging on some new discovery from Italy or France. This was a life-changing moment for me musically and personally. It felt supernatural. I was mesmerized but couldn’t explain WHY. Everyone I played the song for seemed “not that interested”, which I couldn’t understand. Didn’t they hear what I was hearing?
But remember we’re still in pre-internet days here. It existed, but no one’s using it yet. There was no “running a search to look up the song” thing going on yet…. So I had no idea what this song was. I didn’t know what country it came from and i sure as hell couldn’t figure out what language it was. Maybe it was African. I really dug a lot of the African stuff. (More on that in another post perhaps…) But it sounded like the guy was singing in French. So Africa made sense. But i had studied French. It wasn’t French. Some of the words sounded like they were in Spanish. But I spoke Spanish. It was’t Spanish. Italian maybe? I grew up in an Italian household. Definitely not Italian. Damn it. What WAS it?
All I knew was that I must have listened to that song ten to twenty times a day for weeks. Just absolutely fell in love with it. More than all the songs from all the other countries I was listening to (NOTE: there were two exceptions; though they’re off point they’re important to mention: Ali Farka Toure from Mali and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from Pakistan also became favorites of mine….) One day I meet this girl through the scene. I can’t remember her name. But she had this really round face. I mean like an apple kind of round. Cute. Kind of foreign looking. Nice girl. And she had a peculiar accent. After some talking and hanging I learned that she was from Brasil. And more importantly I learned that Brasil was in South America (not Africa, as some Americans mistakenly believe) and more importantly still I learned that they spoke Portuguese in Brasil. NOT Spanish. Which was HUGE. Because in the States we just always assume that everyone speaks Spanish in “Latin America”… It’s just this assumption that we make. It’s a sincerely crazy notion really, because Brasil is the largest country in South America. (!!!) And they don’t speak Spanish there. But I can’t honestly say I even knew that much at the time.
But whatever. It’s just how we are in the U.S. We lump the whole continent together including Central America, almost as if they’re one big country. Which they’re not. Not even a little bit. It’s a major faux paz.
[I assume this has become a little better since the advent of the internet age… though I’m not sure how many people know where Brasil is or know that they don’t speak Spanish, but rather Portuguese, or are aware of their many cultural accomplishments as a people…]
Eventually I learn from this girl that she KNOWS this song that I am madly in LOVE with, “Fio Maravilha”. Like she KNOWS it knows it. She’s known it all her life. It’s a super famous classic in Brasil. She grew up hearing it on the radio all her life. Mind BLOWN. Wow. Okay. So that’s Portuguese. Portuguese? Man what the fuck is Portuguese? I had no idea what that was…
I really didn’t even ever consider that there were “hit songs” outside of Western music. It just never occurred to me. I guess I just always assumed that the whole world was listening to the same hits and the same artists we were in the States and in the UK. There’s a term for that…. living with blinders on… shallow? living in a bubble? jingoism perhaps? But it’s not important. Suffice it to say I was a kid and just had absolutely no awareness of anything musical much outside of the little world we lived in within the confines of western music… America, England, Ireland, Australia, all of it primarily due to and because of music. (Literature and history of course were a different story. But we’re talking about music here.)
But all that changed when I heard that first Brasilian song. What was even weirder was that this girl also taught me that this song was NOT a beautiful romantic love song to a girl like I assumed it was — it IS a beautiful romantic song, no doubt about it.. And when you hear it, that’s what you just automatically assume it is.. because it’s so poetic and beautiful sounding…. But in reality, “Fio Maravilha” was an homage to a soccer player and a particular goal he scores in one important game. Fio maravilha means “marvelous son” in portuguese. What the fuck? This incredibly gorgeous sonorous song is about soccer??? I must admit i was stupefied at first. I didn’t get it.
I was a young, idealistic, intellectual artist and consciousness explorer who paid NO attention to sports. So this was a very foreign concept to me… to write such a beautiful song about soccer? And then for the song to become a big hit and then a classic. Seriously? What?
Later I would learn the history of Brasil, social, political, cultural etc. and the very important role soccer actually plays in it… It’s a fascinating human story. It is very difficult to fully relay the importance of football in Brasil, and impossible to overstate just how important it is there. Brasil is the all time most winningest country in the world in football/soccer. No one comes close to them. Most World Cups. Most Americas Cups. In the 50s and 60s when the chips were down for them socially and politically they mesmerized the entire world with their championship talent, ability to play and multiple wins in soccer globally. You can watch the footage on YouTube. It’s awe-inspiring how much better they are than everyone else. Like magicians or artists. Pele… Brasilian.
Regardless of the strange subject matter, I quickly became obsessed. There was something so transcendent about this music…. it didn’t matter to me what the song was about. I just wanted to hear more. I started buying anything I could get my hands on that was Brasilian. Compilations mostly. I then heard Caetano Veloso. Jesus this was like hearing McCartney for the first time. (Except in some ways he’s better. In other ways, not. I mean, Sir Paul is Sir Paul…) Everyone knows I have an obsession with Caetano. I consider him one of the few “best of all time”. He’s right up there with John Lennon, Sir Paul, Dylan, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Bowie and The Boss. The song “Caetano” from our Nothing Is Cohesive album is literally me singing the praises of and drooling over how amazing Caetano Veloso is. So yeah… he’s my man.
Then I heard Gilberto Gil. Specifically the song “So Quero Um Xodo”. The melody was light and airy and happy, but sad at the same time. I needed to know what he was talking about. Just had to. I found the translation to English and started reading it. And for whatever reason it just hit me. Hard. Like BAM! By this point two years had passed. My deal with SONY never transpired. The album never came out. I came back to Miami from New York with my tail between my legs, broke, depressed, dejected, and thoroughly disheartened with music as a career. I was 25 years old at the time. i was finished with music. I didn’t write it. Didn’t play it. Didn’t listen to it and wouldn’t let anyone around me listen to it. Almost two years like that. Music made me sad. Really sad. So i just took it out of my life.
Then i heard that song by Gilberto Gil. There was such happiness and freedom in his voice, and yet he was singing about stuff that was so sad… about how hard life is and how lonely he was and how his life would be okay if he could just find someone to love, someone to call honey or dear or sweetheart… I sat there at my desk and started crying. Then balling. Something touched me deeply about the total recklessness and abandonment of the male ego and American strength and ambition that we are raised to put on in the States. There was none of that in Gil’s song. Just a lonely guy, singing happily, almost gleefully, about his grieving and the pains of life and how one day he might find happiness.
Within an hour I got one of my guitars out of the closet where they’d been for almost two years and started to play. And then write. I hadn’t played a guitar or any instrument in all that time. Hadn’t even listened to a song or seen a video. Stayed far away from all of it. But that night I played all night and into the next day. Something had changed. Looking back now, at the whole trip, at everything that’s transpired over the last 20 years, — because I know I’ve been very lucky, things came late for me… but they worked out well, me coming back to it after a two year break… — I guess you could say that it took something very foreign and far removed culturally, musically, lyrically to shake me up and shake me out of my discouragement.
In all the different Brasilian songs I was hearing I kept noticing that there was an inherent poorness in the people, financially speaking… they sang about it… these were not Americans or Europeans… These were not people accustomed to having it all, to being able to buy whatever they want, to buying a house before you’re 30 years old, to having two cars…. And yet they were supernaturally positive, poetic, intellectual, spiritual…. It was uncanny and confusing, but inspiring.
These were people who grew up and lived in “favelas”, which are basically giant projects of tiny little houses made of cardboard and billboard signs and old tires and put together with rope and old used wires and cables…. these were shanty towns. With no running water or electricity, conceptually something that we in the U.S. couldn’t even imagine, and yet their music was so carefree and happy, but also deep, poetic, profound and intellectual. I just couldn’t get it to make sense…
But it felt like i was connecting with something so deeply meaningful to me personally that it could be past life related. I mean, it was that powerful. It tugged at my heart. Sincerely. I felt it in my heart. It was that powerful. And yeah, I’m half English and half Italian. So it should have happened with Italian or English music. But it didn’t. It happened with Brasilian music.
I had to go there. I needed to learn Portuguese so i could get inside of this incredibly beautiful language and really understand firsthand what all the lyrics were about. Why did it sound so good? Why were the lyrics so poetic? I also had to get to know the people and their culture. There was something so different about them. So spiritual. So deep. So not full of shit. So sincere. I also wanted to learn how to play their music. And there was no way I could learn it in the U.S.
So let’s start there. Why IS Brasilian music so great? Something I’ve contemplated a lot lately. At the moment I am attempting to learn how to play the song “Aguas de Marco” by Tom Jobim and Ellis Regina. You know it. Trust me. You’ve heard it a million times. It’s been a hit here in the States too. It’s an old 70s song. It might be the most beautiful song ever written. It’s also one of the most poetic and profound lyrically.
Musically this song is a beast. A monster. On the guitar it’s like a giant roller coaster of a Loch Ness Monster filled with far too many chords, all of them jazz chords that take more than four fingers to form. My first trip to Brasil was in ’98. Stayed there for a few months studying Portuguese at a language school in the mornings and then going to lunch and then studying Brasilian music all afternoon at another school. Crazy, I know. But I was obsessed. I wanted to speak portuguese as fluently as I did English and Spanish and I wanted to be able to play Brasilian music as well as I could play Western music. So i attacked it full on.
But the finer point is that it took me 20 years to even consider ever learning to play this song “Aguas de Marco”, even though I’ve always LOVED it. I just always labeled it “way too difficult”. The last few weeks though, I started listening to it again and casually commented to Princess Little Tree that “I could never learn to play that song. It’s way too complicated….” and she said, “yeah right. You’ll learn it and be playing it by the end of the week like you always do.” In Avatar we call that a White Worm. She shifted me with that comment, delivered as casually as my earlier discouraged remark about it being too difficult to ever play. So I picked up the guitar and started slowly learning it. I’m still in the practicing phase of it…. Slowly getting there. It’s hard. Really hard. But I’m getting there….
And this got me revved up. Because honestly the song really is incredibly difficult. Unless you literally grew up playing jazz your whole life. Which I didn’t. And yeah I have years and years, hell, decades now, of experience playing Brasilian music, but most of the Bossa Nova stuff I have always shied away from because of how challenging it is. But I skipped ahead. Let’s start at what I have lately been calling “reason number one why Brasilian music is so great”:
Reason Number one: When you first hear Brasilian music the first thing you notice is how beautiful it is. How mysterious it sounds. It’s fucking gorgeous to the ear. Sonically everything about it is transcendent. But it’s also completely different sounding than what we’re accustomed to in the West. And there’s a reason for this. They don’t use the same chords that we do. They still use the 12 note do rei mi scale that we do in western music — unlike say India or Mali etc., but the chords they use all come from the earlier Bossa Nova music that came out in the 50s, which was a spin off of american jazz, but their version. You know Bossa Nova. Even if you don’t know you do.
Think of that song “Girl from Ipanema”. That’s probably the worst of the Brasilian songs honestly, but that’s what it took to break Brasilian music into the U.S. Something simple and elementary like that. Truth is, most bossa nova is incredibly complex. In the U.S. Bossa as it’s called is considered jazz. If you major in music in college, you take an entire semester of just Bossa Nova. That’s how big and transformative it was and still is to music.
When you think of Bossa Nova, think of Tom Jobim or Joao Gilberto (who just passed away this week…). Between the two of them they’ve got 20 songs you know but don’t realize are actually Brasilian classics. Bossa Nova was both jazzy and pop at the same time. It wasn’t atonal chaotic free-form improv music like a lot of american jazz. You can easily groove to and sing along with it. But it utilizes jazz chording to create the progressions.
You hear these beautiful melodies and chord progressions and they sound just like normal beautiful songs…. You have no idea that underneath it all are these incredibly complex jazz chord structures. You’re just swept away by the beauty of the music…. So you really don’t think about it.
That’s why i needed to go to Brasil and learn it. I tried learning it here in the States and as soon as i looked at one song and how funky the chords were, I was like “What the hell?” I just wasn’t familiar with chords like that. (If you’re a musician, then you know we occasionally use diminished and augmented chords, but only occasionally… 7s and 9s and sus4s a lot…. But the Brasilians take it to a whole other level. They’ll have chords like Gm7(9)(13)/G# and that’s standard… And they use a LOT of flat 5s. -5 or 5- are everywhere. Which are killer on your fingers. Especially when combined with 4s, 6s, 7s, 9s, 13s and different bass notes (another favorite of theirs). And they’ll have the entire song is made up of chords like that. And there will be like 15 to 30 of them in one song and they bounce around them endlessly sometimes all within one verse… It’s total madness. So it’s like learning a whole new language.)
After Bossa Nova, the next generation of Brasilians created a new kind of music which is called MPB, which stands for musica popular Brasileira. This is where you get guys like Caetano, Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque, Milton Nascieamento, Jorge Bem, etc. The new generation. The Tropicalia generation. It’s essentially Bossa as it’s foundation, but with influences from American and English pop and rock like Dylan and the Beatles and Hendrix and then also influences of avant garde from America and Europe mixed in like John Cage or John Cale or Terry Reilly. It’s trippy but it’s eerily accessible music.
MPB is more “pop”, it “sounds” more western, sort of, but again it’s totally unique from western music. Still has that passion, poetry and mystery to it that’s unique to Brasilian music. And that’s because they still composed their songs using those bossa nova jazz chords as their foundation, but also threw in some Western styled chords too. When I say western styled chords, i literally mean the chords that you and I use and take for granted as musicians… C, D, Am, GMaj7, B7, Dmin7, etc. Simple stuff comparatively. But THEY started incorporating more of those into their music for the first time. Specifically to attempt to make their music sound more Western and more pop or rock. And it worked. Jorge Bem Jor is really good at making western styled pop/rock. He occasionally writes songs that really are composed of mostly western chords. But he’s one of the only ones.
So yeah that’s the first thing you notice, that stands out. Like with all music… Just the music itself, the melodies and harmonies and progressions…. the unique beauty of their music. And as explained above, there’s a reason for it. They’re not making music the same way we are. Not at all. Totally different musical components underneath.
Reason Number Two: The sound of the voices and the Portuguese language. The next thing that grabs you are the voices… there’s a purity and a sincerity to the voices in Brasilian music that we rarely hear in the West. Think Radiohead. That kind of vulnerability and pathos. Hell that’s why they’re fucking Radiohead. They lay it all out there. So too do the best Brasilian artists. Then there’s the sound of the language itself. You may not understand a word of what’s being said, but you just know it SOUNDS beautiful.
I explain Portuguese like this. Imagine a sentence in your own language, any sentence, a small one of just a few words. Now imagine it visually, being about three to six inches tall, the letters and words of that sentence. Put it up on a table or counter. Can you see it? Now that’s a sentence in your native language standing up there three to six inches tall. You can see it visually. The Brasilians took Portuguese, one of the five Latin languages (related to French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian), the native language of Portugal — which is actually quite similar to Spanish in many ways… But they flattened and softened it through the centuries.
[Brasilian Portuguese is it’s own language. It’s NOT the same as Portuguese. Literally. Again, not something most people know. But when you go to learn Portuguese, you are asked to make a choice between regular portuguese, as in Portugal, or Brasilian Portuguese, which is formally referred to as Portuguese-BR.]
Picture the sentence of words that you put up on the table in your mind. Now imagine someone coming along taking their hands and flattening all those words and letters till they’re like less than an inch tall. That’s what the Brasilians did to Portuguese. They just flattened all the consonants and vowels… Then they took a warm iron and flattened those words and letters even more, and then they took a steamer and softened them all up till your sentence is no more than a few milometers high…. You can’t even see the words and letters anymore. Because they’ve been so flattened. Which creates the softest most poetic and beautiful language you’ve ever heard.
Sure French is pretty. There’s something really sexy and sensual about speaking French… the way it rolls off your tongue and out of your mouth… You have to deliberately act like you have marbles in your mouth to make it sound authentic. Like you just had dental surgery and you can’t open your mouth…. So too is Italian a beautiful language. It’s so sing-songy and lyrical. It feels like your’re breaking into song or reciting poetry when you speak Italian. It’s fucking gleeful. No matter what you’re actually saying. It’s an incredible feeling actually. Speaking Italian. But each their own. In their own way. None better than the other. As with all languages….
And then there’s Brasilian Portuguese. All the consonants have been softened to the point where they all start to sound the same. There is absolutely no stress, tension or struggle in Portuguese. It’s the polar opposite of Russian or German or any of the Scandinavian languages, which let’s face it, are anything but “soft”. Some languages have more of a “hard” sound to them…. Some are softer. Portuguese is incredibly “soft” sounding. Like being massaged in a hot bath with the lights turned down low…. In portuguese, there’s a lot of the jhuh sound. Half the consonants have it. Or just shhh.
All the R’s have been changed to H’s. Both in the beginning, middle and ending of words. It’s a trip. But it makes for a much softer language than most. Instead of trilling or rolling the R’s at the end of sentences as in Spanish, which is a harder sound to the ear, they’ve turned them into haaahhhh or huuuhhhh. It all makes for a very soft, poetic, euphonious and gorgeous sound to the ears.
Another thing is that they speak, and thus sing, most of the language through the front of their face and their nose. It may sound weird, but if you’ve studied classical singing you know that we’re taught to not sing from our throats but rather through the “mask” of the front of the face and to “throw” about a third to a half of our sound through our nose in order to make for the most beautiful singing. Well…. here’s an entire country full of people who just naturally happen to speak and sing through the “mask” of the front of the face and place about a third to a half of the words through their nose in order to pronounce the language properly. A coincidence? Maybe. But it works. If you’ve studied or speak other languages then you know that some actually require you to deliberately use the back of your throat to speak the language authentically. This is a deliberately hard sound, made hard sounding by the use of the throat and various glottal sounds. Arabic and the Semitic languages come to mind. And again German…
Personally I honestly can’t choose between Italian or Portuguese or French. I believe that all three are equally gorgeous. Depending on the need or goal at hand. But Portuguese… Wow…. There’s just nothing like it. If French is the language of love and Italian is the language of great opera, Portuguese is the language of God and the human soul.
Reason Number Three: After you start getting into Brasilian music you might decide to learn what’s actually being said. In your native language. And this is the next thing that really knocks you on your ass when it comes to Brasilian music. Once you actually start reading what they’re saying… And how they’re saying it. The poetic nature of how they form thoughts is truly profound. Entirely different from how we do it in English or Spanish or French or Italian — the closest might be the French. They’re pop is pretty freaking profound at times actually…..
The Brasilians can literally make a song about a soccer player seem like they’re talking about the second coming of the messiah. And in the song “Fio Maravilha” they do. It’s not JUST a song about a soccer player, see…. It’s a song about the redemption of an entire people who’ve been oppressed for hundreds of years through the magnanimous glory of a supremely gifted artist who is almost deified for his glorious talent on the football field and how grateful the people are for his talents and gifts and the glorious way he plays, for he truly is a gift from heaven, an angel. And that’s the song in a nutshell. It gives you chills. It transcends its subject matter.
In the song “Girl from Ipanema” (and I’m just choosing this song because you know it…. there are much better examples….) the English translation was done by this American hack who completely destroyed the poetic nature of the original portuguese lyrics. To the point where Jobim and Joao Gilberto refused to continue the recording process. They were horrified by the English translation. They called it “shallow and vulgar”. Ultimately it wasn’t their call to make. The American music business machine had already taken over and had them sign over all their rights. So they were stuck with a song that they didn’t like.
BUT if you go back and read an actual transliteration of the lyrics of this song, you’ll see that it’s actually a gorgeous work of brilliant poetry by one of the great poets of Brasil, Vinicius De Moraes, who in Brasil is known as just “Vinicius” (because he transcends that much, no last name required… everyone knows who you’re talking about. Same with Jobim, Gilberto, Joao, Caetano, Jorge, Chico…. These guys have risen to this point of “first name only” status.)
But back to “Girl from Ipanema”. In this song, they start the song off by immediately comparing this mysterious girl of beauty and grace they see stroll by on the beach to the Holy Mother right from the start. TOTALLY different than the shallow “long and tall and dark and lovely” lyrics in the English translation. NONE of that is in the actual song. This American dickweed just made it up because he didn’t speak Portuguese. The original song is pure poetry. Mystery. Profundity. About grace and beauty and honor and heaven and the power of all that and yet how far away it all is. It’s a symbolic statement about something much grander than just a girl on a beach.
Check out the song “Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar”. Jobim and Vinicius wrote that together too. I actually recorded that one…. You might know it. But don’t listen to mine. Listen to Caetano’s version. Or Joao Gilberto’s. Or heck even better listen to Jobim sing it. He wrote it. Gorgeous work of poetry and beauty.
Caetano Veloso is a master of this poetic style. He’ll be appearing to be singing about one thing, but in reality you realize he’s singing about something much bigger, but he keeps swooping in and out of the two to three different arenas like a beautiful poetic bird. He’s a master songwriter. A true poet. A true composer. Check out “Desde que o Samba e Samba”, or “O Leaonzinho” or “Sampa”. All three are classics. Incredible songs. Brilliant songs. Beautiful songs. But precisely because they are also brilliant works of musical art and lyrical poetry.
Three days ago I heard the song “Superbacana” by Caetano Veloso for the first time… or at least it was the first time that I “heard” it, really listened to it. It blow me away. It’s off his Tropicalia album, the one that really shook the earth beneath all of Brasil and started the whole Tropicalismo or Tropicalia social and political movement there. (Along with equal contributions from Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes and Tom Ze and Gal Costa and others.
Anyway, I do what I always do. I listen to the song ten to twenty times in a row, analyzing the lyrics and the poetry of the beautifully perfect Portuguese language, still in my opinion the most poetic of them all (and yes, being Italian and speaking Italian and French and Spanish etc. I know what a betrayal that may sound like… but there’s just something transcendent about this language, both in how it sounds to the ear and in how the words and phrases are strung together…. Obviously a subjective thing. I’ll give you that.) I then do a quick translation to English to see if I missed anything. Wow, what a fucking song that is. Simple. Fun. Light-hearted. On the surface. And yet still a Dylanesque social protest song. And the way he spits the lyrics out so fast. Truly genius.
Then I spend three days transcribing the chords, listening to it over and over again. Searching the internet for anyone who has ever transcribed the chords to just get some help with it. But no one has. And this song is 50 years old! I WhatsApp a friend of mine in Brasil to ask him about the song. He tells me “yeah bro, not many people know that song. Not even here in Brasil. It’s only hip with super hip people. It’s not like a popular song, like so many of his….Good luck with that. But I really hope you figure it out, because I can’t wait to hear you sing it with your strong funny Portuguese accent!”
I’m going to include some links below so you can listen to the song on YouTube. Because it’s just that good. Bear in mind, it’s 1967, so it still has elements of that orchestrated pop of the sixties, plus elements of the popular bossa nova style happening in Brasil at the time (think Tom Jobim) and yet it also has this frantic rock ‘n’ roll vibe to it and a sort of folky protest theme to it as well. A very hip tune. The whole Tropicalia album by Caetano is brilliant. A definite must-have.
When you analyze the lyrics, basically Caetano is saying “You all act like you don’t even know I exist, but I believe you’re pretending. Not only do you know I was born, but you also know that I am super fucking cool. (Superbacana literally translates to “super-cool”). And he uses the song to rally against the bourgeois class currently occupying Copacabana and the government with all their big spending on technology and other things that he doesn’t believe help him or the people of the country. But in the end he and his people are still super-cool regardless.
When I first discovered it, it reminded me of the song “ManChildWoman”, the way he’s just overtly bragging, very rock ‘n’ roll swagger… Which I admit I do a lot of from time to time in certain songs… It’s all in fun…. Just to catch a groove and ride it. But after studying the song more, I believe there’s more to Caetano’s “Superbacana” than just empty bragging like “ManChildWoman”. Truly. It’s more Dylan. The bragging is more asserting his existence against an authoritarian regime that refused to acknowledge their existence for so long. It’s a life or death kind of “I believe in me” type of thing. Whereas I was there when I wrote “ManChildWoman” (at least I think I was…as much as I could be considering…) and there was no life or death vibe in my mind. I remember. It was more just “I believe in me mother fucker yeah!” They both have their place. It’s rock ‘n’ roll. It’s all important. As important as rock ‘n’ roll can be.
I’m still trying to figure it out. Learning the chords. Trying to learn the phrasing of how he spits out those lyrics so fast. It’s a brilliant piece of work.
Anyway, check it out. It’s a hip tune. Truly special.
Video capturing the band Ed Hale & the Transcendence performing a rousing live version of the song “Caetano” from their Nothing Is Cohesive album at New York’s Cutting Room for a Fieldhouse/BMG Showcase. Featuring Fernando Perdomo, Ed Hale, Bill Sommer, Roger Houdaille and Ricardo Mazzi. Filmed by Robert Seoane.
Today we learned that the GIBSON Guitar Company has filed for bankruptcy. Like Bourbon or baseball, hamburgers or Ford Mustangs, Gibson is one of those living breathing American landmark institutions whose products are so beloved by people from all over the world that it would last forever. They’re adored and worshiped, bought, sold and traded above ground and underground and coveted like gold, classic paintings or vintage cars. The older they get the more valuable they become.
As a longtime Gibson sponsored artist and avid fan, I admit that this news still seems more than anything else just surreal at the moment, but not necessarily a complete surprise. It’s a cold wake up call for sure. Gibson guitars are expensive. Hell, all musical instruments are expensive when you can’t pay the rent, which is the unfortunate situation that most professional musicians and music artists have found themselves in over the last 15 years — especially the ones who have refused to give up or turn it into a hobby or attempt to start a new career.
Yesterday I posted an important piece about some proposed legislation that has the potential to significantly help increase the royalty rates that music artists are paid in this struggling new world of music streaming. The drastic reduction in artist compensation from all potential revenue streams happened so quickly and drastically that most people are still trying to just catch up and learn about it…. It’s hard to take all the data in and fathom just how bad it’s gotten for the musicians and songwriters that each of us chooses to love and follow. more “RIP Gibson Guitar Company? Probably Not. But a Notable Sign of a Serious Problem”