Brazil on the Bay

San Francisco’s Brazilian Music Scene

Peter Nicholson reports on the Latin-Brazilian meltdown

There are many stories about the origins of house music, but all accounts acknowledge the influence of black and Puerto Rican communities on the beginnings of a sound that has now branched into a myriad of forms. And in recent years a thriving scene has grown in prominence, openly embracing sounds and styles that reflect this many-hued past. Jazzanova, John Beltran, Rainer Trüby — these are just a few names that have found success through their electronic adaptations of tropicalista music.

The San Francisco Bay Area is no melting pot where cultures lose their individual identities — if anything it’s a healthy salad of mixed greens with each distinct community contributing its own flavor. As such, it is no surprise that there is a solid roster of DJ’s sharing a broader vision of “future” dance music, while at the same there coexists a roster of live bands playing more traditional sounds. Though their repertoires and crowds may differ, all share a love of beats from below the equator and a passion for getting down.

Both the audience and the musicians who follow a more traditional approach to the sounds are not necessarily “natives” themselves. Nossa Bossa, a leading Bay Area group that plays Brazilian music, features only one one bona fide Brazilian, Raquel Coelho, whose liquid Portuguese holds together the band’s tight sets. Coelho finds that “there are a lot of good musicians here. A lot of them are from Brazil but also there are a lot of non-Brazilians who love the music and play it well too.” Two such non-Brazilians are Nossa Bossa’s drummer Keith Wald and percussionist Tammy Bueno, whose Baião, Xaxado, Samba, Bossa, Choro, and Partido Alto rhythms propel the band’s fluid style.

Bat Makumba is another Brazilian-focused outfit, though they lean more towards interpretations of Musica Popular Brasileira. Named after the 70’s classic tropicalia song by Gilberto Gil & Caetano Veloso, the band’s sweat-soaked shows have earned them an enthusiastic following and they have an album due out later this spring. Band leader Alex Koberle cites Mission district venue the Elbo Room as “a great place for live music with always a full dance floor. We play there every first Tuesday of the month and every Tuesday has a different live band playing Brazilian music.” Besides live acts, the Elbo Room hosts many DJ’s, some of whose music Koberle enjoys. Yet he qualifies that “some pieces have a pseudo-Brazilian feel that I really dislike. It sounds like people are trying to jump on the Brazilian bandwagon by throwing in some samba elements without really knowing how to do it. It just ends up sounding sloppy to my ears.”

Sloppy sounds are not what one finds every last Thursday of the month at the Make-Out Room, another joint in the Mission. Instead one is treated to choice vinyl selections by Vanka (Stellar Trax) and a rotating crew of guests like Andrew Jervis (Ubiquity), Vinnie Esparza (Dis-Joint), and Tom Thump (Cosmic Flux.) Originally from Belgium, Vanka Van Ouytsel has DJ’ed in the Bay Are for 12 years and is excited about the scene’s potential. “Locally, I’d like to see more conversing and converging between traditional latin/cuban/brazilian music and electronic dance music, on a performance as well as production level…. Although the Bay Area is blessed with a vibrant musical community from the Americas, most local bands tend to perform in the more traditional vein. At the same time, there are also a lot of local DJs and producers that share an interest in the traditional latin/cuban/brazilian sounds, so hopefully more musical fusions will be created here in the future.”

Van Ouytsel is certainly doing his part, hosting East Bay group Superbacana at his Make-Out Room party. Andrew Jervis (Ubiquity Records VP and host of KUSF’s Friday Night Session) was impressed enough by Superbacana’s demo to include them on his label’s Rewind! 2 compilation. They turned in a solid version of the standard “Reza,” adding a heavy bass drum thump and flanged keys midway through the track for a more dancefloor-oriented feel. Bandleader Caroline Chung sees the electronic scene as often more open to change than traditional musicians. “For me, being a live musician, I’ve noticed that the traditional live music scene is adapting to the new electronic sounds at a more slower pace compared to the DJ/dance music crowd adapting to the organic, traditional styles.”

He has been hosting (with the help of XLR8R magazine’s Tomas Palermo) the Friday Night Session for 8 years now and his role as head of A&R for one of the US’s most progressive labels puts him in a front-row seat for changes in taste. “There’s a lot of wishy-washy crap floating around, often promoted as a new innovation, but just because the producer sampled a riff from a Brazilian compilation or something doesn’t mean it’s any good. Fortunately there are lots of really great interactions, too . . . for instance people like Seiji, John Beltran, and Osunlade are all working with Puerto Rican musicians and rhythms right now forging new sounds where Bomba meets broken beats and house and creating new dancefloor tunes that on one level are just great to dance to but also musically deep if you care.”

At the other end of the spectrum from Superbacana, Om Record’s Afro-Mystik comes from the electronic side of things but adds live instrumentation. Headed by Om President Chris Smith aka DJ Fluid, Afro-Mystik also features Simone White (disposible heroes of Hip-Hoprisy) and the amazing vocals of Omega. But it is the live-wire antics of percussionist JSN that drives their live show, one of the best amalgamations of live and electronic performance I have ever witnessed. With the album Morphology due to drop in mid-April, the single “Natural” is already in the crates of taste-maker DJ’s like François K, Halo, and local globe-trotter Andrew Jervis. Jervis is renowned for his open mind and eclectic playlists.

DJ Vinnie Esparza is one who cares, and it shows. In addition to DJ’ing enough to be voted the Bay Area’s Best DJ by a local weekly newspaper, Esparza has a full schedule. “I run a small record label called Dis-Joint, along with Groove Merchant Records owner Chris Veltri. We do new, beat oriented music, as well as funk, soul, Latin, and reggae reissues on our “Re-Joint” imprint. Also, I work at the Groove Merchant myself a couple of days a week, where I do all of the “new music” buying.” While some of Esparza’s customers are quite knowledgeable (the Beastie Boys are just some of their famous fans), he says that “Most people who listen to “DJ” music are not even aware that the latest track from their favorite artist actually has roots deeper than they may think.” In keeping with this theme, Esparza namechecks people like “…Vanka, Soulsalaam (whom I do “New Conception” with), Cool Chris, Romanowski, Andrew Jervis and a handful of others have a real sense of history when it comes to the music they spin, both old & new.”

That seems to be the key: respect the past while looking to the future. Though some may choose to honor their forerunners by sticking with tradition, others seek to apply the same spirit to new styles. Both use these powerful rhythms to move the heart and feet and, come May when San Francisco once again hosts North America’s largest Carnaval, everyone will dance together.

Om Records

Ubiquity Records

Elbo Room

Make Out Room

SF Carnival

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