by Hugo Suckman
In any situation from parties to shoot-outs, the soundtrack of Rio is samba and funk. A blend of both in this blended city. The alchemist of this blend is Fernanda Abreu, the tireless translator of the sounds and styles of the city she loves so much.
Alternating ever so subtly between funk, as in her early records that celebrated Rio’s exciting night life (Sla Radical Dance Disco Club, and Sla 2 Be Sample), and samba, as on the cavaquinho and seven-string guitar (Brazil’s contribution to the great strings family) heard on Na Paz (At Peace), her latest CD, Fernanda makes carioca music.
This means Brazilian music that the cariocas of Rio and their fellow Brazilians immediately recognize as such. Brazilian music as it is made today, without overtones of folk, but rather typical, cosmopolitan, and inherently local. A music that speaks of the real Rio, with its happy, creative people who bridge the difficult divide between beauty and violence in their daily lives. But it might also speak of any of the world’s great cities, crammed with beauty and violence, New York, Baghdad, Madrid or Jerusalem, any place where kisses and bombs can blast any time.
The anthem of this Rio (and this world) of today is hers: “Rio 40 graus,” (Rio 40ºC) a samba-funk written some ten years ago and fated to become a classic, surprising many who saw Fernanda Abreu as merely a hedonistic celebrant of the carioca club culture. In “Rio 40 graus” – its title paying tribute to Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ 1954 film, a milestone of the modern Brazilian cinema – she describes the world that she sees and the world that will come as a hot and vibrant city: “Rio 40o / Marvelous City / Purgatory of beauty and chaos / Hot-blooded capital of Brazil / Hot-Blooded capital /of the best and the worst of Brazil.”
The trail-blazing career of this carioca from Rio’s Jardim Botânico – a district tucked between the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon and the Tijuca Rainforest under the sheltering right arm of the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer – began at a very young age, when she became the vocalist of Blitz, the band that launched the so-called Rock Brasileiro (Brazilian rock) movement in the early 1980s. With its real Brazilian rock, the international beat of Blitz was always seasoned by a touch of samba. In addition to learning about blends, Fernanda learned about success with Blitz, which topped the charts at a time when pop groups were turning out a steady stream of hits in Brazil.
When Blitz disbanded in 1986, Fernanda spent some time metabolizing her success, studying, thinking about her role in Brazilian music from then onwards. She occasionally appeared in small shows and sang in other artists’ records, while meeting fellows of her “tribe”, musicians such as Laufer, urban poets like Fausto Fawcett, videomakers like Sérgio Mekler, graphic artists like Luiz Stein (later her husband and father of her two daughters), multimedia people with whom she was to create the carioca samba-funk style that mirrors Rio so well and is also universal, and which became her trademark.
During the three years between Blitz’s break-up and her first solo album, Fernanda built up a new career, with a new vision of music and a new repertoire. She was well-matured when she entered the studio to record her solo album debut in 1989 – Sla Radical Dance Disco Club – with the intention of developing a new soundtrack that would set Brazil dancing to a funk beat with echoes of samba.
Brazil’s own dance music muse, she moved on to her second album, extending the samba-funk blend. Inspired by the work of the singer-songwriter who invented it, the first of the “alchemists”, Jorge Ben, Fernanda recorded “Jorge de Capadócia” while also launching her masterpiece, “Rio 40 graus,” which was to make her name as a solo artist.
Now Brazil’s samba-funk muse, Fernanda moved on to her third album – Da lata (1995) -, which is carioca slang for “in the can,” indicating something that is very, very good, and meaning the tin can that can be used to hammer out a beat, as a percussion instrument. This was the multi-hit album that really put her samba-funk style on the map, with her artistic concept of blends. In “Veneno da lata” she heralds: “Swing-balanço-funk / this is the new sound in the streets /batuque- samba-funk / The poison in the can (let’s hammer the can).” In “Garota sangue bom” she was to create her iconic character, “the funkin’ fine-blooded carioca girl.” In “Tudo vale a pena,” she celebrated the ideology of blends: “Cool people / samba lovers / funk dancers / swing even in the way they look / sway so gently as they walk.”
With the musical language and themes established, Fernanda was to develop them even further in her next two albums: Raio X and Entidade Urbana, always including new Brazilian musical languages and updating her discourses. In Raio X (X-Ray, 1997), she was to celebrate her definitive marriage with samba by recording classic sambas from long-ago carnivals: “Aquarela brasileira” and “É hoje,” both with a flash of funk. In Entidade urbana (Urban Entity, 2000), as indicated by its title, she plunges into the pains and pleasures of today’s great cities. Naturally, from the standpoint of Rio, in “Sou da cidade” (I’m from the City) she professes the soul of urban music: “São Paulo / Osaka / Seoul / Peking / Rio or Jakarta / and Bombay / everything is city / one and all / in any language / it is universal.”
On the cover of her most recent and mature CD, Na paz, she offers flowers as a musical response to global violence, fired from heavy guns. From the music point of view, this samba-funk blend extends beyond the beat to the structure of the compositions, speaking of Rio, cities and the world. However, the core of this new record is a fresh proposal for Brazilian civilization, which is one of Fernanda’s key topics. In her first incursion into African music, which is one of the backbones of the Brazilian beat, she says in “Brasileiro,” (Brazilian) her version of Angolan funk writer Teta Lando’s Angolê: “If you’re white, that’s nobody’s business / if you’re mulatto, that’s nobody’s business / if you’re black, that’s nobody’s business / what counts is your wish to make Brazil better.”
Fernanda Abreu has created her own language, one of the many possible languages in modern Brazilian music panorama. And the outcome, despite its complexity, is pop music. It’s a party.