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On Sergio Mendes' What Is This?


By Kalamu ya Salaam of kalamu.com


“The samba is our truth, our peculiarity, our gold medal, our faith, our Brasilian standard.”
—Seu Jorge

Pianist Sergio Mendes is currently sailing on a second wind of a long career with a release called Timeless. But to kick things off on a drum-heavy journey  we reach back to Sergio’s 1992 album

I had said that I was going to go a number of places but what had happened was, as I was pulling out CDs from all over, I kept pulling up more and more Brazilian music. I got stuck, literally. I fell under the influence of the soft hardness of those Brazilian rhythms.


Soft in the sense of that lilting sound—those sibilants that are a major part of the Portuguese language. And then, when you do it Brazilian style, all of it sounds like a song, like a sweet melody, even when they be cursing.


So I ran out of money and couldn’t get to Africa, except I was already in Africa. Couldn’t go to the Caribbean, except Brazil has a lot of what all you find elsewhere in the Caribbean. Couldn’t go anywhere else, ‘cause no matter where else I was thinking about going, Brazil kept calling. And, like the fool I am for rhythm, I just kept listening.

This opening cut is the one track on the Sergio album which is not a Sergio kind of tune, in fact, both the lyrics and the music were written by a mysterious woman, Carmen Alice, who is also the lead vocalist on the cut. I have searched high and low, asked around and around, but came up with nada, so I can’t tell you anything more other than I really, really, really like this cut.


               sergio mendes.jpg

                   Sergion Mendes won a Grammy for the album Brasileiro in 1993 


Up next is a track from a drum festival of an album titled Ritual Beating System by a conglomeration of veteran musicians recording under the nom de musica Bahia Black. Produced by Bill Laswell, the lineup is Brazilian superstar Carlinhos Brown, the leading Brazilian percussion ensemble Olodum, jazz musicians Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Henry Threadgill as well as drummers and funk musicians Bernie Worrell (P-Funk keyboardist), Larry Wright, David Chapman and Tony “Funky Drummer” Walls. The whole album is a sticks and skins festival.
The track we have chosen is a duet between Larry Wright on buckets and Carlinhos Brown providing accents on a plethora of percussion. Larry is a street musician from the States who specializes in playing white plastic buckets.
Carlinhos is a Bahia-born rhythm institution whose fingerprints are all over contemporary
Brazil music. Carlinhos wrote five of the fourteen songs on the above-cited Sergio Mendes album and is back again on this one. He’s a bad man.


                         larry wright1.jpg
Forro In The Dark is a group from the northern part of
and they team up with Seu Jorge (literally “Mr. Jorge”), who is currently one of the hottest male vocalists on the Brazilian scene. The mix of “Suor De Pele Fina” is by Mawglee, whoever that is—I have no idea. “Suor” is something I stumbled over during one of my deep cruises on the internet during which I start out looking for one thing and four hours and over a hundred URLs later I find something else that is often far more fascinating than the first thing I was seeking.


I am particularly smitten by those two funky drum tracks layered one atop the other. The first one was OK, but when the second slams in, I said, goddamn, now that’s funky.
And your boy Seu Jorge won’t cut you a slack with his chant and scatting. This guy is not only a songwriter/performer, he is also a major actor in
. He reminds me of some of those slick country blues cats who you smirk at when they step on the stage with just a guitar. But then, before they leave they make your jaw drop because of the way they conjure up music that makes blood rush to your head and sets your feets to involuntarily tapping and your ass to helplessly wiggling.
Gilberto Gil, Brazil
’s current Minister of Culture, put together an album called O Sol De Oslo. On that album Gil employs the East Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu and several musicians from Norway in combination with folk from deep up in the Brazilian countryside. Gilberto Gil does the softest funk you ever want to hear. I don’t know what “Rep” is about but I do know I love the way he has hooked up this rhythmic statement.



                Mr Cool: Gilberto Gil, widely-acclaimed artiste and Brazil's minister of culture


I close with a track by pandeiro player Marcos Suzano from his album Flash. The album features two pandeiro solos and five tracks by a jazz sextet (trumpet, sax, bass, piano, electronic keyboard and Suzano on tambourine and percussion touches). “Zona Norte” is one of the jazz tracks.


Although it may not sound dazzling as you listen to the cool sounds, consider that there is no drummer other than Suzano and with a tambourine he manages to hold down the bottom by employing a deceptively easy-swinging backbeat established with only his pandeiro.


I started to post one of the solo tracks, so folk could hear how much my man can handle up on his hand drum, but I remain a jazz head at heart, and "Zona Norte" is nothing short of intoxicating with its smooth, Milesian horn flavor and Hancockian keyboard washes.

When it comes to pandeiro playing, Marcos Suzano is “the” man in Brasil. Here is a definition of the pandeiro by musciologist Emiliano Benevides from his


In a country rich in rhythms and full of a variety of instruments, the pandeiro is considered the Brazilian national instrument and an icon of samba. The pandeiro is a tambourine with a head made of either animal (goat, calf) skin or plastic. The jingles have a drier sound than most American tambourines.


It comes in various sizes, from 8" to 16" across. The most common sizes are 10", 11" and 12". Although the pandeiro is most commonly associated with samba, it is also used in almost all other Brazilian rhythms and music, including rock, funk and pop.


There is, of course, a whole more Brazilian music to explore. In due time we will get to it. To be continued….


With thanks to www.kalamu.com/bol where this piece was originally posted.

 Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop. 


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