City Of Saints: Gilles Peterson Interviewed

The tale of his tropical new album, 'Brasil Bam Bam Bam'...

Flying out to Brazil to make a new album, eh? Must be a hard life. Yet for Gilles Peterson, this wasn’t a task to be taken lightly – the DJ, label owner and producer’s new record, ‘Brasil Bam Bam Bam’, is the sound of decades of devotion coming to fruition.

“It was something I had in the back of my mind for quite a long time,” Gilles tells Clash. “I just felt this is really good opportunity right now, with what’s going to be happening in Brazil over the next few years, to be able to present this kind of music to a wider audience. I really wanted to create a record that was going to be able to showcase the real authentic Brazilian music, maybe more so than a lot of the throwaway records that are probably going to be released squarely and cynically for the World Cup.”

A long-time advocate for all facets of Brazilian musical output, Peterson knows his bozza nova from his salsa, his baile funk from his favela hip-hop. Using Rio de Janeiro as a base, the producer gathered local musicians – some underground, some well known, some new, some established – to work on something special.

“For me, this first record, I probably go a bit more traditional,” he says. “So, less electronic at this stage. I work with a collection of musicians, ranging from legends like Elza Soares and Marcos Valle through to kind of more modern legends like Seu Jorge, but also incorporating a few names that might not be so familiar to a European or non-Brazilian audience. So people like Mart'nália, who’s a huge star in Brazil, and Arlindo Cruz, who’s one of the most famous cavaquinho players.”

Yet this enormous blend of talent presents its own problem – namely, how to achieve any kind of unity. “So, in many cases, it’s 'How can I incorporate all those elements to make a record that also represents the club culture side, which is where I come from?’ Why is a DJ from London playing, y’know, Brazilian records on a pirate radio station in 1988? What made me do that? I wanted to bring the essence back, but do it in a modern way, I suppose.”

Scouting for talent (and doing a spot of record shopping) with close friend Floating Points, recording commenced with heavy percussion sessions. Roping in whoever they could find, the discoveries ranged from world beaters to complete unknowns. 

“For example, Naná Vasconcelos was around – who’s actually the musical director for Kate Bush when she’s going to be doing all these gigs this summer. He’s probably one of the top two or three percussionists and arrangers in the world. He was in town and I managed to get him to come to the studio, so we did two songs with him. So it was really who was around – soon the word spread amongst the Brazilian community, and soon more people became interested.”

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Having Elza Soares sing ‘Aquarela Do Brasil’ is probably the highest level of emotion I’ve ever had in a studio…

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Recorded largely live in the studio, ‘Brasil Bam Bam Bam’ is packed with odd little moments of improvisation, chance decisions which transform the mood of entire pieces.

“We did a version of ‘The Mystery Of Man’ with Mart'nália. I mean, she’s never sang in English ever before, so that was a bit of a struggle for her to sing it properly. Some of those songs… they weren’t really jams, we sort of just decided on a song and thought whether the singer was going to be capable of singing it the way we wanted her or him to, and then we kind of made an arrangement and recorded it and sort of twisted it a little bit when we got back.”

He continues: “Basically, we kept the record pretty much live, but with little touches of modernism. There’s a strong element of good moments of musicality in the studio, all jamming, because we had such a good rhythm section and an amazing percussionist. So tracks like ‘Xibaba’ are more popping, and the tracks with Seu Jorge, they are great rhythm tracks, they almost just sang over the top.”

Recorded in a short burst and then re-assembled in England, ‘Brasil Bam Bam Bam’ retains a certain freshness, an excitement born of live performance. “I think the rhythm is really, really important in Brazil,” Gilles says. “I mean, obviously Brazil is home to bossa nova, samba, tropicalia, you know. Many rhythms have come out of Brazil. Brazil, Cuba, South America, Jamaica and a bit of Africa – you’ve basically got it all, really.”

Fused with this percussive sensibility, though, is an awareness of the enormous range of moods, of emotions which colour Brazilian music. “There’s the real sad music, which hopefully we capture in songs like ‘Aquarela Do Brasil’, which we did on the record with Elza Soares. That’s the other side of Brazilian music, the real modern-day legends of songwriting and composition. Those people didn’t have big samba beats behind their music, and their music was completely the opposite. I wanted to make sure there was a bit of that involved in the record, too.”

Currently plotting the possibility of a full live set featuring Brazilian musicians, Peterson points to one performance as the real emotional crux of the album. “Well, ‘Aquarela Do Brasil’ was a remarkable moment for us all, because what you have to remember here is that Elza Soares is basically the queen of Brazilian music. She’s like a cross between Eartha Kitt and Billie Holiday and she’s been around since the late 1950s, early 1960s. She was discovered by the man who [originally] wrote that song, which is kind of like the alternative Brazilian national anthem.”

“She was like the original celebrity in Brazil, but she’s also had a very, very difficult life. She’s been beaten up, she’s lost her children, she’s had all kinds of problems. But the one song she’s never done on record is this song, ‘Aquarela Do Brasil’. So for us to get her to do it on this record, and for her to sort of almost express her 40 years of pain through it, was a moment that is probably the highest level of emotion I’ve ever had in a studio.”

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'Brasil Bam Bam Bam' is out now on Talkin' Loud/Virgin. Find Gilles online here

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