Interview August 6, 2014
Claiming Caribbean-ness: Darien Lamen on the Music of the Brazilian Amazon
On this week’s episode of Afropop Worldwide, we explore the music of the Brazilian Amazon region. Darien Lamen teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a post-doctoral fellow in Spanish and Portuguese. Outside Brazil, he is probably the foremost expert on lambada and guitarrada—genres of music that come from the Amazonian state of Pará. Recently, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the area's popular music, both in Pará and around Brazil. We asked Darien to tell us the whole story from the beginning. Here, you can find the full transcript of our interview, which is featured in the Hip Deep episode The Mighty Amazon. Marlon Bishop: So to start off—how did you become interested in music from the Amazon region? Darien Lamen: What I think captured my interest the most was seeing such a strong presence of Latin American and circum-Caribbean music in Belém. Brazil’s a country where, before the 1960s, this kind of music had a very strong presence, thanks to the Mexican and Cuban music industries’ influence in the hemisphere. Belém, in some ways, preserved that connection with the rest of Latin America and contributed something back to it, whereas the rest of Brazil turned away from those kinds of traditions— bolero, rumba, mambo, merengue. Belém had a sub-culture that was really nourished by a constant stream of new music coming across the border from the neighboring Guyanas—from French Guiana, from Suriname—that included merengues and cumbias and cadence-lypso music that was never released in Brazil. Let’s set the scene—where and what is Belém? Belém is a large metropolis of 1.5 million people located in the eastern Amazon. It’s the capital of the state of Pará. Its position as a port city in the lower Amazon basin has given it a unique relationship to the circum-Caribbean and also the rest of Brazil. There’s a saying that Belém grew up with its back to Brazil, which isn’t totally accurate, but it does point to the way that Belém has been turned outwards towards the Caribbean during several moments in the 20th century. Belém was founded as a Portuguese outpost to control access to the interior of the Amazon where colonial powers were vying for access to precious metals, woods and so on. In the 1830s there was a period of insurrection after Brazil gained its independence from Portugal where various interests near Belém didn’t want to recognize the distant authority of the new Brazilian emperor. So, the region has a history of being a divergent Brazil in this sense. What does it feel like to be there? What kind of activity goes on in the city? Give us a sense. Belém is a very, very vibrant—chaotic, even—city, and it’s a really exciting place to be. lambada, right? How did that happen? The story is that two radio personalities, Haroldo Caraciolo and Paulo Ronaldo, were the first to jokingly popularize the name lambada, which was a rural colloquialism for a “lashing.” They would introduce a song like the merengue or any fast-paced song by saying, “Here comes a lambada, or here’s a lambada on your backs,” which really means something like, “Here’s a whopper. Here’s a lashing. Or here’s a hot rhythm, basically, to dance to.” It’s any rhythm—it can be Caribbean or Brazilian—that is uptempo, made for dancing and maybe has somewhat of a sensual aspect to it. What kind of environments did people listen to lambada in? People danced a lot of lambada at the dance halls catering to migrants who were coming, working as stevedores unloading the boats in Belém’s ports, maybe looking for some income for the season before going back to the rural areas. And, on the weekends or at the end of the day, they might have a little bit of extra cash in their pockets, and they would go to spend this money in the gafieiras, the dance halls located on the urban peripheries. Gafieira became a synonym for “brothel” during this period. Often, there was prostitution associated with these spaces, but there was a broader social stigma that attached itself both to lower-class places of leisure and to hot Caribbean music. And here’s the real question: Why do you think that Caribbean music became popular in Belém, other than the fact that it was available to listen to? In part, the sound of the lambada, of the merengue, of these things, was something that signified a world beyond the local, that signified a certain kind of subversive, contraband mobility, that signified a certain kind of cosmopolitan, hemispheric circulation of goods, the signs of leisure status. I think that in this general context, these types of music became very, very popular. And at what point do local bands start playing and adapting these Caribbean sounds themselves? The dance bands that existed around Belém always had a mandate to play pretty much everything within the general soundscape of the city. They began to hear a lot of this Caribbean music in the sound systems and on AM radio, and adapted it for their dance bands straight away. In the case of Mestre Vieira, who is from the rural town of Barcarena, about an hour and a half boat ride from Belém—his dance band was kind of typical for the 1970s. It had a horn section, banjo and percussion. He began to incorporate the electric guitar into the ensemble in the 1970s, which he then used to translate a lot of these horn gestures that you might associate with the mambo—these horn hits—or to translate the sinuous saxophone line of a merengue solo. Tell us a little more about the biography of Mestre Vieira. Vieira’s brother was a woodworker, and Vieira tells the story of going to an instrument shop in Belém and tracing the outline of a mandolin that they had on a piece of paper. So his brother was able to design one from scratch based on some of his observations and measurements. Vieira has a real musical curiosity that really doesn’t know any national or stylistic limits. He tells this story of, in the 1950s or ‘60s, seeing for the first time an electric guitar in a movie, though he doesn’t remember the name of the movie. It was one of these summer hits where all the young men and women are hanging out on a beach playing guitar. So, there was an electric guitar in this. He liked the sound of it and started asking around. It turned out that his brother knew someone who knew someone who traveled to Rio frequently who told him, “Yeah, the electric guitar is really taking off there. I can bring you back one,” so he brought him back one. It came totally disassembled. He had no strings for it. He had no way of amplifying it, but knowing something about electronics, and, with the help of other people around him, he was able to put this thing together and make it work. This album they recorded in one sitting. Vieira says the horn players don’t show. The bass player had a two-stringed bass that he was using that he had built himself. It’s really done on the fly, but it’s a fantastic album that really touched off a whole series of subsequent albums in this electric guitar lambada style. He continued to record and gig throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. More recently, he ended up playing with the Mestres de Guitarrada for a number of years. Today he continues to do a lot of performances around the world with a band that his sons and his grandson play in. And so, parallel to all this great music that’s happening, we have this other meaning of the word “lambada” which comes from an international dance craze that appeared in the late '80s and early '90s—can you explain for us how that happened? During the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was a growing recording industry based in Belém. Lambada became kind of the stock in trade that a lot of local producers were scouting and recording—among other local styles like electric carimbó. The music industry at that time was arranged in such a way that it made more logistical sense for Amazonian musicians from Belém to tour and set up distribution networks into the neighboring Northeast of Brazil than it did to do those things in the rest of the Amazon. This ended up creating a certain flux, a certain exchange, between Belém and the Northeast, where musicians would go and play in nearby Fortaleza or they would go to Recife, or they would go all the way down to Salvador in Bahia, places which were, at that time, kind of stopping off points on their way to the national center of Rio, which was really the powerhouse of the recording industry throughout most of the 20th century. Within this sweep across the Northeast, the lambada ended up becoming very popular among Northeastern listeners, including in the state of Bahia, which during the late '80s was becoming more and more popular as an international tourist destination. The story goes that there was a French producer vacationing on the beach in Porto Seguro in Bahia who heard someone playing this kind of hot, Caribbean-esque dance music and had the idea to form the band Kaoma that actually ended up drawing together Brazilian and Francophone Caribbean musicians. It became an eclectic circum-Caribbean, trans-Atlantic, part-French, part-Brazilian, part-Caribbean project that, for all intents and purposes, cut the Amazon out of the story altogether.
It gets its name from the two- to three-foot diameter drum made from a hollowed-out log which is covered over with usually a deer or an anaconda hide and played horizontally by a drummer straddling it.That's the foundation. From there, people have added banjo. They’ve added saxophone. They’ve added a lot of different types of instruments to that basic foundation. Unlike other folkloric traditions from the Amazon that were related to Catholic saint day festivities, the carimbó wasn’t very highly regarded for much of the 20th century. In fact, one of the first references that we have to it in writing is an ordinance forbidding its playing in Belém. As with samba, carimbó’s a drumming tradition that was criminalized and repressed before it became “official cultural patrimony.” During the 1970s, that changed a bit as urban dance band leaders, like Pinduca, started to do kind of electrified version of the carimbó. And one of the important parts of this revival was reviving the memory of the story of lambada, reviving the memory of the story of Belém’s circum-Caribbean connectedness. How did it take off from there? So Pio Lobato got to work with Vieira and Aldo Sena and a carimbó banjo player named Mestre Curica who had played with the carimbó mestre Verequete. And one of their first major gigs was at Rec Beat in Recife in 2003 if I'm not mistaken. And this was an important stage for a whole generation of university-educated, prog-rock-inclined youth, who, because of the circulation of Paraense music into the Northeast from Belém back in the '70s and '80s, had also grown up listening to this lambada sound, this instrumental electric guitar lambada. And so it had a nostalgic appeal, and this was the demographic that I think guitarrada was first able to tap into. Not long after that, Félix Robatto, who was studying music at the state university of Pará, together with some people who would go on to become his bandmates, wrote a thesis on the guitarrada as well, and ended up forming a band called La Pupuña, which paid homage to the style of guitarrada. And so where does it go from here? Amazonian music has reached a certain level of popularity around the country, what’s next? It's hard to know whether to give the pessimistic or optimistic reading on that. I think that there's some sense that Terruá Pará was very successful in putting Belém on the national music map. But there was also some degree of trepidation about the media frenzy that happened around this new music scene, that this was going to be just one more exotic novelty from the periphery that would be consumed and discarded once a national listenership was tired of it. And in a macro-sense there's some truth to that in the way that the music industry works, feeding on the new and on the different, though I think that a lot of the musicians don't have illusions of becoming huge superstars who’ll be able to retire on the money they make playing this music. With of course the exception of Gaby Amarantos—who has become a huge star for bringing tecno brega to Brazil at large.