Reviews August 19, 2014

Slavery was legal in Brazil for almost 400 years. From the early 1500s until the practice was abolished there in 1888, some 4.5 million African men and women were shipped across the Atlantic to Portuguese settlements in the Amazon, where they toiled in sugar mills and gold mines under barbarous conditions. But while many ended up dying of abuse, disease and starvation, some managed to break from their bonds and escape into the rainforests, where they set up quilombos,  settlements founded by ex-slaves, some of which still exist to this day. And that’s where the music of Siriá takes root.

The latest release from Analog Africa, Siriá is a delightful album that compiles the trademark tunes of Brazilian songwriter and bandleader Mestre Cupijó. The disc takes its title from a regional folk style founded in the northern state of Pará—a “cross pollination,” as Analog Africa puts it, between the inhabitants of the quilombos and the indigenous Indians living in the Amazon. Cupijó was heavily influenced by this sound, and it shows up frequently on these 14 tracks, usually in the form of a heady, circular tribal rhythm that just so happens to go nicely with Cupijó’s infectious alto sax melodies.

Cupijó was born in 1936 and passed away in 2012, and he doesn’t have a lot of name recognition outside of Brazil. But he was an influential artist in Pará—the sort of elder who gets featured on local TV programs about homegrown music history.

The son of a local musician (director of one of Brazil’s oldest bands, Centennial Euterpe, credited for playing at celebrations in Pará when slavery came to an end), Cupijó began learning the musical craft as a teen. He later went to live in the quilombos to study indigenous music, and he ended up modernizing the siriá sound, fusing it with the hot Latin American music styles of the day.

As Siriá makes clear, this made for a potent brew. Indeed, there can’t be a better compilation out right now to wrap up the hot summer. Relying on simple guitar accompaniment, laid-back singers, solid beats and festive horns, Cupijó and his band get brisk Afro-Brazilian grooves going in “Siriá Quente” and “Pra Dancar Meu Siria,” while making sure to add in sizzling mambo rhythms (“Mambo Do Martelo”) and plugging cumbia bass (“Eu Quero O Meu Anel”) for extra flavor. A lot of Brazilian music emphasizes the beat, but the drumming here is more restrained, making room for bright, hummable melodies—which send the female singer of “Caboclinha Do Igapo” into a flirty back-and-forth with a strapping horn section.

Of course, it’s hard to overlook the music’s link to the long and tragic history of slavery. And yet, if anything, Cupijó’s repertoire feels like a rebuke to that oppressive institution. Research suggests ( that the quilombos Cupijó was drawn to tended to be diverse environments, with inhabitants upholding their African traditions but also creating a new life, and sometimes mingling with indigenous Indians and whites. In Siriá, you can hear how Cupijó builds on that tradition, creating a fresh and liberating sound from a multitude of voices.  Hear here: Mestre Cupijo, Mingau de Acai
Want to learn more about Pará? Be sure to check out our program "The Mighty Amazon."