Interviews August 19, 2021
David McLoughlin on Brasil Calling

David McLoughlin is an Irishman who has spent the past 25 years living in São Paulo Brazil. It turns out there are a lot of Irish ex-pats in Brazil, and many are involved in music and culture. Case in point, Connor O’Sullilvan, who we interviewed for the program Brazil At A Crossroads, first broadcast in 2016. After working with a series of Brazilian record companies and the Brasil Music Export Office, McLoughlin set out on his own effort, Brasil Calling. Principally aimed at DJs and music journalists, the site is also open to the public, and it presents a steady stream of new and emerging Brazilian music across all genres. We at Afropop Worldwide have learned a lot from Brasil Calling, so we decided to reach out to McLoughlin and find out more. Banning Eyre spoke with McLoughlin, and here are excerpts from their at-times meandering conversation. It began with figuring out how to keep McLoughlin’s computer from spontaneously turning off…

David McLoughlin: My mother says I do this on purpose. I have the worst computer in the world. It turns off all the time and then automatically turns off the Wi-Fi whenever I use WhatsApp and Skype.

Banning Eyre. Well, that’s handy. So you're in São Paulo?

I’m in a place called Villa Prudente, across the road from the crematorium. And my God, I'm looking at it now and there's a nice big cloud of black smoke coming out of it.

Oh boy. I bet they’re busy these days with Covid victims.

Today is Tuesday. Tuesday is their busy day. It sounds disgusting, but sometimes at night, I’m going, "God damn, somebody must be having a barbecue around here." It's bad. But that's what it is: another of the smells of São Paulo. I actually love São Paulo. It's a big concrete jungle. It's massive. But I actually have a sense of coming home when I arrive back here. I love the place. I've been here for almost 30 years. Bloody hell, it's a lifetime.

It seems like there's a bit of an Irish Mafia down there in the music world. What's that about?

There is. I went out of my way for so long of not being part of the gringo community here. I was determined not to hang out with the English or the Irish or the Americans. I wanted to stay here and be part of Brazilian culture. But then about four years ago, I said, "I'm getting old. I don't know who any of these Irish people are." So I started getting involved and I discovered there's a fairly big Irish community, and a bizarre Irish music scene going on.

I saw your program on the Afropop site about Belo Horizonte and Minas Gerais. For some reason a lot of people from Minas Gerais go to Ireland principally to study English. And Minas already has a mystical vibe about it, so they go to Ireland. They go there and hook up with all the Celtic vibes and the atmosphere and so on. And now we have Mineras performing their interpretation of Irish folk music in Minas.

That's wild.

It's an interesting mix up. I always thought it would happen, because in the past Brazilians typically never traveled abroad, mostly for financial reasons. Brazil was always like a self-contained entity, and now it's different. For years now you’ve had Brazilians going to Germany, playing forro music and picking up local folk traditions. And now you have the Brazilians in Ireland. It's fantastic. Really interesting.

Rafale Senra, Celtic musician in Brazil
Rafale Senra, Celtic musician in Brazil

So what brought you to Brazil in the first place?

I left Ireland after university. I studied cinema and there was no cinema in Ireland, so I couldn't get a job. I had a friend in London who invited me to come over for a few weeks. I got a job at Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus, and they said, "Look, you are Irish. You look after the folk department." I said, "But I’m a punk. I hate folk music." They said, “No. You’re Irish. You take care of the folk stuff." It was a fantastic time because it was when the world music thing was beginning.

That was a good time to work in a record store.

We had Stern’s and Earthworks and World Circuit and all these labels, and it was the change from the LP to the CD. I loved it. I got into it. I got into the country music department, so I was listening to country, then blues, then jazz. Up to then, I had just listened to punk music. That was my thing. I hated folk music.

There was a Brazilian girl working there and she started helping us to buy Brazilian music. She said, "Look, this is lambada. These are MPB artists…” We had Gilberto Gil and Caetano, but that was it. And there was no information. So I started going out with her, and we would go through the catalogs. We purchased loads of CDs that way. She was a dentist and she couldn't work legally in the U.K., and also this was the time when all the IRA bombings were going on. It wasn't the healthiest time to be Irish in London. So I said, "Yeah, man. Let’s go.”

We decided in December. We arrived in São Paulo in February, and by early March, I had a job at a record company. It was independent label with local folk music and regional music, but to pay for all that, they needed international catalog. So my job was to go after licensing stuff from abroad. We went for all those K-Tel type things, the early recordings of Bob Marley, the lost recordings of Ike and Tina Turner, Kenny G cover versions... It was all just to generate catalog so the sales reps could go to the shops in sell stuff. “And, oh look! We have this band from Bahia called Muzenza.”

I guess by then you had gotten over your aversion to folk music.

Oh yeah. I loved it. I loved it. The thing is the folk music that I grew up with had been robbed by the nationalists. You couldn't embrace Irish folk music, because if you embraced Irish folk music, you were embracing the nationalist cause. To a certain extent that would mean you were supporting the IRA. It was a big problem. It was eventually all returned to us when Bobby Charlton became manager of the Irish football team. It was the first time that the Irish football squad began to reap gains and we felt proud to wave the Irish flag. Because previously the Irish flag was always on top of the coffin of some IRA guy who got killed. By then we had bands in the U.K. like The Pogues taking off. It was an interesting time. You weren't so embarrassed or ashamed anymore to be Irish.

You know, when we first arrived here in São Paulo, there was a gas explosion in a shopping center. And all the people I knew here said, "God almighty, the Irish have arrived! Thank you very much.” So it took me a long time to get over that stigma, to listen to bands like Planxty and The Bothy Band and to actually be proud of it. “By God, this is fantastic music!”

But, you know, all that punk generation, John Lydon, Billy Idol-- they were all second-generation Irish. All their parents came from Galway and Kildare and Dublin. They were doctors and nurses who had arrived in the U.K., and their kids, Boy George and all these people, they were the generation who gave U.K. music a good kick in the arse.

That is fascinating. I had no idea. So this is in late ‘80s, early ‘90s when you arrived in Brazil, right?

Early ’90s. So the first label I worked for was called Atração, Attraction. It was set up by a guy called Wilson. He had been the owner of a club and a small label here in São Paulo called Lira Paulistana. That's where all the sort of underground music was happening, all lyrical new wave and punk bands would perform there. But Wilson loved regional Brazilian folk music. His first label was purchased by Continental, one of the big, big independent Brazilian record companies, going back to the ‘30s. And they had become a big success selling Brazilian country music--sertaneja music, we call it. He embraced all that, so he would travel all around Brazil, and had a fantastic knowledge of Brazilian music, so when he set up Atração, the philosophy was to release music from all the different regions of Brazil.

You could look upon Brazil as being as diverse as Europe. Every state has its own type of music, and you could release music in one state and sell a million copies there, and it would only have repercussions in that state. The first big success we had was a band called Carrapicho. They had a song called “Tic Tic Tac,” and it was signed by a French label and exploded worldwide. It became a multimillion seller.

This music is stuck in my head forever, and it was a fantastic education because I was learning about contracts. That song had so many lawsuits involved. But I was learning. The song was from a scene in the Amazon, kind of a local folk tradition called Boi bumba where you have these two boats who fight with each other. Each boat has its own team that supports them, and in the month of May they have a big carnival where they sing songs and do possessions and so on. It was the = these two bulls (or bois) who fight with each other. Each bull has its own team that supports them, and in the month of May they have a big carnival where they sing songs and do possessions and so on. It was the same kind of thing all around the country. For me, it was literally paradise as I was able to travel around the country signing all these folk artists.

But not just folk music; it was hip-hop music, it was reggae music from Bahia; it was Yamandu Costa from the south of Brazil—all different styles. We were looked upon as something like Rounder Records, a small label doing a little thing. We never had any really big crossover successes. Brazil wasn't prepared for it then in terms of media and structure. We used to release a lot of brega music, tacky music with keyboards and some guy talking about his girl has left him and his dog has left him and so on. It was a type of music you found in bars and clubs all around Brazil.

We had one guy called Wanderley Andrade, traficante do amor, “the pusher of love.” He was also called “the thief of love.” He became a massive success. So we'd bring him into São Paulo and get him on the main TV program on Sunday evening. But we had very few crossover successes.

We also had a band called 509E, a hip-hop band from Carandiru Prison. Just two guys, and we signed them up in the prison. They became a massive success as well. So, yeah, that's what I've been doing for the last 25 years.

All with that one label?

No. I stayed with them for about 10 years then I moved to El Dorado. They had just released Yamandu Costa, his first album.

I met him at WOMEX years ago. What an amazing guitar player.

Then I went to a label called MCD. We released artists like Suba who had an album called São Paulo Confessions. That was when all that sort of chill, lounge, bossa nova stuff was taking off. So we were releasing a lot of that stuff. We were also releasing international records from World Circuit, Ellipsis Arts… All that world music stuff was starting to take off here. Then I moved to Sum Records. We had licensing deals with Beggars Banquet, 4AD, Cooking Vinyl, Road Runner. We were releasing every month. We would do like 20 or 30 albums in a year. It was artists like Echo and the Bunny Man, White Stripes, Peaches, Nickelback—a lot of rock ’n’ roll. And of those artists would come here for shows and tours, and you would be looking after them. Horrible, horrible stuff. I couldn't take it.

So how did all this lead up to Brasil Calling?

Basically, I spent a few years with the BMA, Brasil Musica and Arts. This was the Brazil Music Export Office, so we used to do SXSW, WOMEX, all the trade fairs.

Sure. We probably met at WOMEX back then.

Some of those trade fairs were a big success. Others were not a big success. Because Brazil music is always kind of relegated into that "world music" space. It was a fight. I remember going to SXSW and nobody would talk to us because we were “world music,” but the music I was bringing with me wasn't world music. I was bringing punk bands and hard-core heavy metal bands. “This is SXSW. Let's speak their language.” It actually took a while for the whole world music thing to take off there.

Yes. It's better now. We were very well received there when we went a couple years ago.

There were some nice little clubs there with decent bands playing. But most the Brazilian bands were focused on doing WOMEX. That was the place they wanted to go. And then there were all the visa problems with the U.S. It wasn't easy to get into SXSW. During this process, I started analyzing how much Brazilian music was generating in the international market. Where does it sell? Who is consuming it? The only real information I had came from ABRAMUS and UBC, which are the equivalent of ASCAP and BMI in the states. They would do their yearly reports showing where and how much Brazilian music was generating. And for 2016 or whatever it was, I put together the whole report, and Brazilian music generated €3 million in international broadcast royalties. €3 million! Whereas France generated €80 million. And the U.K. generated a hundred and £80 million. So I said, "Bloody hell, we all love Brazilian music and samba and football. The whole world loves us, but where's the money? What's happening?"

I sent out an email to about 200 radio stations all around the world, people I've known. I asked, “What do you play in Brazilian music? What do you not play? And where does the music come from?” They all pretty much said the same thing: “We don't play heavy metal. We don't play sertaneja, country music, but we play pretty much everything else. We even play Brazilian hip-hop, MPB, jazz, and all the local styles. But we haven't received any music in about 10 years.”

Right. Because the record labels were gone.

Even the big ones, Universal and so on, they weren’t releasing so much anymore, and all those labels like Luaka Bop and so on, they all pretty much stopped what they were doing. I had a friend in the U.K. who used to work at the Export office. And she said, "If a Brazilian artist was selling 50,000 copies of an album before, now they're selling 1,000 copies. They can't afford to contract me to do marketing promotion.” So the radio stations weren't receiving any music.

So you had stations playing the golden oldies, and a few guys going online and getting on to the Brazilian music blogs to download new albums. But it was very fragmented. So I said to hell with that. I love Brazilian music. I love seeing all the new artists. Every day there's cool new music coming out. So I said I want to keep doing this. I don't want to do anymore of the old official export office. They had a cultural vision, whereas I had a commercial vision. They said, "David, we have to promote what best represents Brazilian culture.” But I said Brazilian culture is also punk, it's also heavy metal, it's also experimental. And they said, "No, not really. It's MPB and it’s bossa nova and it’s jazz."

So we had a conflict of interest there, and that’s why I started Brasil Calling. I liked that idea, like an emergency SOS beeps going out. “This is Brazil calling. Look at us! Help us out.” Whatever. So I did a deal with German platform called Promo Jukebox. These are two guys who used to work with BMG in Germany. So what happens is I upload the music to their platform, and I send the link out to my mailing list. And I can see instantly who downloaded the tracks, who opened the email, who no longer wants to receive the emails. One of the important things I learned is that Europe is really strong on spam. So everybody who receives the email has to agree to receive it, which for me is fantastic, because it means I no longer have a general mailing list to thousands of people. I just have people who are actively interested in receiving new Brazilian music. Every now and then, people get pissed off. I'll send something out, and they'll say, "David, what the hell is that? That's not Brazilian music."

Really? Tell me more about that.

Well, I can understand if you have a guy who has a radio show that's broadcasting Afropop and he is able to put Brazilian artists in there. And in the middle of that I send an artist like Caimans. They’re a Brazilian electronic music duo like Eurasia or Pet Shop Boys. I can hear the Brazilian side in what they're doing, but this one guy became really, really irritated.

About a month ago, same thing. I had a guy called Carlos Gayotto. Carlos is a Brazilian video producer and he recorded an album of American country music. Some people really hated it. I also sent it to some of the folk music people, and some people are sending me back messages saying, "David, we don't play Brazilian music." I said, "It's not Brazilian music. It's a mixture. Give it a listen.”

I've been receiving your compilations since I think volume seven. And now we're up to 14.

It comes and goes in bursts. It's usually a free service that I do for most of the artists, hunting around to see who's got new albums coming out, who really wants the benefit of having their music sent to radio.

I'm interested in that. How do you curate?

Some of it is feeling. There's a mixture. Like I really wanted to get to the guys at Pitchfork. There are two or three journalists there who are kind of into Brazilian music, but their references are very much stuck back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. So I send them stuff, but they don't speak the language of the music. They don't know where the references are coming from, and you're trying to train them. Last year I sent out an album by Kiko Dinucci.

Oh yes. He's one of the artists in this week's program curated by Béco Dranoff.

Kiko is part of this scene in São Paulo. He has this band called Metá Metá that has albums released in the U.K. Kiko is an anarchist. He comes from the punk scene. But he loves Brazilian music. He loves samba. He's really well-versed in the history of Brazilian music, so he knows how to kind of honor it and deconstruct it at the same time. The album that he released in 2020, Rastilho, is a f—ing classic. I really love the album. It is really, really good. It has references to that Afro-Sambas album by Baden Powell. It's like a modern interpretation, a continuation of Brazilian guitar music.

Kiko has just released a new album that's on Bandcamp, and it's totally abstract, totally avant-garde. And I hate it. But the previous one was fantastic, and Pitchfork picked up on it. They really loved it. And Bandcamp. Whenever these kind of hipster outfits pick up on something, the impact is immediate. So I try to kind of abuse their good faith, or whatever they have in me, so I can keep them going with this stuff. And of course we have the more world music stuff. Last year, from Bahia, we had Mateus Aleluia.

Yes. I really like that album, Olorum.

And now he's just been invited to do a showcase at WOMEX.


He’s been performing for years, but he's never crossed over, even in Brazil. He's still slightly underground. But he recorded this beautiful album and he’s just taken off big time.

And there’s a girl called Luedji Luna. Same thing. Also from Bahia. She recorded an album that is sponsored by Natura. That's like Avon; it's a cosmetic company here in Brazil. They have a culture department that uses marketing money, or sometimes tax incentives, to give X amount of money to the artistic sector every year. So they bring together 10, 15, 20 people, and spend a month going through and analyzing all these proposals. They'll take on 20 or 30 different projects, and this is fantastic because for an artist with no money, they can give like $20-30 thousand to help an artist record an album, and do a tour to support the album as well. Maybe record two or three video clips. And suddenly they have a presence in the market.

So what I'm doing all the time is watching the market, analyzing all these projects, seeing who's doing what, and curating partly from my own musical tastes. Sometimes it's to provoke. Last year I had a meeting with an Italian woman called Mafalda Minnozzi, who's lived here for many years, and she had just released an album of bossa nova classics, and she said she wanted to promote it to Western radio and would I do it. I said, "Oh, bloody hell. Bossa nova? Who wants to listen to bossa nova nowadays?” The album exploded. It became a massive success. So sometimes my own prejudices are embarrassing. It got played on radio all around the world.

So the curation for Brasil Calling consists of stuff you like and people who you think have a shot. But how do you make money? Do any of them pay you?

Some of them pay me. But for the last year and a half or two years, nobody has any money. I had an experience with André Abujamra. He had a band called Karnak. He released and an album three years ago that was a big success. It was released in the states and they played in Central Park Summerstage in New York. This was a really cool, underground, middle stream, almost mainstream São Paulo band. They have been on their breakup tour for the last 10 years. They break up. They stop. But then they just keep touring.

André is the main composer. He does soundtracks and stuff like that. He came to me with an album, a world music album. It had the Bulgarian women's choir. It had percussion from Burundi. It had some guy from Mali. It had a singer from Russia. It had a balalaika player from Greece. Everything. It was a world music album. I charged André about 2,000 reais to send it out all around the world. I have a mailing list of about 3,000 people. And it generated zero. Nobody liked the album. People said it sounded like the Frank Zappa of Brazilian music—just too much going on. You can't get it. And it’s stressful, because I've charged the guy 2,000 reais, and nothing is happening. I had to generate reports to show where and how it wasn't being played.

I recently did a marketing report for the Canadian government. I do curating for festivals and conferences here. So that permits me to do the services to send this music to press and radio for free. Because so many guys don't have any money. They literally don't have money. I've seen so many artists going back to live with their parents because they can't pay the rent here in São Paulo.

That’s rough.

About three months ago I did a deal with CD Baby. We have about 10 digital aggregators here in Brazil, and they are all competing. So CD Baby said, "David, have a look at our catalog. We’ll give you 1,000 reais per month to promote our stuff out. So I picked a few things in their catalog to send out, but it didn't work for a variety of reasons. Nothing against CD Baby, but a lot of the artists who go there just pay a certain amount to get their music online. There's no marketing. There's no promotion. There's no vision behind what they're doing. And this will overlap into how the radio guy or the journalist sees them. So this was not working. So yes, I would love to be doing this all the time for money, but…

Of course. So you are targeting journalists, DJs, programmers… But can the general public access these compilations you send out?

If the general public want them, they can sign up and I will the send it to them.

So it's O.K. if I tell our readers to sign up?

Sure. You can say that. A few years back, people were more precious about controlling their music. “I don't want anyone to have access to my music,” And so on. With the platform I have, I can see who's downloading it. And being a German platform, the Germans are very exact and correct. Every track that goes out has a watermark embedded into the track. So if it is eventually distributed to some Russian site where they're selling it illegally, they can actually track what’s going on. Nowadays, most Brazilian artists don't care. It's all streaming. Downloads are for your grandfather, or professional people.

Interesting. While working on this recent Brazil show with Béco, I took the opportunity to really listen closely to volumes seven through 14 of your compilations, and I was blown away by so much great music. I realized that I had listened to some of this casually, but it's quite a different thing when you really focus. As a guitar freak, I especially love the track with Yamandu Costa and Mônica Salmaso.

And that's just one example. There are so many interesting discoveries here.

I do eventually want to generate some money out of this. The main thing is there's a fantastic amount of music going on here. Radio in Brazil was mainly controlled by payola, and it's mostly Brazilian funk music and sertaneja music.

Sertaneja. That's what you described as Brazilian country music. What's the origin of that word?

It's from the sertao, which means the backlands. But I can see so many artists who are so frustrated because they don't know where to put their music. They don't how to get it out. I had a two-page spread in Songlines magazine, and you wouldn't believe the impact that has for people here. There's a DJ in Hawaii who has a Sunday evening Brazilian music show, and she picks up almost every track I send. Before she was just playing the classics, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento and so on. I found her email and started sending her stuff and she loved it. She will broadcast 10 tracks I sent her on the show.

I hope this piece generates a little more interest. What you're doing is fantastic.

Well, today there is just masses of music coming out. It's a little overwhelming. So what we’re trying to do is to take people back to the days when you’d go into a record store with a knowledgeable salesman. You're sort of curating. And your readers should note that the Brasil Calling site is not a professional site. It's a hobby, a labor of love.

That may be. But I can vouch for your curation. It's solid. I think anyone who loves Brazilian music will find something to love here. In any case, it’s great to speak with you. We will stay in touch.

Sounds good. Thanks.

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