Wednesday, February 22, 2017
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Rachel Beausoleil shares the Brazilian popular music you don't know

Samba, bossa nova, Antonio Carlos Jobim: that's Brazilian music to most people. But there's lots of interesting and appealing music from that country rarely heard here.

Rachel Beausoleil and Jasmin Lalande perform in Sol da Capital ©Brett Delmage, 2011At GigSpace on Saturday, Rachel Beausoleil will introduce a much broader picture of Brazilian music to Ottawa.

The Ottawa vocalist has been studying “Música Popular Brasileira” (MPB) for the last five years. She's now writing her PhD thesis about this music, which includes most of the genres that Canadians think of as Brazilian jazz. During three extended trips to Brazil, she's taken classes from master vocalists, attended conferences, and performed with musicians there.

At Saturday's concert, she and her group, Sol da Capital, will present songs by many composers covering the full range of these styles – from ballads to bossa nova, from music written a century ago to modern songs. What these songs have in common is a dedication to quality; rhythmic, harmonic, lyric, and melodic richness is insisted on in MPB, Beausoleil says.

Sol da Capital started when Beausoleil met Brazilian guitarist Evandro Gracelli, who spent a very busy two years in Ottawa, performing and working with many local musicians. During his stay in 2010-11, they formed the group to perform Brazilian music and their own compositions. They've kept up the connection, even when separated by 8000 km, and Beausoleil has continued performing in Ottawa with local musicians familiar with Brazilian music. editor Alayne McGregor recently interviewed Beausoleil about the concert and how it relates to her PhD and her adventures in Brazil – and learned a lot about the abundant variety of Brazilian music. This is an edited version of our conversation. Why are you doing a show now?

Rachel Beausoleil: I'm doing this show now because Mike Steinberg from the Herb & Spice wanted to sponsor a show. When I spoke with Mike, he said, “Listen. Why don't you just do what you want?”

So I thought, “Why don't I play the music I'm studying?” And that's what I decided to do. This is an opportunity for deep learning. In terms of my research, actually performing is really a good way to get intimate with the material. I've been looking for an excuse to really learn the songs – that is to say, learn the words, learn the details. It's one thing to know it to hear it, it's quite another to integrate it into your repertoire. Do you call the music you'll be playing Brazilian music, Brazilian jazz, or a combination?

Beausoleil: The title of this show is called “Música Popular Brasileira”. That just means Brazilian Popular Music – it's easy enough for us to decipher that even though it's in Portuguese. Nevertheless, that is an official term that they use in Brazil to designate their popular music. It's a musical category that's often referred to by its acronym, “MPB”. This is something that we're not that familiar with here. We know about samba, we know about bossa nova, but those two genres are only two pieces of the puzzle, if you will, when you put together all of Música Popular Brasileira.

So MPB, you could refer to it as a middle-class music. It's not the most popular music. It includes folkloric, some old-time, it includes bossa nova, it includes samba. It includes all these different genres, and yet it's not the most popular stuff in Brazil. The most popular stuff they're playing is axé (a dance music), and their version of cowboy music.That stuff is really popular and fills huge stadiums.

But MPB really doesn't fill a stadium. They'll get a small bar or a room the size of the NAC Fourth Stage or something like that. It's not considered as commercially popular. And it's not as classical as classical. It doesn't fit the classical mode, right. So it's somewhere in-between. So it's like how jazz is treated here?

Beausoleil: It's very much like that, yes. Does MPB cover a number of Brazil's musical traditions?

Beausoleil: Yes, it does. MPB covers a lot of different genres, and what I'm finding out is that it really includes a particular subset of genres that appeals to a middle-class audience. It appears to an intellectual class, an educated class, that likes to sit down and listen to music. It's a concert music, rather than a dance music. But nevertheless there's always an exception (it's rather like the French language!) – because samba is dance music, obviously! But nevertheless there are some samba singers who would be considered MPB singers. And there are some who would not.

Again, it's about non-commercialism. It's about a variety of factors that make this music. It's not considered – what we would call “pop” here, it's not that.

And there's smaller, less-known genres. In the north-eastern part of Brazil, there's something called manguebeat: mangue means mangrove, like a swamp. Manguebeat is this genre that's very – they call it swamp music for a reason, right? It's really different; it's got these experimental sounds. It's like taking the pulse of the ground. It's a very interesting genre of music that would be considered more a regional style.

So they've got all these little regional styles that they consider regional that don't become nationalized like bossa nova or samba have. Samba and bossa nova are both urban genres and they've taken over the public imagination as the national music. But they're not really that much less regional than the others – or at least they didn't start out that way. They became a national music by force of public imagination. Tell me about some of the music you'll be playing on Saturday.

Beausoleil: I made a decision that I would only play one tune for each composer, because I wanted to have a variety. So there's only going to be one Jobim tune. I thought I can't not do any, but I'll give him the same time as everybody else.

I have material from 1917 all the way up to 2013. So I'm going back to older styles like choro, which is a style of music that was very popular in the early part of the 20th century. It's played still today, but you usually hear it in markets, and more probably in the north-eastern part of Brazil.

I'm doing ballads. I'm doing what is called music mineira, which is just music from the interior, from the mines. That's a Milton Nascimento tune. In that style there's Ivan Lins, I've got some early sambista stuff like Cartola, and some more recent as well from someone called Guinga and Aldir Blanc. And some Chico Buarque.

So I'm spreading things around. I'm doing some samba, I'm doing something called baião, which is also a north-eastern style. And of course a little bit of bossa nova. I love that. Would you call it an introduction to Brazilian music?

Beausoleil: I would say so, because I'm trying to go after the canonical pieces. And yet from our Ottawan ears, we don't get exposed to this music that much. So for us, it's all new, right? That's why I find it very exciting because I'm performing things from the canon, of course, but I've also permitted myself a couple of … I've inserted two pieces from friends of mine from São Paulo. One of them is a composition by Evandro Gracelli, and another composition is by a friend of mine called Beth Amin. You're performing with Silvio Modolo on guitar, Jasmin Lalande on sax, Angel Araos on percussion, and Marc Decho on bass. How much did they already know of this music?

Beausoleil: Well, Silvio knows it, because he's from Brazil. And so he's my main consultant here. He's been just terrific in helping me decide which arrangement to do, how to do it properly. I really want to do it well.

When I was in São Paulo the last time, last spring and summer [2015], there was a workshop by a well-known artist, Rosa Passos. She gave a three-evening workshop, and then a concert the following evening. So I spent basically four evenings with this woman. She was amazing! And she really made it clear that you had to do things right, and that you had to really study.

And she was so fantastic to me. She was extremely exacting. She cut a few of the singers just to shreds in front of an audience. It was a little bit upsetting – but at the same time... I was scared out of my wits when I was scheduled to sing for her because she just finished cutting somebody down. As soon as I finished my rendition of “Dindi” – I sang that for her – she just gave me the thumbs up, and I just breathed! A sigh of relief! And then she said, “You're already an interpreter. Go home and learn Portuguese some more, will ya?”

She said, “Just work on your Portuguese and listen to some more recent sambas.” So … I did, and so I'm going to see what I can do to do justice to this material.

These guys will know this material, because they've played with a lot of these bands. As I said, it's one thing to hear it and to recognize it. It's quite another to integrate it into your repertoire, so that's probably where they're at with some of the tunes. But I'm sure they're familiar with this stuff, yes.

Silvio Modolo ©Brett Delmage, Why did you pick those particular musicians?

Beausoleil: Apart from Silvio, the other three were part of Sol da Capital before, when Evandro was here. And I've found a real synergy with these musicians.

Silvio joined us, actually, for one of our shows at GigSpace, the last time Evandro was here. He's such a fabulous musician! This guy can play anything he picks up. I said. “Would you play guitar and cavaquinho for me?” He said “Sure. No problem.” I'm thrilled to have him join us and of course I'm saddened by the fact I can't have Evandro here, but there's not much I can do about that.

And in this context, it's so wonderful to have these guys around me, because, with these guys, I just feel … how can I say? … there's a positive energy and an understanding of what we're trying to do that is not spoken. It's understood.

They love the place of the voice in the music, and I find that that gives me so much energy as a vocalist. What they do is always in combination with the sound that I'm making, and they respond to the sound that I'm making, and they feed into the sound that I'm making. And I just find that ultra-rich. So that's why I chose them. Are you writing the arrangements for all the songs?

Beausoleil: I've done some, and Silvio has helped me with some as well. We're working on those together but yes, some of them are mine. Tell me about your PhD research at Carleton University.

Beausoleil: The PhD will be in something called Cultural Mediations. It's its own little department at Carleton, and it includes people in other disciplines. So in my cohort, I'm actually the only musician. The other ones are art historians, film studies people, and literature. So it's very interesting that way to have that blend of expertise.

I'm doing my PhD on Brazilian song, and I've decided that my method is to do the ethnographic work. So that's why I've travelled to Brazil to do the research.

What it means is putting it within the living context – as opposed to if I were to take a piece of music and do a music theory PhD where I would actually analyze the music itself for its own self, without necessarily putting it into a cultural context.

I am actually focusing on the use of the voice in MPB, and what what implies for national identity, considering that this music has Brazilian-ness implanted in its title. MPB is Brazilian Popular Music – they call it that for a reason. And it's a lot about national identity construction, through popular music. Have you started writing your thesis yet?

Beausoleil: I have! I came home from Brazil with 40 hours of transcribing material, and have been working really hard transcribing all [those interviews], and then analyzing it all and trying to figure out what's being heard and what's coming through. A lot of that analysis has gone on, and it's still ongoing.

But I have started writing, yes. Chapter One is officially begun. I'm very excited about that. It was a big barrier, so I'm glad I've broken that barrier. I just need to keep swimming in it and keep at it and keep writing every day.

I'm thinking in a year, it will be done. That will be six years. You went to São Paulo in 2012, 2013, and 2015. Where else did you go in Brazil?

Beausoleil: I went to Rio de Janeiro [on my own], and I [also] went with the Panamerica canção (Panamerican song) project from the University of São Paulo. I also travelled a little bit towards the west, so we went into the interior with that tour. We went into places like São José do Rio Preto. So that's about the same distance going west from São Paulo as Rio would be in the other direction.

We went to some smaller places, São Carlos. I travelled [on my own] to Paraty, which is a historical town on the coast about half-way to Rio, [and I perforned in Campinas with Evandro Gracelli and Emilio Martins]. That's pretty well the extent of my travel in Brazil.

It was wonderful to be in Rio last year. I just felt that, you know, I know it's wrong, but you just feel like you haven't been to Brazil until you've been to Rio! (laughs) It was something I needed to do and the culture there was just fascinating.

I got to hear a band, Os Cariocas. It's a group that's been together since the 1940s! And they've just changed their members and retired members and just kept going and going. One of them that was playing in Rio this last year was one of the original members. I was just so excited to meet him! I was just crying. And they were just phenomenal – they just knocked me right out! You mentioned taking classes with several Brazilian vocalists, including Livia Nestrovski. What did you learn from her?

Beausoleil: Livia was teaching [last year] at university called Santa Marcellina. It's a smaller institution than the University of São Paulo, but it's a specific faculty, so there they focus on music. It's one of the main institutions for vocal work in São Paulo, one of the best-respected places for vocal studies. They teach what they call classical music – they actually refer to it as erudite music, or lyrical singing – and then they have the MPB category.

Livia lives in Rio and when I was in Rio, I got a chance to interview her and I asked her if she would give me a lesson. So her husband played guitar, and I sang “Corcovado” for her. I asked about bossa nova, and what's the right way to sing the bossa nova, because she had helped me in an earlier interview.

You know, a lot of jazzers just don't know how to do bossa nova. And I talked to her at length about “What's the difference? What do you want to hear? What's right and what's wrong in your estimation?” So that's what I learned from her. She's extremely articulate about how to describe it, and what's the difference, and how it comes through in the sound. And the lesson with her and her husband was so cool! You also talked with MPB vocalist Izábel Padovani?

Beausoleil: She's been around since the 90s. And she's moved away and come back and she's had the experience of being offered an award. She wanted to come back to Brazil so she would honour that award and be home to practice her music.

I had a beautiful long interview with her in her home. And again, she was so informative and so wonderful to explain to me so many of the musical values that she and others attach to particular ways of singing, particular ways of playing Brazilian music, what it is in their music that makes them so proud.

All of them talked about what they call … I guess I translate it as “rubbish music” (laughs). They call it literally “ruined music”. They talked about music of lesser quality, music with harmony that's not very developed, melody that's not very developed , lyrics that aren't very developed. They're very strong … in MPB, one of the biggest values is for it to be harmonically, melodically, lyrically, rhythmically rich.

In every way, the bar is high. In MPB, those qualities, those values are in this music, and that determines what gets admitted to the club. Who's in and who's out. Is it high quality enough to be called MPB?

And who are the keepers of that becomes extremely complex, right? Obviously, it's a highly subjective endeavour. But there it is. That's the theme that really came back a lot in the interviews.

The musical values are what I'm really hoping to process with this show. I'm really hoping to embody that as much as I can because I just feel have a responsibility to the music itself. That was really a strong message that Rosa Passos passed on. She kept repeating: “I'm not a teacher. I'm a keeper of this music.” How is your Portuguese these days?

Beausoleil: It's really improved! (laughs) On Duolingo on the Internet, you can do this language practice, and I've been doing that religiously. It says that I have a three-thousand word vocabulary – I'm very excited! It says I'm over 52% fluent (laughs).

Some of the tunes Silvio suggested – he said, “Let's do this tune”, and I said, “Omigod, I don't know if I can sing that fast, because it's a lot to pronounce.” And he said, “No, you can do it, you can do it!” So we're doing it.

Because in some of the singing styles, they really do this sort of quick syllabic patter of the lyric – and it's very difficult. So I'm going to attempt it.

Evandro Gracelli ©Brett Delmage, Did you perform with Evandro each time you went to Brazil?

Beausoleil: Absolutely. We've made a point of it. We've performed several times in all three trips at a beautiful little bar called the Magdalena Bar. It's just a sweet little place and packed to the gills with people. And I also got to sing in this evening party that people put on where they invite lots of people to come and perform, tell stories and sing a song. They're like social gatherings where people perform. It's called a sarau. So I went to one of these and I performed. It's really easy to get Brazilians to sing along, so I did a little French-Canadian thing there, and they got into it. It was fun.

The last trip [in 2015] was much longer – I was there for six weeks. The previous two times I was there two weeks. So this was a much longer trip and I was staying with different people every week. And so I was really exposed to different… I got to interview a lot of people and also my network just spread. It's amazing how things operate. With Brazil so much in the news this summer because of the Olympics, did you feel that what you saw reflected the Brazil that you knew?

Beausoleil: The impression I got overall watching the Olympics was Wow! The good thing about it is that they put the best part of Brazil forward, which was the music and the dance and the lively culture that is existing there, no matter what the difficulties. And that's what's so amazing about these people, how resilient they are. Their music and their rhythms and their joie de vivre – it's always there. So that's what they put forward in the opening and closing ceremonies. I found the emphasis on Mother Earth really troubling, because of their really poor treatment of the environment that is obvious in their policies. That was really hard to take.

But nevertheless I was excited. I was listening to the medley of music going on [in the opening ceremonies] and thinking, Oh hey, that's great. That's on my list [for the GigSpace show]. I'm going to perform that one. And great, that one's on too! (laughs) That was gratifying to know that I'd chosen the right tunes.

Whether it reflected the Brazil I know – no, not fully. Musically, somewhat, because they actually drew on various parts of their culture. They didn't just do samba and bossa nova – they drew on indigenous cultures, and drew on Afro-Brazilian culture, and drew on European cultures.

Brazil is very much about this mix of those three continental groups that have come together to make Brazil what it is. Which is very similar to North America, right? It's just that down there they were colonized by the Portuguese. That's why they ended up with the Portuguese language. An obvious difference is the linguistic differences, but really we have that in common that the experience of being in the Americas is one that includes these three world groups. Do you have any other musical plans in Ottawa beyond the concert?

Beausoleil: Absolutely. There's a lot going on with the Juliet Singers – Elise [Letourneau] is unstoppable and we're going full speed ahead on those. We've got a great season lined up. Are you planning to go back to Brazil again?

Beausoleil: Absolutely. I am planning to go back. I was considering going back this year, but, to be honest with you, I decided it was not the year to be in Brazil for political reasons. It's just a little too frightening for me to face some of the issues.

Because, the times I was there, I'm very independent. I went around a lot on my own, and as a foreign female, I have to consider my security. I was very free and I wasn't afraid – no, that's a lie. Sometimes I was afraid. I had some scary moments. But nothing bad happened, and I was still very independent and I did my own thing. Whereas, right now I don't think I could do that. Because of the presidential impeachment?

Beausoleil: Yes, São Paulo has been besieged with demonstrations. Not that they weren't before, but a lot more this year. And the level of frustration is much higher. The climate is just a lot more hair-raising. People are more tense. And with Zika and all this, I thought, “This year, why don't I just lay low?”

And also my thesis committee said to me, “You know what, if you go back for more, that means you have more transcriptions to do, more research to incorporate. You'll come home with more work, and you'll never get this thing written. (laughs) You know what, maybe you've got enough here. Maybe you should do something with what you've got.”

And I thought that made a lot of sense, so that's why I decided that this year, I'll stay home.

But I'm already planning in my mind... my friends there are asking, “When are you coming?” And there's a whole bunch of things I really do want to do there. I'll definitely be back.

Evandro and I did some recording the last time I was there. We went into the studio and we recorded a pile of our own songs. That was a great thing to do – I'm just glad that we have a basic recording down. We are hoping – I don't know how or when – we have to publish this in some form. So that's part of the plan. There's not much of a time-line on it because the PhD is all-encompassing at the moment.

    – Alayne McGregor

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Updates, September 22, 2016: Corrected the spelling of "Guinga" and "Chico Buarque" (mistake in transcription). Corrected "Afro-European cultures" to "European cultures". Clarified the locations Beausoleil visited in Brazil.