Brazil's Fiery Music - Central Texas Style

Austin becomes a creative center for the vibrant rhythms of Brazil

By David Trinidad
Spring 1995; pages 15-17
Tejas Fiery Music

Why is Austin now a mecca for Brazilian musical talent?

Because Gerard Béhague, an ethnomusicologist and UT professor, marched onto UT's campus 20 years ago with a cuíca in one hand and a cavaquinho in the other - forever changing the rhythmic fabric of UT and the Austin community.

Recently nominated to become a member of the prestigious Brazilian Academy of Music, Béhague created courses titled "Music of Brazil and Argentina" and the "Brazilian Music Ensemble."

Now in the 1990s, the Capital City is not just home to the Texas Longhorns and the legendary Stevie Ray Vaughn, but it is a music-making center for sultry sambas and fiery carnaval rhythms.

The tunes of Susanna Sharpe, Antonio Dionisio and the Purple Martins reverberate in Austin's club scene - often playing gigs in popular venues like Club Palmeras, Symphony Square and Liberty Lunch. Sharpe's latest release - A Musíca das Almas (The Music of the Souls) remains in the top five of Waterloo Records' world music bestsellers since its December 1993 debut, says Hayes McCauley, world music buyer.

Gerard Behague

"Brazil in Central Texas is rather removed from the local culture," says Béhague about South America's Portuguese-speaking culture - defined as a population exceeding 150 million.

With the largest Brazilian Studies program in the United States and one of the greatest collections of Brazilian materials outside Brazil, this continent-sized nation continues to attract UT's attention.

A Brazilian Film Festival premiered last spring on UT's campus, showcasing a variety of films and videos from Brazil. Instruction in capoeira, a gracefully powerful Brazilian martial art which choreographs kickboxing with music, was featured at the South Austin Recreation Center.

Local radio enthusiasts also fly down to Brazil on KUT's 90.5 FM sound waves - or more specifically, Horizontes - every Friday afternoon with the melodies of popular Brazilian artists like Milton Nascimento, Nazare Pereira or Maria Bethania.

Over the last 17 years, Austinites have transformed the City Coliseum every February into a mirage of wildly clad revelers performing the samba or lambada. It may not be Rio de Janeiro, but Austin's Carnaval Brasileiro is the next best thing.

Brazilian Music

Declared by Texas Monthly as the "Best Public Bash of the Year," the original carnaval celebration was held in a local Unitarian Church in the early 1970s; now, Mike Quinn produces this Brazilian fest, which sells out every year, in the City Coliseum.

"It is remarkable that a city the size of Austin, throws a carnaval of such importance to the community," Béhague says. He can think of only a few cities in the U.S. - New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco - where a carnaval of this caliber is held.

"This is a town of very special people attracted to music," Béhague says. "The Austin music life would not be what it is, if It did not have an audience that supported music."

Growing up in Rio de Janeiro and dancing samba with his friends at an early age, music was a natural part of Béhague's family tradition.

"Music is a very strong tie between people, a very strong symbol of identity," he says, pointing out that it is a primary means of unifying Austin's Brazilian community.

Michael Crockett, host and producer of Horizontes, shares Béhague's passion for what many consider to be one of the most innovative musical genres in the world. KUT 90.5 FM broadcasts the almost 20-year-old show which explores a panorama of Latin American sounds - Andean, Caribbean and Brazilian popular music.

Horizontes, according to Crockett, is the only Brazilian radio show in the state of Texas.

People are generally attracted to Brazilian music because of its unique syncopation, says Crockett. "Your body responds to the fact that the rhythms do not fall on the beat," he adds.

"Maybe about 20-30 percent of my audience has an understanding of Portuguese, but I say that most of them just like the feel of it - the rhythms and the instrumentation," Crockett says.

And what is so different about Brazilian music?

"It is a mosaic - a multiplicity of expressions," Béhague says. The blend of races and cultures in this South American country creates multiple musical heritages, including the native indigenous cultures, the Portuguese and the African.

Samba is what most people traditionally think of when discussing Brazilian music. Often referred to as the "musical bread and butter of the poor," samba is "a musical form largely created and sustained by the black and mulatto working classes in Rio de Janeiro," Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha say in their book, The Brazilian Sound.

The thundering beat of surdos, a type of Brazilian bass drum, and the scraping sounds of the reco-reco are just a couple of the various instruments which produce samba sounds.

Brazilian music redefines itself in the various regions of Brazil, among the differing racial, ethnic, and religious communities. Bossa nova, música popular brasileira and samba reggae are just a handful of Brazilian musical genres.

In the 1950s, a "new way" of doing samba introduced itself as bossa nova. "It had a harmonic richness previously heard only in classical music and modern jazz, McGowan and Pessanha say.

In the late 1960s to the early 1970s "música popular brasileira" or MPB emerged. "Compelling melodies, rich harmonies, varied rhythms, and poetic lyrics," were introduced, McGowan and Pessanha say.

Brazilian Music

During the black pride movement Afro-Brazilians were inspired by the reggae artists Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Reggae found its way to Brazil as samba reggae.

Performing Brazilian music in Austin for almost a decade, Susanna Sharpe currently indulges herself in the musical genres of samba, samba reggae and baido - stemming from a 1940s African dance popular in northeast Brazil.

Sharpe completed two degrees in Spanish and Latin American Studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, then became an Austin resident in 1984.

Although the 33-year-old native of New York State was fluent in Spanish, she did not learn Portuguese until she came to Austin.

Sharpe, whose mother is a singer and songwriter, did not discover her own voice as a soloist until late in her college years when she began singing in coffeehouses with an acoustic guitar. Much later, she became the vocalist for the Samba Police. "Beautiful melodies, harmonically rich chords, and the rhythmically diverse beat generate an appealing quality to [Brazil's] musical expression," she says.

Receiving musical instruction from Professor Béhague, enrolling in Portuguese courses at UT and living with two Brazilian roommates, Sharpe immersed herself in the music, language and culture of Brazil.

She then joined Takiy-Orqo, a four-member Latin American traditional folk band, and participated in the UT Brazilian Music Ensemble, directed at the time by Larry Crook.

After playing in Austin's first successful Brazilian band, Quizumba, Sharpe and two former Quizumba members - her husband Sergio Santos and Russ Scanlon - created Susanna Sharpe and the Samba Police in 1988. The band launched their first tape in 1989; their first CD arrived more than three years later.

"Although Brazilian music is rather 'exotic' in Texas," Sharpe says, "there is an openness in Austin for different traditions which yields to our sizable and growing following - from students to older listeners in both the Brazilian and non-Brazilian community."

Working as a book editor by day, Sharpe hopes her evenings will continue to be filled by singing seductive Brazilian music in Austin nightspots.

Quizumba also birthed Antonio Dionisio, a Brazilian who began his U.S. career playing with this group.

Surrounded by music in childhood and then receiving his professional musician license in Rio de Janeiro in 1977, Dionisio played guitar throughout the continents of South and North America - Brazil to Panama and Costa Rica to Canada.

The 40-year-old native of Tres Pontas, located in the state of Minas Gerais - north of Rio de Janeiro - was heavily influenced as a teenager by the music of another performer from his hometown, Milton Nascimento.

He founded a six-piece group in 1991 - Antonio Dionisio & MMR - and the band continues to perform predominantly traditional and popular Afro-Brazilian rhythms. The other five members are from Rio de Janeiro, commuting regularly to Austin.

Sharpe not only launched Austin's premiere Brazilian band with Dionisio, but she and Sergio Santos of the Samba Police worked closely with Karen Hoffman to produce what is now a 25-member percussion band - The Purple Martins.

A former Harper's Magazine editor, Hoffman once played classical choral melodies on the piano, but her musical tastes migrated to Brazilian music.

Now a Plan II graduate student at UT, Hoffman spends her spare time singing traditional carnaval tunes in the Purple Martins and directing the UT Brazilian Music Ensemble under Dr. Béhague.

The Purple Martins began with 12 members in 1992, including Sharpe and Santos, who remained with the band for only a short time. Coined by Santos, the name - the Purple Martin - refers to a bird that migrates from South America. "We felt in a metaphorical manner we were going back and forth by acquiring the music and bringing it here," Hoffman said.

But the purple-clad performers continually confront conflicts over enough stage space to hold 25 people, Hoffman says.

"In fact, until La Zona Rosa closed, the only places we could really fit comfortably were La Zona Rosa and Liberty Lunch," he says. "So it was really bad news for us to hear that they were closing." (The popular bar reopened, however, this February.)

Duplicating the samba school rhythms played in the streets of Rio de Janeiro during carnaval, the Purple Martins created the Brazilian Ball last year - where Austinites can dance into pre-lenten revelry.

Hoffman points out that their emphasis, however, has gradually shifted from playing cover renditions of the Rio carnaval samba-enredos (samba theme songs) to northeastern carnaval music, including Bahian Afro-Brazilian sounds.

Often drawing crowds of more than a thousand, Hoffman attributes the Purple Martins' success to group execution of Brazilian beats with only percussion and vocals. "Those are the most primitive forms of music-making - drums and voice," she adds. "Those speak directly to people in a very basic way than anything else."

And why is Brazilian music successful in Austin?

"I think it has to do with that unique character of Austin that's so hard to define, but that character which makes people want to live here, that provides a certain quality of life and culture," Hoffman says. "Musically, it is a place for people to explore a lot of venues for different musical genres."