Academia da Berlinda – Academia da Berlinda (2007)

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The conjoined-twin-cities of Recife/Olinda in Brasil boast one of the diverse music scenes in a country full of musical diversity. The bad part is that you only have to be there about ten minutes before you have half a dozen hipsters in plaid pants and oversized sunglasses harangue you with the facts about how great and diverse their scene is. If you had to chose one commonality to highlight as a collective characteristic, it would be the ability of most of these artists to draw on various strands of regional ‘roots’ music and reinvent them, rescuing them from the staid museum-preservations of “folklore” and incorporating them as a vital component of the cultural life of Pernambuco and Brazil. However, such artistic vanguards are (as they have always been in most places) the concern of the upper middle class; In spite of the working-class background of a figure like Chico Science, you would be hard-pressed to find a pedreiro (bricklayer, mason) attending a Mundo Livre show.

A great deal of the artists in these cities have been basking in the stardust glow of the comet known as Chico Science, who died tragically in an auto accident in the late 90s at the age of 30, and at the peak of his creative success. His name was synomous with the Mangue Beat (or Bit) scene that also included the plastic arts, cinema, and literature, and whose musical component would include truly original talents like Mundo Livre S/A (some of the time), Mestre Abrosia, Comadre Fulozinha and others. Unfortunately, when movements in popular music begin to issue “manifestos” to the press and the world, you know they have begun to take themselves a bit too seriously for their own good. In the wake of that initial burst of innovation and creativity surrounding Chico Science and his coconspirators, “the scene” ends up devolving into the fate of most such ‘local’ scenes — a perpetual circle-jerk of musical inbreeding where nobody is inclined to call each other out when they’ve slipped into mediocrity, and where “Six Degrees of Chico Science” seems to be a popular parlor game. Although the contemporary scene there may still be more interesting than the majority of Brazilian cities, that in itself does not say much, and in a substantive way were are talking about “Big Fish in a Small Pond.” The spectrum runs from scenester veterans Mundo Livre, who hit the mark about 50% of the time with some brilliant songs in between bombastic turns of pseudo-post-punk (sounding more like angsty 90’s grunge) and the overbearing pretentious lyrics of their frontman Fred 04; to Nação Zumbi sans Chico Science, for whom I could cut some slack to since they have to walk in that giant’s shadow, but have yet to make any records that I find all that interesting; to the disappointing and often outright unlistenable solo albums from all the principle artists that comprised Comadre Fulozinha, albums that either leave no more permanent impression than a passing breeze, or else make you want to smash your radio into tiny bits like the recent record from indie starlet Karina Buhr. (Edit: I have to try and be nicer – the albums from Alessandra Leão and Isaar are at least listenable, they just don’t do anything for me personally and I don’t find them compelling. The album from Karina Buhr however is just terrible, leading me to wonder “Why would anybody actually listen to this?” In fact I have conducted semi-scientific tests with this record on people who live in Recife: unlike some albums that tend to ‘grow on you’ with repeated listenings, unveiling their charms slowly, Karina Buhr’s album is actually the REVERSE of this process — On first listen is seems kind of bad but possibly worth your time; as you listen to it more, it just gets worse and worse as you realize it’s true mediocrity. I personally can’t make it through the whole record — this test was conducted scientifically on willing participants who claim to enjoy the Recife music scene. I swear.)

There are groups that work better as concepts than actually listenable music, like the now-defunct Cordel de Fogo Encantado who had brilliant lyrics but godawful music; to the empty iconoclasm of DJ Dolores’ electronic globalisms; and then there are a smattering of dull, pedestrian acts like “Otto,” “Eddie” (a band, not a person, whose music is about as interesting as their name), Original Olinda Style, or Orchestra Contemporania de Olinda, and some other Olinda-centric acts, nearly all of whom share musicians and a proclivity for the redundant.

Amidst all this inbreeding of mediocrity, you would probably expect any new-born progency to be cross-eyed and genetically-challenged. This is NOT the case with Academia de Berlinda, who for my money are above and beyond all of the aforementioned acts, even though they are comprised of musicians who have participated or continue to play with a bunch of them. Perhaps because they began essentially as a sideproject from all the musician’s “main gigs”, they didn’t seem to take themselves too seriously and have been creating music that is engaging, well-written, and fun as hell. The first time I heard them, I had a similar reaction to my first encounters with Stereolab — it sounds good and it’s very catchy, but mostly I felt like I was listening to a band whose biggest asset was that they owned extensive and very hip record collections. In the case of Academia de Berlinda I was confronted with cumbia, Peruvian ‘chicha’, Cuban salsa (there is even a track named ‘Bela Vista’ in honor of a proletariat neighborhood that hosts a ‘Cuban night’ of music and dance frequented by the cultural elite), African hybrids, rock and roll, Brazilian brêga, carimbó from Pará… But contrary to Stereolab, who in spite of their many albums and impecable taste in plundering sources just never really moved me much, I found something different with Academia de Berlinda — an excitement and passion they bring to their work that manages to overcome the lurking sense of irony and kitsch. There is definitely some hipster-irony going on here, which may or may not include the laconic and somewhat off-pitch vocal delivery, but also a clear sense that they believe in what they are doing. It is often said of bands that produce highly-danceable music that you have to experience them live to get the full effect. The Academia’s live performances are certainly well worth it and often transcendent in their ability to work a room, although they have a Tim Maia-like propensity to hit the stage remarkably late.. But what is more amazing is that this excitement managed to actually get translated to a recording. A great of deal of the Recife/Olinda music suffers from over-production, an over-ripeness that comes from too much fussiness and not enough spontaneaty in the recording studio (a criticism I also level at contemporary Brazilian music in general). But this album has a very ‘live,’ raw, and very analog sound to it, while still taking advantages of the studio. When I used to work occasionally as a DJ either at parties or on the radio, I would usually try and play a tune off this album (Cumbia de Lutador and Ivete being my favorites to spin) — and I invariablly receied positive feedback and questions: somebody coming up to me (or calling me up, when I was on the radio) asking, “Who the hell is this? Where can I find it?” And I really have to say that, even in the case of Chico Science and Nação Zumbi, I haven’t received that type of reaction from playing much ‘contemporary’ Brazilian music to a non-Brazilian audience. Perhaps it is the ability of Academia de Berlinda to blur genres without being pedantic about it, to push boundaries in a subtle way that never sacrificies substance to style. But something about this music resonnates with people, whether it’s in the crowds that flock to hear them play in cramped bars or in spacious open-air venues during Carnaval, or in someone listening on the low-wattage radio waves in Detroit. In general terms of cultural production, Brazil has often had a historical tendency to refuse to see itself as part of Latin America, often preferring to distance itself from the contributions of its neighbors (even when appreciating or appropriating them) in favor of turning inward and reflecting on its own endless complexities. Brazil’s own hugeness – geographically, culturally, intellectually – has in some ways hampered its ability to stand in solidarity with The Americas and earmarked it as an imperial power to its neighbors. Academia de Berlinda is certainly not the first to break out of this pattern (fellow Recifense Nana Vasconcelos standing an an important remarkable exceptions and innovator in this regard), but it is nonetheless refreshing to hear a group of young, seasoned musicians break out with such a rich, textured work as is found on this this album, a record that draws upon so much without ever being gratuitous in their eclecticism. Oh, except for the final track, which is a pointless remix of the opening eponymous song – but I will forgive them for that, since superfulous, gratuitous and usually boring remixes are a sign of the times.

Another cool thing about this band is their embracing of digital distribution. This album was available on their website for a long time. The post here is audio extracted from an actual physical CD, with art scans taken from the original packing (except, oddly enough, the cover, which seems to have been deleted from my computer before I stored the disc in my bunker in the Kayman Islands). Academia de Berlinda may just be one of the most under-achieving bands in all of this overly-busy music scene, another thing I find sort of charming about them. Founding in 2004, finally put out a record in 2007, and are releasing their second album in 2011. Apparently it is already available online, but I have yet to listen to it — In truth, I wanted to write down my thoughts about this album, before complicating it by listening to their follow-up. As has been said by others and elsewhere, a group’s second album adds a dynamic self-reflexivity that begins to play with the identity of “who” a band or an artist is. When they only have one record out, it is pretty easy to say “who they are” — that one record is generally a fair representation of that identity. With subsequent releases, that identity becomes complicated and multifaceted. I don’t particularly expect their new record to depart from this winning formula overmuch — at least, I hope that they do not. In the mean time, I hope some people who wouldn’t otherwise have encountered this album benefit from this post, and enjoy this band as much as I have.

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