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Moving to the Rhythms of Their Universe

Three Brazilian singers with their own distinctive regional styles set their sights on L.A.

September 10, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman writes about world music for Calendar

Here come the Brazilian divas. Hair flying, legs moving, backup singers swaying, drum-heavy instrumental accompanists churning out the rhythms of the samba, the axe, the frevo, the bossa nova, the samba-reggae and the baia~o --all of it propelled by an irresistible, body-moving drive.

In the next 12 days, Southern California will have a rare opportunity to experience three of Brazil's top female music stars in action. Two, Daniela Mercury and Marisa Monte, are vital members of an enormously popular younger generation of Brazilian artists. The third, Elba Ramalho, has been a pop music force since the late '70s.

Tonight at the Hollywood Bowl, it's Mercury, a lovely, lithe and lissome 32-year-old singer-dancer whose fast-moving, kinetic blend of samba, reggae, funk and rock is firmly rooted in the percussive, African-based rhythms of her native Bahia.

"The music from my area is very rich, very different," says Mercury. "In my country, we love where we are from, where we were born. Your hometown, your state means a lot to you, because each state keeps alive elements that are unique to that part of the country."

In Mercury's case, it is music in which the sound of the drum is ever present.

"I chose to put percussion in so much of my music because it is so much a part of Brazil," she says. "And I love the sound of the drum. I think that the drum has a soul, and it is very strong, like the rock 'n' roll guitar."

Her current album, "Sol Da Liberdade" on BMG Records, maintains an extraordinary level of intensity, only occasionally modified by a few tranquil numbers that allow her sweet-sounding voice to stand alone.

Mercury, who performs at the Bowl on a bill with the veteran Jorge Ben Jor, will appear with 11 musicians and two dancers in a show that she says will reflect the lively atmosphere of carnival in Bahia.

"Our carnaval is not a traditional carnaval," she notes. "It's a new carnaval. We don't have only one rhythm like Rio. We play whatever we want--rock 'n' roll, funky, ragtime, galope. It's like one big concert."

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On Saturday and next Sunday at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, the spotlight swings to the stunning Ramalho, who has been described as "the Tina Turner of Brazil." As with Mercury, the 48-year-old performer's music is deeply tinged with the rhythms of her home--in this case, northeast Brazil, with its maracatu, forro, and frevo. With Geraldo Azevedo, who also performs in the Ford program, she is one of the important figures in the wave of music from the northeast that followed the popularity of the Musica Popular Brasileira movement of the '60s and '70s.

"We will perform," she says. "with mostly an acoustic type of band. It is the kind of ensemble that has a great deal to do with the kind of music we do. The accordion, for example, is very much part of the northeast, as is Geraldo's guitar, the flutes and the two percussionists."

But Ramalho's career has enhanced her northeast roots with an array of other influences. Her latest album, "Solar," also on BMG, is a two-CD release featuring live and studio sets in which pieces reminiscent of '60s rock are juxtaposed against the rich harmonies and soaring melodies of the bossa nova style, interspersed with an occasional number with all the qualities of French cabaret.

"It's understandable," she says. "I started at 14 playing the drums in a rock band. Then I did some bossa nova, then I was on stage doing plays and films. But everyone goes back to their origins. The northeast is the music I grew up with and that's the influence I've always had."

Mercury and Ramalho are performing in the Southland for the first time. But Monte, who appears at UCLA's Royce Hall on Sept. 22, has been here for shows at UCLA and the House of Blues. Born in Rio, Monte, 33, is a sophisticated musical artist whose work--reflective of the cosmopolitanism of her city--moves across the colorful spectrum of Brazilian sounds and rhythms, easily embracing samba and choro as well as rock and pop, and her continuing musical relationship with Carlinhos Brown has added frequent axe references to her music. She has, in addition, maintained a strong connection with the musical ferment in New York City's downtown scene. Her last few albums have been produced by Arto Lindsay, and American jazz musicians frequently turn up in her instrumental accompaniment.

Monte's latest album, "Memories, Chronicles and Declarations of Love" on Metro Blue Records, sold more than 800,000 copies in Brazil in its first three months.

Monte says she will bring "all the scenery and the stage set that I'm touring with in Brazil. We'll do some songs from the new album and some earlier material."

Like Mercury and Ramalho, she emphasizes the impact that Brazil's great cultural diversity has had upon her.

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