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Cultural Exchange: Gaby Amarantos has Brazil dancing

The singer's giddy brand of dance music escapes its humble origins and goes upscale.

March 11, 2012|By Vincent Bevins, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Brazilian singer Gaby Clipe Xirley.
Brazilian singer Gaby Clipe Xirley. (Dudu Maroja, Dudu Maroja )

Reporting from Belem, Brazil — —

When he notices she has entered, the DJ sprays fire and smoke from an elaborate spaceship control deck onto hundreds of teenagers from the poor outskirts of this city in the Amazon.

Soon, she climbs to the top of the alien structure, launching into an impromptu version of one of her manic dance songs, celebrating the pirate nature of these huge parties that launched her career. "I'm going to sample you, I'm going to rob you," she booms over the crowd, before calling out the names of the various groups holding up signs demonstrating their allegiance to a particular part of the scene.

Wherever she stops these days, it seems, Gaby Amarantos gets something of a hero's welcome. Until recently, the giddy brand of dance music that has been dominant for a decade here in Northern Brazil was little known elsewhere and often met with open derision from elites in Brazil's richer areas. But over the last year, Gaby, as she is known, has been taking the local sound across the country and into some of its exclusive cultural spots; her upcoming album is one of the year's most anticipated.

It is called "Tecno Brega," which translates to "cheesy" or "tacky" techno. As names go, this one misses the mark somewhat. It is not techno but rather a manic, high-pitched electro pop. "Brega" reflects that the music is unapologetically cheerful but also the class and racial biases those who named it had against common people living in this part of the Amazon, Gaby says.

"If we weren't completely forgotten, those of us from up here often suffered serious prejudice," she says. "But Brazil is changing, it's opening its mind, it's getting to know its own cultures."

The brega scene is overseen by competing aparelhagens, Portuguese for "apparatuses," mobile street parties broadly similar to Jamaican-style sound systems. The DJs and promoters distribute pirate copies of tecno brega CDs practically for free — with the permission of the local musical producers but not the international artists often sampled — and make money off the street parties they throw.

Gaby, who in her 15-year semi-professional career as a singer used to sell cheap copies of her own music in the street as cars waited at red lights, references the cannibalistic nature of the brega legacy in her shows, doing high-energy covers from "Funkytown" to Kraftwerk. Indeed, she was helped in garnering national attention by a performance of someone else's brega cover of Beyonce's "Single Ladies."

But on her upcoming CD "Treme" (the name of the dance her fans do, after the Portuguese word "tremer," to shake), all of the flirty, party-oriented music is legal, and she is now performing for an entirely different set of crowds around the country, including São Paulo's trendy urban taste makers. The singer, 33, recently hosted an annual party for Vogue Brasil, since she is known as a trendsetter for over-the-top stage outfits.

"Looking around, I was pretty certain that apart from the service staff, not one person in that party but me was from a humble neighborhood," she says at her house here.

Much of Brazil's economic boom has been powered by the rise of a new lower middle class as tens of millions rise out of poverty. The cultural industry in this traditionally unequal country has slowly been changing too, and Brazil is more open to embracing home-grown cultural movements. Another popular artist today is Emicida, who plays a poetic, politically charged rap growing out of a scene in the slums of São Paulo.

"The upper classes sneer at tecno brega for precisely the reasons it should be celebrated," says Dom Phillips, the Brazil-based British author of "Superstar DJs, Here We Go," a book on the history of dance music. "It's got everything great pop music needs: song, sex and rhythm. What else do you need on a Saturday night? It reminds me of early American house and British rave music — stealing its melodies from wherever it can, doing something that is cheap, noisy and cheerful."

Some parts of the Amazon musical scene have chosen to reject the pejorative label of "brega," insisting instead they make "techno melody." Gaby, however, has chosen to embrace and reappropriate the word. "Brega is being real. It's being happy. It's not caring. It's being free," she shouted out during a show at the Carnaval in Recife.

Between her stints traveling the country and playing large or upscale venues, Gaby comes back to her house in a rough neighborhood where she has lived with her extended family since childhood, getting her start singing at the local church.

On a typical Sunday afternoon, she and her relatives hop into a boat to cross the yellow-brown river just blocks from her house, into the jungle for an all-day meal of river fish, rice and beans, local fruit and plenty of beer in a house suspended over the water.

Gaby is just starting to garner international attention and is eager to see Latin America or the U.S. She knows the success she's having means she might have to relocate. "I might have to go to Rio or São Paulo, of course," she says, wistfully. "But I don't know if I really could."

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