RIO DE JANEIRO, January 14 This is it. I started writing this on the final day of the first weekend of "Rock in Rio," the South American megaconcert that's taking place here Jan. 1214 and Jan.1821. I'm sitting by the pool at the Copacabana Palace typing my take on the first three days into an iBook and waiting for my waiter to take my soft drink order. I don't drink alcohol and I've become something of a connoisseur of foreign soft drinks, which are quite amazing in their variety and distinctiveness. Limao Brahma is a good one, a clear, lime-flavored soda with a cool, smooth flavor. Antarctica Guarana Champagne made in Brazil, according to the can has become another favorite of mine; it's clear gold in color, and has the refined sweet taste of a cola champagne coupled with the strong suggestion of tropical fruitiness.
The rectangular pool is lined with beautiful Brazilian women and men sunning in tiny swimsuits. I haven't seen any thongs on women here (sorry, all you Sisqo fans), but I have seen a few rather overweight men wearing Speedo-like swim briefs that were three sizes smaller than modesty. In general, the young people here, particularly the women, tend to be in better shape physically than their American counterparts. Then again, if I grew up next to a beach in near-perpetual sunny weather I'd probably try to make sure I looked good in a swimsuit that was three sizes too small.
In any case, although I was born in Jamaica, I'm not much of a beach person. I think growing up in Upstate New York and living in Manhattan washed the beach right out of me. I'm currently dressed in black from head to toe, from my black short-sleeve shirt and summer-weight black pants to my black sneakers. I'm as easily identifiable as an New Yorker in Rio as Sting is as an Englishman in New York.
Gene Lees, the lyricist who worked with Antonio Carlos Jobim on English-language adaptations of such bossa nova classics as "Desafinado" and "Corcovado" once commented that Brazilian songwriters tend to endlessly rhyme the words "song," "guitar" and "heart" which actually do rhyme in Portuguese, cançao, violao and coraçao, respectively. Having attended the first week of Rock in Rio, having seen an endless procession of Brazilian bands, having heard an endless series of Brazilian songs, sweated under Brazilian sunlight, eaten Brazilian food, danced (or attempted to dance) Brazilian dances, I think I've gotten some idea not the whole concept, but a working notion at least of the connection between cançao, violao, and coraçao and why the bond matters. At Rock in Rio there was a lot of cançao, violao, and coraçao on display.
In Which R.E.M. Displays a Shocking Lack of Sentimentality
The publicity folks for the festival seem to be working as hard as they can one head flack seemed close to tears at the end of Friday but they haven't been all that adept at providing ready access to the artists. There's a presidential inaugurationlike, Puffy Daddyesque amount of security at the festival. For example, each day VIPs were given different credit cardlike swipe cards to gain access the festival and the various restricted tents. I think the almost paranoid amount of security has something to do with the fact that right before the last Rock in Rio, in 1991, Roberto Medina, the festival's founder and guiding spirit, was kidnapped. But that's just a guess. In any case, there's so much security and so many restrictions, at most times the publicity folks seem outmanned, overwhelmed and out of the loop.
So on Friday morning I bypass the on-site flacks and call a contact in the States to set up an interview with one of the festival headliners, the American rock band R.E.M. I go to one of the hotel meeting rooms on the second floor of the Copacabana to wait for Peter Buck, R.E.M.'s guitarist, but, while I'm waiting, Michael Stipe, the band's lead singer, pops by. His manager tells me since Buck is delayed, Stipe didn't want to keep me waiting and popped by to chat.
Early that day, Stipe told the local press, when asked about President-elect George Bush, that "he is not our president." But he's in a more relaxed mood now. He says he's working on several movie follow-ups to "Being John Malkovich," which he coproduced, and he has a new R.E.M. album due out in April ("Reveal"), but as far as touring goes, he and his bandmates are taking it easy. In fact, they have only two dates scheduled for 2001 Saturday night's show at Rock in Rio and another performance in Buenos Aires.
"I love festivals because you get to see all these different acts in one place that may not have any musical similarities," he says. He then talks, with animation, about a festival he attended in which Roni Size, the drum 'n' bass artist, and Travis, the Scottish rock band, were on the same bill.
Peter Buck shows up, and Stipe shakes hands and leaves and says he wants to talk again soon when the new album comes. This is the pitiful lot of music critics. Artists, in general, only want to talk to me when they've got new albums coming out; at other times, in general, they could give a rat's ass.
Actually, Courtney Love called me a few years ago when the first O. J. Simpson verdict came out because she wanted to get a black man's opinion. But I don't expect to get another personal call from a rock celebrity until the next dramatic show trial involving a gridiron great and a double homicide.
I ask Buck how R.E.M. is coping with transforming itself from a quartet to a trio with the retirement of longtime drummer Bill Berry. "To tell you the truth, we're doing much better than we were before, when he was in the band. It sounds harsh, and I love Bill and he's a great drummer of course, but Bill had lost the passion and to his credit he quit. In my opinion, change is always good, even when it's scary."
Buck says Brazilian music has had an influence on him, but not an overt one. "If you listen to the new record, things pop through. We stray from time to time from 4/4 rock 'n' roll and try some different rhythms.... You know, as much as I'm a little hesitant with the notion of 'One World' I think the Internet and all the connectiveness it implies is allowing people to hear music that they never would have heard before." Buck goes on to talk about growing up in Roswell, Georgia, where, he says, driving into Athens, Georgia, to catch a band was considered an act of musical exploration. "I didn't even know other countries had their own kinds of pop music growing up," says Buck. "I knew England had some and that was just about it. I thought everybody else just listened to American music. A lot of American kids today, I think, know a bit more."
Buck says he's not worked up about Napster, Aimster and all the other file-sharing service that have the music industry so concerned. "I don't have to make money any more. But some of my friends who aren't as secure in their careers are worried." He also thinks that the Internet, by providing small acts an outlet to have their music heard, will be the source of musical innovation in the future."Every new thing that's happened in pop music has not happened on a major label," he says. "Sam Phillips and Sun Records, Sugar Hill and hip-hop. The guys on the little labels were out there first. Every time. Major labels won't take chances on marginal stuff. So the little guys will always stay ahead."
At the gates of the City of Rock
It's a little after three o'clock on Friday and I catch a VIP shuttle from the Hotel Inter-Continental to the festival site about an hour away. The afternoon is still bright and sunny and hot. At the site, the paranoid Gaza Strip-y security is still in effect. There, our identification cards are swiped and we are allowed into the facilities. We're also supposed to be wearing ridiculous t-shirts identifying each us as VIPs, but, given the history of revolutionary activity in rock 'n roll in general and Latin America in particular, I decided a T-shirt advertising my status as a VIP isn't a good fashion choice. Plus the T-shirt is way too small and feels like it was woven out of hair clippings swept up from the floor of my barber shop in New York. I always wondered what they did with that hair. Now I know.
Finally, "The City of Rock." I'm outside the city and I'm about to pass through the gates to the main area where all the concert stages and concession stands are. The City of Rock. Actually, it turns out not to be a city at all but a rather ordinary-looking festival site, albeit larger than most. The festival is all about product placement, advertising and naked commerce. Huge billboards sprout up from the walls around the festival, signs for GE and Nextel, Direct TV and Polaroid 'I-Zone' cameras, and one desperately commercial sign in which a brand of Brazilian beer seems to be ejaculating its contents. Outside the walls hundreds of local kids, mostly in their teens, roam about, most shirtless, some playing guitar, others asking for tickets, others seemingly satisfied to simply watch the vans and VIPs and visitors pass by. I notice that most of the Brazilians outside the gates without tickets are about six of seven shades darker than the Brazilians who are entering the City of Rock. Maybe this is more like a real city than I first thought.
The concert area looks like the grounds for a massive county fair, with various tents rising up in the distance, capped by large balloons and corporate logos. Tenda Rock in Rio Eletro is the electronica tent, and as I pass by I can see laser lights flickering and trance music pumping and sweaty Brazilians dancing. Tenda Raizes (by this point I've figured out that "tenda" probably means "tent") features various roots artists from around the world, from Varttina (a Finnish group with peppy female lead singers) to Heri Dikongue (a guitarist and singer from Cameroon). Tenda Brasil, another stage, is a showcase for up-and-coming young Brazilian acts as well as a few established masters. And finally, there's the main stage, Palco Munda, a huge white tent that looks like a daisy gone to seed or the back of an albino armadillo or a punk rocker with spiky bleached-blank hair. The front of the tent is cut off and the stage is open to an enormous field which is about half full of people. The crowd is mostly young teens, twentysomethings and thirtysomethings though the first day is unofficially billed as oldies night. Many of the attendees have dyed their hair in patches of green, blue and gold, which I remember are the colors of the Brazilian flag. I file this away on my list of the acts of unassisted cultural decryption that I've been able to accomplish so far (the only other thing on that list is my translation of the word "tenda"). A few minutes later I see why so many concertgoers had hair that boasted their nationalistic pride a few young workers in America Online T-shirts are doing the hair painting near the back of the crowd. One of the workers had a cardboard sheet with a triangle cut out in the middle, presumably allowing her to make a concertgoer a patriotic Brazilian and a perhaps unknowing advertisement for the American Online triangular corporate logo.
Actually, the concert grounds were rife with corporate squads, wandering around in packs, all dressed in uniforms specific to their product team. The AOL squad was dressed in gold T-shirts, the Nextel girls and boys in purple, the Direct TV folks in purple outfits that looked like they had collectively won the Tour de France with the Artist currently known as Prince as their major sponsor. I read once that the British navy in the 18th century used to send bands of men onshore "press gangs," they called them looking to force able-bodied seamen to join their ranks. I didn't see any of these corporate squads forcibly recruiting anybody into anything, but if, say, Direct TV launches its own navy in the next few weeks, between you and me, you'll know where the recruits came from.
The first act to perform the wine smashed against the ship for its maiden voyage, as it were was the Orquestra Sinfonica Brasileira, a symphony orchestra decked out with traditional (violins, etc) and modern (electric guitars, etc.) instruments. The Orquestra kicked things off with an ear-splitting version of Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" that's the theme from "2001: A Space Odessey" for those of you who don't follow classical music. The group was so startlingly loud I didn't really look up to see whether they were actually playing "Also Spach Zarathustra" or whether it was prerecorded. I was doubled up in surprise. When the sound subsided, Milton Nascimento, one of the heroes of Brazilian music, came out and sang a duet of John Lennon's "Imagine" with Gilberto Gil, another hero of Brazilian music. This was a high point the Beatles have always been big in Brazil, and the Tropicalia movement was in part inspired by the Fab Four's creativity. The music that immediately followed was not so inspiring. Gil and Nascimento left the stage and the Orquestra played an instrumental medley of songs that included Sting's "Every Breath You Take" and R.E.M.'s "Losing my Religion." OK, that made sense because Sting and R.E.M. were playing the festival. The Orquestra also played "Eleanor Rigby." That also made sense because of the aforementioned local love affair with all things related to the boys from Liverpool. The video montage that accompanied the medley, however, did not make sense it was a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, hidden in a riddle and displayed on huge screens on either side of the stage for a few hundred thousand people to try and figure out. The video montage was a rambling, random stream of images the earth from space, soccer star Pele, AC/DC in concert, Freddie Mercury blowing kisses, wildlife shots, etc. At first I thought I was having somebody else's acid flashbacks from Woodstock '69. Then, when the Orquestra played their entire medley over again, I decided I was either trapped in my own private version of "Groundhog Day" or I was imprisoned in a South American take on the Teletubbies.
Milton Nascimento came out for his set next. He cuts a striking figure onstage dreads down to his shoulders, a dark headband holding them in place, clad in a simple white tunic and flowing white pants. His music is a stew of many ingredients Brazilian spices, West African meat, European pop broth. Nascimento seems to view the world as his supermarket, throwing in his musical cart Portuguese fado, South African juju music and, of course, bossa nova rhythms from his native country. His first song popped and burbled with township jive, and the emotional high point was reached when Lo Borges (a peer of Nascimento's who hails from his home region of Minas Gerais) joined him on stage for a rendition of Nascimento's song "Para Lennon e McCartney," yet another tribute to the guiding spirit of the Beatles. One can only guess what impact the release of the Beatles greatest hits album "1" will have on future generations of Brazilian songwriters. Ringo may get his own tribute song yet.
Gilberto Gil, one of the leaders of the Tropicalia movement in the 1960s and '70s, continued the Beatles theme, playing a moving midtempo rendition of "Something" which became less about romantic love than about the admiration one artist can develop for another's work. Gil also performed a high-spirited, melodious cover of Bob Marley's "Is This Love" finishing with a lusty cry of "Bob Marley!" After Gil's superb set, I wandered over to the Tenda Brasil to take in a performance by Luiz Melodia. He's something of a cult figure/ elder statesman in Brazilian music, effortlessly blending samba and the blues; imagine a middle-aged South American Robert Johnson and you've pretty much got it. He with two acoustic guitarists on either side. He started out with the song "Fadas" a graceful, toe-tapping tune that that skips along as lightly as a stone across a pond. Next he flowed into the goodhearted song "Diz Que Fui Por Ai"; during the instrumental break, he couldn't resist dancing around his stool as his guitarists carried the melody. It was pure enchantment; not just Brazilian music at its best, but art at its finest as well. Melodia's set carried a heavy burden of soul but managed to nonetheless be light on its feet. You never wanted the moment to end.
But the night still had some sorcery left in the person of Daniela Mercury; imagine a performer with the sexiness of Shakira and the pop appeal of Faith Hill. Mercury, since the beginning of her career, has championed the music and culture of Bahia, her native region in Brazil. Her music is axé music (a word derived from the Yoruba word for life force or positive energy). Within her sound is relentless percussion, samba, reggae and a pinch of merengue. Like Madonna, she's a bit of a sexual provocateur. On her album "Feijao Comarroz," Mercury, who is light-skinned, appears hugging a strong, broad-backed, dark-skinned black figure; turn the album over and you see that the figure is a broad-backed, dark-skinned black woman.
At Rock in Rio, Mercury took the stage in tiny sparkly bikini-like top and a tiny sparkly miniskirt, and the big screens on either side of the stage captured plenty of shots of sweat running down her tanned, toned midriff. Britney Spears has nothing on her. She jumped, she shouted, she danced, she laughed, she cooed, she swiveled, she bumped, she grinded, and, although she was clearly singing and not lip-synching, she never seemed to run short of breath. Britney Spears has nothing on Mercury, but Mercury's got plenty on Britney Spears.
"It's my dream to make the world dance to samba," Mercury told me afterward, displaying some Madonna-like ambition. "Our pop samba is the new samba. We make new forms of samba every day."
I didn't actually know what she meant by the "we make new forms of samba every day" part, but it sounded good, she sounded energetic when she said it, and so I went with it. It's hard to argue with someone whose midriff is that much more toned than your own.
Later that night James Taylor performed. His set served to remind listeners just how hard it is to make music that's low-key and interesting at the same time. Taylor's was the former but it wasn't the latter. Taylor performed "Carolina In My Mind," "Every Day," "Line 'Em Up,"....
Sorry, I nodded off for a minute there.
What were we talking about again? Oh, yeah James Taylor. Boring as hell. Don't listen to him if you're about to operate heavy machinery. I kinda like some of Taylor's old stuff "Fire & Rain," etc. but, at Rock in Rio, he seemed to be mailing his performance in. And we're not talking about by e-mail or Fed-Ex. Taylor's sleepy performance arrived by Pony Express. And his rendition of "Only a Dream in Rio" was an embarrassment; I'm surprised he had the guts to deliver such a lackluster performance of that particular song in the very city that helped inspired the tune. Then again, by that point Taylor may have been asleep too. Did I mention he was boring as hell?
Sting was far better, unleashing a string of his hits From "Set them Free" to his latest single "After the Rain." He was recently nominated for a Grammy for his rendition of Brazilian songwriter Ivan Lins' "She Walks This Earth." You can hear the influence of Rio in some of Sting's music the cool samba swing, the sometimes unusual time signatures, the tropical warmth. Here, on stage at Rock in Rio, it was all coming out.
Later that weekend, I had a chat with Sting as he lounged on a couch in the lobby of the Copacabana Palace. "I'm having a good time," he said. He had gotten some sun, and he had also gotten in some chess while hanging out by the pool. Chess and tanning simultaneously. That's why he's Sting. "Brazilian music has informed my work from the very beginning of my career," he said. "Particularly Jobim and Ivan Lins." Sting says he's also a fan of the city of Rio. "It's a very compelling city," he said. "It's beautiful and a bit dangerous. It's a perfect combination, really."
Pop and the Weasel
That first night of the concert turned out to be my favorite. The next day, Saurday Jan.13, had its high points R.E.M. turned in a great set and Sunday, January 14, the hard rock night, featured not only Pato Fu, a promising local hard rock band, and Nacao Zumbi, a cool local electronica outfit, it also Guns N' Roses, and they're always interesting to make fun of (at 3 a.m. on Saturday, there were about a dozen kids waiting outside of Axl Rose's hotel, waiting for a glimpse).
My last real highlight, however, was going to see Beck backstage after the close of his set on Saturday, January 13, the second day of the first weekend of the festival. Now, almost every critic goes into the job thinking that there's no way he or she will end up being the same sort weasel the previous critic was (I should mention that the previous music critic for TIME is a pretty cool guy). But inevitably there are moments where you feel the weasel metamorphosis happening. So I'm ushered into this sterile aircraft hangarlike space where the artists are sequestered, like jurors on lengthy murder trials, before their appointed times on stage. The place reminds me of the building where they store the alien ship in "Independence Day" it's like a Latin Area 54, cut off from the world and public view. Most of the space is empty, but there are some plastic cubicles where various artists are tucked away like alien lifeforms preserved for study. I see the guys from R.E.M. in one plastic partitioned area, giving an interview to who knows whom. Beyond the cubicle area is a grid filled with weight-lifting equipment and another grid filled with stationary exercise bikes; there are also about a dozen (seemingly) fake palm trees and a few "Survivor"-esque thatched roof huts where bartenders are serving mixed drinks. All for the pleasure of the sequestered rock stars. The whole huge building is actually much scarier and creepier than Area 54. At least the things supposedly stored there are from outer space.
I'm led up some stairs by one of Beck's publicists to a quiet white cubicle where the man is waiting.
"I enjoyed the show," I say. Actually, though I like Beck's stuff, and I think he's a kind of musical visionary, I thought his show this time around kinda sucked. But I don't say that. "Things sounded great," I say.
He looks at me with that Beck look of slightly dazed surprise. "It was one of our worst shows of the year by far," says Beck, who is also nursing a cold. "We were missing a lot of notes and it sounded terrible."
I realize I've just had a weasel moment.
Anyway, we get to talking. "Brazil is an intense place," says Beck. "The music can be gentle but there's a lot of life happening on the street." He goes on to talk about his favorite Brazilian performers. "There are tons of them everyone from Jobim to Caetano. Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, Gal Costa."
What does he like about them? "Just really a fluidity of melody," he says. "Their melodies can be memorable and surprising and interesting. There's an exuberance to the music that can be very real and emotional. It's not necessarily feel-good music ,but it's still uplifting. Anyone can write something melancholy and sound sophisticated. It's more difficult to do something that embraces life and still sound cool."
Beck, who once recorded a song called "Tropicalia," is friends with Caetano Veloso, one of the founders of Tropicalia. They met a year and a half ago at one of Beck's L.A. shows. "I talked to him on the phone when I got here," says Beck. "He's in Bahia. He couldn't make it."
Beck is bummed he hasn't met any of the other performers on the massive Rock in Rio bill. "I haven't met anyone today," he complains. "We're all sequestered in different areas. I wouldn't even know where to begin to find the other acts. Some festivals are good that way you exchange ideas and stories with the other people. Here, everyone has been set a mile apart."
Beck's last words to me are "I don't know." For some reason, there's no reference in my handwritten notes as to what he was answering. Just "I don't know." The line is all alone on one page of my notes.
I don't know.
Anyway, that pretty much it. That's how my time at Rock in Rio went. I'm still trying to find some sense in everything, find some trends, some meanings, some currents. Brazil gives and takes from the world. The rest of the world gives and takes from Brazil. Brazil took rhythms from Africa and fado music from Portugal and bits and pieces of other genres and came up with samba. Jobim took bits and pieces of samba and parts of the kind of "cool jazz" pioneered by Miles Davis and came up with bossa nova. Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil took the experimentation of the Beatles and the frustration of laboring under a military dictatorship and helped create Tropicalia. There is also MPB, axé, pagode and a host of other Brazilian musical styles. Artists from around the world, from Stan Getz to Sting to Beck have taken the music that Brazil borrowed and borrowed it right back. "Pop music is best product we make in Brazil," says Nelson Mota, a leading Brazilian music critic and the author of "Noites Tropicais," a book about the history of Brazilian music. "It's one of the few things in which we're first world. It expresses our diversity."
Today there's a new generation of Brazilian musicians that is once again looking outside of the country's borders for inspiration, but grounding their work in the musical wealth of their native land. Daniela Mercury has the bouncy energy of American pop acts, but her work is anchored in the culture of Bahia and in serious artistic intent. Max de Castro, Patricia Coelho, the band Barao Vermelho, the group Nacao Zumbi and other young acts at the festival are adding hip-hop, trip-hop, and electronica to samba, bossa nova and Tropicalia. They are drawing from abroad but creating something Brazilian. After all, as Max de Castro points out, some of the foreign music that younger Brazilian so admire was inspired, in part, by Brazil to begin with. Sting gets a Grammy nod for singing the music of Ivan Lins, Beck draws from Tropicalia. So why not take it back? Why not create a new Brazilian music for the people of Brazil?
"After many, many years something new is finally happening," says Mota. "These new performers have a foot in the best traditions of our music and another foot in the future."
A half-dozen Brazilian acts dropped out of Rock in Rio, upset that foreign superstar acts, in their estimation, were getting better treatment than the local bands, when, after all, local bands often sell better than superstar foreigners in Brazil. Brazilian musicians have sense of their own worth.
I leave Brazil on Sunday, the last night of the concert. There is something wrong with the plane a part has gone wrong, so they're going to try to fix the part (which could take three hours) or order the part (which could take two days). I decide that, in airline speak, the same argot which calls a muffin a breakfast and a strip of rotten chicken an entree, three hours means nine hours and "could take two days" means the plane is going down in a fiery ball of flame. I rebook my trip through Miami and figure I'll take my chances getting out of there.
It all works out. Rio to Miami, a brief layover (an hour or so) and Miami to New York. Now we're landing at JFK. I look out the television screen-sized window. Everything in New York is white, the sky, the ground, everything. I kinda wish I could turn the channel back to Brazil.
So right as we land, right after the plane's crew thanks everyone for flying with them, guess what song comes on the over airplane's speakers? A Muzak version of "Desafinado." The guts of the song the swing, the soul, the samba, the bossa-novaness of it have all be ripped out and replaced by loaves of white bread. It is an almost perfect ending. A trip to Brazil to see how artists there are improving on the music of the world ends with a return to the outside world that ends with a display of how foreigners are screwing up the music of Brazil. There's a certain poetry to it all. I need some poetry to wrap this all up. It would have been completely perfect if the airplane speakers had been playing another Jobim song, "Corcovado." After all, I've returned to "Corcovado," the song and the mountain, several times in my reports. So why not end with a quote?
I, who was lost and lonely
Believing life was only
A bitter, tragic joke
Have found with you
The meaning of existence
O my love.
OK, I didn't find the meaning of existence in Brazil. And I don't think life is a bitter tragic joke.
That Muzak version of "Desafinado" is still playing.
Britney Spears, 'N Sync and Neil Young are all scheduled to play Rock in Rio next weekend.
Maybe life can be kind of a bitter, tragic joke.
What can you really learn about a country in five days anyway?
Maybe learning you have a lot to learn is a start.
Maybe Beck was onto something.
I don't know.