Brazil’s Backland Resonance

    Brazilian band Cordel do Fogo EncantadoThe most penetrating Brazilian music originates in the country’s proving ground, the Northeast, in particular, the state of Pernambuco, a reservoir of good music and musicians.

    Whether it’s baião king Luiz Gonzaga, Bossa Nova pioneer João Gilberto, Música Armorial with its banda de pífanos, Tropacália protagonist Gilberto Gil, Mangue Beat groundbreakers Chico Science & Nação Zumbi, or artists like Jackson do Pandeiro, Lenine, and Hermeto Pascoal; the sounds emanating from the Northeast are rich not only in their (Iberian and Moorish) sonorities but also in their remarkable, highly original mixtures of rhythm.

    Weaving together the passionate and the primitive in a powerful amalgam of theater, percussion, and poetry, Cordel do Fogo Encantado (Poem of the Enchanted Fire), exposes the newest link in this rich cultural chain.

    The group hails from the city of Arcoverde, 250 kilometers from Recife, entryway to Brazil’s vast arid interior, the sertão, and its domain of enchanted ancestral spirits. This is where the historic stage was set for bloody conflicts between indigenous people and the press of civilization, and where a disseminating terminal for cult forms of religion propagated.

    Always present here is the enchanted (encantado), the apocalyptic, the prophetic, the otherworldly. Its archetypal element, be it from a lamp’s light, the blazing sun, or the perennial drought, is fire (fogo), inconstant, eternal, and always changing.

    Here, a word synonymous with imaginative writing, Cordel, weaves together the beliefs of poor and illiterate people. Literatura de cordel (string literature) refers to popular and cheaply printed pamphlets, neither bound nor published professionally, that are produced and sold at fairs by side street vendors who hang them on cords, allowing potential clients to peruse, or to read aloud for those who can’t, poems, stories, and songs.

    In this archaic locality a troupe of artisans, embracing prophecies and a ritualistic ambiance, caught the public’s attention with their theater piece entitled Cordel do Fogo Encantado.

    The group – Lira Paes, Clayton Barros, and Emerson Calado – toured the state for two years, their theater performances punctuated with poetry and music. In Recife, they were augmented by Nego Henrique and Rafa Almeida, percussionist cousins who had been attending umbanda rituals since childhood, rituals that were repressed in the backlands.

    At the Rec-Beat Festival, Pernambuco’s showcase for innovative talent, Cordel, with its charisma and riveting dramatic effects, further propelled by an Afro-Brazilian rhythmic and melodic force, surfaced as a local sensation.

    Their mixture of rhythm, drama, and poetry, speaking to the spiritual side of the listeners and furnishing a lift away from the everyday constraints of reality, crossed frontiers, catching critics’ attention, receiving greater visibility, and earning Cordel fitting acclaim as a revelation.

    Bearing strong impressions of the sertão by speaking of fear, desire, and love, Cordel, with certainty, is one of the most creative and successful bands to surface in Pernambuco over the past five years; however, they reject being pigeonholed as “regional.”

    And though their comprehensive grasp of Northeastern tradition fits in well with the ethos of the Mangue Beat movement, Cordel is heir to no movement. (Mangue bit, a phrase figuratively used to contrast the bit of a computer with the region’s poverty, is a movement that became known as “Mangue Beat” through mistakes made in the Brazilian press.)

    Their trajectory has been similar to that of Mangue Beat bands like Mundo Livre S/A, Mestre Ambrósio, and Chico Science & Nação Zumbi, bands that emerged on the coast, amidst Recife’s urban chaos. But Cordel arrived on the scene with music assimilated from the backlands: indigenous ceremonial dancing, samba de côco, liturgical drama, and poetic-musical forms.

    To its theatrical base, enhanced by (often improvised) poetry and a percussive arsenal, Cordel interweaves rock, maracatu, embolada, frevo, pop, samba, ciranda, and reggae, creating a hybridization that has no name and is perplexing to dancers.

    Employing a guitar (the single harmonic instrument), percussion, and their voices, Cordel bewitches their audience, achieving with showmanship and instrumental bravura more power and authority than groups equipped with towering Marshall amplifiers. The power to create both a hushed order and an almost frenzied excitement, a paradox of settled calm and of deep disturbance, has been central to their success.

    The group’s relationship with its following is one of sending and receiving messages. Crowds, flocking to their performances, relish the group’s unearthly, faintly menacing aura, devouring their imaginative textures like penitents released from fasting.

    Though the contrast between diffuse and almost delirious density does take some getting used to, to miss Cordel is to miss one of Brazil’s most unconventional bands, a band whose shows are spine chilling.

    The power, the pacing, the textures, and the almost unbearable spiritual grandeur of their shows, notwithstanding, left some doubt about Cordel’s ability to transition from the stage to a CD format without losing vitality.

    Cordel’s first self-titled CD, produced by Naná Vasconcelos, captures all the textural imagination and richly varied language of the backlands, achieving the perfect balance between folk wisdom and ferocity.

    This CD, a culture shock for newcomers, is impregnated with the profound roots of the sertão. First time listeners may sense the absence of conventional instruments, but not the enormous conviction of percussion without clichés and of poetry without pretension.

    Connecting with quick musical resourcefulness, the disc loses none of Cordel’s power to entrance, stimulate, and provoke. The set of eighteen tracks, extracted from their original theater piece, many with dual titles in the manner of literatura de cordel, opens with one of the sertão’s starkest sounds, a cowherd’s chanting sadly, enclosed by a cow bell and sundry studio effects, leaving no doubt about its source or what is to follow.

    Clayton Barros’s vigorous, swirling sound-collages are especially well displayed on “Boi Luzeiro” ou “A Pega de Violento, Vaidoso e Avoador” (“Enlightened Bull” or “The Fight of the Violent, Vain, and Flyer”). His strong lyrical sensibility enables him to unify the unruly material, despite its angularity.

    The track also reveals an important reference to the sertão – the poetic improvisation employed by those who live there, sertaneaw6kx, as does “Chover” ou “Invocação Para um Dia Líqüido” (“To Rain” or “Invoking a Liquid Day”). Reaching the summit of five-way interaction, “Alto do Cruzeiro” ou “O Auto do Cruzeiro” (“The Cross Heights” or “The Play of the Cross”), full of jangling dissonance and with strangely macabre overtones, is perhaps most mood-provoking in terms of the textures established between guitar and percussion.

    “Profecia Final” ou “No Mais Profundo” (“Final Prophecy” or “In the Deepest”), affecting a farewell in prophetic tones, cites the bandit-hero Lampião, the mystic Antônio Conselheiro, and under peals of profane laughter from the candomblé jester and agent of magic, Exu, the litanies of religious pilgrims. ”

    Ai se Sêsse” (“If it Were”) by Zé da Luz, a poet idolized in the sertão, though unknown outside that universe, brings closure to the CD with unexpected atmospheric compassion. From the disparate flute and percussion ribbons that wind through “Salve” to the stabbing percussion lines of “Pedrinha” to the taut incisive quality of “Catingueira,” the playing is fierce; nothing can hide Cordel’s unostentatious versatility and fearsome intensity.

    Until now, an official DVD of the group hasn’t existed, so for those who have never caught the group live, prepare to be bowled over by the perfect marriage of the music, poetry, wit, and witchcraft captured on MTV Presents Cordel do Fogo Encantado.

    Stunningly filmed, it is a hotly uninhibited documentary. Cordel’s electrifying performance and sheer energy, acutely alive to voluble expressive freedom, is astounding; their hyperactivity provides its own fascination and visual commentary.

    More intense than a CD, the DVD experience, quite apart from being more convenient to access, offers added material: irresistible physicality and moment-to-moment shifts of camera angle and color are effectively complemented by illuminating commentaries, interspersed with entertaining vignettes from group members. Subtitles are provided in four languages – Portuguese, Spanish, English, and French.

    The tingle factor comes to the fore when Lirinha, trancelike, but sure in his pacing, recites with forceful declamation and emphatic meaning “Os Anaw6kx Caídos,” the piece he composed for the sound track of the Cacá Diegues film Deus é Brasileiro, which talks about an angel who fell from Heaven when the Creator cut his wings.

    In addition to “Os Anaw6kx Caídos,” 10 other tracks from the group’s second CD, O Palhaço do Circo Sem Futuro (The Clown from the Circus Without a Future) are included. The most pithy and relevant aspect of the DVD is the impression conveyed of an utterly unpretentious group of artists performing with disarming frankness and an uncanny sense of drama – not to mention a lethal twinkle. The only flaw of this fascinating montage is that, though skillfully edited, it leaves one impatient to hear the group in person.

    Cordel do Fogo Encantado’s performances are story-like, expressing, both the sacred and profound. Incendiary and sophisticated language, mixed with eclectic rhythms and furious percussion is unequivocally a sound born in the musical laboratory of Northeastern culture, from the lineage and legacies of its singers and poets.

    In a climate of urgency and heat where rules are sacred, yet arbitrary, and so must be tested, the band steadily absorbs folk and popular art, varying, transforming, and combining their sources into live and recorded performances.

    Dispensing with rules and the rational, raising emotional temperatures, improvising and arranging according to what intuition tells them, Cordel do Fogo Encantado functions as a sonorous block in the service of Northeastern oral tradition, creating a volume and tension without precedents in Brazilian music.
    ______________________

    Poeira (ou Tambores do Vento Que Vem)

    O pão que nasce do fogo
    Na roda da saia
    Na gira da  terra
    O vento que rasga telhado
    Tambor ritmado
    Trompetes de guerra
    A guerra que traz a poeira
    Que bate na gente
    Poeira que vem do sertão
    Configuração
    Bafo quente

    Vem poeira
    Vem poeira
    Vem poeira

    Trago poeira da terra queimada e a fumaça
    Ah! Sequidão* sequidão Pojuca
    Malhada Craíba
    Juazeiro torto
    Moxotó velado
    Serra das Varas

    Trago poeira da terra queimada e a fumaça
    Ah! sequidão sequidão Pojuca
    Malhada Craíba
    Juazeiro torto
    Moxotó velado
    Cabrobó, Floresta, Belém do São Francisco
    Terra da massa

    *Drought, inspired in a trope  by Ciço Gomes
    ______________________

    Dust (or Drums of the Coming Wind)
    (Lyrics: Lirinha / Music: Clayton Barros)

    The bread that’s born from the fire
    In the spinning of the skirt
    In the spinning of the earth
    The wind that destroys roofs
    The rhythm of the drum
    Trumpets of war
    The war that brings the dust
    That hits us
    Dust that comes from the hinterlands
    Configuration
    Hot breath

    Come dust
    Come dust
    Come dust

    I bring the dust from the burned ground and the smoke
    Oh, Pojuca, drought
    Quilted Craíba
    Twisted Juazeiro
    Veiled Moxotó
    Varas Mountains

    I bring the dust from the burned ground and the smoke
    Oh, Pojuca drought
    Quilted Craíba
    Twisted Juazeiro
    Veiled Moxotó
    Cabrobó,Floresta, Belém do São Francisco
    Land of the masses
    ______________________

    Profecia (ou Testamento da Ira)

    Salve o povo Xucuru

    Na cumeeira da serra Ororubá o velho profeta já dizia
    Uma nova era se abre com duas vibras trançadas
    Seca e sangue
    Seca e sangue*

    Herdeiros do novo milênio
    Ninguém tem mais dúvidas
    O sertão vai virar mar
    E o mar sim
    Depois de encharcar as mais estreitas veredas
    Virará sertão

    Antôe tinha razão rebanho da fé

    A terra é de todos a terra é de ninguém
    Pisarão na terra dele todos os seus
    E os documentos dos homens incrédulos
    Não resistirão a Sua ira

    Filhos do caldeirão
    Herdeiros do fim do mundo
    Queimai vossa história tão mal contada

    Ah! Joana Imaginária
    Permita que o Conselheiro
    Encoste sua cabeleira
    No teu colo de oratórios
    Tua saia de rosários
    Teu beijo de cera quente

    E assim na derradeira lua branca
    Quando todos os rios virarem leite
    E as barrancas cuscuz de milho
    E as estrelas tocadeiras de viola
    Caírem uma por uma
    Os soldados do rei D. Sebastião
    Mostrarão o caminho

    *Prophecy of Shaman Cauã (excerpt from the book Lampião Seu Tempo e Seu Reinado, Vol. 1, Frederico Bezerra Maciel)
    ______________________

    Prophecy (or The Will of Wrath)
    (Lyrics: Lirinha / Music: Clayton Barros)

    Long live the Xucuru people

    On the top of the Ororubá mountain, the old prophet used to say
    That a new time, with two entwined fibers, will come
    Drought and blood
    Drought and blood

    Heirs of the new millennium
    There’s no doubt anymore
    The hinterlands will become the sea
    And the sea
    After flooding the narrowest trails
    Will become the hinterland

    Antôe was right, flock of faith

    The land belongs to every one and to no one
    They will all step on this ground
    And the documents of the unfaithful men
    Won’t resist His wrath

    Sons of the caldron
    Heirs of the end of the world
    Burn your story so poorly told

    Oh! Imaginary Joana
    Allow Conselheiro
    To lean his long hair
    On your bosom of prayers
    Your skirt of rosaries
    Your kiss of hot wax

    And then, under the last white moon
    When all the rivers turn into milk
    And the river banks, corn couscous
    And the stars, guitar players
    Fall one by one
    The soldiers of King Sebastião
    Will show the way
    ______________________

    Boi Luzeiro (ou A Pega de Violento, Vaidoso e Avoador)

    Vem rodar no meu terreiro boi Luzeiro
    Vem soltar fitas na seca
    Vem tacar fogo no mundo
    Violento Vaidoso e Avoador

    Quando o dia nascer e morrer
    Seu nananunrei*

    Cigarro Pai Tomás cigarro (um trago)
    Incensa a tarde baforadas de verão
    Os retirantes já cruzaram meio mundo
    Eu fico aqui esperando outro batuque
    Uma mulher com dois olhos de trovão
    A Nau mergulhou meu Bumba cadê?

    Seu nananunrei *

    Quando o dia nascer e morrer
    Boi

    *Expression created by Lirinha, Barros, and Cacau Arcoverde
    ______________________

    Enlightened Bull (or The Fight of the Violent, the Vain, and Flyer)
    (Lyrics and music: Lirinha / Clayton Barros)

    Come spin on my ground, enlightened bull
    Come release the ribbons on the drought
    Come set fire to the world
    Violent, Vain, and Flyer

    When the day comes and goes
    Mr. nananunrei

    Father Tomás’s cigarette (a drag)
    Perfumes the afternoon with breaths of summer
    The pilgrims have already crossed half the world
    And I stay here waiting for another drum beat
    A woman with two eyes of thunder
    The ship has sunk, where’s my Bumbá?

    Mr. nananunrei

    When the day comes and goes
    Bull
    ______________________

    Os Anaw6kx Caídos (ou A Construção do Caos)

    Os homens são anaw6kx caídos
    Que Deus mandou para Terra
    Porque botaram defeito na criação do mundo.
    Aqui, começaram a inventar coisas,
    A imitar Deus.
    E Deus ficou zangado,
    Mandou muita chuva e muito fogo,
    Eu vi de perto a sua raiva sacra,
    Pois foram sete dias de trabalho intenso,
    Eu vi de perto,
    Quando chegava uma noite escura

    Só meu candeeiro é quem velava o Seu sono santo
    Santo que é Seu nome e Seu sorriso raro
    Eu voava alto porque tinha um grande par de asas
    Até que um dia caí

    E aqui estou nesse terreiro de samba
    Ouvindo o trabalho do Céu
    E aqui estou nesse terreiro de guerra
    Ouvindo o batalha do Céu
    Nesse terreiro de anaw6kx caídos

    Cá na Terra trabalho é todo dia
    Levantar, quebrar parede, matar fome matar a sede
    Carregar na cabeça uma bacia
    E esse fogo que a Sua boca envia
    Pra nossa criação

    Ah, Deus
    Esse terreiro de anaw6kx
    Ah, esse errar que é sem fim
    Essa paixão que tão gigante
    Esse amor que é só Seu
    Esperando Você chegar

    Os Homens aprenderam com Deus a criar
    E foi com os Homens que Deus aprendeu a amar
    ______________________

    Fallen Angels ( or The Building of Chaos)
    (lyrics: Lirinha; music and arrangement: Cordel do Fogo Ecantado)

    Men are fallen angels
    That God sent to Earth
    Because they found flaws in the creation of the world
    They started to invent things here
    To imitate God
    And God got angry,
    He sent a lot of rain and a lot of fire
    I saw his holy wrath from a short distance
    And there were 7 days of intense struggle
    I saw it from a short distance
    When a dark night came

    Only my lamp guarded His holy sleep
    Your name and Your rare smile are holy
    I soared because I had a large pair of winds
    And one day I fell

    And here I am in this samba yard
    Listening to the work of the sky
    Here I am on this field of war
    Listening to the battle in the sky
    In this yard of fallen angels

    Here on Earth, everyday’s a working day
    Get up, break walls, eat, quench the thirst
    To carry a bowl on top of the head
    This fire that your mouth sends
    To our creation

    O God, this yard of angels
    Oh, these endless mistakes
    This giant passion and this love that belongs to You
    Waiting for You to arrive

    Men learned from God how to create
    And God learned from men how to love

    Journalist, musician, and educator Bruce Gilman has served as music editor of Brazzil magazine, an international monthly publication based in Los Angeles, for close to a decade. During that time he has written scores of articles on the most influential Brazilian artists and genres, program notes for festivals in the United States and abroad, numerous CD liner notes, and an essay, “The Politics of Samba,” that appeared in the Georgetown Journal.

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