Young Brazilian Musicians Try to Go Global

June 13, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Linguistic, political and economic barriers stand between Brazil's most popular acts and global recognition. NewsHour special correspondent Simon Marks caps a series of reports from Brazil by looking at the music scene.

RAY SUAREZ: Next, the final report in our series about Brazil’s rising export industries and its domestic challenges. Tonight, NewsHour special correspondent Simon Marks looks at the music scene.

SIMON MARKS, NewsHour Special Correspondent: Her name is Teresa Cristina. She used to be a manicurist in a shantytown on the outskirts of Rio. She is all but unknown in the United States, but here in Brazil she is one the country’s most popular and successful new stars, singing samba, the music rooted in the heritage of Brazil’s African slaves.

She not only performs samba; she also researches the art form, uncovering long-forgotten music and songs. She signed her first recording contract about 10 years ago after playing sell-out shows in some of Rio’s most popular nightclubs.

Internationally, she’s played India, France and Germany, but like many young Brazilian stars, not yet the USA.

TERESA CRISTINA, Singer (through translator): For a Brazilian artist to sing in Portuguese in the U.S., the difficulty is that it’s an artist singing in a language that no one wants to hear.

SIMON MARKS: And it isn’t just language that serves as a barrier keeping Teresa Cristina away from U.S. audiences. It’s also her refusal to make the compromises that she says will be inevitable if she accepts the invitations that she’s received to make her first tour of the USA.

TERESA CRISTINA (through translator): It’s very expensive to engage a band like mine with so many musicians. It’s very expensive to travel. Most of the time, they invite us and offer us a very low payment because they don’t have a commercial sponsor, and they want me to tour with only two or three musicians and showcase Brazilian music.

But that’s very difficult. My band is like a family, and touring without all of them forces me to compromise my music.

Bossa Nova broke out in the 1960s

SIMON MARKS: There was a time when the idea of not pursuing an international audience was unthinkable for Brazilian musicians. In 1964, "The Girl from Ipanema" transfixed audiences in the U.S. A Brazilian musical icon, it was written in this Rio restaurant after a beautiful girl was observed walking along the sidewalk.

The observers were lyricist Vinicius de Moraes and composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. Inspired by her beauty, they crafted a song that, to their amazement, became the country's first truly global hit and exported the Brazilian sound of the Bossa Nova to audiences worldwide.

BERNARDO ARAUJO, Assistant Arts Editor, O Globo: Of course, it's a beautiful song. It's the signature Bossa Nova song.

SIMON MARKS: Bernardo Araujo writes about Brazilian music for the Rio-based newspaper O Globo.

BERNARDO ARAUJO: It was this big success because it's very simple. And that's part of what Bossa Nova is. You have sophisticated harmonies with the simple lyrics and stories. I think that's what got into the hearts of people.

SIMON MARKS: The success of "The Girl from Ipanema" helped propel particularly its composer, Tom Jobim, onto the world stage. His collaboration with jazz musician Stan Getz turned the Bossa Nova into an international phenomenon and won them both a Grammy in the process.

Jobim's success paved the way for another generation of Brazilian musicians. Singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento is one of them.

Another is Caetano Veloso, one of the founders of Tropicalismo, an avant-garde artistic movement that ran afoul of Brazil's military authorities in the late '60s and '70s. In 1969, he and fellow musician Gilberto Gil were jailed by the military, then went into exile.

In the era of Brazilian democracy, Veloso is among the country's most successful musical exports, and Gil is the country's arts minister, both regularly playing to packed houses across Europe and the USA.

New generation makes its mark

Back in Brazil, there are artists who dream of achieving that kind of success. Ana Carolina is one of them. A hard-edged rocker, she's enormously popular, particularly in Rio and Sao Paulo.

There's an overtly political tone to her work. In this song, she accuses religious leaders and politicians of sublimating individual freedoms. In a country where her artistic forebears were jailed for expressing their views, Carolina isn't shy about giving voice to hers.

ANA CAROLINA, Singer (through translator): I think that, especially in Brazil, there is an important voice missing in the political arena. Last year, for instance, I wrote a song all about corruption, theft and fraud, and sang it on national television to draw people's attention to the situation here.

I'm not afraid of performing these kind of heavy songs. I think it's the role of artists and performers to tell audiences what they think, and I honor my freedom to do this kind of thing.

SIMON MARKS: Her career now established in Brazil, she wants to export her sound to audiences worldwide and told us she wants to be as big as the Beatles. But it's challenging. She works with an extensive band, sings only in Portuguese. And though she's started studying English, she says a decision to tour the USA will force her to pay a high price at home.

ANA CAROLINA (through translator): I played some concerts in Miami and Boston, but for small audiences, just 500 or 600 people. It was a first step.

I want to go back and try, play some festivals, but it means putting my career here on hold. And in a short time, I'll be established enough to do that. It's going to be difficult, but it is going to happen.

SIMON MARKS: Many young Brazilian artists say the domestic audience won't reward them for achieving global success. Rather, they say, they run the risk of being forgotten by audiences that, thanks to Brazil's economic rise, now spend real money on concert tickets, music, and industry souvenirs.

Music writer Bernardo Araujo recalls a conversation he had recently with another Brazilian samba star.

BERNARDO ARAUJO: He once told me when I was interviewing him, "I'm never going to America to sing. People invite me all the time, but I'm not going to be on a plane for 16 hours. I can go to this working-class place half-an-hour from my house and make the same money, so why would I go there?"

That's the way he thinks. I mean, I don't think he's totally wrong. Of course, in 10 years, he could be making 10 times more money, but he could not, right? It's a bet.

Country, musicians on global stage

SIMON MARKS: The increasingly assertive approach of Brazilian musicians to the global market comes at a time when the country is flexing its muscles on the international stage.

Brazil today is seeking a larger role at the United Nations, in world trade talks, and in its own region. And many musicians see themselves as cultural ambassadors of a Brazil that has changed.

Rio-based singer-songwriter Celso Fonseca is one of those Brazilian artists who believe it's important to reach audiences in the USA, whatever the cost. The music he plays is known here as MPB, Brazilian popular music, that finds its roots in the Bossa Nova, the samba, and also Brazilian folk and rock.

"Feriado" means "Holiday." It's the title track of his new album and is a ballad whose subject vows to abandon his cell phone and whisk his lover away for a day in the sunshine. Fonseca has toured the U.S. several times and says he is as intrigued by U.S. audiences as he hopes they are now by him.

CELSO FONSECA, Singer-Songwriter: I think maybe in San Francisco or something like that, the guy was in the front row, and I was playing something like, and the guy was like -- it was funny, because it looks like it was a rock 'n' roll concert and it wasn't.

It was just me with my guitar playing a Brazilian rhythm, like samba, like Bossa Nova. But I think that they feel an excitement. I think it's very hard to explain. I don't know how they feel about it, but I think -- for us artists, it's very exciting.

SIMON MARKS: But newer artists on the scene, like samba singer Teresa Cristina, say they remain to be convinced. She argues that today's generation of Brazilian performers face enormous pressure to abandon the purity of their art form if they really want to make it in the USA.

TERESA CRISTINA (through translator): Tom Jobim, he's one example, Caetano Veloso, they didn't have to change their style to please the international market. I see many artists who arrive here and just start imitating Michael Jackson, for instance. I mean, who wants to see that? If you have the original one, why would you want to see the fake?

BERNARDO ARAUJO: I think you can make those compromises and still be faithful to your music, to your art. Of course, Teresa could maybe negotiate. "Can I take three musicians instead of eight? Is that good enough? Can you find me a good drummer in Europe, and he rehearse with me, and he play with me?" That's not going to compromise her art.

SIMON MARKS: And as a newly empowered Brazil rises on the world stage economically, politically and culturally, some artists argue it is the moral duty of performers to export the soundtrack of the country's development.

CELSO FONSECA: Jobim went to the states just with his music. He put a piano at Adams Hotel (ph) in New York, and he was there playing his piano and working with American songwriters. He was alone, but he was confident that his music was great, is great.

SIMON MARKS: The greatness of the Bossa Nova came to define one generation's image of Brazil. Today, as the country assumes a more prominent position internationally, its artists are debating how to project their work and Brazil's modern image to audiences around the world.