“It gave me the power to be myself”: black jazz artists from Brazil | Jazz
Jonathan Ferr thinks back to his youth. “Jazz gave me freedom, while rap showed me my place as a black man in a racist society,” recalls the pianist, a member of Brazil’s vibrant contemporary jazz scene. “These are two black musics that gave me the power to be myself.”
Like their American ancestors, who used jazz to defend – and simply live – freedom in their racist country, black Brazilian jazz artists such as Ferr use music to claim their heritage in a culture that often marginalizes him. Despite Brazil’s contributions to jazz – from bossa nova standards to avant-garde fusion – its black artists struggled to succeed (especially when playing frankly Afrocentric themes) and many of the more successful were white or fair-skinned. Black talents shunned by their own country include Dom Salvador, Tania Maria and Johnny Alf. Maria and Salvador left Brazil to make a living as musicians in the United States and Europe, while Alf, a bossa nova pioneer, had to sell his belongings to pay for cancer treatment that l ‘finally killed. “Brazilian music is black music,” says jazz pianist Amaro Freitas. “And what happened to these artists was racism.”
Despite this, it is proudly black musicians who are now setting the tone for their country’s jazz, including Freitas, whose latest album Sankofa (described as “magnificent” by Jazzwise magazine) features large, quirky strides in piano lines. strange tempos, and mixes melody with traditional music. Brazilian rhythm in a spectacle of striking technique. “We generally think of the piano as an 88-key instrument, but if you think of it as a drum kit, there are millions of possibilities,” he says.
Born in Recife, a coastal town in northeastern Brazil, he joined a small local evangelical church as a drummer at age 11; his father forced him to settle in with the keys. The music he played there had a “Christian, European influence, but this church was located in an underprivileged neighborhood, so there was Brazilian music like forro, brega and funk which also influenced me.
He was forced out of his music school – his family couldn’t afford the £ 5 monthly fee – but years of concerts and studying music production made him want to integrate Brazilian music into his jazz. In Afrocatu, from the Rasif album, Freitas mixes the polyrhythms of folklore maracatu music with improvisation à la Ornette Coleman. He argues that “in Brazilian instrumental music we admire the virtuoso, but this often lacks the aesthetic, the history” of his country’s diverse culture.
This amalgamation of sacred practices rooted in Africa and Europe, urban black culture and traditional Brazilian music, also characterizes the work of Jonathan Ferr. Sino da Igrejinha, the opening track from his latest album, Cura, is a pontoon – a ritual song accompanied by heavy percussions, commonly attributed to Afro-Brazilian religions candomble and umbanda. The song’s fast descending melody also echoes Asa Branca, a staple in Brazil’s national songbook.
Growing up in Madureira, which he describes as “a place known for its strong black culture,” Ferr had to share his first keyboard – “a cheap toy my dad bought us” – with his four siblings. Years later, while studying on a scholarship at one of Rio’s conservatories, he began to attend his first jazz concerts in bourgeois clubs in the south of the city, having to leave before the act of fence to take the last bus. “I was quite often the only black person to attend these performances, and I kept wondering why this music was only played there and not in Madureira,” he says.
So, in addition to playing at Rio’s Blue Note club and his city’s iteration of the Montreux Jazz Festival, he organized a concert in his own neighborhood in 2017, with tickets priced at one Brazilian real ( less than 20 pence). “It was packed!” he says. “People don’t listen to jazz because they don’t have access to it, that struck me.
Today, Ferr advocates democratic jazz music in Brazil. “But I don’t want to push it down, like a lot of people do when they say they want to bring art to the favelas: I want to do it horizontally.” His 2018 single, Luv is the Way, demonstrates this openness as Ferr’s piano oscillates between sweet melodies and electrified funk riffs, and like his 2021 album Cura, the track is heavily influenced by afrofuturism, the artistic mode that envisions a utopian science-fiction future for blacks. “I sought, in this aesthetic, the idea of putting blacks at the forefront of their stories,” he says.
Embracing Afrofuturism and reaching out to pop music festivals and underground clubs, the duo Yoùn and producer Carlos do Complexo also rely on the idiom of jazz in their musical creation.
Yoùn, 20-something Allison Jazz and Gian Pedro, released the album BXD in Jazz in January. The three-letter abbreviation in the title stands for Baixada, an area on the outskirts of Rio. Jazz says he came to appreciate how the genre of his name was intertwined with other black music, “with North American gospel music, with the blues,” and that “once we realized that it all belonged to us, we started to get our hands on it ”. Pedro describes jazz as “a game we both play together”. In tracks such as Inebrio, the duo explore breakbeat patterns and Brazilian percussion ensembles with R&B soul harmonies.
Beatmaker, producer and DJ, Carlos do Complexo befriended the duo thanks to their musical resemblance. “The kind of music we listen to in our neighborhood is not that usual. People say it’s music for “crazy people,” Carlos says. In November 2020, he released his own version of that weird hybrid sound with Shani, an album that encompasses centuries-old Egyptian theology and alien stories. “All this jazz music that we have absorbed will be remodeled [into] something much more related to the idea of jazz rather than the genre itself, ”says Carlos, adding that electronic music is always a more accessible route to this music. “It’s a lot cheaper to become a beatmaker than to buy a traditional instrument in Brazil, but I think bringing these worlds together with the idea of jazz will give birth to good things.”
Ferr, who will perform in front of thousands at the Rock in Rio festival in 2022, is equally optimistic after years of racial inequality and struggle. “When I go on stage, I speak for myself, but also for Madureira, for pianists who could not reach this place, for generations who had no Black reference like me. We have already lost too many Brazilian musicians. Now the story goes: I’m black, I’m Brazilian, and I’ll stay in my country telling everyone that making this music is possible.