Music of Brazil’s ‘Mississippi Delta’ imbued with rhythms of Africa
Home of samba, blues and slavery, coastal town of Salvador, which is one of World Cup football venues, exhibits strong Portuguese and African links
Record shop owner Randy Roberts: “The attitude to playing music here is very similar to Ireland, where I remember guys would head out with their whistle or whatever to meet their mates and play.”
It’s been generally sunny and hot this past week in Salvador, but when the rain strikes, as it often does at some stage over the afternoon or early evening, it’s best to find a place to shelter because it comes down hard and fast.
I got caught in a downpour myself on Saturday up in the city’s historical centre, Pelourinho, the city’s sort of Temple Bar. Salvador’s Temple Bar, though, is a World Heritage Site, a neighbourhood of beautiful buildings from the colonial period, most of it impressively restored.
The Portuguese influence is everywhere, but this being Salvador, long the centre of the slave trade in Brazil, there’s a strong African flavour, most obviously in the food, clothes and art on offer at the many shops and restaurants that target the once-healthy passing tourist trade.
I was hungry and looking for somewhere to have lunch, so I held out in the rain for a while in the hope of spotting somewhere. Eventually, though, I simply had to get indoors, and a record shop looked the perfect stopping off point. As I stood in the doorway of Cana Brava records, its owner Randy Roberts – better known locally by his nickname Pardal or “Sparrow” – wandered past and told me to make myself at home. A couple of hours later he might well have been regretting the hospitality.
Roberts, originally from Indianapolis, heard I was from Ireland, and, in the way many Americans do, said he loved the place. He had, it turned out a better claim than most. His mother, Suzanne, a writer, had distant Irish roots and when she and the family saw an Aer Lingus jet at a US airport at one point in the 1970s, the whole family decided, more or less on a whim, to go and visit.
They stayed in Ballsbridge, but after asking where might be good to see, having been told Bray and loving the place, they relocated there.
Over the next few years Roberts’s brother Darren, then his mother, and finally he , would move there. He stayed around a year-and-a-half, mainly working as a barman.
He first arrived in Brazil back in April 1992. At the time he was working in what he describes as publishing rights rescue, shaking down record companies for the money they owed but would have preferred not to pay their artists.
Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin and Ray Barretto were three of his clients; Paul Simon had just signed up, and the future looked bright. But there were differences over finances with one his business partners and having taken to visiting Salvador to explore the wider region of Bahia’s music, he just decided not to go back.
He started a website (salvadorcentral.com) and, in an unrelated move, a family. He is married to Rute, from the Bahian interior, and they have two children, Victoria and Raphael. In 2005 he bought the record shop, which, he admits, “is on its last legs”.
The problem, he says, is that while millions were poured into the restoration and regeneration of Pelourinho, a change of local political leadership stopped the flow of money before the project was finished.
A portion of the area is still untouched, has a large population of drug users and is considered dangerous – even the local tourism people advise taking taxis just a few hundred metres from one side to the other. Policing has been scaled back too, Roberts insists, for political reasons and as a result “people have stopped coming in droves”.
Business used to be good, he says. “When we get regular tourists coming by, they come looking for this stuff and buy quantities of it, but now almost nobody comes down this street [Rua João de Deus – named for the hanged leader of a slave revolt in 1798] and these days this shop would do better in O’Connell Street. The Centro Historico is the worst place in the world we could be right now.”
The financial implications are pretty stark ,with Roberts admitting he is “flat broke”, but he remains a passionate champion of the music he came to be close to and is trying to find a new way of making a living from working with it through his latest web project musicodex.com, a site where musicians can point people to the artists they admire and listen to, and visitors can get a taste of the music.
In the meantime, people swing by the shop to buy, based simply on his recommendations or to sit and listen to him talk about the history of samba in Brazil. This is quite a tale, with Roberts describing the Recôncavo – the concave area around the bay at Salvador where the Portuguese first set foot in 1500 and up to two million slaves were subsequently landed up until the late 19th century – as Brazil’s equivalent of the Mississippi Delta. Samba started here and, just as the blues headed north with black workers seeking work, samba headed south to Rio, where it became most commonly associated by foreigners with Carnival.
He champions a somewhat purer and tremendously appealing form of the music – the equivalent of the blues to much of the modern pop that has derived from it – and talks feverishly of the brilliance of singers or songwriters like Dona Ivona Lara, Riachão and Raimundo Sodré, once a major star here who was forced into exile for criticising a prominent member of the old regime in the early 1980s. Sodré has returned from France but, like so many artists, in common with their blues counterparts, he is struggling to make money and even music.
“The attitude to playing music here is very similar to Ireland, where I remember guys would head out with their whistle or whatever to meet their mates and play. And I don’t know whether it all comes out of the two peoples being oppressed for so long, but it’s like the music has been pushed hard down inside of them until it forms into diamonds. It’s often sad, heartbreaking music, but it’s such beautiful stuff.”