Despite flirtations with bossa nova in the 60s by pop artists from Sinatra to the Beatles, the impact of the varied, often subtle, yet highly danceable musics of Brazil on North American-derived songform has been negligible outside of some jazz and the very trendy. But that didn’t keep Marisa Monte, diva of the menagerie of pop and traditional styles known as MBP (musica popular brasileira), from selling out two shows at the Beacon Theater in NYC last week. It says something that her world tour spreads 21 concerts in three continents over six months and that the shows began 18 months after release of the album the tour allegedly supports, O Que Você Quer Saber De Verdade, her most pop-oriented in a two decade-plus career and yet another #1 record for Monte in Brazil that didn’t even blip stateside.
How’s this for the background of a deserving artist? Monte is the daughter of a samba lifer, her first childhood instrument tellingly a drum. A vocal debut in a high school theater production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show was followed shortly by classical training in opera in Rome, recording a Phillip Glass song early on and later maintaining a stable musical relationship with avant-skronk artist Arto Lindsay. A visual pioneer, Monte has included long-form videos to accompany each of her nine albums. She dances with uncommon poise, writes, produces (the old-school acoustic samba album Tudo Azul by Velha Guarda Da Portela is a subtly touching salute to her father), and of course sings, in an unmistakable fluid, bell-shaped sopranino.
Her band at the Beacon was more rock than traditional, the songs a broad mix of old singalongs and tracks from the now not-so-current album, the between song patter (im ingles) minimal if still topical (a shout out to the previous week’s street demonstrations in Brazil got the mostly Portuguese-speaking crowd riled up). But the razao de ser for the show, if not the whole tour, is a spectacular multimedia event featuring the work of a dozen Brazilian visual artists who each got a careful shout-out toward the conclusion of the one-set-show-plus-stand-up-and-dance-denouemont. The visuals, which used the entire theater and were individualized for each song, even sometimes overwhelmed the stagecraft (my favorite was the display of stars on Monte’s dress that my friends called “the Disney song”) but probably constricted the music at the same time, preventing the band from stretching out, like a different band does on the earlier, more compelling live set included in 1996’s Barulhinho Bom (A Great Noise), which features Monte’s early work mixed with Tropicalia classics and pop covers. That one’s not a bad way to get a start on this great artist’s oeuvre, as a matter of fact.
But there are yet greater obras de arte in Monte’s catalog. Her second album, the sassy Mais, was followed in 1994 by Rose and Charcoal, both produced by Lindsay (Arto Lindsay has a million-seller to his credit? Really?). But Rose and Charcoal (titled Verde, anil, amarelo, cor de rosa e carvão in Brazil) ditches swagger in exchange for an elegance and lyricism that highlights Monte’s broad talents, effortless delivery and subtle rhythm. Better still— one of the great albums of the 21st century— is 2002’s multi-million-selling Tribalistas, a one-off three-way tribute to the Tropicalia rebels who achieved government harassment, incarceration, and exile in response to their political music. Monte, along with her co-equals Amaldo Artunes and Carlinhos Brown, create a bonfire singalong of dulcet Brazilian friendship songs, evoking an image of the Tropicalistas as kind, wizened, still loving compadres reassembled in the afterglow. And if you love this and wonder if they could burn again, Tribalistas give us a hint of what that could sound like a decade’s more down the road in last month’s online-only “Joga Arroz”, in tribute to liberalization of Brazilian law on same-sex marriage. One song, two things we all ought to get caught up with.