Roots and antennas

Pub date July 24, 2006
WriterMirissa Neff
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

After a miserable World Cup performance, someone has to redeem Brazil’s cultural status in the eyes of observers. With a critically acclaimed performance at SXSW under his belt and his self-titled US debut on Six Degrees, Lenine may be just the man for the job. Brazil’s überpopular singer-songwriter is spearheading the latest neo-tropicália movement, following in the footsteps of artists like Caetano Veloso and Os Mutantes. Inspired by the cosmopolitan samba vibe of his current base in Rio de Janeiro, Lenine mixes intelligent lyrics with rock, hip-hop, and electronica into an equatorial sound that transforms rustic native rhythms into incredibly lush pop music.
Lenine’s hometown of Recife in northeastern Brazil has historically attracted a rich ethnic mix of Africans, Portuguese, Dutch, and indigenous South Americans. However, when asked about his own ethnic roots, Lenine offers a less than literal answer. “I have roots and I have antennas,” he says on the phone from Rio.
“My roots are usually underground and hidden…. You see the fruit, the leaves, the branches, but the roots are not shown. What’s most important to me is the expression, not where it comes from.”
At a recent performance at Cité de la Musique in Paris, Lenine exhibited this preferred mode of expression by choosing to collaborate with a Pan-American group including Cuban bassist Yusa and Argentine percussionist Ramiro Musotto.
Though he’s been referred to as Brazil’s answer to Prince, Lenine sees himself as more in line with history’s troubadours. “I completely relate to that figure who since early days has traveled around to chronicle human life,” he explains. “Today when I hear Neil Young or Serge Gainsbourg, I hear the echoes of that tradition. As a singer-songwriter I use my instrument to document life as I pass through it.”
Today the singer-songwriter finds inspiration in northeast Brazilian rhythms like maracatu, xote, and baião but points to his move to Rio de Janeiro 28 years ago as the real turning point in his career. “It completely changed me and crystallized my art,” he says. “When I arrived in Rio, it was a desire that hadn’t yet been realized…. My whole career as a musician began and was constructed in Rio.”
Lenine’s US debut compiles work from his three Brazilian releases, including collaborations with US groups like Living Color and Yerba Buena. The album opens with “Jack Soul Brasileiro,” an homage to famous Brazilian percussionist Jackson do Pandeiro. “He was one of the greatest percussionists the world has ever seen,” Lenine explains. “This is a person who never went to school, yet at least 90 percent of Brazilian musicians refer to him somehow in their work. It’s great street music that’s completely nonacademic.”
The songwriter emphasizes the huge influence of Brazilian street music on his work, typified by embolado, the rapid-fire style of rapping that emerged from the streets of northeastern Brazil. “It’s not only the music but the attitude of the street that comes into direct conflict with an academic approach to music,” he observes. “I love exploring this conflict and want to break down these walls.” SFBG
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