What Sao Paulo Sounds Like

A musical tour of southern Brazil.

By / April 2012

As Brazil’s most prominent city and one that traces its founding to 1554, it is tempting to think of Sao Paulo as a hot and boisterous mess, a place unchecked by urban planning, and by extension a pit of smog, heat, and overcrowding. True enough, no zoning laws were passed in Sao Paulo until 1972, but the city, in the years since then, has thoroughly modernized, all the while retaining the laid-back vibe and elegant rambunctiousness that gave birth to traditional Brazilian music styles such as samba and bossanova eons ago.

As a result, Sao Paulo has attracted loads of international attention that has helped to transform the megacity’s creative landscape. Nowhere is the metamorphosis more apparent than in music, where Paulinista musicians trained on native rhythms have incorporated global sounds to produce aural concoctions that sound, all at once, as if they could travel anywhere and yet originate from nowhere but Sao Paulo.


1. Marcelo Camelo and Mallu Magalhaes: “Janta”

Best wishes trying to replicate the emotional magnetism that comes from the simple combination of a man’s voice, a woman’s voice, and the strum of an acoustic guitar. There is a reason why a roar goes up from the crowd upon hearing the first notes of this simple, swoonful ditty from Marcelo Camelo and Mallu Magalhaes, an on-again, off-again indie duo in the vein of Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan and Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. “Janta” is a charming bilingual ballad for the youth of the young century, a song to fall in love with and fall in love to.


2. Sao Paulo Ska Jazz: “Sao Paulo”

Formed in 2007, this seven member group composes ska tunes structurally reminiscent of Sublime or Less than Jake but substitute a more placid, Steely Dan glide for the abrasion of those punk-influenced American acts. Appropriately enough, SPSJ’s track “Sao Paulo” begins with a chorus of car horns, a wink at one of the less alluring features of the seventh largest city in the world. But the band’s music is less cynical than you might gather from the intro. A jazzy cohort of horns and guitars slides through an arrangement of easy seventh and ninth chords, replete with a delightfully plodding half note bassline. More for a warm weather festival than a Philadelphia ska pit.


3. Colors Sound System: “Blunted Funk”

“Blunted Funk” is a fairly solid, if slightly odd, deep house track from the Sao Paulo duo Colors Sounds System. There’s nothing unusual about the percussion, aside from some sexy Brazilian rhythms, but the bassline sops with a goofy wop-wop effect that sounds like Oompah-Loompahs cooked it up during a late night production session. Not that this is a bad thing, especially when the boys from Brazil throw a bouncy lead arpeggio on top of everything.


4. Assad Brothers: “Primeiro Amor”

Guitar heroes beware. When you see the Assad brothers play, it is easy for a certain amount of discouragement to set in. After all, it is not every day you see two men producing a virtuoso classical guitar performance on same guitar at the same time. Trained by a student of Andres Segovia, the great Spanish guitarist, brothers Sergio and Odair have had success as solo artists, but their at their fittest working in tandem, a collaboration which reveals not only their dedication to their craft but the intuitive musical bonds that they have forged by playing with each other since the 1960s.


5. Sao Paulo Underground: “Afrihouse”

Sao Paulo Underground is what I want out of Brazilian music. Well, almost. The band is made up of a few guys from Chicago who moved to Sao Paulo and partnered with some native Brazilians to produce something sonically unique. Raucous toms, timbales, and woodblocks command the action, occasionally allowing the zebra guitar and trumpet into the mix. Yet there’s something very relaxing about it all, a psychedelic jungle warp of jazz fusion harmonies and complex rhythms that produces a catatonic atmosphere which artfully degenerates into an experiment in noise creation that could only be forged in the laptop era. Rolling Stone called Sao Paulo Underground “limitless in its possibilities,” and we’d have to agree.


6. Ruspo: “Vinhetinha Soul Para Crianças”

In “Vinhetinha Soul Para Criancas,” Ruspo is selling a kind of over-the-counter brand of bossanova valium. What sounds like an MPC drum machine half-time beat skips over two simple piano chords and maudlin violins. The fiercest this track gets is some jazz flute and a saxophone solo that breaks up the Portugese crooning, which harkens back to American doo-wop and stripped down R&B stylings a la Bill Withers.


7. Ceu: “Bubuia”

Outside of her home country, Ceu (which means “sky” or “heaven” in Portuguese) is probably the most popular female Brazilian artist in the world. It’s not hard to see why. Her sultry soprano voice curves around her words, which in “Bubuia,” fall down into pools of lusty irresolution. Carefully lacing samba and other African rhythms into her work, Ceu has garnered the acclaim of NPR and Reuters; she won a Grammy in 2006. For some, Ceu’s sound might be too adult-contemporary slick (her album was sold at Starbucks), but if you can get past that, you’ll enjoy a surprisingly beguiling approach to the human voice.


David Wilezol is a radio producer, writer, and hobbyist musician who lives in Washington DC.