Austin’s Brazilian music scene on the rise

Under the spinning ceiling fans and blinking Christmas lights in the darkened Sahara Lounge in East Austin, couples whirl across the packed dance floor at a hip-swiveling Sunday afternoon dance party.

From the eclectic lounge’s crowded stage, local band Seu Jacinto leads the rhythmic celebration playing forró, an infectious Northeastern Brazilian dance music. The lively roots music, featuring the zabumba bass drum, accordion and triangle, fills the lounge and nourishes the soul.

Austin music lovers might already be familiar with sounds from the city’s Latin music scene with bands like Grupo Fantasma and Del Castillo, but less visible is a growing Brazilian musical movement that in the past decade has risen to carve its own vibrant space out of the city’s musical landscape.

As the World Cup games this summer shine a spotlight on Brazilian culture, here in Austin we can enjoy a Brazilian musical spirit that’s been cultivated thanks to more than a dozen bands and music collectives playing everything from forró to Brazilian funk.

Forró music, in particular, has proven popular in Austin with at least four different bands including Seu Jacinto specializing in the festive, Cajun-like music with danceable grooves.

“The Brazilian music here is past the embryonic stage and is now starting to form,” says singer/songwriter Frederico Geib, who performs with three local Brazilian bands. “For a relatively small city, there’s so much of Brazil represented in the music.”

Building community through music

Early Brazilian bands such as Susanna Sharpe and the Samba Police as well as the popular annual Carnaval Brasileiro celebration, which dates back to about 1975, had exposed Austin ears to South American beats for years.

Then in 2001, the local Brazilian music scene received a boost with the creation of the Austin Samba School, which has evolved into a theatrical group of percussionists and dancers who perform an intricate show at Carnaval Brasileiro as well as at other events. The school, which began with three students, now boasts about 200 people who range from real estate agents and chefs to professional dancers.

Austin Samba School brought a community-driven aspect to the Brazilian music scene that empowered people who weren’t necessarily Latino, musically inclined or performers to learn and join the movement.

“We build community first and the music is a side effect,” says founder Robert Patterson, who is also known as Jacaré. “We don’t select anyone. It’s all about willingness to learn.”

About 35 new drummers and 40 dancers signed up to join the group this year, and planning has already begun for their next Carnaval Brasileiro production, “Le Cirque.”

About two years ago, Maracatu Austin, another community-driven musical collective, launched to showcase Afro-Brazilian music traditions from co-founder Bruno Vinezof’s native Pernambuco. Maracatu Austin’s community drum group features rope-tuned bass drums called alfaias. Co-founder Michael Longoria, a longtime Austin musician, learned the craft of alfaia making and created several drums for the group.

Longoria, who was born in McAllen and has a background in jazz, toured with artists such as Patty Griffin and Bob Schneider before he was bitten by the Brazilian music bug. A friend going back to Brazil left Longoria a pandeiro, a tambourine-like instrument key in many Brazilian music styles.

“It took me a while to figure out what I was supposed to do with it,” he says. “Now it’s become a pretty immense part of life.”

Discovering Brazilian music often sparks curiosity about other aspects of the culture. Patterson says some Austin Samba School members now keep up with Brazilian current affairs, read books about Brazil, and have even traveled there since joining the group.

“Many of us have been working a long time trying to build awareness about Brazilian music, and now it’s coming to fruition,” he says.

Boosting the Brazilian sound

As more Brazilian bands pop up, Patterson says, there’s a synergistic energy between them all. Bands often come together for shows such as unofficial South by Southwest showcases or a Brazil Austin Day in the fall.

“There’s no doubt there’s great community support” for the bands, says Michael Crockett, host of KUTX’s “Horizontes” radio show, which dedicates the first hour to Brazilian music. “Now it has to grow from a grassroots Brazilian music scene to the next level.”

One band making that leap is Austin-based Suns of Orpheus, an international psychedelic pop band. Brazilian-born frontman Geib says the trilingual band, which sings in Portuguese, Spanish and English, blends “Brazilian music with all of the sounds that we love in Austin.”

A successful 2012 Kickstarter campaign helped the band launch its debut album, a rarity among the local Brazilian bands. “Once you’ve refined your sound, I think it’s important to have recordings and not just be a live band,” Crockett says. Suns of Orpheus also received a city proclamation declaring Aug. 23, 2012, as Suns of Orpheus Day.

Although Austin’s overall understanding of Brazilian music has improved over the years, local Brazilian bands still have to educate their audiences constantly.

“Every time I go play a smaller show I’m going to get asked to play ‘The Girl from Ipanema,’” a global bossa nova hit, Geib says. “They’ll say, ‘Come on, you’re from Brazil.’ Some musicians may get frustrated, but I don’t mind. I see it as a great teaching opportunity. I think it’s awesome this person has a reference point for my culture. So I will play ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ for you, but I’m going to play it in a way that you’ve never heard before, and it’s still going to be Brazilian music.”

Austin-Brazil ties expanding

Geib arrived in Austin in 1994 to study international communication and music at Southwestern University in Georgetown. But it was the “wealth of creative musicians in a warm community” that kept him in Texas.

Although the census doesn’t track the local Brazilian population, area universities and especially the University of Texas have long been a draw for young Brazilians. More recently, many have begun working in Austin’s high-tech industries.

Austin also has caught the attention of visiting Brazilian artists, especially during South by Southwest. The visiting artists, embraced by the local Brazilian bands, are often pleasantly surprised at the quality of Brazilian music in Austin, Geib says. Many enjoy their Austin experience so much they add the city to their list of touring stops. “They probably make less money here in Austin (compared to New York or Miami) but they are excited to return,” he says. When Brazilian-based artist Tita Lima performed at SXSW in 2012, she asked Suns of Orpheus to be her backing band.

For a visiting Brazilian musician, “Austin has the unique combination of having cool Brazilian music shows, a great community with many fans and musicians, a little bit of a structure with the festivals and even a radio show for that genre,” Geib says. “You’re not going to find all of those factors together in another city in the U.S.”

Getting to the next level

As a radio show host, Crockett says he’d love to see some of the local bands begin recording albums so that he can share their sound with his listeners. “I’d like to see the local Latin and Brazilian music scene reach national recognition,” he says. “Right now these bands are emerging and forming, but will these bands make original material and will they record?”

With the quality of musicians getting better, the scene can only grow stronger, Geib says. “Perhaps some of these bands in the future will create a different (musical) style, born and bred in Austin,” he says. “In 10-15 years, I can’t wait to hear what interpretations will happen when the music gets seeped into life in Austin. The roots are taking place, and the plant has started to grow. Now we’ll see what happens.”

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