Red Returns with a Sprawling Tropicalia Tribute

By , Contributor

Since bursting upon the international music scene in the early '60s on the wave of bossa nova's seductive sound, Brazil's music scene has offered up an endless supply of sexy pop stars, talented songwriters, and innovative players. It's a culture seemingly swimming in music, but at the same time it's also a place where the warm sensuality of the people and their music is balanced by the crippling poverty of the disease-ridden favela ghettos.

With this in mind, its no surprise that the Red Hot organization - which raises money for HIV/AIDS awareness - returns with Red Hot + Rio 2, a 33-song/double disc follow up that focuses on Brazil's Tropicalia movement.

Thanks to raves from a growing number of U.S. and European rock and pop musicians, the music of the Tropicalia movement has been re-evaluated and celebrated outside its homeland. Forty years after it raised its middle finger to Brazil's oppressive government as well as the musical and cultural establishments, Tropicalia was a '60s youth movement that had its own summer of love in Brazil; and like the movement here in the States, the scene went sour -- musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were first jailed and then exiled by the military junta in control at the time.

Other prominent artists in the movement included Tom Ze, Gal Costa, Maria Bethenia, and Os Mutantes. In the spirit of the times, everyone collaborated, writing songs together, recording each other's songs, and even backing each other up when a band was needed.

While it's safe to say that people in Brazil and elsewhere love bossa nova and samba music, this collection is proof that Tropicalia's potent blend of rock, political activism, and the avant-garde is just as important today to Brazilian culture. Tropicalia influences all Brazilian popular music (called MPB) to this day though MPB is not typically political.

Tropicalia music has also become influential in the rock and pop scenes of North America and throughout Europe. Beck has named a song "Tropicalia" on Mutations (remixed here to great effect by Mario C), the super hip Soul Jazz label has issued several compilations, and there's Luaka Bop's landmark Brazil Classics releases as well.

Whereas Red Hot 1 leaned heavily toward bossa classics by Antonio Carlos Jobim with some remixing going on, the new one dives into Tropicalia classics like "Panis et Circensis," "Baby," and "Bat Macumba" with more remixing. There are great contributions from Beirut, Devandra Banhart with Marisa Monte, Beck with Seu Jorge as well as tracks from John Legend, Forro in the Dark with Brazilian Girls and Angelique Kidjo.

Although the inclusion of John Legend is a head-scratcher, his version of "A Love I've Never Known" isn't embarrassing (it really just sounds like a John Legend song with acoustic guitar played in the bossa nova style). Other less than inspired moments include Aloe Blac and Clara Moreno's static mash-up of falsetto vocals, swirling electronic effects, and club beats. Equally flat is the second rate Smiths-like remake of "Panis Et Circensis" by Tha Boogie, which can't be labeled as anything but filler. Marina Gasolina's "Freak Le Boom Boom" sounds like the B-side of nameless '80s synth-pop, offering nothing beyond the silly.

These missteps, however, are in the minority. The reggae and samba jam on "Ela" with Curumin remixed by Ticklah offers a strong groove, a dynamic arrangement with an understated but playful vocal turn. Prefuse 73 does a nice job on of one of Caetano Veloso's prettiest songs, "Terra." Marisa Monte, Devandra Banhart, and Rodrigo Armante sound absolutely alluring on the moody "Nu Com A Minha Musica." Bebel Gilberto sounds perfect (no effects on her voice) on the tastefully understated and acoustic guitar-driven "Acabou Chorare."

The Balkan indie heartthrobs Beirut start off the second disc with a wonderfully straight with horns version of "O Leaozinho." Not surprisingly, the award for best psychedelic jam goes to Of Montreal and the legendary and now back in action Os Mutantes -- the classic tune is remolded into something that would have fit near the end of the White Album. Also extremely strong is the majestic take on the soaring classic "Tudo O Que Voc Ser" by Marcos Valle with the Phenomenal Handclap Band. Joyce Moreno with Madlib and Generation Match do an excellent if unexpected avant-garde jazz space jam on "Banana" that is well carried off by all involved, particularly trombonist Phil Ranelin.

While the politics of anti-government, personal freedom, and creative expression of the original movement aren't here, there is the spirit of collaboration for a very worthy cause that is apparent. In the spirit of inclusiveness it's good that lead producers Beco Dranoff, Paul Heck, and John Carlin decided to do this as a two-CD set, but the quality is uneven.

Red Hot + Rio 2 is sprawling with as many colors as the AIDS quilt. And while the quilt is an important symbol, its greatness is in its symbolism as a community-building act. The same could be said for this CD even if there are many bright pieces embedded.

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Tad Hendrickson has been a music journalist since 1996. A freelance writer based in Jersey City, New Jersey, he’s covered music of all genres as well as literature, the arts, food and real estate. His work has appeared in such publications as Elle, the London Financial Times, the Newark Star-Ledger,…

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