Afro-Brazilian Classical Music: The memory of black music in the Orquestra Afro-Brasileira

Note from BBT: Shortly after I began to dive into the experiences of black folks in Brazil, it wasn’t long after that my attention would be drawn to one of the most important aspects of Brazilian culture: music. As I’ve been soaking in “all things Brazil” for two decades now, it’s sometimes difficult to remember when I first became aware of or was exposed to something having to do with Brazil. Music does NOT fall into that category because my introdeuction and immersion into Brazilian music is still as clear as if it had happened yesterday.

The first CD I ever bought featured a mixture of sounds, from samba, to samba-reggae, to Bahian Pop to MPB (Brazilian Popular Music). I hadn’t listened to that CD, Putumayo Presents: Brasileiro in ages, but last year, after having heard a song being played on a neighbor’s sound system by samba singer Martinho da Vila, I was instantly transported back to the year 2000 when I heard his song “Visgo De Jaca”. As the CD is available on YouTube, I had to hear it again. The CD is a collection of songs spanning from the mid-70s to the end of 90s, but the selection was excellent as isn’t one song on that I thought sounded dated.

Twenty years and I still remember riding around the snowy, cold streets of Detroit listening to these tropical-sounding rhythms. Twenty years later and I still like discovering new artists on the Brazilian music scene, or older artists that I wasn’t familiar with. In the mid 90s, I began to take interest in black musicians in the areas of Jazz and later Classical music.

I can remember in the previous decade when a popular, legendary night DJ on Detroit radio, The Eletrifying Mojo, was asked by a listener if he was familiar with black Classical Music composers. Mojo’s shift on late night radio, 10pm to 2am, wasn’t just a DJ playing records. His show was an EXPERIENCE!

Mojo’s deep, booming voice, space odyssey sound effects and regular journies into the catalogs of iconic Soul/Funk artists such as Parliament/Funkadelic and Prince’s Minneapolis Sound constructed a huge following for fans of the era. So, when Mojo would switch radio stations, he would take his fan base with him and the radio stations didn’t seem to have a problem with his venture into Afro-futurism…until he started playing Classical Music composed by black musicians. At the time, I thought it was a little weird and wondered when Mojo would get back to the Funk. I admit it; I wasn’t ready for Mojo’s drastic shift in music exploration.

Years later, as my taste in music began to mature, I started delving into more sophisticated music myself. I had long heard about trailblazers such as Ellington, Parker, Gillespie, Miles, Mingus, Coltrane and others, and I finally reached a time when I wanted to know why these artists were so celebrated. This would soon be the case in terms if Brazil. After I had been exposed to countless artists from the genres of Samba, Bossa Nova, MPB, Brazilian Rock, Soul and Hip Hop, I wanted to get more into the historical aspect of the music which brought to artists such as Pixinguinha, a sort of Brazilian Louis Armstrong, the “father of Bossa Nova” Johnny Alf and guitar master Baden Powell.

Then, after having explored the orchestra Jazz period of Miles Davis, I wondered what Afro-Brazilians I could find allong this same feel. I soon discovered the sounds of the great Moacir Santos, Paulo Moura and then the Orquestra Afro-Brasileira (Afro-Brazilian Orchestra) led by the maestro Abigail Moura. As classic Brazilian music that was previously available only on dusty, worn vinyl albums was being re-issued on compact discs, it wasn’t long before I was able to acquire the only two discs recorded by the orchestra.

So what does it sound like? Well, what stood out immediately was the clear influence of the music that comes out the Afro-Brazilian religious temples known as terreiros where these rhythms would accompany the rituals. Orquestra Afro-Brasileira mixed influences of the West with wind instruments with Afro-Brazilian percussion instruments and vocals sung in not only Portuguese, but Nheengatu, Nago and Bantu.

In recent years, a new version of the orchestra has been performing and carrying on a tradition in Afro-Brazilian music that has influenced several new experiments in modern day orchestral sounds mixed with Jazz and Afro-Brazilian rhythms. I will explore some of these newer sounds and their innovative composers in future posts, but as an introduction, let’s learn a little about the orchestra that started all of this.

The memory of black music in the Afro-Brazilian Orchestra

Courtesy of SESC

When conductor Abigail Moura entered the stage, it was as if he were dragging all the cosmic forces with him. Backstage, like a priest, he made an offering to the gods in search of capturing good vibes, fed the atabaques (percussion instruments), sacralized the instruments, took a bath with purifying herbs and subjected the musicians’ clothes to a religious ritual. From 1942 to 1970, Moura led the daring and avant-garde Afro-Brazilian Orchestra, a musical project created by him to enhance black memory and culture.

In his music interpreted as exotic by some, difficult by others and not commercial by all, he enthused percussion as the soul of the orchestra, merging the ancestral African rhythms with jazz and classical music. He placed “primitive” instruments alongside “civilized” ones and was inspired by the songs he heard from his grandmother in childhood, family memories and umbanda songs to compose the songs that, according to his definition, floated in the mystery and projected by the inexplicable.

Exhibit at Afro-Brazil Museum: “Brief News: Abigail Moura and Orquestra Afro-Brasileira”

In January of 2014, the Museu Afro Brasil, in São Paulo, displayed “Breves Notícias: Abigail Moura e Orquestra Afro-Brasileira” (Brief News: Abigail Moura and Orquestra Afro-Brasileira), an exhibit that gathered manuscripts of texts and poems, scores, posters of auditions and photographs of the conductor and the musicians. The exhibition is small, especially considering the importance of the honoree. The timidity is, however, justified, because little is known about the self-taught musician born in the state of Minas Gerais and living in Rio de Janeiro, whose avant-garde talent gathered devotees such as Eleazar de Carvalho, Camargo Guarnieri and Câmara Cascudo.

In 30 years of activity, Afro-Brasil has made only about one hundred performances and released two albums, Obaluayê (1957) and Orquestra Afro-Brasileira (1968). Both rarities, the first LP was released on CD in 2003, inserted in a brochure based on the research of the anthropologist specializing in music, Grégoire de Villanova, at the invitation of Emanoel Araujo, at the time curator of the exhibition Negras Memórias, Memórias de Negros and today in front of the Museum Afro Brasil.

Conductor Abigail Moura

“Moura was extremely curious about Africa and the Afro-Brazilian question. He was a musician aware of his roots, engaged in the conquest of a sacred and profane memory,” says Araújo. For French-Brazilian Villanova, used to traveling around the Caribbean, Africa and Latin America in search of rarities on vinyl, Moura’s greatest importance was to create a unique sound, a genre that is close to Afro-Brazilian classical music. “He rescues very old instruments and uses them when they are no longer part of Afro-Brazilian organology. Few artists have done this in the past two centuries.”

The fusion established between what he considers primitive and civilized places instruments of the jeje-nagô ritual tradition side by side, such as the sacred trio of drums called rum, of low sound, rumpi, of medium register, and reads, of high sound (the father, mother and son), agogô, rhythm conductor, conguê and adjá, metal bells, berimbau and urucungo, from the family of African sound arcs. Completing the wonderful percussive “cuisine”, the ganzá and the angona-puíta, grandmother of the Brazilian cuíca. In order to make a western counterpoint, the Orquestra Afro-Brasil (Afro-Brasil Orchestra) brought two alto saxes, two tenor saxes, three clarinets, three trumpets and two trombones.

A mystical and ancestral tone emanated especially from the deep voice of the soloist Maria do Carmo. Wearing a long dress, a black beauty evocative of Billie Holiday, or dressed like a baiana (Bahian woman), wrapped in a white coat, necklaces and beaded bracelets conferring a queen’s aura, the contralto would have been the inspiration for Moura to create the orchestra. In an episode that reinforces the mystique surrounding Afro-Brazil, Carmo sublimely sang a religious song when she went crazy on the scene. She never returned to the stage.

LPs released by Orchestra Afro-Brasileira, “Obaluayê” (1957) and “Orquestra Afro-Brasileira” (1968).

Poor and leader of an orchestra in which most musicians were formed by amateurs who played for the love of art, Moura sang an Africa where he never set foot, whose strength came from ancestry. In the analysis of the ideologue Abdias do Nascimento, the conductor “never bowed to the bastard appeals of commercialization” and didn’t allow himself “to be corrupted by the ideological siren songs”. With a project as bold as it is unpopular, who would Afro-Brasil’s audience be? “Moura was inserted in a more intellectual context of the black bourgeoisie and people very close to music who understood what he was doing,” says Villanova. Among the elite that went to the presentations were the poet and playwright Paschoal Carlos Magno, the conductor José Siqueira and musicologists such as the Danish Hans Jorgen Pedersen.

The only remnant of the orchestra with an active professional career, Carlos Negreiros seeks to perpetuate Moura’s musical ideals. “He is a percussion master and was a soloist with Afro-Brasil”, says Villanova. “I perceive in the aesthetic form of Negreiros the sound of the conductor. He has a classical background and perhaps the connection is there, in the desire to make classical Afro-Brazilian music. Both used totally different, a priori conflicting roots, to create something unique.”

After Moura’s death in 1970, Negreiros tried to remake the orchestra. It didn´t work out. In consultation with an umbanda terreiro, he was advised to throw away everything that referred to the big band into the sea and end Afro-Brasil once and for all.

Orkestra Rumpilezz carries on the tradition of Orchestra Afro-Brasileira

Thirty-six years after Moura’s disappearance, Orkestra Rumpilezz appears in Bahia, drinking from the same source. The big band created by maestro Letieres Leite in 2006 starts from the rhythmic universe of the streets of Salvador, from the sacred to the profane, with touches of umbanda and candomblé. The group’s name is an agglutination of the three primordial drums, ru, rumpi and lê, plus the two z’s of the word jazz.

“I got to know Moura’s work through Ed Motta (see note one). I was amazed by the beauty of the work. The conductor was innovative, especially for the time, so much so that he suffered serious problems of prejudice, as it was a black orchestra with percussion touches. We drink from the same source, the difference is that we seek connections with contemporary music, from arrangements to rhythmic formations,” says Leite. With 20 members, 14 on wind instruments, the conductor on the sax, and 19 on the percussion, Rumpilezz fuses ancestral black music and jazz.

If Rumpilezz does not indulge in ritualization like Afro-Brasil, it plunges into the sounds of the terreiros, puts pepper in the cauldron and serves a bubbly dish. “All percussionists are connected to the terreiro. I am a filho de santo, we are all macumbeiros.”

Conductor and leader of the Orkestra Rumpilezz, Letieres Leite

For Leite, who as a young student at the Federal University of Bahia skipped plastic arts classes to play the flute and when he entered the Franz Schubert Conservatory in Vienna, the public’s reaction surprised him. “I thought our sound was intended for restricted audiences. But the reception is very good, we go from the Teatro Municipal do Rio (Municipal Theater of Rio) to a square.”

An arranger for artists such as Lenine and Gilberto Gil, the conductor brings Rumpilezz to São Paulo on December 19, 20 and 21 (Sesc Belenzinho). In July 2015, he joined the North American saxophonist Joshua Redman on tour in Europe. “Everything will be recorded, we prepared the second authorial album.” The first was released in 2009.

According to Motta, enthusiastic about the work of the Bahian conductor, Leite is a legitimate successor to Moura. “He says I inherited the baton. I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but as an Afro-Brazilian orchestra we may be the continuity.” Like the almost forgotten predecessor, which Villanova equates with the American Sun Ra and the Nigerian Fela Kuti (“they invented a musical style”), Leite goes beyond perpetuating the Afro-Brazilian tradition. In the researcher’s words, Moura’s intention was “the desire to create great music and participate in universal beauty”. A larger goal certainly shared by Leite.

Source: SESC


  1. Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Ed Motta is from a second generation of Brazilian musicians that mixed elements of American Soul and Funk into his sound. He is the nephew of Tim Maia, who is considered the father of Brazilian Soul Music. After intially starting his career in the Soul/Dance/Funk genre, for several years, Motta has explored several other styles from Samba-Jazz, Free Jazz, Pop, Bossa Nova, Latin and Instrumental music. Also a great singer, Motta was rankedas the 39th Best Voice in Brazilian music by Rolling Stone Brasil.
About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.