Gerson King Combo (1943-2020): Remembering the “Brazilian James Brown/King of Soul”
By Marques Travae
Gerson King Combo, Brazil’s King of Soul. I vividly remember the first time I heard the name. It was probably around 2002, two years after I got into the whole Brazilian thing. I had already visited the country 2-3 times and was becoming more familiar with the music. As I said in previous posts, when you dive into Brazilian music, generally there are a handful or two of Brazilian artists whose fame reaches the United States or Europe. If you went to the international music section of a good record store (when there were plenty of them), you were sure to find albums/CD by Jobim, Caetano, Gil, Mutantes, Milton and few other names.
But I wanted more.
On one of those first trips, the owner of a sebo (used vinyl store) in Salvador, Bahia, asked me if I’d heard of Tony Tornado. I hadn’t. He said I should look for some of his records because he was kind of a like a “Brazilian James Brown”, and a good dancer. It took a few more years before I could track down any music by Tony Tornado, but back home in Detroit, I had been buying a lot of Brazilian music online and having it shipped to my house. One CD I remember ordering was a compilation CD compiled by musician Arto Lindsay.
The CD was entitled Hojé É Natal, meaning ‘today is Christmas’ and the disc featured music by artists such as Caetano Veloso and Jorge Ben, both of whom I was already familiar with. Ben remains one of my favorite Brazilian artists. But also on this CD were two artists I had never heard of, Cassiano and Gerson King Combo. The CD seemed to be a mish-mash of songs by Brazilian artists in which they seemed to be experimenting with the sounds of American Soul music. Some of the cuts had a mixture of Soul and the Disco (see note one) that came to take over the American music industry starting and lasting from the mid to late 70s.
The 19 tracks on the CD featured 3 songs apiece by established MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) artists Veloso and Ben, 4 by Cassiano and 9 by Gerson King Combo. The name of the CD, Hoje é Natal, was taken from the Christmas song of the same name by Cassiano, the opening track of the disc. Cassiano’s music arrangements and sensitive vocals were clearly influenced by some of the American Soul groups of the time. His style of ballads was more akin to smooth Soul groups such as the Chi-Lites and the Delfonics rather the grittier sounds of the era made famous by the artists of the Memphis record label Stax.
Some of his uptempo songs wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Barry White album of the same period, while the track “Central do Brasil” would have fit in perfectly on a blaxploitation soundtrack of the 1970s. One of these days I’ll have to do a full piece on Cassiano (see note two). Not only were his own releases important in the development of Brazilian Soul, but he also composed a few noteworthy tracks for other artists. The Hojé É Natal compilation disc was my first exposure to Cassiano and I was impressed. Soul music, sung in Portuguese. So this is how black Brazilian folks interpreted Soul; intriguing to say the least.
Perhaps even more intriguing, at least initially, were the nine tracks taken from Gerson King Combo’s albums. Upon first listen, my first reaction was, “Who is this dude imitating James Brown?” I mean, the gruff vocals, the grunts, the scream. Combo wasn’t even trying to mask his admiration for the “Godfather of Soul”. The backing instrumental tracks were an even more similar to 70s funk arrangements than Brazil’s original soulman Tim Maia’s interpretations. I didn’t know it at the time, but the backing band for the album was the group União Black, which would release their own album around that same time. If you take a look at the band’s attire on the album cover, it’s almost impossible to miss the Funkadelic look of the early ’70s.
Unlike Maia, and the bands Banda Black Rio and Copa 7 that mixed elements of Brazilian rhythms in their sounds, both Combo and União Black’s albums of the time were straight up Soul/Funk. With the heavy bass lines, chicken scratch guitars and syncopated horn lines, they would have been good opening acts for American Soul/Funk bands such as the Bar-Kays or Bootsy’s Rubber Band.
In the beginning, after countless listens of Combo’s ’77 and ’78 albums, I concluded that, compared to some of the vintage Funk experimentals that often led to free style jams in some of those classic American Funk albums, Combo’s tracks didn’t quite match the psychoplayalisticgroovallegiance tracks I was used to, but worthy of checking out as second rate imitations. And this isn’t a slight to Combo. Going through endless Brazilian albums of that period that flirted with the Soul/Funk sound, I did find some gems, but also a lot of stuff that was just hard to listen to. Imagine listening to a rapper than just wasn’t that good, slightly off beat and whose rhymes sounded like something from a nursery school song.
For me, Combo’s significance lies in the message he brought to young black Brazilians at the time. After decades of programming that told Brazilians of visible African ancestry that blackness was something to avoid at all costs, artists such as Combo, Tony Tornado and later rappers showed that being black, having an afro, and enjoying black culture was cool. It told black and would be black Brazilians to “open their minds” because, contrary to what Brazilian society taught them to believe, it was alright to dance black, walk black, and love black, as Combo’s biggest hit reminded them. Like JB, Combo was telling black folks to be proud to be black. And even if I wouldn’t rate the music among the classics, in an overwhelmingly anti-black Brazil, hearing a man say this was revolutionary.
From what I have ascertained, although Combo had a following, his music didn’t sell hundreds of thousands of copies. It seems to be that, as in other genres, Brazilians seemed to prefer the American version rather than the home-grown. In the same ways that black Brazilians were more likely to be familiar with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X rather than Abdias do Nascimento, most Brazilians are familiar with JB while the average Brazilian has probably never heard of Combo.
We saw an example of this on an episode of the most recent season of the ever popular, ongoing reality show, Big Brother Brasil. During a moment on an episode of the program, suddenly, on a big screen TV, Combo appeared on the screen and began to speak. Actor Babu Santana, the only black man on the program and a fan of the singer, rose from a bench and begins to walk towards the screen, totally caught by surprise. The music kicked in and soon Combo began to sing his anthem, “Mandamentos Black”, causing Santana to begin shouting in excitement. “Caralho!”, Santana is heard repeating, meaning something like “Holy Sh*t!” or “DAMN!” (like that scene in the film Friday), in this type of scenario.
A few of the female participants on the program are heard asking “Quem é?/Quem é ele?”, meaning, “Who’s that?/Who is he?”, to which Santana shouts “Gerson King Combo!” several times before starting to get down to the groove. Combo never became a mainstream commercial success, but like a well-respected underground rapper, his fans, many of whom found their identities because of his lyrics and style, respected and loved him for what he represented.
Journalist Paulo Pacheco’s tweet summed it up.
Paulo Pacheco@ppacheco1 · Sep 23: “The legend Gerson King Combo died and many people only got to know him thanks to @BabuSantana on BBB20. It wasn’t like he deserved, but I’m glad he was appreciated in time!”
Another recent post asked, “You’ve never heard of Gerson King Combo?”. The link accompanying the article read “por-que-voce-precisa-conhecer-gerson-king-combo-o-james-brown-brasileiro”, or “why you need to know Gerson King Combo, the Brazilian James Brown”.
You can never know when it will be that you will see someone for the last time, be it because of distance, a parting of ways or death. I actually saw Gerson King Combo live on November 18, 2019, last year at the annual Troféu Raça Negra (black race awards) which honored his fellow Brazilian Soulman, the aforementioned Tony Tornado. I became aware of Combo’s passing on Wednesday morning, September 23rd. In my Homens Pretos (Black Men) WhatsApp group, one of the members shared a message informing of the passing of Combo, who was born Gérson Rodrigues Côrtes. He was 76.
As I often do when such information comes along, I asked where he got the news from. He responded that it came from the artist’s official Facebook page. Online, the mainstream media hadn’t reported the news yet and his Wikipedia page still read his birthdate as being 30 de novembro de 1943 (November 30, 1943) and that he was 76 years old. I saved the screen because I knew that soon the dash symbol and date of death would soon be displayed. Fifteen minutes later, the news began to be reported on numerous websites and just that quickly, the Wiki page was updated, now reading, 30 de novembro de 1943 — Rio de Janeiro, 22 de setembro de 2020.
As the news spread, the tributes and memories started to pour in.
Babu Santana posted a video on Twitter.
“Guys, I’m here to pay a tribute to a person that I admired a lot, you who followed me on Big Brother realized that I really liked him, that is Gerson King Combo…Today I woke up thinking about him, thinking about how to find him to do a feature, for us to do work together, and I just found out that he made the passage. I wanted to leave here my simple tribute to this great artist who was Gerson King Combo. Thanks! I love you, brother.”
The “I Love You Brother” was a direct quote from Combo’s most famous song, “Mandamentos Black” (Black Commandments) in which he repeated “Eu te amo, brother”.
Singer/musician Simoninha was also at the Troféu Raça Negra last November. He performed and served as the program’s musical director. Simoninha is one the two sons of singer Wilson Simonal, an important singer from the 60s and 70s and considered by some to be Brazil’s first black Pop star. Via Instagram, Simoninha also shared a message.
“This photo is at Sala São Paulo in November 2019. Once again I did the musical direction for the Troféu Raça Negra. That year the tribute was to @tonytornadooficial. Among the artists I chose to participate were @carlos_dafe and @gerson_kingcombo icons of Brazilian Black Music,” he wrote. Simoninha spoke of his late father and the friendship between him and the legend of black music in Rio.
“Gerson worked a lot with my father and I knew him since I was a child. I always reminded him of an act I watched at the Canecão (popular concert hall in Rio) where my father disappeared from the stage and reappeared at the entrance of the Canecão! I thought it was spectacular and he was the one who, in a game of light, would switch places with my father on stage and make the magic happen. His ‘Mandamentos Black’ was eternalized in the dances, parties and pick-ups of the DJs around the world. Your laughter and joy here in my heart, rest in peace”, he concluded.
Popular rappers Thaíde, Mano Brown, Rashid, Emicida as well as singer Fernanda Abreu also posted statements.
Thaide @thaideoficial: “Gerson King Combo, thank you so much for everything you’ve did for our black music and culture. One of the greatest honors of my life, was to have your friendship, you were a Father in music to me. I still follow the BLACK commandments. Rest in peace, I LOVE YOU BROTHER”
manobrown: “In the search for absolved identity and belonging, I also sought in America (The Tower) the Path of our Freedom through the Funk of all ages! Be in Peace GKC! Our heroes await you!”
Rashid @MCRashid: “Gerson King Combo. 🙏🏾😔 Go in peace. Around here, a lot of gratitude for what you did, and our feelings to family, friends and fans.”
Emicida@emicida: “Gerson King Combo has gone for eternity. Thank you master! I love you brother”
Fernanda Abreu: “What an immeasurable loss for our música preta brasileira (Brazilian Black Music). Our Gerson King Combo soul and swing will stay forever in our minds and hearts. Your voice, your dance, your sympathy will always be references to me. Thank you for all your giant contribution.”
The documentary Gerson King Combo – O Filme is in production, and is scheduled to premiere next year. Directed by Belisario Franca and David Obadia, the film will show intimate and public moments of Combo, author of hits from the 1970s, such as “Black Commandments”, “God Save the King” and “Funk Brother Soul”.
Produced by Giros Filmes and Digi2, the feature will have the participation of names like Alcione, Marcelo D2, Leci Brandão, Paula Lima, Simoninha and Fernanda Abreu. In my next post, I will discuss more about Combo’s entry into the music business, some of his career highlights and his significance for a new generation of Brazil’s rappers, DJs and musicians.
- The popularity of this same Disco music was part of the reason that Brazilian Soul Music began to decline in that same era as record companies jumped shipped and began investing in the whole “Disco Fever” craze.
- Cassiano’s entrance on the scene was facilitated by the success of Tim Maia, Brazil’s first Soulman who introduced the style into the Portuguese language for the Brazilian fans.