Note from BBT: I don’t really remember exactly how I learned about the Orquestra Afrosinfônica, which could be translated as the ‘afrosymphonic orchestra’, but once I heard their music, I was immediately hooked. I think we all go through progressions in our tastes in music, from introductions to children’s songs, jingles in television commercials, and radio to the collections of parents, relatives and friends that we are exposed to as children.
That was definitely how I was introduced to music. Remembering back to my parents’ music tastes, I heard everything from pop standards by the likes of The Carpenters and Dionne Warwick, to the 70s soul of Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind and Fire to the contemporary jazz of George Benson and Grover Washington as well as Blaxploitation soundtracks.
In my teen years, I was further educated through my father’s old vinyl collection. To this day, I don’t know the history of that collection, but for all the albums I would hear at home, there were numerous artists that I never heard played on the family stereo. Later, in my mid-20s, When I was ready to explore music beyond the Rhythm and Blues, Soul and Contemporary Jazz that was common in the black community, I began to explore some of those artists featured on those dusty album covers.
Years after seeing the album Wave by composer Antonio Carlos Jobim in that collection, Brazilian music would become one of the genres that would dominate my ongoing music education. Getting into ‘the Brazilian thing’ over two decades ago would obviously expose me to Brazilian musical genres such as Bossa Nova, Samba, Choro, and Brazilian Popular Music, or MPB, as a whole.
Combined with my investigation of the history and current situation of black Brazilians, I would begin to question why it was that it seemed that the vast majority of Afro-Brazilian artists were mostly found in the samba category. As I had discovered the groundbreaking musical trails blazed by so many African-American artists that include names such as Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and countless others, I would soon start to wonder where the Brazilian equivalents of these artists were.
The deeper I dug into Brazilian music, the slimmer the pickings were of Afro-Brazilian artists who stretched the boundaries of musical expression. I soon began to wonder why that was. As I would later learn, black Brazilian women who sang were expected to sing exclusively samba and most of those women who preferred to explore other genres of music found that obstacles were placed in their paths.
The story of the ‘Father of Bossa Nova’, Johnny Alf, also seemed to suggest that black artists faced a certain restriction when attempting to explore beyond the musical boundaries that appeared to be in place for black artists. Again, I must make it clear that there have been talented black musicians who have made huge contributions to the world of Brazilian music either through their songwriting, musicianship, arrangements or productions. Besides the aforementioned Johnny Alf, a few of those musicians, both well-known and not so well-known, include people like Pixinguinha, Baden Powell, Paulo Moura, Waltel Branco, Erlon Chaves and Renato Corrêa.
I continue to investigate the possibility that racial prejudice played some role in the small number of those who made names for themselves mostly in liner notes, studio credits and within inner circles of musicians, but the lack of well-known Afro-Brazilian instrumental artists and composers seems to confirm this. That along with the lack of economic conditions to be able to afford musical training to venture into more complicated musical arrangements. In Brazil, this is also of course very much intertwined with the issue of race.
My assessment in terms of the racial issue cannot be dismissed. Bahian musician Letieres Leite, leader of the Orkestra Rumpilezz, has also spoken openly on the barriers that racism has imposed on black Brazilian music. For Leite, the album Coisas by Afro-Brazilian musician Moacir Santos is the Brazilian Kind of Blue, making a comparison between what is considered one of the greatest jazz albums of all time with the 1965 Santos album that he believes every Brazilian musician must study. The fortunes of Davis and Santos speak to the point that I’m making.
Throughout his career, Davis recorded numerous groundbreaking albums in a discography of nearly 60 original albums and is one jazz music’s most well-known artists. Santos, on the other hand, only recorded eight solo albums and is little known outside the world of Brazilian musicians. These circumstances and realities are the reasons that I find the emergence of a number of talented Afro-Brazilian instrumental musicians to be a reason for some hope.
In previous posts, I’ve featured artists such as Amaro Freitas, Jonathan Ferr and the aforementioned Letieres Leite and his group Orkestra Rumpilezz. Another group and composer that I must add to that list is the Orquestra Afrosinfônica and their leader, Ubiratan Marques. I came across Marques and Afrosinfônica around the same time that I discovered the work of the other artists I just listed. I was blown away from the first listen of their music.
In today’s world of computerized beats, repetitive drum machines, autotunes and mindless pop tunes that get played perhaps 20 times a day on the average radio station, it should be understandable why I kind of checked out of pop music several years ago. I feel that perhaps if I hadn’t been exposed to some of Miles Davis’ late 50s orchestral jazz experiments, I may not have even been ready for the sounds of a group like Orquestra Afrosinfônica.
The unison of the vocal choir, percussion and wind instruments in their songs takes the listener on a spill-chilling emotional journey that re-affirms the power of music. Add to this the fact that members of the group have a full understanding of their significance and the musical DNA of African-descendant music and you have a story that’s worthy of a documentary.
When I listen to this group, it makes me wonder what other sorts of powerful music perhaps hundreds of Afro-Brazilians could have been recording back in the 1960s, 70s and beyond had they been given access and the opportunity. Sure, there are a number of great black Brazilian musicians who made their debuts a little after the halfway point of the 20th century, but I just wonder how many more there could have been.
Orquestra Afrosinfônica is an orchestra that blends elements of Brazilian music, American jazz, combined with symphonic arrangements to bring a unique interpretation of African musical heritage. Some of their music has already been featured in movie soundtracks. The orchestra, which features 22 members, debuted in 2009, in the capital city of Salvador. With such a strong recognition of ancestry, one has to wonder where else they could have come from.
According to Ubiratan, the orchestra is a mission. Fully expressing this idea, he expounded upon this statement:
‘’It is the mission of the black militancy, but with messages for the indigenous people as well. We are always fighting and taking the message on behalf of the people who need justice, reparation. There is not much that needs to be said. When the orchestra enters, it is like an army. It is really a mission. All the time fighting the war. Nobody is begging for anything. They are just looking for balance, for what is fair,” he said.
In its wide range of sound which includes sweeping wing and string instruments, the 22-piece group doesn’t simply depend on European classical music as a starting point, but strongly features African drums as a vital part of its sound textures.
“We do a different kind of work. We have an Afro-Brazilian instrumentation, the drums of the Afro and indigenous culture. We have songs in Yoruba, Gegê, Nagô, with feet in the Angola nation. We are classical in some instruments, but Afrosymphonic in instrumentation, language, and history. We speak of the streets, of our things. What we do is what everyone, who has a minimum of consciousness, does. To talk about our things,” said the composer and maestro.
Tâmara Pessoa, a member of the group since its beginnings, also understands the orchestra’s mission to redeem ancestral influence in an ongoing resistance against a country that continuously attempts to erode the importance of Afro-Brazilian contributions.
“Besides being a great learning experience, it is a bridge of connection with our ancestors. With all the legacy they left us. We continue to follow their influences. Externalizing this through music. It is the tool we have to continue resisting, showing the value we have. Our identity”, she said.
Her sentiments are echoed in the words of Raquel Monteiro, who has been a member of the group for seven years. For Monteiro, the band makes reference to its ancestry to continue the struggle for representation.
“Resistance to everything that was taken from us and denied to us. This is our contribution. The Afrosinfônica represents black music. They are black musicians, making black music. This is what I see. Resistance. Resistance all the time. The ancestry speaking all the time, through music”, she said.
Understanding the struggle of past Afro-Brazilian artists who fought to create the type of music they wanted to create. Past artists, like Afrosinfônica today, understood the obstacles of being black people and making the sort of music they created. Tâmara gets this.
“That’s part of everyday life. It’s enough to have a dark skin to be judged all the time. As a consequence, the orchestra goes through that. Are they going to choose an orchestra that makes a more European sound, more connected to white culture, to what’s within the standard? Or one that makes music with an Afro-Brazilian touch? What do you think? There is this barrier, there is all this prejudice that we try to overcome”, she concluded.
With recent announcements of the Latino Grammy award nomination, it seems that Afrosinfônica may finally get the recognition that they have long deserved.
With Afrosinfônica at the Grammys, maestro speaks of strengthening of a black orchestra
by Jamile Amine
Salvador has been recognized by UNESCO as a City of Music and recently inaugurated a museum dedicated to the artists of the land, Bahia showed once again that it has a “ruler and compass” by grabbing ten nominations at the Latin Grammy Awards. Orquestra Afrosinfônica, will compete in the category “Best Roots Music Album” with Orin a Língua dos Anjos (2021), alongside fellow Bahians Luiz Caldas and Ivete Sangalo.
With no connection to any funding institution or support from government agencies, according to conductor and artistic director Ubiratan Marques, the orchestra lives by the attitude and love of its members. But for those who have obstacles as a rule and not as an exception, being among the nominees in an international award represents more than the welcome recognition, it is also a way of resisting and occupying apparently unreachable spaces.
“Everyone knows that we are an Afro orchestra, made up of black men and black women. So, this difficulty already starts from there, because generally all orchestras already have a profile that is that idea of Eurocentrism, so to do a work like this, in a certain way, is already difficult,” comments the maestro, who has been leading the Afrosinfônica for a decade, and understands that the greatest prize is to be able to produce, reaffirm one’s ancestry, and “put out there” what needs to be said.
“When you receive a nomination like this, of course we are very happy, because it is a recognition of all this, of all this love. It is the strengthening of a black orchestra, and this generates visibility for many of them who are there to say ‘wow, you see how it is possible’,” says the artist, who rejects, however, the rivalry in the artistic world.
“I don’t see it as a competition, I never thought there was such competition in music,” defends Ubiratan, quoting the philosopher Plotinus to reaffirm that “the greatest objective of art is to awaken the soul of the human being. “The question of the award, these expectations, I confess that I don’t have much in that sense. The award is this recognition. This is not only for me, but for the Afrosinfônica and the whole black community,” he adds.
“It is the strengthening of a black orchestra, and this generates visibility for many of them who are there to say ‘wow, you see how it is possible’,” says maestro Ubiratan about the Latin Grammy nomination.
An album in the middle of the pandemic
Now nominated for a Latin Grammy, the album Orin a Língua dos Anjos, which was born from a look at ancestrality and conversations between Ubiratan Marques and Mateus Aleluia about spirituality, seems to have counted on a lot of axé to materialize at the right time. “We were able to have this album because we recorded it in 2019, started mixing in 2020, and then the pandemic came. So, 2020 was a post work and we were able to release it”, remembers the maestro.
The album title, in turn, is an exaltation to the art itself, as the word “Orin” means “song” in Yoruba. The concept matches perfectly with what the orchestra preaches, since, according to the conductor, “music, in a certain way, is the great protagonist around the Afrosinfônica.
“And this music that we make is completely Afro-Brazilian, a Brazilian music. Ildásio Tavares always said that to me, ‘oh, maestro, Beethoven made German music, Gershwin made American music, Debussy made French music, right? And I said ‘yes’. So, this is what we do, we make Brazilian music,” says the artistic director. “There is a line by Paulo César Pinheiro, ‘Brazil does not know Brazil,’ so that is more or less it, we need to value and recognize more and more our culture, which is so beautiful,” he says.
Produced by André Magalhães and co-produced by Ubiratan, the project has 12 tracks and includes the participation of Mateus Aleluia, Baiana System, Gerônimo, and the Angolan Dodo Miranda. The cover is designed by the artist Vik Muniz, who made an intervention on the photographic record of rehearsals of the Orquestra Afrosinfônica.
As life – and also music – can be full of coincidences, one of the tracks from Orin a Língua dos Anjos, “Água”, opened the album “O Futuro Não Demora”, which won BaianaSystem the Latin Grammy for Best Rock Album in Portuguese. It now remains to be seen whether the song will establish itself as a charm and help the Orquestra Afrosinfônica win the award.
“Look, I really like ‘Água’ yes, I think it is a very beautiful song. This amulet thing (laughs), just to say that Bahia is so mystical… But I think that it is really an amulet in the sense of opening the way, because water is actually exactly that,” said Ubiratan Marques, who is one of the authors of the song, along with the group. “There is even an Indian saying that uses water to describe the song. Because in India they say that there are 22 notes in the south and 21 in the north. So they ask this great master which is the right place, the south or the north, and he says: ‘Look, music is like water, it has no division. And water has this, it is always moving, it passes through obstacles, so this is wonderful,” says the maestro.
During the almost two years of compromised work because of the pandemic, Afrosinfônica has not stopped and has been trying to adapt to the virtual, but Ubiratan says that the difficulties are immense. “All the orchestra’s activities are done at Casa da Ponte, as well as our school, which is the Núcleo Moderno de Música, as well as almost everything is there, but because of the pandemic we closed the space,” reports the maestro.
Dribbling around the obstacles, the orchestra has performed a series of concerts with Afro groups from Bahia and abroad. “We did it with the maracatu from Pernambuco, Nação Estrela Brilhante, in Recife; we did it here with Malê Debalê, with Ilê; we will do it in Minas Gerais with the congado Irmandade de Nossa Senhora do Rosário, with the participation of Sérgio Pererê,” says the artist, referring to a number of other important artists in Brazilian culture and music.
Other projects, however, are waiting for the green light for a more robust resumption of live performances. “What we manage to do in the audiovisual area, for example, these Afro concerts, I believe we should continue with in the virtual area. But there are others that, unfortunately, are concerts, records, other things that we have. There is a concert that we are about to premiere, called ‘Colina das Sombras’, which is from our third album, based on a poem against racism. This is a project that we have ready, but we need to rehearse it. You can’t rehearse it virtually,” reveals Ubiratan. “We have many things, but we really need things to get back to normal,” he concludes.
Source: Bahia Notícias