Brazilian Vinyl: London’s South American Love Affair
The infectious grooves contained in Brazilian vinyl have filled dancefloors around the world for decades. Russ Slater explains how a group of UK DJs helped light the touchpaper…
In the summer of 2014, an unlikely figure appeared on Channel 4 News to make an appeal to the British public: “Hey, this is Gilles Peterson, I’m asking you to really dig deep in your record collection or think of someone who might have this record,” he began, holding the sleeve to an unfamiliar album in his hands. “This is by José Prates. It doesn’t look like much, it’s the kind of thing you could find in a car-boot sale isn’t it? I’m sure, in fact, I passed through it myself not realising this had the very original version of Mas Que Nada by Sérgio Mendes [and] Jorge Ben on it. Incredible record. I just want the vinyl, the original plastic, on Polydor. Really would appreciate it. Look out and you’ll make a DJ, an old DJ, a very happy man.”
Obviously there are some things that even someone with as many connections as Peterson can struggle to find. In this particular case, he was looking for a copy of José Prates’ Tam… Tam… Tam…!, a record that lived in relative obscurity for many years, a forgotten relic of Brazilian music.
But, as with many records from the 50s through to the 70s, in recent years it has gained extra notoriety, its scarcity and unique long-standing cultural impact inflating its value and making original versions something of a collector’s item. This particular search by Gilles Peterson is also symbolic of a unique relationship that formed between Brazilian music and a small group of record collectors and DJs based in London in the 80s and 90s.
Samba In The Streets
It’s fair to say that Brazilian music had fallen off the radar during the 70s, never really managing to shrug off the easy-listening exotica persona that had been created by artists such as Astrud Gilberto and Carmen Miranda, and the general adoption of ‘bossa nova lite’ in elevators around the globe. The 80s were going to be different, though. Brazilian music would feed into two new phenomena – world music and the emerging dance-music culture – and it would finally get its dues.
The first few clubs to play Latin American music in London were El Cantino, Sol y Sombra and Bass Clef Jazz Club. John Armstrong took up residency at the latter in 1984. Together, with Sol y Sombra’s Dave Hucker, he was one of the first to hit upon a mix of Latin, Brazilian and African music which was much loved by the growing Latin and African community in the capital.
Armstrong would get his records from well-known record-buying spots such as Berwick Street Market, where vinyl had been smuggled in from New York and France, and Hitman Records, which was a must for Latin music fans. Armstrong also got them from a number he’d been given by a local record shop, as he recalls: “I ring this guy called Megatron Import/Export, it’s a phone number in Crawley, and he says, ‘What do you want?’, and I say: ‘I’m interested in records’, and he says, ‘Oh yeah, well my main business is importing motor parts to Brazil’. I suppose the exchange rate was so bad he used to take Jaguar spares and bring back records, and sell them to HMV and so on… He said: ‘I can send you some photocopies of catalogues I’ve got and I’ll just charge you 50p each [record], something ridiculous like that’. I went through all these catalogues, everything from Caetano [Veloso] to bizarre country music and I just tried everything. Some of them were awful, some of them were great, but at only 50p per copy, it was worth the risk, because you couldn’t find them any other way.”
Joe Davis went even further to get his records. He had just left school when a fellow Londoner who’d moved to São Paulo and opened up a record shop, Eric Crawford, persuaded him to make a trip in 1986: “He basically made me come to Brazil. He said: ‘There’s amazing music here’. Everything was extremely cheap. And Brazil had just come out of a dictatorship as well, so there was a booming economy… I would stay in Eric’s record shop all night. He would work on his collection and I would go through his library of stock until 5 in the morning discovering music… I sent several hundred records by ship via the post office and came home with 250 [records].”
Back in London, Davis sold on his purchases – which focused on what he calls “Brazilian Jazz, psychedelic music, beats, funk, anything that floats my boat” – to record shops, collectors and DJs such as Peterson, and then he got himself prepared for another trip.
However the records were arriving in London, they were getting picked up by a new generation of DJs – with an eclectic approach to music that saw them playing jazz, soul, funk and Latin sounds to a hedonistic audience ready to dance. This was the beginning of club culture. Paul Murphy and Colin Curtis were among the first DJs to pioneer this blend, but it was when Gilles Peterson showed up on the scene, and especially when he started his Sunday Afternoon slots at Dingwalls with Patrick Forge, that things really started to take off.
Thanks to the patronage of The Face magazine, as well as Peterson’s move into releasing music first with Acid Jazz Records and then shortly after with Talkin’ Loud, in the mid 80s, acid jazz – as the scene became known – grew into a national concern. Brazilian music was one of the integral ingredients in the music they were playing. This you can see if you look at the tracklist for the first compilation Peterson ever produced, Jazz Juice, in 1985: it was dominated by Airto Moreira, Gilberto Gil and Sérgio Mendes.
Those in the acid-jazz scene, such as Davis and Peterson, loved their Brazilian music with grooves and musical chops, and they gravitated towards artists such as Azymuth, Marcos Valle and Naná Vasconcelos, who all played shows in London in the early 90s. The most memorable occasion for many was the first time that Joyce came to London, to play at a now-defunct Brixton club called the Fridge in 1993.
In Brazil, she had been playing to an ageing crowd that had grown up with her music since the 70s, but in London, she walked onstage to a young and hip sold-out audience of 2,000. A year later, Davis and Peterson would put together the Brazilica! compilation, which showed how much deeper they had got into the music, with Davis soon after starting Far Out Recordings, a label devoted to Brazilian music, releasing albums by Azymuth, Joyce and Valle, as well as many new artists.
Aside from the Brazilian jazz and bossa nova-tinged music so loved by the acid-jazz crowd, parallel scenes had also emerged in London, and there were different strands of Brazilian music for everyone. As well as playing to migrant Africans and Latinos at the Bass Clef, John Armstrong visited the north of Brazil in 1988, discovering the sounds of lambada and forró, as well as hearing the song Lambada at carnival.
The next year, the song became a huge summer anthem in the UK. For Armstrong, the timing was perfect as he’d just agreed to start a lambada night with a new organisation called Brazilian Contemporary Arts. On their opening night, there were queues around the block. “We were the first people to do dance classes in any club in the country in the way that it’s now become the cheesy thing,” remembers Armstrong. “We did lambada and forró lessons in the club. We had mostly Brazilians dancing forró downstairs and a mixture of Brazilians and Anglos upstairs dancing lambada.”
Through the 80s and 90s, Brazilian Contemporary Arts would become an institution for Brazilian culture, putting on shows by major Brazilian artists culminating in an all-star line-up of Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Chico Buarque and Elza Soares for one show at the Royal Albert Hall in 1999.
DJ Cliffy was a late arrival to the scene. After starting out DJing in Bristol, he had spent six months in Brazil and came back a changed man, starting a Brazilian-themed night called Bat Macumba at the ICA in 1997. Enthralled by the new music coming out of Brazil, he wanted to do something different, creating a unique night that included short films alongside live music and DJs.
“The first night we ever did was absolutely mad,” remembers Cliffy. “The ICA was not used to running club nights and they forgot to take the tickets off people as they went in… loads of Brazilians were handing their tickets through the windows to people outside who couldn’t get in. Although they had a limit of 350 people, we had over 700 in on the night. For the first few years, we had queues down The Mall.”
After Joe Davis had taken a break from digging to start a record label, Cliffy was quick to fill his shoes: “After my first trip in 1994, I sold a few records [and] I quickly realised that with a bit of extra digging, records could cover all my travel costs. Each time I went back, I bought a few extra copies for DJs I knew. At the peak, I was going to Brazil eight times a year, almost every six weeks… Soon, I was selling to Patrick Forge, Nicola Conte, Jazzanova, Kyoto Jazz Massive, Gilles Peterson and countless others. It was still pre-downloads, so people would ring me up and I would play tracks down the phone.” Through a contact, he even had clients in Japan, where the thirst for Brazilian music was just as strong as in London.
Those early days of digging in Brazil seem so much more idyllic than today, and it’s perhaps no wonder that Peterson is even wondering if that elusive Tam… Tam… Tam…! record passed through his fingers. “When I first went [to Brazil], I found Os Ipanemas, Bossa Três’ Em Forma!, Moacir Santos’ Coisas, Pedro Santos’ [Krishnanda], many, many LPs,” remembers Davis of some of the rare records he encountered easily on that first trip.
Luckily, many of them are being reissued through labels such as Far Out Recordings, Mr Bongo and Soul Jazz Records, all UK record labels keeping the connection with Brazil alive and making records that even collectors like Peterson can’t find available to the public again. Speaking to Mr Bongo’s David Buttle, he sees there being no end to the albums and artists that could be released: “There are still tons of records to be reissued, like Amado Maita… Transa [by Caetano Veloso],” he tells me. “And [there’s] always new ones to discover, like Vozes De Bronze [who released the obscure Populário in 1974], especially the [music of] Afro Brazil is being discovered.”
As for Peterson, well he eventually got a copy of Tam… Tam… Tam…!, from an American collector for $2,000. “I’m not usually a big spender,” he says. “I might spend a couple of hundred pounds – which I know is still a lot of money – but I’m not like some of those northern-soul collectors.” And where is the record now? “I’ve got no idea where I’ve put it! I know I put it somewhere safe.”