The Bass In Brazil Beyond Samba

NILSON MATTA, ONE OF THE TOP JAZZ upright players to come out of Brazil, considers himself a lucky man.

Nilson Matta
NILSON MATTA, ONE OF THE TOP JAZZ upright players to come out of Brazil, considers himself a lucky man. “I’m very privileged to be born in Brazil,” he says. “Our music is very rich, not only in rhythms but in melody, in harmony, and in poetry.”

When most people think of Brazilian music, samba and its chilled-out cousin, bossa nova, tend to come to mind. But those styles are just the beginning; Brazil is home to staggering musical diversity. From the cattle-lands of the South to the jungles of the North, every region in Brazil has its own music culture, complete with its own genres, instrumentations, and rhythms. In this column, we’ll look at how some of those rhythms can be played on the bass.

Ze Grey
The Northeast region of Brazil—including the states of Bahia and Pernambuco— has a particularly rich musical heritage. As the historic center of slavery in Brazil, the region is today home to a large number of Afro-Brazilians, who have been instrumental to the country’s music history. In fact, samba itself was invented by Northeastern migrants who moved to Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s in search of work. In the Northeast itself, however, the dominant sound is forró. It’s an umbrella term for several styles of party music traditionally played by trios of accordion, triangle, and a double-sided drum called the zabumba. Nowadays, the ensemble is often joined by electric bass, guitar, and keyboards.

The main rhythm of forró is called baião. Its basic rhythmic cell is a two-beat, syncopated pattern similar to those found in many Caribbean genres. That rhythm is defined by the zabumba drum. “I try to become a zabumba, but with notes,” says Ze Grey, who provided the basic baião bass lines in Ex. 1. Grey is the bass player with Forró In The Dark, a New York-based group that plays old-school forró with a psychedelic rock edge. “This is the basic feel. Once I get it locked in, I start to add more notes and pauses to make the line more funky.”

Part of turning a bass into a zabumba is imitating its many sounds correctly. The drum has long bass tones, short bass tones, and a snare-like crack. Forró bassists work at making their note lengths match those of the drummer. Over the course of the basic three-note cell, it’s a short tone, followed by a long tone, and then a tight staccato crack at the end.

Besides playing the beat, the zabumba is constantly improvising with punchy fills. Bassists can use those rhythmic cues to do their own fills, but Ze Grey says a forró bassist should be restrained to make room for the rest of the band to shine. Of course, being Brazilian, he puts it in soccer terminology: “I like to play defense,” says Grey. “That’s my job. It’s not to say I’m not going to score, just every once in a while.”

The baião was popularized around Brazil in the 1940s by a singer named Luiz Gonzaga.“It’s almost like the Brazilian blues,” says jazz bassist Nilson Matta, pointing out the Mixolydian mode that dominates the sound. “Gonzaga carried this sadness because his home in the desert scrublands was such a difficult place.” The singer’s music is part of the rhythmic and melodic language that Mattas draws on as an improviser. In Ex. 2, Mattas expands on the baião, sneaking a quote from one of Gonzaga’s signature tunes, also titled “Baião,” in bars 3 and 4.

The other major rhythm played by forró bands is called xote (Ex. 3), which Ze Grey describes as “Brazilian reggae.” Sure, it’s played with triangles and accordions, but it has something of that bouncy reggae feel, especially in the bass lines.

Several styles from the Northeast come out of local Carnival traditions. In Salvador, the capital city of the Bahia state, percussion batteries march through the city playing a rhythm called ijexá, a deeply African- sounding music that comes directly from the soundtrack for Afro-Brazilian religious ceremonies. The basic pattern is outlined in Ex. 4. It features counterpoint between a repeating bell pattern and the surdos, those booming bass drums used in Carnival celebrations around the country.

Although the Carnival groups don’t have bass players, the rhythm has often been used as material for fusions with contemporary pop. Singer and composer Gilberto Gil, who hails from Salvador himself, wrote one of the most famous ijexá songs, a tune called “Toda Menina Baiana” (“All Bahian Girls”), in 1969. Its recognizable bass line is recalled in Ex. 5. Gil’s bassist places strong accents on the eighth-note pairs on beats two and four, matching the place where the surdos strike in the original rhythm (see Ex. 4). However, he’s also incorporating aspects the bell pattern into his line, imitating the bell’s syncopation in the first beat of bar 2.

The city of Recife, sitting about 400 miles north of Salvador in the state of Pernambuco, is another vibrant Brazilian music city. Its best-known sound is the Afro- Brazilian genre called maracatu, in which upwards of 50 drummers bang out complex rhythms on big wooden drums called alfaias in street performances, accompanied by dancers in colorful gowns. It’s still mainly a folkloric music, but a handful of groups in Brazil and the U.S. have been inspired to bring maracatu rhythms into a band setting. American bassist and zabumba player Mike LaValle has played in one of them, the Brooklyn-based Nation Beat. “The bass language for maracatu is really new, and it’s at least 80% coming straight from the percussion,” says LaValle. “For me, its about finding a way to work with all the rhythmic embellishments, and just make it feel good.”

LaValle provided us with the maractu line in Ex. 6, in which he translates the alfaia drum rhythms into a funk context. The muted notes come from the short tones on the drum, and the lick on the last bar follows one of the more common rhythmic cadences that end four-bar phrases in the maracatu drumming tradition.

If this all seems like a lot to digest, beware: There are many more styles to be found in Brazil. Tambour de crioula, axé, frevo, bumba-meu-boi, coco—the list just keeps going. So next time you are in a rut and looking for a fresh groove, look South— Brazil probably has the answer.


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