In Brazil from the late 1960's onward, Caetano Veloso, Jorge Ben, Tom Zé, and many others blended elements of psychedelic rock, jazz, indigenous folk, with more "classic urban styles (bossa nova, samba, etc) and instrumentation.
As much a political identity movement as a cultural one (are they ever truly separate?), Tropicalia artists as a whole were interested in using artistic expression as removing barriers and as a means of enabling other societal freedoms.
Simultaneously, but across the Atlantic, European mystical trance rock of the time, beginning with outfits like Parson Sound and Amon Düül, and continued by Träd Gräs och Stenar and Algarnas Tradgard, were mining a ritualistic folk vein with electric and steel tools and similar utopian ideals. Integrating modern compositional techniques with earthy rhythms and distortion, they too blurred the lines between high and low culture.
Even though the true genesis of the recordings that became "Paêbirú" is cloaked in mystery, one can imagine Lula Côrtes and Zé Ramalho’s epiphany as it dawned on them how the quests and aesthetics of these geographically disparate movements could be combined and integrated with their own spiritual concerns.
Call it a missing link or a Rosetta Stone, but in hindsight, but "Paêbirú" is at once an utterly unique and intuitively obvious mapping and melding of all of these pieces. Bringing together an extremely talented coterie of like minded musicians (many only credited by a single name) armed with instruments ranging from the fiery (fuzzed out electric guitars and Farfisa organs) and the earthy (all manner of percussion), to the watery smooth (saxophone) and the airy (flute), Côrtes and Ramalho composed a song cycle with an LP side dedicated to each of these four elements and their place in indigenous cosmologies.
To call it ambitious is a bit of an understatement. Trance inducing yet possessing a streetwise and funky accessibility and lush arrangements, it should have been a monster success story, but then disaster struck. In a bizarrely ironic twist given the theme of the album, almost all copies were consumed in a great fire (or possibly a flood – details are again sketchy).
Rather than being widely appreciated as a masterpiece, it became notorious primarily for its rarity. And what a record the world missed out on.The Terra side begins with "Trilha De Sumé"’s opening strains of vocal chanting and buzzing drones, slithery flutes hover into view above a flurry of percussion as Ramalho's staccato bass line punches through the haze.
Ramalho's hypnotic multi-tracked vocals swarm like flies in the dust before devolving to near pre-lingual vocalization and fading out leaving only the stubbornly persistent bass and a beautifully rendered saxophone solo.
"Culto À Terra" is a chanting percussion circle nattered by a blazingly gonzo guitar lead and a return of the saxophone. This leads into the lazy afternoon jazzy "Bailado Das Muscarias" which features Toni Tôrres' arcing piano scales and Ronaldo's pixie flute eventually sharing the stage with Côrtes signature uplifting picking.Side Ar's "Harpo Dos Ares" floats and whooshes on arpeggiated guitar and flute augmented by Côrtes and Ramalho’s vocal animal calls.
It's a journey through the forest canopy held aloft on a delicate instrumental lattice. I must admit to being at a distinct disadvantage not speaking Portugese because although the lyrics to all songs are printed in the CD booklet, they are only done so as reproductions of the original album sleeves, and not translated to English, so I cannot even begin to decipher the lyrics but "Nâo Existe Molhado Igual Ao Pranto" continues the trip into darker territory musically.
Gone is the lilting picking replaced by a more mournful sparse and blues-tinged conversation between the guitar, sax and flute. Overlapped moans and wails yield only temporarily to Ramalho's nearly spoken vocals in a disorienting but hypnotic whirlpool. "Omm" continues the spiral inwards with its meditative tone. Side Fogo wastes no time clearing the air with Don Tronxo's incendiary guitar solo over Côrtes' self-assured stride.
"Nas Paredes Da Pedra Encantada"'s wavering and fuzzed organ intro recalls some of Tom Zé's best grooves, but Zé never hit the pure motorik rave-up heights that the ensemble achieve here. Lock-step drumming and a throbbingly insistent bass line underly wild organ squiggles, shouted vocal outbursts, and euphoric alto sax calls to the sky as the fire gains strength.
"Marácas De Fogo" steps up the funk as Ramalho seems to exhort the band to flee the studio and dance through the streets. Side Agua's "Louvaçao A Iemanjá" earns perhaps the purest Tropicalia nod with an a capella call and response evoking Veloso's fondness for the simplicity and directness of this arrangement.
"Regato Da Montanha" finds a sweet balance between the sounds of flowing water, nimble distorted electric guitar, and multiple percussive grooves. The call and response of the side opener is recalled in the playful echoing of the guitar lines.
"Beira Mar" successfully marries the fluid jangle and stuttering of guitars with indigenous instruments and field recordings. "Pedra Templo Animal"'s waterfall of a bass line caresses another fine ensemble piece and "Trilha De Sumé" ends the record as the morning mist yields to a beautiful sunburst of acoustic guitar.
A CD reissue faces a difficult problem with this release, namely that the original double LP format is really the best way to present it (will someone please consider a vinyl reissue?!?). Given the spatial constraints of a CD, Shadoks has done a pretty nice job in its presentation.
The CD booklet reproduces the cover art from the original release including pictures of Ramalho's penetrating wide-eyed stare and Côrtes’ intent concentration on his guitar as well as shots of all of the other musicians and Côrtes' liner notes (like the lyrics in the original Portugese).
But perhaps the nicest touch is the lovely photo of the Mayan (?) runes that formed at least part of the inspiration for Paêbirú.
While there may be none remaining alive that can fully decipher the meaning of these ancient stone carvings, it should be hard to find anyone that can remain unaffected by the singular experience of "Paêbirú."
*Steve Rybicki (Foxy Digitalis)