Percussionist, composer, bandleader
In Brazil, percussionist, composer, arranger, band-leader, and cultural/social activist Carlinhos Brown is a household name. He is ranked with some of the country’s most legendary musicians, among them Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and Sergio Mendes. In addition to leading the neighborhood band Timbalada and recording the solo albums Alfagamabetizado, released in 1997, and Omelete Man released in 1999, Brown has collaborated with artists from all over Brazil, including Mendes, Daniela Mercury, Marisa Monte, and even the heavy metal group Sepultura, who all regularly tap Brown for his constant stream of ideas. Well over 30 of his compositions have topped the charts in Brazil, and more than 200 of his songs have been recorded.
Viewing music as a universal force, Brown has also worked with American musicians Bill Laswell, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter on the Bahia Black Ritual Beating System album in 1992. “Americans should know that we don’t park and stop in one style,” said Brown about the idea of cross-continental collaboration, as quoted by Aaron Cohen in Down Beat “And what might surprise Americans is that Brazilian music has always been inside American music, and the other way around. I believe that funk was influenced by candomblé, because the rhythm is very much like it. I think that all these rhythms—dance, jungle—are very similar to what we have been doing in Brazil. Techno is an electronic samba school, the beats, the rhythms. What changes is the research that musicians do and their own tendencies. Music is still the mine that has not yet been drilled enough. Maybe only softness or kindness can reach these precious stones.”
Brown, who takes his drumming seriously and is well-versed in a variety of Brazilian percussive instruments, is an innovator, always looking for ways to take music to new and different levels. Nonetheless, one aspect of Brown’s music remains constant, the unmistakable Bahian sound—Afro-Brazilian percussion with a touch of reggae beat. He is the most visible force of a movement called axé, a Brazilian style that takes traditional Afro-Brazilian drumming and sets it to a pop beat with electric guitars and a brass section. The music’s infectious sound has helped to make the city of Salvador a popular destination for tourists on musical pilgrimages.
Like New Orleans, Louisiana, and Havana, Cuba, Salvador de Bahia is a city that breathes creativity. Formerly the center of government from 1549 until 1763, Salvador remains the music capital of Brazil. For centuries, the city served as the heart of the Portuguese sugar industry, as well as the slave trade. Even today, Salvador boasts the largest center of African culture in the Americas, and the beat of Bahian drumming is heard everywhere—from stereo speakers blasting current pop songs to large drumming ensembles that take to the streets.
Born Antonio Carlos Santos de Freitas in 1962 in Candeal Pequeno, Bairro de Brotas, Salvador de Bahia, Brazil; son of a candomblé practitioner. Education: Studied Brazilian percussion with Pintado do Bongo.
Began drumming on tins as a child; started playing professionally at age 17; worked as a sideman and wrote music for the W.R. studios, early 1980s; collaborated with Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Djavan, and others, launched Timbalada, 1980s—; released debut solo album Alfagamabetizado, 1997; released Omelete Man, 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Metro Blue/Blue Note Records, 304 Park Ave. S., 3rd FL, New York City, NY 10010, phone: (212) 253-3000, fax: (212) 253-3099.
Olodum, Filhos de Gandhi, lie Aiye, and Brown’s Timbalada—collectively known as Blocos Afros—all perform at festivals and carnivals on a regular basis. Like the other drum-based, modern samba-funk groups, Timbalada often includes up to a few hundred people playing a variety of different instruments. They practice in a large outdoor plaza Brown built across from his recording studio in Candeal, an impoverished area of favelas, or shantytowns, built on the hills surrounding the more affluent city of Salvador below.
Timbalada, named for a small hand-held drum called the timbau which Brown designed, is a community association as well as a musical group. Brazil has the greatest gap between rich and poor in the hemisphere, and millions lack housing, education, and access to healthcare. Besides making music, therefore, Brown gave Timbalada a social mission, one that includes educational projects and aid to street children. “Like many cities in Brazil,” Brown commented in an interview with Dan Rosenberg for Rhythm Music Magazine, “we have many many street children. One of our projects is working with these kids, allowing them to work with professional musicians, and play with a wide variety of instruments.”
Timbalada recordings—including Mineral, Trio Electrico, and Mae De Samba —are sold, though Brown insists the group’s aspirations are not commercial. “I want people to learn from this, from the hundreds of years of our history, our ethnic background, and to find a better way. I want people to rediscover happiness,” he explained to Rosenberg. In Salvador, people find joy in music. Every year, during the weeks preceding Lent, the city’s inhabitants celebrate with a major street carnival. Music begins each day at noon and lasts until the next morning. “We play, not for money, but to celebrate happiness. Our carnival is a street carnival. It is for everyone, not just for those with money,” Brown said.
Having grown up in the Candeal neighborhood, Brown is concerned about uplifting the community. One way in which Brown has done this is thorough the Association Pracatum, a movement he founded with friends in the 1980s. The organization runs the Escola Profissionali-zante de Músicos De Rua Professional School for Street Musicians), a school for underprivileged children that teaches, in addition to music, vocational skills, computer programming, and the English language. The students must also attend regular schools. Additionally, Brown uses his own money, combined with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to build better homes for residents of his hometown.
Born in 1962 in Candeal Pequeno, Bairro de Brotas, Salvador de Bahia as Antonio Carlos Santos de Freitas, Brown discovered the drums early in life. His father, a candomblé practitioner (a Brazilian religion that blends African and Catholic roots), and his Protestant mother, suffered financial hardships. In order to help out the family, Brown as a boy worked carrying tins filled with water to neighbors’ homes. “I went up the slope with a bucket of water, and I came back with it empty, just beating on it,” Brown told Cohen. “The way I beat on the tins got attention from the neighbors. But it was not only this beat. In every house that we came in to deliver water, there was a radio playing different music. And depending on the house that I came in, I came out singing that song.”
The songs that Brown heard came from all over the world. Music imported from the United States and the Caribbean, in particular, reflected a shared culture with black Brazilians. The Motown records, notes Brown, were especially uplifting in the 1960s and 1970s, when a military dictatorship ruled Brazil. In fact, after following the music of James Brown as a teen, he changed his name to Carlinhos Brown as a tribute to the giant of African American pop music. Other styles—such as Dizzie Gillespie’s Cuban jazz bands and the mambo sounds of Perez Prado and Celia Cruz—also found their way to Salvador.
Within these various forms of black music, Brown heard infinite possibilities for percussion. He began playing music from countries like Angola, Cuba, the United States, and Brazil, borrowing tunes from Elvis Presley, James Brown, and Roberto Carlos and infusing them with an Afro-Bahian sound. Soon, other local musicians began to notice his talent, including the legendary percussionist Pintado do Bongo, who became Brown’s teacher and primary influence. A fast learner, Brown quickly mastered all the percussion instruments he had access to and began performing professionally. “At 17, I started playing and being paid for it,” Brown said to Cohen. “I played in samba groups, in nightclubs where they regulate underage people. So I just hid under the table when the authorities came.”
By the early 1980s, Brown was one of the most sought-after sidemen in Salvador. During this period, the young percussionist also took a job at the studios of W.R., a local recording company and radio station. While there, in addition to learning recording techniques and various electronic instruments, he composed advertising jingles and pop tunes featuring his signature Afro-Brazilian beat. They became instant hits, leading Brown to collaborations—writing, recording, and touring internationally—with Veloso, Gil, Costa, and Djavan.
As a solo artist, Brown released his first album, Alfag-amabetizado, in 1997. Recorded in various studios in Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, New York, and Paris, the album features the song “A Namorada,” which became a smash hit in Brazil, Japan, and Chile and was included for the soundtrack for Speed II: Cruise Control. He released his second album, Omelete Man, in 1999.
Like his debut, Omelete Man stood as a marked contrast to his performances with Tambalada. Filled with an eclectic array of sounds, including strings, mandolins, and organs, neither of Brown’s albums were restricted by stylistic or national boundaries. As
Brown told Los Angeles Times writer Don Heckman, “The title of the album [Omelete Man] means a mixture of music, but it also means mixed race and culture— whatever helps bring people closer to a sense of peace. All flavors of culture. Because I believe in mixing, and in people not hurting each other. Music has no frontiers.”
Alfagamabetizado, Capitol, 1997.
(Contributor) Speed II: Cruise Control (soundtrack), Virgin, 1997.
Omelete Man, Metro Blue, 1999.
Billboard, September 23, 2000.
Boston Globe, June 18, 1999; June 25, 1999.
Down Beat, November 1999; November 2000.
Hispanic, October 1998.
Los Angeles Times, April 6, 1997; June 24, 1999; June 28, 1999; September 12, 2000.
Rhythm Music Magazine, November 1997.
Village Voice, July 6, 1999
Transatlantico, http://www.transatlantico.com (February 2, 2001).