Elijah Wald – Latin American music 2000

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By Elijah Wald

At 30, Marisa Monte is the top-selling female singer in Brazil. Despite this, she is something of an anomaly. Though a product of the rock generation, she bases her sound in the acoustic instrumentation of the older MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira) style. Her albums include original material, and covers that range from MPB stars like Caetano Veloso to Lou Reed. Her last album had guest appearances by Gilberto Gil, Laurie Anderson, and Philip Glass. Famed for her cutting-edge live shows, she chose to decorate her newest album with a crude drawing of a topless woman by an underground comic artist of the 1950s.

To Monte, this is all completely natural. “I am from Rio de Janeiro, and grew up listening to all this traditional information of Brazilian music, and also my generation had a lot of pop, international influence,” she explains in slightly broken English. “So I represent this young music, which is based on mixes, like our culture. Talk about Brazil is talk about variety, diversity and mixes, because we are such a big country with a lot of different styles of music. We had these mixes in our traditional music, and we are still creating new ones.”

Monte, who appears at Berklee Performance Center this Sunday, became interested in a singing career in her early teens. She received formal classical training, and appeared in school shows and as a backup vocalist for friends who were forming bands and making demo recordings. Her decision to devote herself to Brazilian pop came while in Italy, where she had gone at 18 to pursue her vocal studies.

“I was thinking of living there and doing a classical career,” she says. “But when I was alone there in Italy, I saw Brazil for the first time from outside and I realized how important it was for me. I realized how I missed Brazilian music, and how impossible it would be to have a classical career and live outside of Brazil.”

She returned to Rio a year later, and immediately attracted attention with her dynamic live shows. For over two years she resisted making a record, letting her reputation spread through the press and by word of mouth, then recorded her first album as the soundtrack to a live TV special. It was a sensational success, heralding a new era in Brazilian pop. Since the end of the military dictatorship in the early 1980s, rock had dominated the national charts. “There was the political opening, and it was the opportunity for a lot of young people to get into the musical area and to reestablish the freedom of expression,” Monte says. “So they did it through the rock movement; the music was powerful and screamed, and it had to be like that.

“At that time, we had a break in our music. MPB had a temporary decadence, because this rock movement took all the market. When I really started, in ‘87, I was one of the first artists to put together the new artists, the new poets of the rock movement, and the traditional music, so young people could listen to MPB again and a lot of old people could enjoy the rock compositions.”

At its best, Monte’s music combines disparate elements in fusions that seem completely natural. “Cerebro Eletronico,” off her new “A Great Noise” album, sounds at first like techno-pop. It is only after a moment that one realizes that the pulsing beat comes not from a synthesizer but an accordion. Her voice on the chorus is electronically modified, providing a striking contrast to the fierce cry of her unmodified lead vocal, and the whole is driven by pounding drums and acoustic guitars.

“Accordion, percussion, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and voice, these are the most popular instruments in Brazil,” Monte says. “So I made this choice to make all the songs in this atmosphere. The idea was to be very organic, acoustic, without synthesizors, because the most important character of our music is to be human, not to be electronic. We also use a lot of synthesizors, but it is not our best. The best in Brazilian music is the human feeling, and that’s what I was searching for.”

Asked about the album cover, a smiling nude who, for American release only, has been censored with a black bar over her nipples, and the naked couples who cavort through the pages of the CD booklet, Monte explains that they are also an element of her cultural message.

“These are by an artist, Carlos Zefiro, who has a great historical importance,” she says. “He produced these little erotic books during the peak of the moralism and the dictatorship in Brazil. He produced clandestinely, nobody knew who he was, and he distributed millions and millions of these magazines, and he created a school of pop Brazilian art and drawing. What I like in his work is he talks about Brazilian values and Brazilian behavior at that time, and the way he does it, it is simple, it is black and white, it is cheap, not something expensive and sophisticated. It is accessible to everyone.

“In Brazil, I’m kind of a sophisticated singer, you know. So the normal, expected thing would be to have a photo, on brilliant paper, colorful. And I wanted to go against that, doing something for everybody, not sophisticated, but popular, that everybody could get and understand. Then I took Zefiro’s work.

“It’s so naive, this kind of drawing. It’s something from the ‘50s; it’s not something that can really excite someone nowadays. So it’s different from Playboy and the photo-magazines; there’s not this objective anymore. I think it’s pure, and it represents the popular culture in Brazil. For me he is like our Roy Lichtenstein.”

“A Great Noise” includes seven studio tracks, but is mostly a live album, and Monte considers it a “Polaroid” of where she is now, ten years after her debut. With it finished, she is reassessing and relaxing before moving on to her next stage. “I don’t have plans to do a new record,” she says. “I’m just taking a break now. I’m composing, I’m just thinking and talking and listening to a lot of music.”

Bale Folclorico da Bahia (Brazil 1997)

Elijah Wald

As a rule, the World Music production company avoids bringing the same group into town two years running, for fear of exhausting its audience. The striking exception for this season is the Bale[get accent] Folclo[get accent]rico da Bahia, whose two shows last year at John Hancock Hall were so successful that it is back for a four-day run this Thursday through Sunday at the Emerson Majestic Theatre (876-4275).

Recalling last year's visit, it is easy to see why the Bale[get accent] is getting this sort of treatment. It is the most polished and exciting African diaspora dance company to come through Boston in recent times. Walson Botelho, the co-founder and director, is an anthropologist and dancer from Brazil's northern province of Bahia, the heartland of Afro-Brazilian culture, and he has a gift for combining ancient traditions with a sure theatrical sense that makes them come alive on stage.

This year's program includes most of the highlights of the old show, plus a new introductory section, "Oxala[get accent]'s Court,'' which has already won international awards. "It is a piece about Candomble, the Yoruba religion brought to Brazil with the slaves,'' Botelho explains, speaking with a thick Brazilian accent. "We show some of the most important rituals. We start with the offering to Exu, the god that makes the bridge between the human beings and the gods, then we show the initiation of the new adept in the religion, 'Yao[get accent]'s Initiation.' In Yoruba, Yao[get accent] means woman, but in Candomble, even if you are a man, you are considered the wife of the gods, so we use the same word for a man or a woman.''

This section ends with "Pantheon dos Orixa[get accent]s,'' a procession of the main Candomble gods, from Ogun, the god of iron and war, to Iansa[get accent], the goddess of storms and winds, and Oxala[get accent], the supreme creator of the universe. Botelho, who is himself a priest in the Candomble church, says that it was only in the last year that he felt capable of putting together a piece of this sort.

"This was something that I wished to do since I formed the company,'' he says. "But it was very difficult. Before, I felt I was not prepared to work with this kind of ritual. Because they are very sacred, and it's not possible to work with these without permission of the gods.''

Because of his personal beliefs, Botelho approached the piece quite differently from his earlier work. "It's almost in the pure state,'' he says. "Even the fabrics for the costumes are the same that we use in the original religion. I told to the dancers, 'I don't want technique in this piece. I want this piece like we can see in the rituals.' Because in the rituals, we don't have choreographers, we don't have rehearsals. Of course, if you put a thing on a stage, you have lights, sound, microphones, you have many things that are not natural, but I wanted it as natural as possible.''

As for the rest of the show, there is a traditional fishermen's dance that ends with the dancers squirming like fish in the net skirt of the sea goddess, Iemanja[get accent], the dramatic "Maculele" stick dance, and a piece based on the martial arts form capoeira. There are also three contemporary Afro-Brazilian pieces: A modernist depiction of the creation of the universe, the acrobatic showcase "Afixire,'' and the final "Samba Reggae,'' a carnival dance that ends with the dancers snaking through the audience and urging everyone to join in.

For Botelho, such outreach is at the heart of his work. His dream is to bring Bahian culture to the world, and to forge links between African Americans, both North and South, and their root traditions in West Africa. His only regret is that, for the moment, the company is touring so constantly that it is virtually impossible to develop new pieces. In the next year, they will have only a month and a half in Brazil, between tours of the U.S., Europe, Lebanon and the Caribbean.

After years of obscurity, however, Botelho is not complaining: "Three years ago we had none of this. We had many difficulties, in terms of how to survive in Brazil with minimal money, how to maintain the company. So now we are in the right moment to do this, and we cannot lose it. We are far from our families, and it is very difficult for many of us, but this is our moment, and I think it is our life.''

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By Elijah Wald

Two weeks ago, when a judge in Mexico City dismissed charges against five men accused of murdering an American businessman and reportedly compared them to Robin Hood, it must have seemed to most Anglophone Americans like complete insanity. To someone familiar with the Latin pop world, it sounds as if she had been listening to too many corridos.

Ballads, the musical news bulletins which celebrated Robin Hood, Pretty Boy Floyd and thousands more, died out in Anglophone culture with the rise of literacy and the media. Their Mexican equivalent, however, is still going strong. On a bus in Guerrero, a singer will climb aboard and sing a corrido telling the rhymed tale of a massacre of peasants and laying the blame at the feet of the governor. In a Chiapas street market, a cassette by Los Zapatistas del Norte celebrates the triumphs of the guerilla leader Subcomandante Marcos. And, in the United States, Los Tigres del Norte and Los Tucanes de Tijuana are on top of the Latin charts with "narcocorridos,'' ballads of the drug smugglers who have fallen heir to a tradition that once celebrated revolutionary heroes like Villa and Zapata.

The continued success of corridos is a surprising anomaly in the modern world. As other Latin styles turn to synthesizers and carribean rhythms, the corrido groups springing up in Northern Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. continue to sing waltz-time stories backed by accordion, bass, drums and bajo sexto, a low-pitched 12-string guitar. Even folklorists are surprised. While the music had a golden age in the early part of this century, documented on two box sets from Arhoolie records, "Corridos and Tragedias de la Frontera'' and "The Mexican Revolution,'' by the 1960s most experts thought its time was passing.

That changed when Los Tigres, "The Tigers of the North,'' vaulted to the top of the charts in 1971 with "Contrabando y Traicion'' ("Contraband and Betrayal''). The ballad of a couple who smuggle marijuana from Mexico to L.A. in their car tires, after which the man tries to break up and the woman shoots him, was made into a popular film, and started a new wave of corrido groups, with the Tigres firmly ensconced as kings of the style. In the intervening years, they have made some thirty albums, and 18 more songs have spawned movies in which they make brief appearances.

Recently, though, the Tigres have found their crown in jeopardy. Los Tucanes (The Toucans), a ten-year-old group, have rocketed to the top of the charts with songs like "La Pinata,'' a hit from their new "Tucanes de Plata'' album (EMI Latin), which tells of a party with a cocaine-filled pinata. In this and other songs, the Tucanes depart from tradition by celebrating not just the valor of the working-class smugglers, but the power and flashy lifestyle of the big drug lords, and the drugs themselves. As Enrique Franco Aguilar, a San Jose songwriter who gave the Tigres some of their most influential hits, puts it, " 'Contrabando y Traicion' is Walt Disney compared to the songs of Los Tucanes.''

The result has been an outcry on both sides of the border. Citizens' groups have been formed, and the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sinaloa have banned narcocorridos from the radio. Comparisons have been made to gangsta rap, though Anglophone reporters often seem puzzled by the fact that the Tucanes' accordion-driven waltzes and polkas are more perky than forbidding. (The Tucanes have further confused critics by pairing the release of each corrido disc with a companion disc, such as 1997's "Tucanes de Oro,'' featuring love songs and boleros in the popular "Tejano'' style of Grupo Limite and the late Selena.)

What critics often ignore is that the narcocorridos, as a tradition, are only tangentially about drugs. Like our ballads of Jesse James and Billy the Kid, the theme is less a celebration of crime than a dislike of authority and big money. "The people who buy these records are very poor, and are struggling under a system which is devised to keep them marginalized,'' says James Nicolopulos, a professor at the University of Texas who studies contemporary corrido. "These people who beat the system, who break out of that, are looked upon as culture heroes. And there's also the element of conflict with Anglo-Saxon civilization, which is a long-running theme in Mexican culture. Because the United States is so intrusive into Mexico in terms of the drug policy, if you beat the system you're also beating the cultural antagonist.''

In this, the narcocorridos hark back to the Mexican War of the 1840s, to folk tales of border outlaws, and most obviously to corridos of the "tequileros'' who smuggled liquor into the U.S. during prohibition. While providing entertainment and an emotional release, they also reflect a viewpoint of which few Anglo-Americans are aware: To rural Mexicans, the "war on drugs'' is most visible as a flood of armed troops into agricultural districts, borders and coastal areas, which have in no way halted the flow of drugs -- indeed the police and soldiers are widely perceived as completely in the pocket of the drug lords -- but have been a source of harrassment, extortion and violence.

Corrido singers point out that the smugglers in their ballads tend to end badly, either dead or in prison, and many narcocorridos include at least a token admonishment against drug use. Indeed, the Tigres' Grammy-nominated double CD, "Jefe de Jefes'' ("Boss of Bosses'') (Fonovisa) includes a couple of direct anti-drug songs. Nonetheless, while drugs are becoming an ever-greater problem in urban areas, there is still a perception among many Mexicans that the trade is, for them, a largely economic matter and the buyers and users are in the U.S.

On "Jefe de Jefes,'' the Tigres make this point directly. Two songs, "Por Debajo del Agua'' (colloquially "Under the Table'') and "El General'' ("The General'') imply that the real power behind the drug trade is north of the border, and probably includes government officials. The latter song is centered on General Rebolla Gutierez, the Mexican contact for the D.E.A. who was dismissed after accusations that he was a close associate of the drug lord Pablo Escobar. The song defends the General, suggesting that he was removed because he could not be bought off, and goes on to say, "The gringos certify other countries/ They don't want drugs to exist . . ./ But tell me, who certifies the United States?''

As with the genre in general, the Tigres' message is decidely mixed, romanticizing the traffickers and gun battles even while making more serious points. Since the Tucanes' upped the ante, the Tigres have taken on a harder edge and "Jefe de Jefes,'' which takes its title from a hit about a shadowy "Godfather'' figure, has them abandoning the gaudy cowboy garb worn by all corrido groups in favor of gangster-style leather, and doing both their cover shoot and video in the forbidding ruins of Alcatraz.

Nonetheless, despite the popularity of narcocorridos, the Tigres continue to sing about plenty of other subjects. The album's first single, "El Mojado Acaudalado'' ("The Wealthy Wetback'') is sung in the character of an illegal immigrant who has made good money in the U.S., but is joyfully returning to spend it in his "beloved land.'' In a more overtly political vein, "El Sucesor'' ("The Succesor'') is a barely veiled attack on the ruling PRI party, with a departing figure (presumeably ex-president Salinas) handing over "the keys to the store,'' and warning his successor that they have a nice little business and he should just keep things moving smoothly as they have for 100 years if he does not want to end up like Colosio, the candidate assassinated during the last presidential election.

Salinas, who came to symbolize the corruption in Mexican politics, has been a fertile subject for corridos, including the Tigres' satiric "El Circo'' ("The Circus''). Such songs are, in the opinion of most older corrido fans, what gives the genre its continued importance. "What the corrido is supposed to do is be a voice of the people,'' Nicolopulos says. "It should be a counter-discourse to the discourse of power.''

While the narcocorridos attract more press attention, these songs remain the meat of the genre, though many are only performed by local groups and issued on poorly-distributed cassettes. Any event, from a local crime to the success of baseball star Fernando Valenzuela is instantly set in verse and sung in bars and cafes. Several recent corridos tell of attacks by the "Chupacabras'' ("Goatsucker'') a beast said to be rampaging through Mexico and Puerto Rico. In California, there has been a whole cycle celebrating Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union, and "Los Illegales,'' a recent song by Franco for the Fresno group Los Pumas de Jalisco, mocks the xenophobia of Proposition 187, with Governor Pete Wilson blaming immigrants for everything from forest fires to earthquakes.

Franco strongly condemns the new narcocorridos, though he credits them with having revived interest in the genre. His own most popular songs have been socially conscious numbers that provided the Tigres with some of their biggest hits of the 1980s. "Tres Veces Mojado'' ("Three Times a Wetback'') told of a poor Salvadoran who had to illegally cross three borders to reach the U.S. "Jaula de Oro'' ("Cage of Gold'') was the lament of a Mexican immigrant who found economic success but lost his culture and his country.

Most recently, Franco has written and produced an album for La Tradicon Del Norte (The Northern Tradition), a quartet of twenty-something brothers from outside Tijuana. Released by BMG, "Corridos Para los Buenos, los Malos, y los Feos'' ("Ballads for the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly'') is Franco's answer to the narcocorrido trend. "We think the drug traffic is a crime and should be attacked,'' he says. "So we are trying to do something different.''

La Tradicion are superlative musicians, with tricky accordion lines and a rootsy sound that makes the Tigres and Tucanes sound formulaic by comparison. Many of the songs Franco has written for them are light, action-filled numbers like the hit, "Gallo de Pelea'' ("Fighting Cock''), a machismo-filled boast ("Cocks and women, the two things are pretty much equal,'' the chorus says. "The cocks give me money, the women take it away.'')

"These songs are an escape for the public,'' Franco says, speaking in Spanish. "It is the only way for the people to be silly, to create their lies [myths]. We talk about the gringos who hit us, about the bad government, about the police. But it is all fiction, right?''

Maybe yes, maybe no. Many of Franco's songs seem like more than simple escapist fare. "El Lobo de Sinaloa'' ("The Wolf of Sinaloa''), for example, is a portrait of a young hit man selling himself to the governor of a Mexican state notorious for its feudal agrarian system and violent peasant-landowner struggles. Since a Laredo sheriff won a suit against a corrido label, all such songs are at least supposedly fictitious, and Franco says that the character of El Lobo is his invention, but adds that it represents "the type of person whom the politicians get involved with, young guys who will do anything.''

Another song makes no pretension to fiction: "Rigoberta Menchu'' is a celebration of the Guatemalan peasant organizer who won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. Then there is "Declaracion de Guerra,'' which takes its plot from an old joke, but makes the point that when the U.S. won wars against Germany and Japan it then gave them money to rebuild, while when it won against Mexico it seized half the country (Mexicans remain intensely aware that until 1848 virtually the entire Southwestern U.S. was part of the Mexican Republic).

Franco feels that dealing with such subjects, albeit through fiction, is part of his mission as a corrido composer. "Traditionally, all the corridos were about real events,'' he says. "It was a newspaper. In one song, I say that the Mexican people learned history by reading a songbook.''

Today, despite the dominance of drug songs, he continues to have faith in the power of the genre. "Too many of these 'artists,' in quotation marks, only want money,'' he says. "But when you have a good interpreter the corridos can still have a very strong effect. Because the people believe in these artists. If the artists wanted, they could make a revolution. A great artist is more powerful than a politician.''

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Tania Libertad

By Elijah Wald

Starting in the 1990s, a flood of stories began appearing about the “Latin music boom” in the United States, but almost all of them revealed a basic misunderstanding of what music was fueling that boom. Anglos, the press included, tend to think of “Latin” as roughly equivalent to what the Latin scene calls “tropical” music, and focus on salsa, along with maybe a nod to the success of the Buena Vista Social Club. This ignores both Mexican music, which accounts for roughly two thirds of all Spanish-language record sales in the United States, and the mainstream pop singers who are known throughout Latin America but whose work has little regional flavor.

For example, there is Tania Libertad, one of the most varied and ambitious singers in Latin music. Libertad has never become a pop idol on the order of José José or Luís Miguel, but her records are heard from Mexico to Argentina. She is probably best known as the queen of modern bolero, the sinuous, romantic music that emerged from Cuba in the 1920s and was popularized by a string of Mexican trios and female soloists. However, she has recorded over the years with rock bands and symphony orchestras, and sung everything from mariachi to nueva canción and pop fusion styles.

Since the late 1990s, Libertad has turned much of her attention on the music of black Peru. “The town where I was born, Chiclayo, is the only black town in the north on the Peruvian coast,” she explains, speaking in Spanish from a tour stop. “So I have this from my roots. The culture of Peru has three roots that are extremely important. There are black roots, Indian roots, and white roots, which put together have produced a music that is astonishing and magical, but few people have had the fortune to hear it. My own music has very little of the Indian part, because I haven’t lived in Peru’s indigenous regions, so I did not develop that part. I developed the black part, the mulatto part. I am a person who has gone through life singing the musical forms linked with the countries that I have visited, but my true roots are the African roots mixed with Spanish roots that produced the mulataje, the Peruvian mulatto music, and from that point of view my music is best considered African, from the Peruvian coast.”

Libertad explicitly connected to the African side of her work with a 1994 album, África en América, which included electric arrangements of Afro-Latin ceremonial music, but her emphasis may still surprise some long-time fans. She is better known for lilting ballads like “Alfonsina y el Mar,” which made her an international star after she moved from Peru to Mexico in the late 1970s. Though she began singing professionally at age seven and had already recorded some ten albums in Peru, it was in Mexico that her career really took flight. There, she led a revival of the bolero, then went on to record albums of Mexican ranchera, Brazilian-flavored pop, orchestral concert material, and duets with the Cuban singers Pablo Milanés and Silvio Rodríguez.

“That is the wonderful thing,” she says. “If you are an artist who is open to all kinds of influences, and who has the chance to live with all different kinds of people, in different countries, you also have to live with their music. So I could not have lived in Mexico without trying mariachi and bolero, and many things. But also, this is not foreign to me. If you look for the root in each of the musical expressions in Latin America, you will find African roots.”

In recent years, Libertad’s touring band has included Peruvian musicians along with Cubans and other Latin players, and features acoustic instruments such as the Peruvian guitar and cajón, the wooden percussion box that has spread from Afro-Peruvian music into modern flamenco. Libertad says that, while the sound will be more percussive than some of her fans expect, she will be performing the songs that have made her famous. “If the Mexicans come, they will hear José Alfredo Jiménez,” she says, referring to the dean of ranchera songwriters. “And we will sing the boleros, but we will make them sound different; they will have a different feel. I will try to make them share a common root with the other material, and we will try to make the whole concert have a unity, a single color.”

Pery Ribeiro

By Elijah Wald

Pery Ribeiro's name is not familiar to many American listeners, but his first big hit certainly is. The Brazilian singer made history in 1963, when he recorded the original version of "Garota de Ipanema,'' "The Girl from Ipanema.''

Ribeiro, who makes his local debut Tuesday at Scullers Jazz Club, says that he came across the song more or less by accident. "I was recording my second album, and in a night I was going to see a show -- Tom [Antonio Carlos] Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes, Joao Gilberto -- and then suddenly Jobim said to Vinicius, 'Let's play the music that we just finished two days ago.' He was reading with a small piece of paper, and he started to sing 'The Girl from Ipanema.'

"I fell in love with the song immediately, and I went there the next day and he sung it again, and I picked up a small tape recorder and recorded the whole thing and ran to the studio and said to the gentleman there who was making the arrangements for me, 'Listen to this wonderful song that Tom Jobim just made!' The guy fell in love also, and said, 'Man, let's record this right away.' So we recorded it and put it on the market. ''

The rest, as they say, is history. "The Girl From Ipanema'' went on to be recorded hundreds of times and, in an English-language version by Astrud Gilberto, became the world's best-selling Brazilian record.

Ribeiro says that the international success of bossa nova was completely unexpected by its founders. "Everybody was surprised. Even Tom Jobim, he was the father of the whole thing, but he was very surprised. Because when the bossa nova started, it wasn't a kind of a movement that we said, 'OK, let's make something commercially that we can put in the whole world.'

"It was a very sincere thing: 'Let's play your music.' 'OK, what do you think about this?' 'Oh, beautiful.' Like any young people. Most of us were very naive at that time. So when it exploded in the whole world, when they first invited the people to come over to New York to participate in the big show there in the Carnegie Hall, it was very confusing.''

Thinking back, though, Ribeiro says that there was a natural link between bossa nova and what was happening in the United States. "I remember when we started to get together, at Nara Leao's place, we'd sit down on the floor and start to drink scotch, and we'd listen to Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughan and so many other people. That really inspired all the composers to make good songs, very good music, and do something different in the Brazilian music, inspired in the American feeling. So, when the whole thing left Brazil and came to United States, I think the audience, the critics, identified themselves with the music, because it was something that almost belonged to them too.''

As times changed, Brazil turned to other musical styles, and Ribeiro and the other bossa nova stars had to adapt. "We had to develop our whole lives from there on. We had to work, after all. We had to put food in the refrigerator, pay the school for our children. So, when the bossa nova went down a little bit we all had to find some new ways to be entertainers, singers. But bossa nova always was inside of me, always. So, if we couldn't have a chance to sing much in Brazil, I started to look for someplace else, going to Europe, coming to America.''

Ribeiro spent some years in the U.S., singing with Sergio Mendes, then returned to Brazil in the 1970s. Now, however, he is frustrated with the state of music at home and has decided to move his whole family north and settle in Miami. "I love Brazil; it is still my country, but right now at the moment it is terrible to live there. We are transforming our personality, our taste. So most of the people who make what we call M.P.B. [Brazilian pop music] are trying to find some new places: Ivan Lins is almost living in New York and Los Angeles, Dori Caymmi is in Los Angeles, Cesar Camargo Mariano is in New York, Leny Andrade is in New York. All the people that make very good music are looking for new audiences all over the world. ''

For Ribeiro, at least, this new status as an expatriate does not seem to be causing any anguish. "Miami is something like Rio: I love this weather, the way of life. As a matter of fact, I love America. And I feel that Florida is a place that is growing and exploding. Things are starting happening here, and I feel that I can contribute something, and I like that very much. I feel the bossa nova, that style of Brazilian music, never was so hot here as it is right now at this moment. It is still the music that the whole country, the whole world is expecting from Brazilians. So I am trying to follow my star. ''

Guillermo Gomez-Peña

By Elijah Wald

Globe Correspondent

The Ethnographic Museum of Irrelevant Races (EMIR) is not exactly a museum, though it does involve walking around and looking at exhibits. It is not exactly theater, though it is in MIT’s Little Kresge theater space and features live performers. Director Guillermo Gomez-Pena calls it "performance art," that grab-bag term that can cover anything from sitting at a desk delivering a monologue to tattooing oneself blue and eating cockroaches.

So what is it? The museum consists of seven young people of various ethnic backgrounds, economic levels, and sexual persuasions displayed as ethnographic exhibits. Three are actually enclosed in plexiglass cases; all have explanatory labels. Uniformed guides provide helpful explanations, uniformed guards instruct visitors not to touch. Not even if the Arab takes them hostage.

Does this sound like a demeaning, offensive, insulting spectacle? If so, Gomez-Pena is not upset in the least. "The desired effect is that a show like this triggers a process of reciprocity in the audience," he says, speaking with a warm Mexican accent. "People come in and out of the space as they please and each person develops a kind of hyper-textual journey throughout the space, and hopefully the audience will go back and forth between seduction and discomfort. I think that the ultimate strategy is to seduce them and then to break the mirror of seduction in their faces."

The experience of walking through a dress rehearsal is certainly disconcerting enough. Standing in the front section, there is the Arab (a Jordanian) serving a visitor coffee, a gay white man dancing a jerky dance and screaming about his lust for Latinos, and an Bengali woman stripping off her native costume to reveal herself as a gold-lame-garbed sexpot. Deeper in, one finds a bilingual, bisexual, bicultural Virgin of Guadalupe, a pearl-wearing lady of the Salvadoran elite who crawls around her case like a wild ape, an Appalachian Lesbian alternating between her rural redneck and coffeeshop writer personas, and a Chinese-American who rediscovered himself as an ancient Mayan while working at McDonald’s.

And they are not just quietly "being" these characters. Several are yelling, and sometimes they are quite specifically yelling at the viewer. "I’m interested in completely destroying the convention of the proscenium, of having the audience separated from the performance," Gomez-Pena says. "Here, you can surround the performers, you can touch them, you can smell them, you can interact with them in various modes. And hopefully, if they are good enough, sediments will begin to settle in the back of the consciousness and to reappear in dreams, in conversations, in memories. So the show begins to work slowly, after the fact."

Gomez-Pena is sitting in the bar of the Marriott Hotel in Cambridge, along with co-director Leticia Nieto. His hair falls straight to the middle of his back, he smiles out from under a thick moustache. His comments are rather staid and academic, in contrast to the anarchic energies on display at Kresge. They sound more like the Gomez-Pena who does commentary for NPR and has written three books and won a MacArthur grant.

He says that for this project he has been less a director than a lightning rod and catalyst. He is part of a team, here for two of the four weeks of intensive workshop-rehearsals organized by MIT theater professor Brenda Cotto-Escalera, with Nieto joining for week three. At the first dress rehearsal, he gives a few suggestions, nudges some performers to be more focused, but does not take control. By the time EMIR opens on Thursday, he will not even be in town. He is heading home to San Francisco and leaving the students to unleash the final product on their own.

"Performance artists occupy the space of the anti-hero in American pop culture," he says. "So we become magnets for troublemakers. I made sure in my prior visits to MIT to visit all kinds of classrooms, I gave presentations about my work, people read my books, some of my films were shown in advance, and then people began to gravitate towards me. I was particularly interested in these fringe sensibilities, these students who feel uneasy, who are critical, who are troubled, who are angry, who have important things to say. So in many ways we perform the roll of social magnets for outcasts and that’s an interesting function.

"But what do you do with that, once you have them all sitting at the table? Because there are all kinds of ethical questions that get raised. You can not just open the Pandora’s box of the colonial demons and then get the hell out of town, or put salt on the wound and then disappear. These kids are angry, and rightfully so, cause the world is [messed] up. And I like that anger, but it’s important to shape it, to turn it into good performance energy. So that’s where the professional skills come into play. I try to empower them to make as many decisions as possible, and hopefully my ultimate role will be that of editing, to make sure that there is some kind of uniformity, that the world we co-create together has a certain kind of coherence and aesthetic integrity."

Now 44, Gomez-Pena grew up in Mexico City, in a period of cultural ferment. He feels that the young people he is working with do not have "the ideological and cultural certainties that our generation had." On the other hand, he thinks that this has its advantages, at least for performers. They can stand between cultures, ages, political affiliations, and comment both as insiders and outsiders. Thus the spectacle of MIT students, a priviledged minority in many ways, acting out the anger, stereotypes, and confusion of their ethnic, national and socio-sexual backgrounds. But to what end? Why, as Gomez-Pena puts it, put salt on the wound?

"I’m really disturbed about the jargon of globalization," he says. "We are witnessing a kind of a multicultural global village in CNN, the Internet, the music industry, the fashion industry, and the new jargon is that we are now living a post-racial society. We are back to a strange form of libertarian discourse: If race is irrelevant, it is up to the individuals to make a difference. And we all know that this is [false]."

Except, of course, for all the people who support the view. "[People accept] this kind of triumphant and utopian discourse of globalization that has permitted all our institutions," he agrees. "But without realizing that globalization is a project of the Northern Hemisphere."

So will EMIR change any of that? Gomez-Pena is not making great claims, but he hopes that it will have some effect on visitors, and he says that it has already been an incredible experience for the performers themselves. He is not the man with the answers, but he is trying to break down some preconceptions, to open minds, and to facilitate a process that will make people think differently about the world in which they are living.

"I like to see myself as a professional trouble maker," he says. "As a builder of ephemeral communities, as someone who shapes someone else’s rebellion or anger. I’m always looking for ways to create total experiences that are really exciting and playful, but at the same time hopefully politically enlightening and critical."

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