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"Proibido Cochilar" from Proibido Cochilar
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"Carcara" from Proibido Cochilar
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Cabruêra, Proibido Cochilar (Piranha Musik)

Freestyle from Brazil’s Dusty Northeast: Cabruêra’s Electro-Sambas Prohibit Sleep

“Music seems to flourish here, even if little else does.” — Rough Guide to World Music

In the barren landscape of Brazil’s Northeast, only the hardy are able to thrive. A deceptively lush tropical coastline hems in the country’s least developed region; an arid, dry landscape prone to droughts and intense heat, the unfortunate legacy of the colonial era’s over-productive sugar industry. The lively culture of this region seems to have sprung up in response to the harsh physical reality.

In 1998, six nordestinos, all with backgrounds in the contemporary music scene, joined forces to find a way to bring their folk roots into the modern era. Seeking counsel from an indigenous Tupí oracle, “they were told they needed to start a band” to bring a new injection of life to the communities of Campina Grande and João Passoa. According to the oracle, the band was to be called Cabruêra, from the word cabras, meaning “a group of goats,” and they were to be as hardy as their namesake as they practiced the alchemy of music, turning suffering into resistance. Their wise counselor sent them on their way with a warning: beware of sleep. Such an endeavor would require vigilance.

Hence Cabruêra’s new album, Proibido Cochilar (“Sleeping Forbidden”): Sambas for Sleepless Nights is a dynamic mix of forró, rock, jazz, funk, rap, reggae, and drum ‘n’ bass, undergirded by the syncopated beat of samba. While it has been argued that Brazilian music in general is marked by a fusion of influences only fitting for a country with such diversity of ethnicities, cultures, and races, this album offers a new take on Brazil’s worldly music. The tracks are no jazzy bossa nova standards, lulling listeners like a warm ocean breeze, nor quite the frenetic carnival vibe of Rio’s sambas. There is an edge to this music, and rock energy not typically associated with Brazilian styles known in the Northern Hemisphere.

Life in the Northeast asserts itself against the elements through the nordestina folk traditions, markedly distinct from those in the southern regions of the country, and frequently oriented toward community gatherings. Song in the coco style is historically performed by a circle of singers improvising rhythm and rhyme in a call-and-response format. Poetic wordplay is set to the popular, dancey beats of forró (rumored to be a corruption of the English “for all,”) and often interspersed with the African rhythms of maracatú. Forró is also the name for the region’s country parties, at which musicians and dancers get down in an athletic form of dance that makes the lambada look tame. “At a good forró party the air is thick with dust raised by the feet of tireless dancers” (from the liner notes).

Cabruêra’s take is music to wake up to, to stand up to, to kick up the dust to. “Anyway, how could you sleep through a party crowd dancing the night away from dusk till dawn?”

On the album, you will find odes to the elders of the Sertão’s (the northeast hinterlands) musical culture, dancefloor electro remixes, nods to the traditional rhyme structures and beats of coco, and covers of classics. Interwoven throughout are the guitar and accordion-based rhythms that distinguish forró from its musical counterparts, whose beats are more often built around percussion. The poetic folk-meets-youth sound that defines Cabruêra is most striking in founder Arthur Pessoa's ‘ballpoint guitar’ technique: a true cross-era innovation realized by rubbing the strings of an acoustic guitar with a cheap ballpoint pen in an approximation of the sound of the traditional Guaraní Mbyá, another of Brazil’s rapidly disappearing indigenous ethnic groups. Reflecting Passoa’s previous incarnation as a cultural anthropologist, vocalist Zé Guilherme’s practices as a Buddhist, art lecturer and mentor for street children, and all band members’ wide repertoire of musical styles and skills, this album is as much a cultural study of Brazil’s underground as a funky soundtrack for the world to groove to.