The one musical style which, perhaps more than any other, has come to be associated with the 1990’s in Brazil, is axé music. For a few hectic years, the very upbeat mix of traditional Bahian percussion music, reggae, Latin beats and modern international radio pop, was the dance craze of the entire nation. Over the years, axé music has since become a term referring to almost all forms of music from Bahia, which mixes Afro-Bahian percussion with international pop music.
The roots of the axé music can be traced back to Dodô and Osmar and the old trios elétricos of the Salvador carnival, as well as to the so called blocos afros. Ths blocos afros are black music and culture societies and associations, which were formed in Salvador during 1970’s. The blocos afros, were part of the first movement that forcefully and successfully encouraged Brazil's black population to feel pride in their African heritage and helped promote Afro-Brazilian culture, which for centuries had been both oppressed and neglected, by the country's political and cultural elite.
The very first bloco afro was Ilê Ayê, founded in 1974, and soon followed by a number of other blocos, of which Badauê, Araketu and Olodum are the most famous. Sometimes, the afoxé association Filhos de Gandhi is also considered a bloco afro, although they formed already in 1948 and thus have an older tradition than the “real” blocos afros. The foundation of the music during a bloco afro performance consists of a very large number of percussionists. Each drum in itself makes a powerful sound, and when an entire battalion of skilled percussionist, in synchronized maneuvers and choreographies, alternate between countless rhythms and beats, it creates an extremely powerful experience for the audience. It is truly a show and a delight for all the human senses. Each one of blocos afros of Salvador has its own style and direction, both in terms of how they dress, how their music sounds and their general image. Internationally, the by far most famous bloco afro is Olodum, who in the 1980’s attracted much attention with their so-called samba-reggae. As the name would suggest, samba-reggae is a mix of samba (with clear Afro-Brazilian tilt) and reggae music.
During the mid 80’s, the musicians Luís Caldas and Paulinho Camaféu got the idea to merge trio elétrico music, afoxé, samba-reggae and modern pop to one unit. Their concept turned out to be a huge commercial success. Other artists, like Chiclete com Banana, Cid Guerreiro, Lazzo and Reflexus followed suit, copied the format and thus Brazil experienced the first wave of axé music. Singer Margareth Menezes became the first artist in the genre to enjoy international success, when she (at former Talking Heads singer David Byrne's initiative) was promoted in the U.S. Shortly thereafter, Olodum also gained international fame after having recorded the album The Rhythm of the Saints together with Paul Simon. Later, Olodum would also appear on Michael Jackson's They do not care about us.
During the 1990's axé performers started to incorporate other musical styles, such as forró, calypso, maracatu and salsa, in their music. And in 1992, new, young singer Daniela Mercury released the album O Canto da Cidade, which became a huge hit all over Brazil. The successs of Daniela Mercury set the stage for a second and much more powerful axé-wave in Brazil. Bands like Asa de Águia, Banda Eva, Banda Cheiro de Amor and É oTchan became wildely popular, much to the irk of the country’s cultural elite.
Axé music reached its popularity spike in 1998, when Daniela Mercury, Banda Eva, Chiclete com Banana, Ara Ketu, Cheiro de Amor and É o Tchan between them sold 3.4 million albums. After that, the genre suffered a strong decline in popularity and by the beginning of the new millennium axé music had largely vanished from the national scene. There are exceptions however, such as Ivete Sangalo, former singer of Banda Eva, who remains a very popular artist all across Brazil.
One of the most innovative and exciting artists of axé music, and one of very few artists in the genre who enjoys a great deal of respect among music critics, is Carlinhos Brown and his group Timbalada. Timbalada famously popularized the timbau drum, which has traditionally been used within candomblé music. By adding elements of contemporary pop and more commercially viable axé to the Afro-Brazilian timbau rhythms, Timbalada managed to achieve significant popularity throughout Brazil during the early 1990’s. The peculiar white body paintings of the Timbalada percussionists also helped draw attention to the group.
In 1996, Carlinhos Brown laucheed a solo career, beginning with the very strong and interesting album Alfagamabetizado. As a solo artist, Brown has permitted himself much more stylistic freedom, wildly exploring and mixing different genres, and, in his very personal way, often approaching the MPB genre.
Examples of axé music and blocos-afro
Click to listen.
Toneladas de Desejo, Timbalada, 1996
Luz de Tieta, Timbalada and Caetano Veloso, 1997
O Canto da Cidade, Daniela Mercury, 1992
Poeira, Ivete Sangalo, 2002
Beleza Rara, Banda Eva, 1996
Tour, Carlinhos Brown, 1996
O mais belo dos belos, Daniela Mercury, 1992
Depois que o Ilê passar, Caetano Veloso, 1987
Filhos de Gandhi, where famous singer Gilberto Gil is a member