The genesis of Brazilian rock
When it comes to music, rock n’ roll could probably be described as the most emblematic genre of all time. Constantly reinventing itself since its inception, the genre has taken form in an extensive range of different ways, being made all over the world by all types of people. In Brazil, its history has been no different: since rock got to the country in the 1950s, right along with the fever that had swept across the United States, it has been through all kinds of changes, from the mainstream to the underground, from hard rock to softer variations.
In an interview for Her Campus, music journalist Silvio Essinger remembered the history of rock music in Brazil since its beginnings. According to Essinger, Brazilian rock launched in the 1950s, with singers such as Celly and Tony Campello, heavily influenced by the explosion of the genre in the U.S. With influences from Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard, Brazilian musicians would begin to record rock n’ roll songs quickly after the inception of the genre, being “Rock Around the Clock” the first rock song recorded in the country, sung by Nora Ney.
But the genre really gained recognition after the worldwide success of The Beatles, which would translate in Brazilian music into artists of the Jovem Guarda, and, later on, in Tropicalism. The 1960s brought along artists who wished to do something truly Brazilian, which led to the fusion of rock music and national genres, creating something totally different, independent, and original to rock n’ roll. Within the period, bands such as Mutantes and Secos e Molhados, as well as singers Roberto and Erasmo Carlos, Raul Seixas, and Rita Lee would shape the beginnings of rock as an important genre, but not yet the mass phenomenon it would come to be within the next decades. In the ’70s, Brazilian rock was still described as much more of an underground culture rather than a popular, widely established one.
It was in the change of style brought by the 1980s that the genre saw its way up through the basement stairs to the big stages. The journalist remembers that the explosion of post-punk and new wave, especially in Britain, left the long hair, Rolling Stones aesthetic behind and brought on a rather well-tempered as slender take on rock music. From Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones’ heavy guitars, Brazilian references would become The Police and The Cure’s casual aesthetic.
Lyrically, these bands would come to talk to youth and drive them to the existential and political dread that these people were experiencing at that moment.“They spoke the language of youth, which related to the situation the country was in, near the loosening of tensions brought by the dictatorship. In the 80s the youth had hope,” asserts Essinger.
That was the moment that people would come to talk about a certain Brazilian Rock, erasing all that had come before to create new music by and for youth. From his own experience, Silvio remembers being enchanted, at eleven years of age, by the lyrics of Blitz: he recognized that those people were saying something different, something close to his own language, something renewing, subversive, something that could not be silenced by the oppression of a dictatorship.
This success, however, would last around a decade, since, by the beginning of the 90s, as happens with most music movements, there came a point of decay, giving space to new genres that had nothing to do with rock. The genre would be dethroned, coming back with some successful bands, but not as a whole scene.
The current rock scene
But where did rock music go? Is there such a thing as a whole rock scene within Brazilian underground youth? For azul azul’s Mateus Magalhães, mainstream rock n’ roll is something that exists only as a memory of remote times. azul azul — yes, all in lowercase — is an indie rock band from Maceió, whose style derives from dream pop, echoing the sounds of shoegaze, art-punk, post-punk, math rock, progressive rock, and even jazz and samba. Drawing major influences from 90s rock bands such as Pavement and Smashing Pumpkins, the boys confess their passion for what we could call classic rock, with songs from bands such as Pink Floyd even appearing as covers in their live shows, despite not being the major influence within their sound.
When asked about whether rock still has the same space in Brazilian music as it did in the 80s, Mateus asserts that it for sure does not, at least not in pop culture. As reminded by Silvio Essinger, he agrees that there are exceptions, as rock bands such as Fresno and Los Hermanos — which, in his opinion, add no substance to the genre — do still make a lot of success, but not as much as to take place as a cultural phenomenon as it did in the 80s.
PWR Records’ Letícia Tomás agrees that, despite being rock her favorite genre, it is not what gets the most attention in the country, as the new MPB (Brazilian popular music) vibe has taken the spotlight at the moment. With artists such as ANAVITÓRIA, Tiago Iorc, and Liniker who draw influences from folk, MPB, Bossa Nova and even a little from rock music, the newest trend within the country is this softer, more palatable, and even homogeneous type of music.
Rock has indeed been brought back to the underground, but Mateus remembers that several bands are trying to get elsewhere, but just can’t seem to reach enough people. Many times, that happens solely because they try and do what has been done before, imitating successful bands such as Terno Rei and Boogarins. But it is also true that sometimes, it simply is hard to get to the public when you are part of a subgenre of rock in a time in which that is not what gets the most attention. azul azul themselves, as an independent rock band, see themselves in limbo within the pandemic, as they can’t perform to measure their public. Mateus thinks, however, that even without the biggest crowd, they can make good music and have fun whilst with those who enjoy their music.
It seems clear that, despite not hitting the top charts, the scene that has made itself in the independent circle of Brazilian music is full of rock n’ roll. According to Letícia’s and Mateus’ experiences, it seems as if the genre is still up and around, but it has simply been getting most directly to the people who enjoy it. That is, there will always be people who enjoy rock music, and therefore those who will be making new rock music, despite trends and money-making in the industry. As a consequence, there will always be a rock scene, as Letícia remembers, “it’s more about getting to people who enjoy it than trying to get to the mainstream, that’s not it, it never really was.”
But what happens when those people who really enjoy rock try and make it? When asked about how such strong influences take place in contemporaneous rock, Mateus discloses that having a big range of older music as inspiration is important, but can be dangerous if not used wisely, creating outdated – and obviously unsuccessful — music. Letícia agrees, reminding us that everything that comes before is a reference, but if bands do the same as their influences their music will get boring.
What has been a trend within the scene, however, is the lack of classic rock bands and the growth of a variety of subgenres whose origins lie closer to the underground and indie music cultures rather than the mainstream rock music that has been around since the 1950s. Mateus thinks that this shift is perfectly natural of any genre, and will always be a positive thing for the music culture. He explains that azul azul themselves mirror these classical bands, but acknowledges that they have to always look forward and keep up with that evolution to achieve greater recognition. It is shocking, however, how, despite such evolution is crucial to the renewal of rock music, the music industry does not seem to care about it.
The music industry and indie labels
It has always been clear that, like any other industry, the music world is filled with interests and an appetite for profit. Accordingly, it will only care, and therefore aid, bands that fit within their box of successful and trendy aesthetics and sound. That is where indie labels come through: Balaclava, Máquina Voadora, PWR Records, and many more have become a place for independent, alternative artists to try and get the recognition they deserve. When asked about the role these labels have within the scenario, Letícia, who works at PWR, says that despite each label having their area of expertise, they all work as a curatorship which makes a selection of bands and artists and offer distribution, caption, mixing, mastering, editing, executive production, and more. In short, she describes a label as “management of bands and artists”, as they try and do their best to understand and offer what these artists need. Mateus believes that the union of different bands and genres through the work of labels configures, within independent music, some of the best music casts within the country.
When it comes to rock n’ roll, Letícia asserts that, within PWR, the niche is not as wide as with other genres which have been more successful in the midstream, for they give fewer possibilities, within their capacities, to monetize upon artists. So despite being a rock person, she agrees that it is not within her label’s ambitions at the moment, but remembers that as time progresses, artists within a record company change, as do their trends and tendencies. Other labels, however, do have rock’s subgenres as a priority, as is the case of Balaclava, which has, in their cast, several bands which play math rock, indie rock, shoegaze, and much more. Bands and artists such as Odradek, Taco de Golfe, Terno Rei, Yamasasi, azul azul, Fernando Motta, and Lupe de Lupe are some of the newer bands that have been making some noise within the rock scene in 2021.
With rock n’ roll swept back to the alternative culture from where it first came, what may be the future of mainstream music? And what about the future of independent rock bands and labels? For Silvio Essinger, rock’s place in the future of mainstream music is being taken by rap and trap music and its combinations with Brazilian culture. He states that the renewing, subversive power that lies in rock can only be compared to the trap’s incendiary character. He believes trap to be the type of music teenagers bring home and confuse and scare their parents with, as did rock back in the 1960s, a type of music that came to derange society with its new, seductive and unknown ideals.
As for rock itself, both Mateus and Letícia agree that it is hard to think about a future in such a time of despair for the Brazilian society, a horrible time in which we live a “fascist dystopia”, as described by Mateus. azul azul’s frontman believes that the niche is omnipresent within underground culture, as it carries a spirit of contravention which will never cease to exist within youth. Despite the lack of concerts and the poor financial return guaranteed by digital music, he believes the tendency is for these bands such as his own to make their way through it.
Letícia agrees that rock will always be a reference, we just have to look for it in the new, contemporaneous music that we listen to today. She notes that people cannot expect to see exactly the type of rock music that was being made in the past at this moment, as “copying and pasting” does not work for the industry.
As for azul azul’s future, Mateus states that their goal is to reach people in the most organic way possible, as they always have, and despite not believing they will ever enter the mainstream, he believes they can indeed create a strong network, parallel to the major one, and get to the people who matter. Within the band’s future lie several exciting releases: a new record with unreleased songs, as well as a “deluxe” version of their first album, “Formas de Voltar Para Casa”, with new releases. Their oldest album will also be getting a live session, before wrapping up this cycle and beginning their new one. Furthermore, Mateus is also currently working on a new record for his spoken word project, Mateus Magalhães Trio.