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For a deep dive into the vast and verdant sounds of Brazil, the East Bay provides plentiful opportunities year-round. In addition to multiple venues that regularly present Brazilian music, Oakland and Berkeley are also home to a variety of institutions that have embedded Brazilian music and dance deeply in the landscape.
Half a dozen different events in the coming weeks bring musicians from Brazil (and non-Brazilian players devoted to an array of Brazilian styles) to local stages, starting Friday night at the Elbo Room Jack London Square with SambaDá, a band that keeps the carnival vibe flowing in every season. The insistently funky samba-reggae band from Santa Cruz evolved from a dance troupe into a high-energy nine-piece unit led by vocalist and Brazilian-born capoeira master Papiba Godinho. With the powerful vocals of Dandha da Hora, who grew up in a family that helped found Salvador de Bahia’s legendary all-Black percussion society Ilê Aiyê, SambaDá has been a cornerstone of the Bay Area’s Brazilian music scene for some two decades.
The festivities continue Saturday with the Oakland Samba Revue at the Sound Room. Founded by Oakland seven-string guitarist Brian Moran, who also plays the diminutive four-string cavaquinho, the OSR is a horn-driven eight-piece dance combo designed to deliver surging samba infused with strains of jazz, funk, and forró (a zydeco-like style from Brazil’s dry northeastern interior). With vocals and percussion by Rio de Janeiro-reared Cátia Lund and Bay Area-born Katiana Vilá, who’s also a mainstay on the flamenco scene, the OSR features arrangements inspired by the brief but glorious output of Brazil’s Gafieira São Paulo, a band that also featured two vocalists.
“When I write for horns I try to find that sweet spot where everyone is playing together,” Moran said. “But they’re independent musical voices too, so you hear them weaving in and out with switches in rhythmic feels and rhythmic breaks, and a whole bunch of elements neatly fitting together.”
The band’s name is both a statement of Oakland pride and a solution to an earlier challenge that taught Moran “if you start a band with a complicated Brazilian name, people either can’t remember it or mispronounce it.” The cautionary tale refers to Oakland’s Grupo Falso Baiano, a self-mocking moniker that means someone pretending to be from Bahia. The name is a double pun playing on the title of a standard recorded by bossa nova patriarch João Gilberto, “Falsa Baiana.” Oakland Samba Revue’s lack of Brazilians is balanced by the quartet’s devotion to choro, an instrumental style dating back to the late 19th century Rio that has experienced numerous revivals.
Featuring OSR reed player Zack Pitt-Smith, who’s also the music director at Edna Brewer Middle School, percussionist Ami Molinelli, and Jesse Appelman on bandolim (Brazilian mandolin), Falso Baiano brings its expansive repertoire to Albany’s St. Alban’s Episcopal Church on March 13 for a concert presented (and livestreamed) by Calliope. Trombonist Natalie Cressman, who records and performs widely in a duo with Berkeley-based Brazilian guitarist/composer Ian Faquini, joins as special guest Falsa Baiana.
Moran credits BrasArte, the Brazilian cultural academy in Berkeley, with nourishing the East Bay’s thriving Brazilian scene. Founded and led by dancer and choreographer Conceição Damasceno, BrasArte’s Casa de Cultura at San Pablo and Hearst offers classes in Brazilian dance, drumming, and capoeira. The annual Lavagem festival brings artists from Salvador da Bahia, the heartland of Afro-Brazilian culture, to Berkeley every August for one of the Bay Area’s signature Brazilian celebrations.
Another key institution is the California Jazz Conservatory, where Rio-born pianist/composer Marcos Silva has inculcated generations of musicians into Brazilian jazz. Oakland Samba Revue vocalist Cátia Lund has continued to deepen her knowledge by studying Silva, who spent years on the road as musical director for Flora Purim and Airto.
With a large pool of knowledgeable players and fans drawn to the shows, Lund has found that the OSR attracts audiences of Brazilians looking to dance and ready to take in a wide spectrum of material far beyond the nostalgic pop hits often sought out by expats.
“Most of the songs are not easy melodies and have very sophisticated harmonies,” she said. “Very few people can do the gig. We’ll go from forró to samba to xote, which can sound a lot like reggae. I’m amazed for the opportunity to play real Brazilian music like this.”
No Oakland venue has played a more important role in presenting Brazilian artists in recent years than Piedmont Piano Company, the Uptown piano showcase that often transforms into an evening concert venue. Every summer the shop turns into an urban outpost for illustrious Brazilian musicians serving as faculty at California Brazil Camp in Cazadero. Top Brazilian artists can also be found there in the dead of winter, like the March 5 performance by guitarist Badi Assad. A member of the illustrious Brazilian musical clan—her older brothers Sergio and Odair Assad perform as the superlative classical guitar duo The Assad Brothers, and her niece is the acclaimed composer Clarice Assad–Badi—Badi Assad toured and recorded before the pandemic with StringShot, a Bay Area collective trio featuring slide guitarist Roy Rogers and Paraguayan harpist Carlos Reyes. Assad’s March 5 concert is a solo recital, and with her percussive vocal technique and gorgeous repertoire of graceful Paulo Bellinati sambas, choros by fellow guitar master Marco Pereira, popular Brazilian songs by Chico Cesar, jazz tunes by Ralph Towner and her originals, Assad doesn’t need anyone’s help to keep an audience enthralled.