“Key to Bixiga 70’s style is how the group both breaks ground and can sling a universally appealing tune…balancing a sense of modernity with retro brass and hand percussion that draws on the centuries-old West African-Caribbean connection still so crucial to Brazilian musical aesthetics today.” — Pop Matters
São Paulo’s Afro-Brazilian groove visionaries Bixiga 70 return with an ecstatic 5th album – Vapor – their first in four years. The sound is joyful, a series of potent horn driven melodies and infectious polyrhythms. More than a return, Vapor is a rebirth. An exuberant, full-tilt party.
“We knew we needed to make a new album. But could we do it?’
That was the question Daniel Nogueira and other members of Brazil’s Bixiga 70 asked themselves as they gathered to record Vapor. An entire age had passed since their last album in 2018; the whole world had changed. The Covid pandemic had hit Brazil especially hard, leaving the entire country shuttered for far too long. On top of that, after more than a decade together, some old members of the ten-piece instrumental band had left and new ones arrived. It was time to take a deep breath and see if they could still make magic.
“It’s not just the next album,” baritone sax player Cuca Ferreira points out, “it’s really different. It’s a reset, like re-founding the band. With new people, we had to get to know them and create music together. They brought different colours and ideas.”
One of those ideas is apparent at the very start of the opening track, “Malungu”: the chiming keyboards herald the greater role for the instrument in the band. They introduce one of the new band members, Pedro Regada, coming from the northeast of Brazil and bringing his own style and influences.
“We’d used traditional keyboards in the past,” Ferreira says. “Hammond, Fender Rhodes, synthesizer. Pedro added other things from his region. Axé, of course, which has used keys, and two other genres from contemporary forró electronico: piseiro, and techno-braga. That has a very heavy keyboard sound, it’s not sophisticated music.”
Regada layers a thick, dirty funk over the deep, elastic groove that powers all Bixiga 70’s music. While the four horns still play a prominent role (the horn section are all original band members), those hints of Afrobeat that peppered their early albums are history. The tracks on Vapor are very much the sound of São Paulo: African and Brazilian.
Even more specifically, the Bixiga neighbourhood that gives the band its name.
“Bixiga always been artistic, it welcomes immigrants, all the waves of migration,” Ferreira explains. “Former slaves lived here at first, then Europeans from Italy, and people came from the northeast of Brazil. Now it’s Nigerians and refugees who arrive here. It’s not by chance that samba flourished here, all these traditions coming together. The area is a beautiful mess.”
Right in the middle of it, absorbing everything, is the band’s studio at 70 Rua 13 de Maio. Back in the 1970s it was a bar where artists from around the world came to jam after concerts. Now the space, owned by the band’s guitarist, Cristiano Scabello, gives Bixiga 70 a place to work on material with the new members.
“They came in hungry, with lots of ideas,” observes Noguiera. “But we needed that new energy after three years off with the pandemic.”
At first, though, they weren’t clear about what they needed. “We almost fell into the trap of trying to find people who could play the way we used to do,” says Ferreira.
Nogueira nods. “It took us months of playing with these people to get to this.”
The luxury of having their studio, where they could experiment and record, paid off. They had the time to become used to each other and build a fresh sound.
“Someone would come out with an idea and we developed it,” he adds. “It’s didn’t matter if it was a melody or a rhythm. We’d work on it and think what it says.”
With ten members, that could take a while. But the effort paid off: the results on Vapor are spectacular, often evoking vintage movie soundtracks.
“We think that, too,” Ferreira agrees. “We often have image references for the music. When we arrange, especially with the horns, we feel it should be something to sing. If people can do that, or they remember it, it’s good. We don’t make difficult music.”
But it doesn’t need to be complex. Along with the funk, the sound is joyful, a series of very memorable melodies. More than a return, Vapor is a rebirth for Bixiga 70, with the exuberance of a party; ten people who are happy to be playing together and find a release of energy in their music.
“We’re a stage band, that’s our natural habitat,” Ferreira says. ‘A show has its own narrative, and we tried to give that to this album.”
Which explains why they finish the album with slow closer “Lua Loa,” named for bassist Marcelo Dworecki’s daughter. Easing back arrives as a surprise after the gleeful push of the rest of Vapor, but it’s to catch your breath and come down, to be carried of with a dreamy, airy tune.
“Lua Loa” stands as one more indicator of the way the band has changed and grown. They’ve become more ambitious in the way they approach the music. More layers in the horn arrangements, for instance, and eager to embrace the freshness brought by the new musicians.
“In the early years, we thought recording everything live in the studio would capture the feel of a show,” Ferreira says. “But it didn’t. Instead, from the second album on, we tried to grab that live energy. And as we became more knowledgeable about how to record, how to really use our studio, we were able to do that, I think.”
For Vapor, as well as unveiling new members, they’ve also pulled a huge surprise out of the bag: an appearance by Simone Sou, the acclaimed percussionist and artist who’s been part of the Brazilian music scene for decades and performed with countless musicians from around the world – and, of course, another São Paulo native.
“She didn’t take part in the whole album,” Nogueira recalls, “but the first song, “Malungu,” is one she brought and we co-wrote with her. She was inspiring. She’s helped open music for women.”
A continuation, but much more than that, Vapor is a regeneration for Bixiga 70. The addictive sound of São Paulo. One listen and you’ll be caught.