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Books: Just nuts about Brazil

A SIMPLE BRAZILIAN SONG: Journeys Through the Rio Sound by James Woodall, Little, Brown pounds 15.99
Caetano Veloso is the one with the androgynous, velveteen voice, who pens deceptively simple lyrics often to his own solo guitar accompaniment. Maria Bethania is his sister, strong-voiced like many Brazilian women singers. Gal Costa is a self-made diva, glamorous and sensual, continuously adapting new composers to her sinewy style. And Chico Buarque is the poet/composer with a self-effacing demeanour, the intellectual among the songsters, whose second novel, Benjamin, is published this month by Bloomsbury.

Despite having read French and Spanish at university, James Woodall seems to have a North European cast to his personality, from his dumbfounded refusal to samba to his preference for Berlin and Islington over Seville or Salvador - places he has written about, at times in distaste. An earlier book dealt with flamenco; next came a dalliance with fado, the source of Brazilian saudade (nostalgia, yearning, melancholy) originating in the Moorish quarters of Alfama, the ports of the Algarve. So now to samba, transported with the slaves in the drums of West and Central Africa, and the "white samba", or bossa nova, of composers and lyricists Tom Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes and Joao Gilberto.

Woodall devotes a chapter to confessing "I have no musical talent whatsoever", that "my musical tastes as a boy were a mix of the snobbish and the obvious", and concluding that his preference for the Triumphal March in Aida and the Beach Boys was "a bit sad, really". Then he hops to Buenos Aires, where he notes that "most Argentines would barely call themselves South American", then (confusingly) that "neither the city nor the people are quite interesting enough to be anything else". Matters hardly improve when he fails to understand the "mortal offence" provoked by his description of a national hero as having "monkeyish features".

Chico Buarque, he of the dazzlingly handsome (rather than simian) features, proves to be Woodall's favourite - once he has got over the suspicion of him as "Brazil's Julio Iglesias", a role Woodall assigns to another sentimental singer, Roberto Carlos. Chico certainly gets the most space in this oddly erratic book, which was to have been a comprehensive survey of Brazilian music country-wide, but which got amputated into "Rio Sound", while confusingly still including much of Tropicalia, the music of north- eastern Bahia, with excursions south to the hybrid city culture of Sao Paulo.

To get to grips with Chico's massive and lasting popularity, now spanning two generations, it helps to have a sense of Brazil as a sprawling region, as big and diverse as Europe. With few publishing houses, astonishingly few bookshops and persistent illiteracy, an oral tradition reigns through popular music and soap operas. Boundaries between high and low culture are far less rigid than those between the shockingly affluent and the even more shockingly impoverished. Chico offers a winning combination of a serious commitment to politics and football with deft melody and lyrics.

Thus the anthem-like status of a song like "A Pesar de Voce" ("In Spite of You") or "Vai Pasar" ("On Its Way Out" - ostensibly about a passing Carnival float, covertly addressed to the brutal military dictatorship that seized power in 1964) work on multiple levels, but remain catchy. Politics again intervened in the 1968 International Song Festival; first Chico then Caetano and Gilberto Gil (two pioneers of tropicalismo) were forced into exile. Yet here one finds scant tribute to the political significance of Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes's Orfeu (Black Orpheus), and none at all of Chico's own adaptation of Brecht's Threepenny Opera, O Malandro.

A Simple Brazilian Song does not set out to provide a musical lexicography. Indeed does not even offer an index. It starts from the assumed standpoint of the reader, one of naivety about the country and its culture, and seeks to transport her or him on a succession of "Journeys". These follow the course of Woodall's own discoveries and the love affair which accompanied his encounter with the Rio carnival.

The journeys through the "Rio Sound" are dotted with historical inserts and potted biographies of the musicians. It is a confusing and insubstantial read, although with one undeniable benefit. To recover from the exasperation induced by interviews which barely scratch the surface and conclusions like "national heroes become even more expansively mythologised in death than when they are alive", there is no recourse but to return to the music. A music of saudade, certainly, but also of delica, the delight in the irresistible sounds and movements of Brazil.

On this, anyway, Woodall has got it right. Just as the country's people are the hybrid people of our future, so its music reflects the complexity and integrity which alone can qualify as genuinely "world music".