Gilles Peterson interview: Ole! It’s the sound of the World Cup summer

The BBC DJ talks about his new Brazilian music project.

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The Independent Culture

With the World Cup kicking off in Brazil next month, Brazilian music will be the sound of our summer. The nation’s TVs, radios and tablets will reverberate with clattering samba rhythms – and there will doubtless be a carnival of compilation albums with Copacabana bikini girls on the cover at a petrol station near you. However, for those looking for a superior World Cup soundtrack, the standout option is Brasil Bam Bam Bam, by the Sonzeira collective, a new supergroup helmed by the venerable BBC Radio 6 DJ Gilles Peterson.

The album features a mix of covers and new songs performed by a stellar roster of Brazilian artists, young and old, and sourced and produced by Peterson with the help of the Rio-based producer Alexandre Kassin. Many of those artists are huge stars in Brazil but virtually unknown elsewhere: they include the blue-eyed bossa nova maestro Marcos Valle, dreadlocked samba superstar Seu Jorge, sultry actress-singer-poster girl Emanuelle Araujo, and septuagenarian Elza Soares,  the Brazilian Tina Turner, who pours a lifetime’s heartache into the album’s tear-jerking highlight, “Aquarela Do Brasil”.

“The song is virtually their national anthem, there are millions of versions, but most are really happy,” says Peterson over coffee in east London, looking far too relaxed and suntanned for such a drizzly day. “I wanted a voice singing it with the emotion of Brazil and the pain of Brazil. And Elza is that voice – she’s been through the whole Amy Winehouse lifestyle and beyond.”

The singers were teamed with some of Brazil’s finest musicians, such as the percussionists Nana Vasconcelos and Armando Marçal (whose grandfather was one of the founders of samba) and the accordionist Chico Chagas. “You give them a sense of what you want, let them rehearse, and then you nail it,” says Peterson, as if it’s really no big deal to fly to Rio with four song ideas and fly back just eight days later with the album’s 10 songs virtually in the bag, as he did in January.

It’s a testament not just to the dazzling skills of the Brazilians, but the ability of Peterson, a “south London soul boy”, to bring out the best in them. “It’s not just anyone who can go to another country and culture and do their music properly,” says Seu Jorge. “It’s really hard to get it right like he has.”

Peterson describes the end result as “club culture meets Buena Vista Social Club”. “There’s a bit of everything: samba, tropicalia, bossa nova, disco-boogie, afro-Brazilian, north-eastern jazz. But it’s impossible to say that this track’s a samba track, or that track’s bossa nova – it all just blends in together. I wanted to capture a wide spectrum of Brazilian music.”

Partly, Brasil is a tribute to the historic sounds and styles that Peterson has consumed obsessively since his teenage years. But when he first got the opportunity to DJ in Brazil, 20 years ago, he wrong-footed clubgoers with his old-school selection. “They were like, ‘What are you doing? This is what our grandparents are into!’ They wanted me to bring acid house over or acid jazz, which was my London thing.”

“Brazil’s like anywhere else: they’re always looking for the next big thing,” he continues. “But the weird thing is, now you’ve got Jay-Z sampling Marcos Valle [on the track “Thank You” from The Blueprint 3]. So the whole hip-hop turntablism movement means that young Brazilians have discovered their old music. At the moment there’s loads of DJs playing old Brazilian beats and rare stuff like I was 20 years ago.”

Brazil’s musical landscape is as vast as the country itself, but the current trend for going back to the future is widespread. “If you’re in Rio and you go to a party in Lapa, they will be playing old soul records and boogie records, Earth Wind and Fire, stuff like that. Then there’s another sub-genre where they’re dancing to Lisa Stansfield and swingbeat [90s urban pop] records, which as a Londoner is really weird.” This is the baile-charme scene, which dances to the beat of retro funk and soul, and Peterson’s experience of it inspired the disco-boogie cover of Valle’s song “Estrelar”. “That one’s about bodybuilding on the beach – it’s the most uncool lyric of all time. Brazilians do say to me, ‘You play really nice tunes, but the lyrics are really bad…’ I don’t know what they’re saying half the time, but I don’t care!”

But the album has only one foot in the past. There are also “hipster” touches, “weird ideas and electronics”, and a few imported influences, such as James Blake dubstep and, less predictably, the post-new romantic pop of bands like Everything But the Girl and Matt Bianco. The latter manifests itself on a cover of Freeez’s jazz-funk classic “Southern Freeez”, done “the way British post-new romantic, new wave bands would have done bossa nova – but played by a bunch of Brazilians in Portuguese”. Only in Peterson’s head, you suspect, could such offbeat ideas ferment, although his collaborators did include a quartet of non-conformist Brits: Sam Shepherd, aka DJ Floating Points, Rob Gallagher and Dilip Harris from the band Two Banks of Four, and Sean O’Hagan, of Stereolab and The High Llamas renown.

“If this album had been made by a Brazilian it wouldn’t have been the same,” says the Rio producer Alexandre Kassin. “What makes it unique is having a group of great musicians playing Brazilian music and sharing ideas with a group of Englishmen.”

Did Peterson have difficulty making himself understood? “I’m lucky that I’ve got a reputation over there as someone who champions their music,” Peterson says. “The percussionists didn’t know who the hell I was, but they soon realised I was doing something different. In Brazil they are used to being told to play for three and a half minutes – they have a very pop attitude. But I was saying, no, no, no, get some mad shit out – I want to hear the mad percussion instruments you’ve got. And they loved it.”

“Brasil Bam Bam Bam” is released on 26 May