Right here, right now: Fatboy Slim and Sound Affects Brazil
We used to associate Fatboy Slim with huge parties on Brighton beach. But these days, the carnivals of Brazil have taken him into a whole new world – of blocos, favelas and one of the most imaginative charity projects on earth
Saturday 23 February 2008
Fatboy Slim is at his phattest in Brazil. He's been coming to samba country for a decade now, and he still can't hit the beach without being mobbed. "I have a burgeoning love affair with Brazil," says Slim, aka Norman Cook, as he contemplates the five-hour set he's about to play at the world's biggest street party, Carnaval in Salvador. "I seem to have an affinity with Brazilian people. There must be something about my music that strikes a chord here. I love their easygoing love of music and dancing ... and Caipirinhas."
For the past three years Salvador's carnival has been the final date on Cook's annual Brazilian tour. He became a star in South America thanks to a DVD of his 2002 Brighton beach free gig, which attracted an unprecedented 250,000 people. "You'd think not many people would want to watch two hours of a bloke with a Hawaiian shirt on behind the decks. But for some reason the DVD sold more in Brazil than in the whole of the rest of the world put together," he says. "So they called me up and said, 'Do you want to come and do it in Rio?' I came over to play Flamenco Beach in Rio, and 360,000 people turned up."
That momentous gig was in 2004. Tonight, Cook plays his Salvador show from the roof of one of Carnaval's "blocos", a float mounted on a lorry and surrounded by a moving cordon, enclosing those prepared to pay for the privilege of dancing furiously in a bright yellow Fatboy Slim vest. The bloco takes a fatiguing five-hour tour of the city, and beyond the ropes the rest of Salvador can enjoy the show for free, unlike the ticketed stadium events that characterise Carnaval in Rio and Sao Paolo. On the roof of the bus, a select few, including the winner of Brazil's Big Brother and at least one breathless British journalist, throw shapes to the vast crowd: Salvador supposedly attracts two million Carnaval-goers.
While Britain is tucked up in bed with a belly full of pancakes, the residents of Brazil's third city are enjoying a last big blowout before Lent can come along to remind them that they're in a Catholic country and really ought to feel guilty about such behaviour. Salvador de Bahia, once the hub of the Portuguese slave trade in South America, is demographically the most African city outside Africa, and the mix of well-preserved African traditions and Portuguese culture makes for a wicked cocktail come Carnaval time. The streets are filled with revellers 24 hours a day, for six days straight, dancing to the music of the world, from the bossa nova beats of Gilberto Gil or samba-reggae star Daniela Mercury, to the Afro-Brazilian rhythms of Carnaval constituencies like Filhos de Gandhy ("Sons of Gandhi") and Malé Debalé, to the UK's very own Big Beat ambassador.
But for the first time, Cook is getting a look at another side of Brazil, as a high-profile patron of a small charity based in his beloved Brighton. Cook recently remixed a record for Bottletop, an organisation that uses music and fashion to fund grassroots educational projects in some of the world's poorest areas. The charity's founder has brought Cook to Dona Aurora, one of Salvador's sprawling favelas, to show him a project that his work will help to support.
Cook's remix of "Amazonas", a lively percussive number by the Brazilian act Batida Do Corpo, is the opening track on Bottletop's Sound Affects Brazil, the second in an album series that began with Sound Affects Africa. In both cases, the albums consist of a first CD by local African or Brazilian artists, and a second CD of the same tunes remixed by more familiar UK producers like Cook, Paul Oakenfold and Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly. Cook took his time choosing the right track to remix: "I didn't want to knock out something just so that they could use my name to sell the album, or a cheesy house samba record, I wanted it to be something I was proud of," he says. And proud he should be. Both albums make fantastic and accessible introductions to the music of the countries in question (a rare thing for a charity record), and the cash raised returns to those countries as funding for initiatives such as Street Angels, the community project Cook visits today.
Bottletop was founded by Cameron Saul, now 26, the son of the Mulberry founder Roger Saul. After nine months spent teaching in Uganda as part of his gap year, Saul returned to his father's company in 2002, clutching a bag made from bottletops that a friend had discovered in a local craft market. "The design team loved it," he recalls. "We experimented by adding leather and making it a more luxurious product. Then we showed it to the press, who went crazy for it, so we decided there was an opportunity to sell not just one product, but to design more things and turn it into a campaign. That's how Bottletop started."
Saul originally planned to donate the funds raised solely to the project he had been working with in Uganda, which focuses on providing children with non-formal education, specifically in the area of sexual health. "Across most of Africa, education is done by rote: the kids learn everything parrot-fashion then regurgitate it in exams. We were much more creative and interactive, and at first the kids didn't know how to react. But after about seven months, we staged a health day in the village church, with the kids using dance, drama, poetry and song to teach their family and friends and community. I remember thinking kids are the same all over the world, and if they're taught the right things in the right way then they can really make a difference."
When the bag shifted over 1,200 units and became Mulberry's bestseller of the season, Saul developed broader ambitions for his new venture. Dido and Geri Halliwell wore the bag, and other celebrities, like Bob Geldof, David Bailey and Denise Van Outen, agreed to help promote the charity. Soon Saul was hosting fundraising events and looking for more sexual health education projects to support in Africa.
"I wasn't ever turned on by the charity industry," he says. "My perception was that it was dull and corporate, especially the larger organisations. The problem with the charity retail sector in the past was that the products were sub-standard, or they were bought because people felt like they need to support the project as opposed to being into the product. But I did believe the work I'd done in Uganda had been crucial, and when the Mulberry bag took off, it felt different and exciting and creative and I thought: 'OK, maybe there's a recipe here for fundraising.' My background was in fashion so I'm all too aware that we live in a commercial world. The cooler and more interesting and exciting the product you create, the more money you raise and the bigger impact you can have on the ground."
Seeing the success of the (RED) brand gave Saul new confidence that he was following a legitimate charitable path. Spearheaded by Bono with the participation of Gap, American Express, Converse, Apple and others, (RED) raised $50m for Aids treatment and prevention in its first two years. Bottletop is more modest, but no less imaginative. Saul decided he wanted to move into music, and enlisted Oly Wayman, an A&R man for Island Records in Brighton, who had a hand in discovering The Kooks, to help get Sound Affects off the ground. "Fashion and music are both currencies that young people find exciting," Saul explains. "So we came up with the idea for an album series that would provide a sustainable flow of income for the charity, rather than one-off products. As with the bag, we wanted to find exciting music coming from the country we wanted to support. And just as we involved Mulberry to give the bag that high-end vibe, we thought we'd connect the music to really exciting producers and DJs from the UK. That way we could open the source music up to a different audience."
Soon after the release of Sound Affects Africa, the pair knew they wanted to focus on Brazil, where they would find not only a wealth of music to choose from, but also a ready supply of charity projects in need of their support. In Salvador, 77 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, and two million children receive no education, let alone in the taboo topic of sexual health. While HIV poses less of a problem than in Africa, drug-related and domestic violence, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted teenage pregnancy are all endemic.
By pure coincidence, on a research trip to the area last year looking for suitable projects to support, Saul and Wayman came across a bag made from ring-pulls in Salvador's popular Modello market, with the same kind of popular fashion potential as the original bottletop bag. At Street Angels, a community project that provides education, food and medical care for young people, Cook looks on as a group of local women sew together prototypes for the bags that should eventually become high-street favourites along with his remix. Zoe, his missus, owns one of the first Mulberry Bottletop bags, and loves it.
"The best thing about Bottletop is that it's a two-way deal," says Cook. "Rather than just shaking a tin and sending some cash, they make the product here, ship it over to England, sell it and the money comes back." Cook is also involved with Damon Albarn's Africa Express, the live music project set up in response to the lack of African artists performing at Live 8. As with Bottletop, the key to Africa Express is using the continent's own music as both a fundraiser and a cultural showcase.
"The reason I got involved with Sound Affects was that it was a music-based project. The other charity I'm a patron of is a football charity, Coaching for Hope, which mainly works in Africa. I got into that through Brighton and Hove Albion." This also explains why this is Cook's first visit to the favelas in a decade of travelling to Brazil. As well as the security concerns such a visit might involve, "I don't really want to engage in poverty tourism, to go and gawp at other people's misfortunes. I don't relish the idea of driving out here just to have my photo taken with some poor kids. I want to feel like I can have a useful connection with the project, through something like football or music. I got involved with Bottletop through the Brighton connection. Brighton's music community is small; you pretty much know everyone. And Oly just talked me into it one night when I was drunk. I was in love with Brazil and it seemed like fate that someone in Brighton was doing something for Brazil."
The ring-pull bag, which Saul is convinced can have the same impact as its predecessor, is being branded and prepared for the high street by the Fenchurch brand, who recently launched an ethical clothing and accessories line, Fenchurch Friendly. Next on Bottletop's busy schedule is a live studio album, for which they hope to bring together an Anglo-Brazilian supergroup led by Jon McClure of Reverend and the Makers. Among the British stars already on board are members of the Arctic Monkeys and the Mystery Jets, and Saul and Wayman are using their current trip to Brazil to scout and enlist Brazilian acts such as Seu Jorge and Carlinhos Brown, a flamboyant percussionist who last year lit up Carnaval by performing his entire show naked. They want to record the album in Brazil, with the help of top local producers, and then take the group on tour.
While Saul and Wayman are on the lookout for new acts and new projects, Cook has other duties, like painting the
town red. His most committed constituency are primed for a party. Some of the city's poorest inhabitants are hitting the streets, too, to man the bloco's cordon for a pittance, or scour the streets for empty beer cans, which they can later sell to be recycled, and whose ring-pulls – perhaps – will end up as part of a bag on sale in your high street.
Once the crowd has been warmed up by Ibiza favourite David Guetta, Slim takes to the decks, and blasts one of his best bits of bastardised pop. "Put your hands up for Brazil," it goes, "I love this country..." On the roof of the truck, in the street, on the beach beyond and even in the surf, leaning from window ledges and balconies as the bloco passes by, Salvador's citizens are all putting their hands up for Fatboy Slim. He loves this country, and it loves him back.
'Sound Affects Brazil' is available from iTunes or from www.bottletop.org
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