Rio bravo: Gilles Peterson's musical odyssey
Radio 1 DJ Gilles Peterson is used to the attention of adoring fans on his globe-trotting trips, but the tables were turned when he met his own musical heroes in the heady clubs and bars of Brazil
Saturday 20 May 2006
It's 10 years since my first trip to Brazil. Back then it was strictly turismo. Rio and then on to Salvador de Bahia, where I hung with the afro bloco, Olodum (a group founded in 1979 to highlight African heritage through music, dance and art). This would be my second professional visit. As a DJ, broadcaster and producer, Brazilian music has always featured in my repertoire and even though my Portuguese is weak, the pull to this massive and distant land goes way beyond the ball and the beach.
This time I was heading to Brazil with Brahma beer to create a six-part podcast. While there, I was going to be interviewing some of my heroes and I would also get the chance to spin in Rio and Sao Paulo.
I had just done two shows in Scotland with Soil & Pimp Sessions, a jazz outfit from Japan, and then flown to LA for the Coachella Festival. Then it was on to Brazil; next stop, Rio de Janeiro! At last, we - eccentric North London poet and performer Earl Zinger and I - were off. Check this, George Bush International in Houston to Tom Jobim Airport in Rio. Says it all. I was presenting my Worldwide Radio 1 show from here courtesy of ISDN - thank God for technology. But back to Tom Jobin.
As I arrived at the airport the smell of sugar-cane fuel hit the nasals; petrol is rarely used to power cars here. A 30-minute ride into Rio and onto Ipanema via a fading Copacabana. The hotel was right on the beach in Leblon. It's autumn in Brazil now. The warm, grey waves of the Atlantic were crashing onto a sandy beach. On the sidewalk and beach were joggers, walkers and surfers.
I was up on the 22nd floor. The view was inspirational and a fitting backdrop for the scores of interviews planned over the next few days. I should have been jet lagged but actually I was on a natural high. I took a wander downtown and that first cafezinho and a quick fag hit the spot.
Before I knew it I was back on the 22nd floor, chatting with Tom Jobim's son, Daniel. I speak French fluently, but one of my big regrets is that I don't speak Portuguese. Being able to say "tudo bem" (all's well) is not quite enough in this situation.
Tension mounted as we set off the next day to meet Milton Nascimento. We drove past the biggest favela in Rio, Rocinha. Milton lives in the neighbourhood favoured by Brazil's footballers. We waited at the gates before being allowed up the steep road that leads to his house. It's modern, circled by mountains and overlooks a golf course. There's even a space where he holds sessions with young musicians. Helicopters fly into Barra - an intense, Americanised, high-rise suburb populated by Rio's nouveaux riches. Milton Nascimento has come a long way from his humble origins in the eastern highlands of Minas Gerais.
I first heard him on Wayne Shorter's Native Dancer and I was keen to talk to him about the early days with Lo Borges and * * that classic album, Clube da Esquina. Eyes hidden away behind his shades, he told us his story. Milton is my all-time Brazilian musical hero, and over three hours he answered five questions. It was the stuff I'd love to watch on cable TV in a French hotel at four in the morning - pure arte - deep stuff.
Night time: Ed Motta's house in the shadow of Cristo Redentor, the mountain-top statue that is one of the iconic images of Rio. Ed is the man when it comes to gastronomy, tunes and comics. The oddest comment of the night came when Ed described the smell of new vinyl as lusher than an Odeon original from the Fifties. It must also be added that Ed's selection of Belgian beers that night made me think of giving all this up and becoming a Trappist monk.
The next day it was up early for a dip in the rooftop pool. I found a copy of O Globo and in it an article on myself and the projected interview with the Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil. Sadly it didn't happen but I did get to meet Seu Jorge, the next best thing. That was the only sun I saw all day. In the mix were interviews with Bossa Nova aristocracy - Carlos Lyra, Roberto Menescal, Marcos Valle, Joyce and the man who could only be described as the Lee Scratch Perry of Brazilian music, Joao Donato. It was an incredible day of insights into the making of Brazilian music as we know it.
It was not without a little controversy. Lyra is a radical who was forced into exile in the Sixties and is despondent about the state of the nation. "How can we have a President who is illiterate?" he mused. Donato was totally the opposite, and pursued a stream of consciousness that you could take what you wanted from. Bizarre but wicked.
And I still had a gig to do. Remembering my last session in Sao Paulo four years ago, I avoided Brazilian music - everybody's gran has got a Jorge Ben album. At Zero Zero, in the shadow of the Planetarium, it had to be pure London style until 5am. More interviews: the new protagonists - DJ Marlboro to Cibelle. It paved the way for us to check a Baile Funk session. The hard-core favela baile (dance party) planned with Afroreggae fell through. We ended up at a "country club" in central Rio. It was a sports hall with over 1,000 kids rocking in formation to Marlboro. The music is somewhere between Miami bass, trance and grime. There were dance competitions but it was the Marlboro's girls in Yard-style hot pants who popped the definitive dance moves.
Landing in Sao Paulo is like landing in Osaka. Everyone was speeding. Before my gig with Bruno E and the Instituto crew I needed to hook up with Madlib and his posse who were in town to drop their Brasil In Time session live. The vibe is somehow more urban than Rio. Great graffiti - Speto and Os Gemeos pieces were everywhere.
The venue for the gig was an arts complex and it was sold out. Turntables and drums. DJ Nuts, Babu, Madlib, Mamao, Wilson das Neves, Tony Allen... improvisation. Love it or hate it, you can't knock their tribute to Sabotage (who was murdered) and Chico Science (who died in a car crash). It's all built around a Pharcyde sample of a Stan Getz bossa nova track.
Sunday afternoon: Seu Jorge's house. The high point. A former street kid and Brazilian Vogue cover star, Jorge not only agreed to do an interview, he welcomed the whole crew. Would I do the same for a European interview crew? I don't think so. He greeted us with slippers, spliff and sprog - a 13-day-old baby. We chatted about everything from his new Venezuelan film to Bill Murray (with whom he starred on The Life Aquatic) to Bus 149 and he took us through his vinyl collection, which spans the Bar-Kays to Cartola and Martinho da Vila. Then he grabbed his guitar and dropped tunes in a Life Aquatic style. In the bar opposite the locals were checking the futebol; Jorge vanished upstairs to return sporting the current Arsenal shirt. The man is a gooner. Yes, I have to agree with Vogue: "homem mais cool do planeta". So, that's it. Home with BA. Upgrades? You wish.
From June you can access the podcasts on www.brahma.com/ gilles peterson
There are no non-stop flights between the UK and Rio de Janeiro, but you can fly via Sao Paulo with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Varig (020-8321 7170; www.varig.co.uk). However, the Foreign Office (0845 850 2829; www.fco.gov.uk) warns that the latter is experiencing financial problems and cites reports from Brazil's civil aviation authority that in April 20 per cent of Varig's scheduled international flights and 31 per cent of domestic flights were cancelled. You can offset your carbon emissions with Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climate care.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Rio de Janeiro is £19.40.
Blue Tree Hotel Paulista, Rua Peixoto Gomide 707, Sao Paulo (00 55 11 3147 7000; www.bluetree.com.br). Doubles from US$95 (£56), including breakfast.
Marina All Suites, Av Delfim Moreira 696, Rio de Janeiro (00 55 21 2172 1001; www.marinaallsuites.com.br). Doubles from US$335 (£197), room only.
Following recent violence in Sao Paulo, the Foreign OIfice advises: "There was a wave of shootings aimed at police and officials, and attacks on banks and public transport, in the state of Sao Paulo over the period 12-15 May 2006. Other cities in the State and in neighbouring states were also affected... There remains a heavy police presence, particularly at bus stations, but the situation appears to be returning to normal. You should nevertheless exercise a heightened level of caution."
Brazil Tourism: 020-7396 5551; www.braziltour.com
Gilles Peterson's double album with Das Velhas, "GPBiB" (Ether Records) is released on 24 May
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