Black Romance

Is the Latin world ready for Só Pra Contrariar?

A promoter at Só Pra Contrariar's label BMG has already heard reports of confusion. Many listeners have mixed up the slight Portuguese pronunciation in Pires's carefully coached Spanish lyrics with the voice of his compatriot Roberto Carlos, a white Brazilian who preceded Pires by more than a decade in crossing over into the lucrative Latin ballad market. Although the two singers share a lingering nasal intonation in Spanish, listeners are also led to mistake Pires for Carlos by the malingering history of racism in Latin America. Although much of Latin popular music derives from African traditions, the commercial face of the culture -- from Desi Arnaz to Gloria Estefan to Ricky Martin -- has too frequently worn a whiter shade of pale. The white face of Latin pop is most evident in the romantic ballad, a song tradition inherited from medieval Spanish troubadours. Somewhere in the deep racist memory of the Caribbean plantation system there is a belief that says el Negro is fine for a good time, but the more delicate sentiments belong to the whites. An employee at BMG reports a modern-day example of that belief in a record store in Puerto Rico. An elderly woman sang a few bars of Só Pra Contrariar's song "Fuera Ropa" ("Clothes Off") with the hope that the cashier could identify the artist and sell her the CD. When the would-be customer saw Pires's face on the cover, she balked, unmoved by his sultry stare. "No, that's not what I want," she insisted. "The singer I heard has the voice of a white man."

Pires flinches at the suggestion that he is breaking new ground by bringing a black face to Latin romance. He prefers to think of the efforts at integration in the past tense. "Things in my country are changing," he says. "Places that were closed for us before are open now."

Is the Latin world ready for a black balladeer? Só Pra Contrariar is banking on it
Is the Latin world ready for a black balladeer? Só Pra Contrariar is banking on it

Despite this wishful colorblindness, Só Pra Contrariar brings African musical influences to the Latin ballad that go beyond mere melanin. As a balladeer Pires's predecessor Carlos Hispanicized himself with such success that his music lost all traces of Afro-Brazilian traditions and, if record sales are any indication, all interest for Brazilian fans. In the meantime Luis Miguel, the undisputed Spanish-language bolero king, has become more and more a formulaic parody of himself with each successive release since his swoon-inducing blockbuster Romance. Enter Só Pra Contrariar. Even when making the most obvious bid to steal the hearts of Romance fans, these Uberlândian troubadours retain the subtle pulse of the samba, mating the ballad with a rhythm that approaches the bossa nova. With the deep bass beat of the surdo drum caressing the lyrics in Juegos de Amor, Só Pra Contrariar brings the voice of a black man to the candlelit encounter between new global marketing forces and ancient African traditions. "I am a slave to you," Pires complains to an inconstant lover in"Fuera Ropa." She mistreats him then seduces him again with her "white smile." In Só Pra Contrariar's games of love, the sacrifice of African traditions to pop predilections may have perverse rewards. "But," as the song says, "the person in love knows how to pardon everything."

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