Black Romance

Is the Latin world ready for Só Pra Contrariar?

Alexandre Pires does not want to talk about the days when he played at weddings and wakes. Looking back over his career during a stop in Miami to promote his latest CD, Juegos de Amor (Games of Love), the Brazilian singing sensation prefers to remember the time troubled boxer Mike Tyson stopped backstage at a show to say hello, or the night in Spain when Miami's own Gloria Estefan presented him with that country's prestigious Amigo Prize for Best Latino Group of 1999.

The short-memoried songster honed his voice (as well as a prowess on fourteen different musical instruments) while growing up in the Brazilian city of Uberlândia in the region of Minas Gerais, far from the neighborhoods in Rio and Salvador better known for spawning sambistas. There his mother and father headed a family act that took any gig they could get, from baptisms to funerals. Now 23 years old, Pires has his own group and is riding a samba revival that has resulted in his band Só Pra Contrariar selling more than six million copies of its records since 1993, making it the biggest-selling act in Brazilian history. With the release of a Spanish-language album, these handsome boys from Brazil are departing from their native Portuguese and taking their show to the rest of the world.

The name of the band means "just to be contrary," which might make it seem as if Só Pra Contrariar strives to be something new, something daring, or even an outfit with something to prove. Indeed the group has made famous a version of samba known as pagode, which gives that genre's traditional rhythm a pop appeal via updated arrangements and electric instrumentation. Accordingly purists protest that pagode violates both samba's acoustic and historic roots. These detractors argue that the band's success depends on its determination to take samba out of the favelas, the urban ghettos of Brazil that birthed it, and into the expensive sound systems of the CD-buying elite.

"We knew that at some point pagode would hit the upper classes," Pires has observed. "We are pleased and thank God it was our time." To make samba sell outside the favela, however, Só Pra Contrariar has taken the sound of the favela out of samba. Just as photogenic frontman Pires skips over the rough days of his childhood to focus on the more recent triumphs of his hard-won fame, Só Pra Contrariar smooths out the street swing of samba that once expressed the historical experiences of the black Brazilian underclass, making way for pagode's more market-friendly rhythms.

Só Pra Contrariar will not stop at pleasing Brazilian consumers. The Spanish-language market in the rest of the hemisphere looms large, tempting the Portuguese-speaking band to satisfy the sweet tooth of fans of Latin-American romance by whipping the already saccharine rhythms of pagode into a frothy cream. A conscious crossover effort, Juegos de Amor is a compilation of upbeat Portuguese-language pagode tunes and slow Spanish-language ballads. "Santo, Santo," the first single, is a getting-to-know-you duet with Gloria Estefan that hit as high as number two on the Latin Billboard charts. Together the duo appeals to a saint to help "conquer the heart" of a disinterested lover. Their petition could just as well refer to the Brazilian public Estefan courts by pairing herself with Pires, or to the international audience whose hearts Pires hopes to win by harnessing the power of the Estefan name. Emilio Estefan, Jr., produced "Santo, Santo" with a host of Miami-based Cuban musicians, orienting the track even further away from the traditional samba and toward the international tropicalista sound with which Brazilian artists such as Caetano Veloso attempted to reach foreign ears in the 1980s.

Still Juegos de Amor represents an encouraging new version of the cultural syncretism that produced Brazilian traditional music in the first place. "Santo, Santo," mixes the secular music of tropicalized samba with the neo-African religious practice of candomble. Like Santería in Cuba, candomble developed in Brazil under the plantation system in which enslaved Africans worshipped deities from Yorubaland in West Africa by dressing them up as the saints of the Catholic Church. The power of these undercover orishas to deliver the goods came as much from the strength of the Yoruban gods back in Africa as from the recognition that for those gods to work in the new world, they would have to pass themselves off as Europeans. By appealing to the worldwide marketing and distribution power of Estefan Enterprises, Só Pra Contrariar gives the African gods of rhythm yet another disguise. While African influences threaten to disappear in the slick pagode, those same influences resurface in the band's even slicker songs of love.

Appearing thoughtful in front of a television crew from a Latin-music video program, Pires recites a list of what the show's hostess calls "artists of the millennium." "Luis Miguel, for his voice," Pires says, shifting in his chair as if he were having an intimate conversation. "Ricky Martin, for what he has made possible," he continues, giving the camera his opposite profile. Draped in a soft sweater designed to caress his much-worked-out body while still leaving him looking open, almost vulnerable, Pires plays the part of romantic balladeer to perfection. Yet there is a striking difference between the breathtakingly handsome Brazilian and the likewise gorgeous commercial icons he extols, even if it is only skin-deep. Unlike the elegant Galician from Mexico and the blond-haired, brown-eyed babe from Puerto Rico (indeed unlike any other star who has ever shined in the glittery galaxy of Latin pop romance), Pires is black.

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."

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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