Even though the Brazilian group Skank ventures far in its relentless exploration of sounds -- mixing Brazilian pop with Jamaican ska and reggae and, more recently, adding Sixties psychedelic Brit rock to the repertoire -- and even though it has toured throughout the United States, Europe, and Latin America, in many ways the foursome from Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais has never set foot outside its native Brazil.
After more than twelve years of making music, Skank remains committed to its original fan base; breaking into the international market is not a priority for the band. "Brazil is big enough for us," concedes Skank's drummer, Haroldo Ferretti, over the phone from his homeland. "Doing shows abroad and exposing a diverse audience to our music demands a lot of time and energy."
Unlike fellow Belo Horizonte natives in the heavy metal rock group Sepultura, who achieved international fame in the Eighties, Skank continues to sing in Portuguese and refuses to pull up roots from its old neighborhood. In fact, Ferretti laughs, "We live too close to each other." Three of the band members live on the same street, and keyboard player Henrique Portugal lives in an apartment two blocks away. "We never felt a need to move out of Belo Horizonte after we became successful. It's very convenient in terms of geography, and at the same time we've kept our roots and continue to be just regular guys. That's not to say our lives haven't changed -- a lot has happened -- but we haven't become victims of the superstardom trap." Even trips abroad tend to be to entertain compatriots. "We'll do shows abroad but usually where there are large Brazilian communities," Ferretti says of upcoming stops in Miami and New York scheduled as a part of the band's current Brazilian tour.
Belo Horizonte, the capital of mountainous, mystical, mineral-rich Minas Gerais, holds a respectable place in Brazilian pop history. Milton Nascimento is from Belo Horizonte. So are Lô Borges, Flavio Venturini, and Beto Guedes. They and other musicians formed a musical movement in the Sixties known as the Clube da Esquina (Club on the Corner). Before Skank's time, the music scene in Belo Horizonte was polarized between Clube da Esquina devotees, who kept the era alive through nostalgic longings, and Brazilian heavy metal, which gained momentum with Sepultura's rise to international fame in the Eighties.
"Rock always had a strong following in Minas Gerais," Ferretti explains. "On the other hand Clube da Esquina proved that it was possible to make music recognized around the world without having to leave Minas. The musicians who formed this movement mixed world music with regional styles. That's the same thing we do, but in our own way. Heavy metal isn't popular music and by the late Seventies Clube da Esquina had stopped making music regularly. When we hit the scene there was a thirst for something new in Minas Gerais. I think all of Brazil longed to hear something different."
In 1991 guitar player and vocalist Samuel Rosa, bass player Lelo Zaneti, drummer Ferretti, and keyboard player Portugal emerged from Belo Horizonte's underground. For a year Skank played hole-in-the-wall bars and was the house band at a churrasqueria (barbecue restaurant) called Mister Biff. Skank was formed with the idea of infusing Jamaican dancehall with Brazilian pop. It was unlike anything anyone had ever heard.
"At the beginning it was very difficult for us," Ferretti recalls. "We weren't sure if things would go our way. But we never gave up; we always believed in what we were doing."
Skank's enticingly poetic lyrics and euphoric rhythms quickly caught on. The quartet formed a joint savings account to spur the Skank project and after they had saved about $10,000, they made a demo and a video on their own. They sent three thousand CDs to radio stations, record companies, and the press and sold the other half at shows.
Skank may have come out of the gritty underground scene smelling of barbecued mutton and pork, but when the smoke cleared there was a deal from Sony's Brazilian label Chaos. Chaos bought the master for Skank's self-recorded demo for ten grand, then invested an equal amount in a remix that boosted sales on Skank's self-titled debut to 150,000 copies. It wasn't an earth -shattering success, but it was respectable for Minas Gerais reggae-rock. In 1994 the band released its second album, Calango. A grueling tour schedule of 170 appearances in 18 months followed, thrusting Skank into the national spotlight. The album sold about a million copies.
By the time Skank came out with O Samba Poconé in 1996, the band was among the most successful Brazilian acts of the decade, outselling perennial superstar Roberto Carlos and claiming Brazilian heavyweights Jorge Ben Jor, Lô Borges, and Daniela Mercury among its fervent fans. The album, which sold more than two million copies, is one of the best recordings in Brazilian pop history. Thick percussion tracks are set against the backdrop of soft female vocals and driving horn arrangements. Here the band members deepen their reggae roots and flirt with rock, ska, baião, and carimbó.
Despite the band's nonchalant attitude about attracting worldwide attention, O Samba Poconé yielded an international hit: "Garota Nacional" was number one on the Spanish hit parade for three months, was nominated for best international video at the MTV Video Music Awards, and became the only Brazilian composition included in Sony's Soundtrack for a Century, released in celebration of the label's 100th anniversary. O Samba Poconé landed the band gigs all over Europe, South America, and the U.S.
Yet Skank's mega-success only served to strengthen the band members' resolve to remain grounded. As a result their 1998 production Siderado was an introspective expression in which the musicians harmonized their electronic origins with psychedelic and acoustic influences. Maquinarama, the band's latest LP, marked a subtle transition. Skank continues to ride the psychedelic wave while adding traces of funk, soul, surf music, drum and bass, bossa nova, and Latin pop to its sound.
Skank is already talking about the next project. "Probably the next album will follow the influence of the last two," Ferretti speculates. "Maybe we'll include softer sounds and more ballads. We're listening to a lot of Brazilian music from the south. And as always we continue to rediscover artists like Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben Jor. These are artists who know how to take influences from around the world to make music with a Brazilian accent. We're also listening to a lot of English rock from the Sixties, The Kinks, The Stones, and of course Yellow Man and Peter Tosh, because Jamaican music continues to be our foundation."
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