Forever Changes

Dressed in platform leather combat boots and a red and black baby doll dress, nouveau songstress Fernanda Porto certainly played the part of a musician on the frontlines of modern Brazilian culture. Looking like a cross between a ruby-headed majorette and Star Trek's sexy Lt. Uhura, she defied expectations during her recent Miami Brazilian Film Festival concert at the Lincoln Theater, projecting a radically different image from what purists might expect of a Brazilian girl singer. Her songs were rooted in the breezy sway of bossa nova yet laced with the unexpected. Surrounding their familiar core were synthetic drum beats and programmed soundscapes that Porto created with her laptop computer and a mangle of synthesizer keyboards, distancing herself from what would be considered traditional Brazilian pop.

Near the end of the performance, Porto brought out her special guests: six drummers dramatically pounding huge Japanese taiko drums in synchronized thrusts. The thumping of the oversized barrels, one of which was almost the size of a compact car, sent a clear message to her audience: Contemporary Brazilian music is more than the graying sound of bossa nova, samba, and tropicalia. In fact her Portuguese lyrics may have been the only element many could recognize. At times, she lilted and cooed in a soprano with Astrud Gilberto inflections. But other moments found her shrieking passionately like Icelandic singer Björk.

After the concert, as the audience milled about in the theater lobby, some faces beamed with excitement from the performance they had just seen. Still others had a look of consternation. "I'm not sure I got it," a woman was heard whispering to her companion.

It was a reaction that Porto might have expected.

Like many of her peers, Porto's roots reach back to samba. With its playful syncopation that can build into an awe-inspiring wall of sound, samba is the heartbeat, the de facto genetic code ingrained in the DNA of all things Brazilian. The new wave of electronic beats emanating from Brazil is not immune to it.

Rooted in ancient African rhythms brought over and incubated by slaves, the samba originally emerged among the escola de samba (samba schools) during the Twenties at Carnaval. Today the cariocas (Rio de Janeiro's residents) literally plan their lives around the yearly festival that marks the beginning of Lent.

By the Fifties the country was ready for a new sound. Bossa nova, which literally means "new wave," was established when Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos "Tom" Jobim slowed down the tempo of samba, infusing it with a breezy, laid-back texture relying heavily on acoustic guitar, soft drumming, and sensual and pensive singing. In recent years, performers like Celso Fonseca have kept the bossa nova sound alive, albeit modernized with cool ambient noises.

Earlier in the week, as Porto prepares for the Lincoln Theater show, she confesses to not knowing how her performance will be received. But she does say that challenging the concertgoers with diverse and unusual sounds, particularly the overwhelming sound of the Japanese drums, will be one of her objectives. "I always want to bring something new," she says.

Porto notes that bossa nova and samba play huge roles in her musical career. But she also aspires to go beyond its trappings. Drum n' bass, the U.K.-based style built on high-speed tempos and rollicking percussion, swept the São Paulo music scene in the late Nineties through influential DJs like Patife, Marky, and XRS and proved to be her way out. "I love rhythm, it's the most important inspiration. All my music begins with rhythm," she says.

"A lot of people thought I was a bossa nova girl," Porto says of her first steps in the music industry. "But the drum n' bass sound really did it for me. I was curious. I spent two years composing and hiding from DJs who told me to stick to MPB (música popular Brasileira). They thought that was my track."

From the start of her career the rebellious Porto, a classically trained pianist and multi-instrumentalist who also plays drums, saxophone, and guitar and sings opera, has only been interested in forging her own way. After all, she studied composition and music theory with Hans-Joachim Koellreutter, professor to Jobim and Claudio Santoro.

Upon completing her studies, Porto began writing soundtrack music for people like documentary filmmaker Tony Venturi. Soon afterward, she found herself singing MPB standards in the club scene around São Paolo. While she proved adept at the ever-popular bossa nova and samba style, she hungered for more.

By 1997 she had hooked up with drum n' bass DJ XRS, who helped her develop a demo. The tape found its way to DJ Patife, who later remixed one of her songs, "Sambassim," in 2000. Included on Patife's mix CD, Cool Steps: Drum "N" Bass Grooves, it became a dance hit in London. (She performed the song at Level during the 2001 Winter Music Conference.)

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Juan Carlos Rodriguez