There are some things that only Brazilians can do. One is to lie on a tiny mat on the beach all day without getting a grain of sand on it. Another is to play samba. Born in the working-class provinces of Rio at the turn of the 20th century, this blend of African rhythms and American jazz developed in dancehalls and carnivals of the 1930s and 1940s to become the epitome of the Brazilian way of life: as languid as a summer breeze but with a touch of melancholy, too. Samba fell into the realms of kitsch by the 1980s, but a loose-knit group made up of young Rio-based musicians and a few ageing legends called Orquestra Imperial have revived the form to spectacular success.
“The whole thing started in a panic,” says the avant-garde musician and producer Kassin, who had the idea for Orquestra Imperial in 2002. “I had been running an experimental club when I was approached by the manager of an old Rio concert hall called Ballroom to do a series of shows. Ballroom held 2,000 people and I didn’t think our experimental music would fill the place, so I had the idea of forming a samba orchestra.”
With only a few days to organise the first concert, Kassin called up all the musicians he knew and told them of his plans. This included the singer and actress Thalma De Freitas, his regular collaborator Moreno Veloso and the 75-year-old drummer Wilson Das Neves. The idea was to perform anything – from the classic songs that Brazilians grew up with to modern advertising jingles – in a big-band samba style.
“I had the idea on Thursday and the first concert was on Monday,” recalls Kassin. “We had 15 people on stage and nine people in the audience.” Among the 40 people that attended the third concert was a reviewer from the Rio newspaper O Globo, who went on to announce that Orquestra Imperial was the best new band he had seen in a decade. By the fourth night it was a sell-out. Since then the band have backed the Brazilian superstars Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso, sold out the Barbican in London and completed their first album. “Since Orquestra Imperial there has been a huge revival in samba,” says Amarante.
It might seem strange that a new generation has embraced the music of their grandparents, but De Freitas explains: “In Brazil we have an amazing legacy of popular songs that everyone grows up with. I think that’s why Orquestra Imperial has worked. We have a lot of fun on stage, but we are paying homage to what has gone before us. We keep the songs alive.”
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