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Art Soothes The Soul, It Calms Us, Gives Us Warmth: An Interview with Criolo

By - 14 November, 2012

Criolo is one of the most important musicians to come out of Brazil in some time. His last album Nó Na Orelha, a mix of hip-hop, samba and MPB, was the album of the year at the 2011 Brazilian Music Video Awards (an event where he duetted with Caetano Veloso); he has performed in New York, London and across Europe; been featured in The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal and will soon be chatting with Michael Palin on BBC One. Yet, when meeting Criolo it’d be almost impossible to guess this was a man with so much hype around him. His words are eloquent, humble, spoken with a real compassion for his country and it’s people. He seems honestly grateful for the success that has come his way. While the quality of his music and lyrics are in no doubt, it’s these human qualities that have led to him becoming such a popular figure in Brazil.

With an album that crosses so many styles, and in which Criolo sings as much as raps, it somehow makes sense that I start by asking him how he would describe his music, though his response instantly puts me on the spot: “I don’t describe the style of music. Each song is it’s own distinct universe.” Referring to the genres that music journalists so love to place on music he adds, “unity comes when some details are made official [i.e. the style of music]. But I believe that this unity that we talk of is an experimental construction and it’s solidity that we search for in the atmosphere.”

Instantly I realise that I will get no easy answers from Criolo. This is a man who thinks deeply about the world, trying to understand his place within it. Much of his own unique perspective on life comes from his upbringing. Born Kleber Gomes in the Grajaú district of São Paulo, Criolo grew up in the Imbuias favela, one of the many shanty towns surrounding Brazil’s biggest city. Many of the songs on Nó Na Orelha relay stories from the neighbourhood he grew up in. Does he feel as if he represents the people from his neighbourhood, or Brazilians as a whole? “In my neighbourhood there are a million people. I could spend a year talking about people from just my neighbourhood, so imagine if I was talking to the whole country.”

On “Sucrilhos” he graphically details the hardships of his home, while also revealing his pride as a Brazilian. I ask him if this is a contradiction. “No, no, no.” He wags a finger in my face. “Even with many problems, I can see people who fight everyday to have a dignified life. In this song I speak about mixed races and about this pride. I am proud of my skin colour, because it is with these people that I grew up and that I see every day. The chorus is a metaphor telling us that it is not everyday that you have a nutritious breakfast and that people that do have this, do not value it. But everything makes sense because of life. It’s an affirmation that all of the people in the world that experience deprivation or tough situations are good people. At the least they deserve equal rights. Nobody wants other people’s things, we just want equal rights.”

It’s when talking about social issues that Criolo really comes to life, but before I really start probing into his thoughts on Brazil I really wanted to find out a little about the album. One of the really striking things for me is the actual music on the album. This is a hip-hop album that doesn’t follow the American method of sampling, of DJs providing beats for the MC to rap over. Instead, it features live instrumentation performed by some of my favourite Brazilian musicians (Thiago França, Kiko Dinucci, Guizado). On it’s release I referred to it as the most important Brazilian hip-hop album to date. If anything, since then, it has become even more important. It has proven that it’s possible to combine a progressive approach to music (i.e. the range of styles, the experimentation) with honesty (i.e. Criolo’s words and melodies) and make something that appeals to the masses.

So, how did the process for making Nó Na Orelha begin? Criolo explains, “I spoke to a friend and he said ‘no more rap music, contribute to the scene, to the music in another form’. At that point only a few people knew that I composed, that I knew different rhythms. So an idea started to form. Then, on another occasion I met Marcelo Cabral – he played bass on the record, a spectacular musician who also produced the disc – and Daniel [Ganjaman], who also worked with me on the record. Together we decided to make the record. It was my first time working with musicians, my first opportunity. Before I had always played with DJs, MCs, beatmakers.”

Daniel Ganjaman, a hip-hop producer, known for his work in the 90s on many seminal Brazilian hip-hop albums, was invited by Cabral to work on the record. Ganjaman told me: “Marcelo Cabral called me and said ‘do you know Criolo? I’m gonna produce the album and maybe we can do it together.’ So when I went to this meeting I thought ‘I’m gonna produce a hip-hop album’, but then he [Criolo] started to sing. Most of the songs that are on the album he sang at this meeting, just a capella. He sung and we thought, there’s something in there, it’s not just hip-hop, we can have an open mind with this.”

One area in which the musicians pushed the boundaries of hip-hop was with a connection to Afro-Brazilian music. The album features old school samba (“Linha de Frente”), afrobeat (“Bogotá”) and call-and-response vocals (“Mariô”). I asked Criolo if he felt a particular connection with Afro-Brazilians: “My father was black and was an iron-monger his whole life, my grandfather was a docker in Fortaleza, so this [Afro-Brazilian] life is in my blood. The music you hear [in this upbringing] pleases you, even though you don’t know what it is. All of this formed my ancestry.”

This heritage and connection with Afro-Brazilian music ultimately leads to thoughts about Brazil’s history of slavery, and the parallels with current social issues. I want to know how this ‘modern slavery’ affects Criolo’s music. After a pause to gather his thoughts he tells me “One of the many things that makes me think, is this feeling of not wanting a repetition of [slavery], exactly that. Because the clothing has changed, the food has changed, but the human condition has not changed. He who has a lot can laugh, he who has nothing suffers and works to keep that little they still have.”

“So in a direct and indirect way [I make this connection]. We also know that art serves to soothe the soul. It serves to calm us, give us warmth. But not every day will there be poetry to solve the problems of life. Now it is obvious that the fight for equality goes beyond what is established. It is a struggle for the recognition of the obvious, where we are all equal in relation to social status. The Slavics were the first people to be enslaved, so called “slaves”, that is the root of the word. Whites enslaving whites, that is something nobody talks about. African people were the first people to be enslaved in exchange for money, but the suffering is the same.”

After discussing a new life of touring (Criolo is not a big fan of flying from city to city), giving away his records for free (Criolo is a big fan of this), I finally ask him whether he is surprised by the success he is having. He tells me:

“What is happening is happening, it was a big surprise for everyone. But I don’t have any idea what goes through people’s heads. I just think of music 50 hours a day, and I am always dedicated and focused with the things that come from my heart and I keep writing. I never change my routine, nor the way I am, because I remain the same person. Now, I feel good, I feel privileged by fate to be able to sing. I was talking with a musician friend from Algeria recently and he asked me: ‘how do you do it? Do you work during the day? Do you work at night? When do you have time to sing? Because I’m here, I’m the chef here during the day and at night I try to sing my songs.’ Look, you see the struggle of every person to be a singer or plastic surgeon or whatever. So I feel very privileged in that sense and keep living my routine and letting things flow naturally, regardless of what will happen.”

Listening to Criolo talk is completely captivating. It is so rare to find a voice that is able to dissect the modern world in a way that anyone can understand, in a way that strips away all the materialism that clouds our judgement and let’s us see clearly the things that really matter, or in other words, the people. Add to that voice some of Brazil’s finest musicians and the country’s notorious array of rhythms and you have an artist who is going to be around for a very long time indeed. What has happened so far is just the beginning.

Criolo will be performing at KOKO in London on November 18th (part of a European tour) and will also feature in Brazil With Michael Palin on BBC One on Wednesday November 14th.

Thanks to Emily Angharad Brown, Margarida Goncalves and Eduarda Vieira for their help with translating the interview.

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