Around the Praça Tiradentes in downtown Rio de Janeiro, used vinyl abounds. Vendors haul crates in with wheelbarrows and prop records up on building façades, lazily keeping an eye out for customers while they chat with taxi drivers and doormen. Start showing some interest they will quickly point out the organizational scheme of the day: pricier imports vs. bargain domestics, an economic equation that holds for most goods in the Brazilian economy (appliances, clothes, beer).
Imports can fetch a reasonable sum—at least 20 reais ($12.50)—for anything from Euro dance records to Grace Jones to ’70s R&B. But Brazilian wax here is much cheaper than in a beauty salon. Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben Jor and other stalwarts of tropicália and música popular brasileira (MPB) are usually 5 reais ($3) or less. Funk carioca records, documenting the early days before mp3 CDs took over the distribution channels, can run to the dirt cheap: try twenty-five records for 50 reais ($30).
When a trademark tropical shower rolls through, Cariocas act like the Wicked Witch from the West, avoiding the rain at all costs. As the vendors run for cover under the awnings of nearby botecos, the crates sit forlorn in the rain, not even elevated on a pallet to evade the water rushing down the sidewalk.
The cavalier and careless attitudes are all the more disconcerting given the perilous state of record production in Brazil. At present Polysom, located in the Rio suburb of Belford Roxo, is the only vinyl pressing and production plant in Brazil and indeed in South America. If you accept owner João Augusto’s dismissive assertion that the only remaining plant in Mexico barely deserves the distinction, then Polysom is the lasthomem standing below the Rio Grande, which is to say the only vinyl pressing plant in all of Latin America.*
Orfeón in Mexico, Discos Fuentes in Colombia, and Polygram in Brazil are just a handful of the record labels that supplied the music for the vibrant market in LPs throughout Central and South America. But the advent of the compact disc era was a global phenomenon, and the bottom largely fell out of the Brazilian vinyl market by the ’90s. As of 1995, there were no domestic producers of vinyl records.
The gap was short-lived, however, before demand from an unlikely demographic: Evangelicals. Brazilian churches were—and still are—voracious consumers of gospel music, as movements like Pentecostalism are slowly eating away at the Catholic majority. Why they preferred vinyl over CDs remains unclear, but, they sustained the nascent Polysom, founded by Nilton Rocha in 1997 with equipment purchased from Brazilian major labels Poly Gram and Continental. Rocha had worked for Brazilian majors since 1969 in other vinyl plants and running his own shop had long been a dream.
Of course, there was more than just praise music coming out of Polysom in the 2000s. In the 2006 music video for “Curimba Riddim,” Brazilian reggae purveyors Digital Dubs Soundsystem pay respect to Jamaican tradition by hauling down fresh 7-inches from Polysom for their regular sound clashes in the nightclubs of Rio...