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Digging Deeper: An interview with Tee Cardaci (Sonhos Secretos)

For this edition in our Digging Deeper series we were very lucky to speak to the compiler of one of our favourite compilations to land at Mr Bongo HQ in recent months. It’s titled ‘Sonhos Secretos: Brazilian Private Press & Independent MPB On 7″ (1980-1985)’ and is the brainchild of music industry veteran, Tee Cardaci. An American living in Brazil, Tee’s knowledge of the music of his adopted homeland is second to none, as is his enthusiasm for discovery, digging and sharing the treasures he finds. This compilation focuses on the rare and obscure to the unknown, courtesy of eleven genre-spanning gems produced during the waning days of Brazil’s military dictatorship, recorded by a new emerging class of artists operating outside of the major label system. As you can imagine, that sort of thing really gets us salivating here at Mr Bongo, so we had to find out more…

Please tell us a little about your musical background?

I've been obsessed with music for as long as I can remember. I began collecting records in the 80s with my dad, who's a big collector of many different things. Every weekend we'd hit the garage sales, flea markets and thrift shops. Beginning to DJ professionally in 1991 was just a natural extension of my record collecting and my desire to share the music I love with others. 

After uni, I moved out to San Francisco in 1997 where I immersed myself in the city's music scene... DJing, producing, working for a label and running a small shop in the Lower Haight that sold everything from 12"s and mixtapes to Kung Fu flix and Battle Of The Year tapes on VHS. We also sold snow cones with liquor in them and there was a mic hanging from the ceiling where guys would come in off the block to freestyle. It was a wild time in a wild place and a paradise for a young, grimy music nerd. We had Zebra Records across the street for hip hop and soulful house, Rooky's next door for soul 45s, Groove Merchant was a block down with Tweekin' Records almost next door, Jack's Record Cellar was around the corner with Faster Bamboo slinging drum & bass records in the mix too. All this in a two-block radius. A glorious time and place to be alive. The city was awash in sounds of every genre you'd care to hear, with great music every night of the week. This is where my most formative years were spent and where my sonic horizons were broadened substantially.

Can you summarise your connection with Brazil and its music?

Yeah, so my taste has always been eclectic and Brazil was always part of that mix but my real education didn't begin in earnest until I landed in Rio in 2008. I came down here originally with a crew from SF for a friend's wedding and a few gigs I'd blagged on the back of that. Two weeks turned into two months which turned into fifteen years. When I landed here, I quickly learned how little I actually knew about Brazilian music and it was both humbling and inspiring to almost have to start from zero with the knowledge. But I got to it the only way I know how: digging, digging, digging. Studying the liner notes and making connections as I'd always done since I was a kid. I've had some great professors along the way too, like my boy Alex Paz, Marcelinho da Lua and Kassin, to name a few. Someone referred to me as an expert in a radio interview recently and it was embarrassing. Being an expert implies knowing everything about something and I will always and forever be but a humble student here.

What was the inspiration / spark that made you want to put this compilation together?

It started life in a very organic way. Like the records featured on Sonhos Secretos, the comp was born without any commercial considerations. Like I often do, I'd made a mix to share with friends, highlighting certain records I'd found and loved, based around a certain theme. This one happened to be private press and independent MPB on 7". This particular mix ended up being picked up by the LA music journal Aquarium Drunkard and from there I was contacted by Org Music. They said they loved the project and asked if I'd want to work with them to produce a proper compilation. It's funny because if you told me five years ago I'd have the chance to produce a comp, I'd have thought it would probably be more related to Brazilian funk, soul, disco or boogie, as those are the sounds that usually feature in my DJ sets. But I'm here happily playing the cards that life has dealt me and I stand by every one of these songs 100%. This isn't a comp for the dancefloor but one I hoped would connect with other true music heads with deep, eclectic tastes. All of the songs, while stylistically different, work together as a cohesive collection, I think, and are all characterized by superb writing and musicianship with really unique arrangements that are full of surprises. Some may be limited by technological constraints, based on the studios they had available to them, and some by monetary constraints... like Moxotó who recorded, mixed, mastered and cut their entire four-track compacto duplo in only four hours because that's all they had the money for... but the beauty in all of them shines through. So far, I've been overwhelmed by the positive reception that the project has received.

How would you describe MPB for the uninitiated?

MPB stands for Música Popular Brasileira or Brazilian Popular Music. The term 'popular' is used here in the sense of being of the people. It's kind of this blanket term that gets applied to a lot of post-bossa nova Brazilian music. Stylistically, it's a big enough umbrella to encompass influences ranging from jazz and soul to rock and pop. All of these influences are present in varying degrees on Sonhos Secretos.

How did you go about discovering these tracks?

Again, this was all a very organic process. All of these records featured here, I found while digging. Except the Moacyr Luz and Luiz Sérgio Cruz compacto that I got in a trade from my buddy Alex Paz. When I say digging, I mean proper hitting the streets, dusty fingers, moldy warehouse style digging. Digging to me has always been about discovering new sounds more than crossing wants off a list and none of these records were known to me when I found them. Some were certainly known before, at least among a select few, but many were nowhere to be found online at the time. I've always had a special place in my heart for private releases so I'd always take records like these home with me when I'd find them. But there was never a master plan to go out looking for records for a comp. They stayed filed in a box until one day I decided to put together that mix to share purely for the love of the music and that gave birth to the compilation.

Do you think Brazilian private press albums tend to differ from what we expect from North American examples? I know that’s a sweeping generalisation, but I read a review that suggested the Brazilian songs you have selected are more fully formed / accomplished than the amateur nature of many of what you find on the known NA albums. From listening to the album, I would agree, but what’s your take on this?

Yeah, I read that review and want to be careful how I answer this because I thought it was a really thoughtful, great review. But I kind of disagree with his point that most private releases from the US or UK or wherever sound less mature or "ready for prime time", as he put it. There are phenomenal private records from both north and south of the equator. And there are no shortage of shit ones as well. For sure, for every record on my compilation, there are twenty others at home in the crates that just aren't very good. Luke Una said something not too long ago in one of the great videos he posts that made me laugh. To paraphrase, he basically said that most rare and obscure records are rare and obscure for a reason: they're shit and nobody bought them. There's a lot of truth to that but I believe that in the case of the tracks on this comp, in a more just world, with a marketing budget and real distribution, these songs would have found their audience and found success. The truth is that these records were only sold at shows and handed out to friends. They never really had a chance. Later in the same review that you referenced, speaking about the song "Por Teu Nome", the reviewer said "By all rights, this should have been the lead cut from a successful album" instead of this being the only thing they ever had the chance to record. I wholeheartedly agree.

The press release states that the tracks “are recorded by a new emerging class of artists operating outside of the major label system” - was this a deliberate stance, to remain out of the major system, or was it a necessity in order to get the music recorded?

I think it's a mix of the two. Some like Grupo Moxotó and Hilton Barcelos were definitely more "militant" in their stance as independent artists while most, I think, were just availing themselves of this new possibility to release music either on their own or through very small independent labels, often run by friends. What they all have in common though is that, recording and releasing their music the way they did, they were able to create music outside of any current trends or external pressures from a label. I think the result is that the work has a timeless quality that never sounds obviously "early 80s".

What is the significance of the period in Brazil that the compilation focuses on (1980-85)?

Well, I can sit here and tell you that this time period marked a sort of second wave of independently released music in Brazil, after Tim Maia's Racional 1 & 2, followed by Antônio Adolfo's Feito Em Casa, demonstrated that it was possible for artists to self-release their music in Brazil. I could tell you that this time period coincided with the final days of Brazil's military dictatorship and that a new wave of optimism was sweeping through the world of Brazilian music, with artists taking to the streets to demand their rights and calling for a return to free and open elections. And while all of that would be absolutely true, these are things I honestly only considered in hindsight. As I said, there was never a master plan here when I started this project as a humble mixtape. Sometimes things just unfold in the way that they were meant to and you fully grasp what's there after the fact.

Do you have any personal favourites featured on the compilation?

It's hard to pick a favorite because I truly love each track for different reasons. That said, the fact that Ricardo Luiz & Jorge Bahiense's song "Por Teu Nome" was recorded by two high school teachers and their students blows my mind. The closing track from Quintais, "Pastores Da Noite," is truly epic and gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. The spacey synth and acoustic guitar on the intro to "Espantalho" always transports me to some place beautiful. Marcello Lessa's "Azulão" was always a deeply emotional tune. The fact that he passed away shortly after I tracked him down adds a whole new layer of depth to it. Really, I've got stories about every song on this compilation that connect me to this material on a deep level. 

Are there any artists featured in the compilation that went on to have a notable commercial recording career?

While many of these artists only had the chance to release one record before life took them in different directions, a couple did go on to have successful careers. The one that will be the most known to Brazil heads is Filó Machado, who released his debut LP on the Chantecler label four years prior to the private 7" featured on the comp and his sought-after LP, Origins, came out the year after the 7". He's kind of the anomaly here. The group backing him on "Trem Fantasma" is Placa Luminosa who will be known to BR boogie heads for their LP, Neon. Moacyr Luz went on to become one of Rio's most beloved sambistas, although his first record that's featured on the comp is firmly in the jazz-influenced MPB camp. Renato Faver's song "Espantalho" was co-written by and features Marcos Sabino who had success the following year with his debut single "Reluz" which featured arrangements by Jose Roberto Bertrami from Azymuth. "Espantalho" was recorded in Estudio Tok by the legendary Brazilian drummer Chico Batera. It's also worth noting that in addition to the principal artists, there are a few major names that you'll spot in the credits. Alex Malheiros from Azymuth is on bass on the tune "Tamares" and Wilson das Neves, Antônio Adolfo and Nivaldo Ornelas show up here backing Marcello Lessa.

Did you manage to make contact with many of the artists - were they excited at the prospect of their music being rediscovered / discovered for the first time?

Oh, yeah, absolutely! The reason it took nearly three years for this album to see the light of day after I'd made that first mix is because that's how long it took to track everyone down. There was some real detective work involved but when I finally got to speak to these guys on the phone, it was often very emotional. The first reaction was usually one of bewilderment, like, "Who are you? Where did you find my record? You want to do what with it?!" Most of them hadn't thought much about their records in decades but hearing me tell of my love for their music took them back, bringing up a lot of memories and also reaffirming for them what they'd always felt about what they'd created. And because these were all independent productions, I had the pleasure of working with all the artists directly to license their work, as opposed to some major label conglomerate that couldn't give a shit about a niche project like this.

I've spoken a lot here about me and my digging or whatever but, at the end of the day, this compilation is 100% about these artists and I couldn't be happier that their music now gets a second life and a chance to be heard by a new audience eager to discover more sounds from Brazil.

Is there a part 2 underway?

There certainly could be. Nearly every week I turn up something great with zero info online. Brazil is a bottomless ocean of recorded music to rediscover. But for now, at least, I'm just happy to have got this project across the finish line. Three years is a long time to devote yourself to something and when you add in the mental load of the pandemic, that wasn't always a sure thing. I'm very thankful for the patience and support I received from the label.

Any other forthcoming projects you are able to share with us?

Yeah, definitely. I've worked recently with a much-loved Scottish label to license a killer private press psych-funk 7" from Brazil that should be out at some point. Previously, I did two volumes of a cassette-only project that imagined if the Quiet Storm radio format had existed in Brazil. Following up on weird-themed tapes that explore lesser-known sounds from Brazil that no one's asked for, I've got two more tapes that will be out in the new year. One is 90s streetwise gospel from Brazil with influences of electro, boogie and street soul. The other is a mix of lesser-known Brazilian AOR based on a tape discovered along with a big bag of weed on a shipwrecked sailboat on a small island off the coast of North East Brazil back in the late 80s. Oh, I've got a split tape with my brother, Ologist, from Common Good Records and Thanks For Listening, a dope new shop in Virginia Beach. That one's called Brazil Lado B and, as the name suggests, explores the figurative B-side of Brazilian music. It's a collection of obscure stuff we love that we thought deserved some more shine. There's also a new 45 coming out on Bastard Jazz that I had a hand in. It's a collab between Brazilian artist Guinu and Dan David, the artist formerly known as Trailer Lemon, whose work with The Pendletons I'm a huge fan of. I executive produced Guinu's Palagô LP for Razor N Tape and I've been working alongside him as he gets his next album, OXALATRIX, ready for release. It's incredible and I can't wait for folks to hear it. The best way to stay up on all of these projects is by following me on Instagram @teecardaci where I'm also always sharing recent digs and other records that I love from Brazil and beyond. 

Thanks to Tee for taking the time to answer our questions, and of course, for this sublime compilation. 'Sonhos Secretos' is out now, get your copy HERE.

Make sure you are following Tee on Instagram for the latest updates on what he’s got going on.