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Digging Deeper: An Interview With Joe Osborne - The Hidden Waters of Rio

The launch of a new compilation series is always something that gets us excited here at Mr Bongo. Hidden Waters: Strange and Sublime Sounds of Rio de Janeiro is compiled by Joe Osborne (founder of specialist Brazilian music platform Brazilian Wax) and Russ Slater (editor at large of Sounds and Colours). Focusing solely on the 'Rio Scene', rather than taking on the mammoth task of tackling Brazil as a whole, this collection presents 20-plus ground-breaking artists selected from Rio’s resurgent music scene. By presenting a snapshot into the pulse of the city and the vibrant musicians that live in it, Hidden Waters collates tracks from a wide spectrum of musical genres from the avant-garde edge to bossa nova, samba, Candomblé, lo-fi rock, jazz and funk.

To mark the release of the compilation, we had a chat with Joe to try and dig a little deeper into this wonderful project.

Please tell us a bit about your musical background?

There was always an awful lot of music in my house – my dad always played guitar and piano and there were always tons of records around. I played guitar and piano, too, and did a lot of singing from a young age. I was in a few choirs and, weirdly, a Latin Band at school with whom I sung a lot of Colombian and Cuban music. And, through studying music at school, I also got heavily into the French Impressionists Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel – and then, into Erik Satie and Les Six. There was also a short-lived punk band when I was about 12. We were called Extortion Contortion and our last of three rehearsals at Camden’s Roundhouse ended when I did a jump with my guitar and split the crotch of my brand-new tartan trousers. There’s been plenty half-attempts at starting bands ever since. Alongside playing, the curatorship side of music: the journalism, broadcasting, DJing and producing – that all began slowly, growing after interning at NME magazine as a teenager and really took off via my own platform Brazilian Wax, and through working for Sounds & Colours.

In terms of tastes, I was always quite omnivorous as a kid. I had, and still have a deep love for a canon of British “indie” music that’d include The Kinks, The Clash, Ian Dury, Pulp and Blur. And at home, from as young as I can remember, I was also listening to a lot of reggae: The Gladiators, Heptones, Desmond Dekker and Derrick Harriot. There was also some Buena Vista-adjacent son and salsa. And then jazz happened massively for me, with Charles Mingus and Chet Baker becoming my heroes. But throughout, Brazilian music was there, and became more and more dominant.

How and when did you fall in love with the music of Brazil?

My mum’s mum was born in Recife in northeast of Brazil and didn’t come to England until she was in her twenties. Weirdly, and totally coincidentally, my dad’s uncle moved to Porto Alegre in the south before I was born, too. My immediate family aren’t Brazilian, but Brazil was always this alluring presence just beyond reach or understanding as a kid. Football probably compounded my curiosity. My favourite players when I was young were always Brazilian: Ronaldinho and Kaká particularly. I played futebol de salão in London and it was always soundtracked by a tape of what was probably, in hindsight, extremely tasteless Brazilian remixes. But I loved it: I loved the energy. But, more than that, through football and music, I was intrigued by this sense that Brazilian culture really championed creativity and flair and individuality in a way that British culture didn’t.

My first gig, when I was about 11, was seeing Seu Jorge on his América Brasil tour and, that album soundtracked my life for so, so long. A couple of years later, while getting heavily into jazz, I did the inevitable journey through bossa nova and then landed on Jorge Ben’s Samba Esquema Novo. I asked for the record for Christmas, but my parents couldn’t find it so got me some Tropicália compilations instead. And that just blew my mind. I recognised so much about Tropicália that I loved in other music. It had that visceral energy and the subversive context of UK punk, it had the sonic explorations of the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, the Beach Boys and Love, it had the rhythm and energy of ska or salsa, it had the rich harmony and complex structures of jazz… I remember the first time I heard Gal Costa’s ‘Tuareg’ on one of those comps, and very quickly her two 1969 albums became my bible.

How do you follow what is happening musically in Rio?

I began following Rio’s music scene pretty closely after Ava Rocha released her 2018 album Trança – that really blew me away. Like a lot of music that ended up on this compilation, Trança had Tropicália’s “anthropophagic” ethos and also its reverence for Brazil’s rich musical history, without sounding nostalgic. It subverted symbols and sounds from the Brazilian canon (the violão, cuíca, batucada) and ventured into many contemporary sound-worlds: there were intricate electronicky moments and an avant indie sound I saw as comparable to the the kind of art-rock Deerhoof made.

At that age, besides a few São Paulo artists (Metá Metá, Romulo Fróes, Teto Preto), I was still pretty consumed by Brazil’s musical history rather than present. But through Brazilian Wax – which had begun in 2017 as a student radio show – I was engaging more and more with what was happening in modern Brazil, and I was also digging for contemporary cuts to DJ instead of the typical “rare groove” standards. I started scouring Soundcloud and Bandcamp, just typing in tags like “rdj” and found the QTV label, Negro Leo, Tantão… Now I’m lucky enough to know many of these artists and labels personally, so I can keep track via their Instagrams and pester them for updates on new material!


Where and when did the idea for this compilation come about?

I spent about a year editing the music section of Russ’s Sounds & Colours from the summer of 2020. The job included writing Brazilian Wax Round-Ups and interviewing many Brazilian musicians, and I began going deeper, building this huge web of really quite remarkably good music. I found it fascinating that you could trace so many connections between many of the artists I was writing about: they all produced for each other, played on each other’s records, wrote songs for each other, designed the covers for each other’s albums… It felt like this real moment of collaboration and community which reminded me of what had been happening closer to home in UK jazz with the likes of Nubya Garcia, Moses Boyd, the Ezra boys, Maisha and Nérija. It also reminded me of the collaborative nature of Tropicália: obviously, the seminal Panis et Circenses compilation, but also the more long-term relationships between Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, and Caetano’s sister Maria Bethânia and Nara Leão, and Os Mutantes, and Gal Costa, Jorge Ben, and Tom Zé.

There were further parallels to Tropicália, too: the sonic experimentation in this group of musicians, but also the music’s similar political context: back then it was Brazil’s military dictatorship, in 2021 it was Bolsonaro’s censorious premiership. A compilation had been on my mind for a while. I wanted to help shout about this moment – and then Russ suggested it out of the blue in February 2021 and Hidden Waters was born!

How did you and your co-compiler Russ Slater select the tracks for the compilation?

Initially it felt like a mammoth task. In my head, I hadn’t totally zeroed in on one city. While Rio seemed to be the creative epicentre, there were tendrils that reached towards São Paulo: Rio’s Thiago Nassif had recently produced the superb Lances by paulista polymath Sztu; and scene linchpin Negro Leo had featured on Gabriel Edé’s sprawling Terror da Terra, too. Both São Paulo albums were in my top 5 for 2020. But Russ was more ruthless and was right to persuade me to focus all our energy exclusively on the city where the majority of this great music had sprung.

For me, it was important to show the links between many of these artists. The way they all interacted definitely informed and guided the track selection. For example, the compilation begins with Ana Frango Elétrico’s “Saudade”. Off the top of my head, Ana alone has featured on albums by, performed with or collaborated with: Pedro Fonte (track 2), Bala Desejo (3), members of Exército do Bebês (4), Thiago Nassif (5), Negro Leo (6), Rosabege (8), Dora Morelenbaum (9), Marcelo Callado (13), members of Ovo ou Bicho (14), Vovô Bebê, (16), Joana Queiroz (17), Raquel Dimantas (18) and Antônio Neves (19). And the players on “Saudade” are just as engaged in the scene. For example, guitarist Guilherme Lírio is a member of Exército do Bebês (track 5) and Ovo ou Bicho (14), and also plays on the tracks by Pedro Fonte (2), Thiago Nassif (6), Vovô Bebê (7), Dora Morelenbaum (9) – and a track by Ilessi which features on the original Sounds & Colours pressing. You can track these connections in the credits printed on the record sleeves.


Were there any / many artists you wanted to include but couldn’t for whatever reason?

The main one for me is Tantão e os Fita. He makes this incredibly aggressive, very experimental, extremely confrontational music that falls somewhere between hardcore, industrial and noise music and it’s just so stunning. To borrow some words from my review of his third album Piorou: “even at its nastiest, Piorou can be exhilaratingly beautiful. . . It is blood-curdlingly brazen and totally unique.” I wish we could have found space for Tantão but it would have been just too much of a left-turn in the track listing to work. And, also, taking one Tantão track out the context of a whole hulking album just wouldn’t do it justice…

What can you tell us about the stunning artwork and design of the release?

The story of the artwork has an achingly tragic ending: a matter of weeks before the album’s release, one of the album’s two artists Caio Paiva passed away. Holding my first physical copy, I just burst into tears because the idea that Caio never gets to hold his own work was just too much to bear thinking about. It is an inexplicable loss. He was a once-a-generation artist and musician – such an outrageous blaze of light who had become the cornerstone of Rio’s creative culture. And he was such a dear friend to so many people involved in this project.

When approaching the artwork for this project, he was the one person I was desperate to have involved. He was only 22 at the time and he’d already been churning out iconic album artwork for just about everyone. He’d done the art for everything Ana Frango Elétrico had ever done, made a number of covers for Thiago Nassif, for Dora Morelenbaum and for his own band Ovo ou Bicho – all 4 appear on Hidden Waters. He’d also produced a compilation Xepa/Nata alongside Marcelo Callado (also featured on Hidden Waters) – a compilation which features Ana Frango, and also a track we licensed for Hidden Waters by Exército do Bebês called “Avós da Experiência”. He was absolutely central to this group of musicians. When he agreed to take on the project I was so thrilled: for me he was already a legendary artist. And I’d also already decided that his band, who have still only officially released 2 singles, were  going to be the band of their generation. I feel so very privileged to work with and know Caio.

And the work he did with his long-term partner Karina Yamane (and photographer Bruna Sussekind) did not disappoint. The artwork itself references Ary Barroso and Dorival Caymmi’s Um Interpreta o Outro, with the cover’s photo taken from the same perspective. It also references the definitive Tropicália compilation Panis et Circenses in which Gilberto Gil held a framed photo of Capinan and Caetano Veloso of Nara Leão. In our first meeting Caio had the idea fully fleshed out: he managed to gather framed photographs of all of the artists in the middle of a Covid lockdown, rented a boat and hit the water. Caio himself is featured second from left in the wallet of passport photos central and at the bottom of the shot. He is so dearly missed and this project will forever be dedicated to him.

The liner notes are extensive and also include essays written by two of Rio’s foremost music critics and cultural historians, how important do you think this context is to the listening experience?

I could write forever on this subject. Apologies in advance for a long answer! In a broad sense, context is always integral. My platform Brazilian Wax began as a radio show with the aim of sharing Brazilian music within a historical, political and cultural context. For me, this was crucial if we were to work towards unravelling the neo-colonial and hugely reductive relationship that has existed between the UK and “world” music(s) forever. Obviously, within Anglophone and European cultures, the consumption of Brazilian music has historically been appropriative, exploitative and, also, contextless. Nowadays, I find the general relationship between the UK and Brazilian music is built upon two problematic pillars: the exotic and the nostalgic – both of which prevent the listener really getting close to understanding the music they’re listening to.

You see so many reductive and inaccurate descriptions of Brazilian music and musicians rooted in this idea of the exotic: “tribal music”, music of the “jungle”, music rooted in sexuality and sensuality, even this misconception of all Brazilian music being this “sunny”, “beachy”, “happy” music (which is crazy when you consider that Brazilian artists were creating during a censorial military dictatorship for the best part of two decades!). People in the UK rarely engage beyond enjoying the classic exotic stereotypes that something like “Mas Que Nada” or a Marcos Valle tune might evoke for them. And, for these audiences, almost as seductive as Brazil being this exotic paradise is the idea of Brazil as this nostalgic space: DJs worldwide love the idea of crate-digging for lost or forgotten Brazilian relics, which then have historically been removed from Brazil (which, of course, is a relationship that can’t really be separated from a neo-colonial legacy). Equally, besides the electronic music of the likes of Mamba Negra and Gop Tun, it is still the Tropicália, MPB, and disco from the sixties to the eighties that takes up most of the focus in the UK.

So, part of this compilation is about, 1) meeting the culture where it is now and, 2) engaging with it properly, not just on the surface via exotic mis-readings. There has forever been sophisticated, nuanced, contemporary, complex and trailblazing Brazilian music and right now there is as much excellent music from Brazil as there ever has been. So, let’s pay attention – not just to histories of Tropicália or compilations of boogie music, but to what Brazil actually sounds like right now. The music on this compilation is testament to that. And it was always crucial to allow this music to have an authentic voice and to be given as much attention as canons of bossa nova or Tropicália.

We were so grateful, therefore, to have such culturally significant voices as Leonardo’s and Bernardo’s involved in this project. They are both eminent critics from Rio who have been engaged in this scene for a long time and the insights they give are rooted in a wealth of first-hand experience that go beyond mine and Russ’s. Equally, the record sleeves are covered in quotes from the artists themselves, telling stories of theirs and each other’s work. This was so special for two reasons: firstly, because it reinforces and demonstrates the relationships between them all; and, secondly, because there’s no one better to represent and speak for a song than the artist themselves. Some of the insights they give are just fascinating.

As an afterthought: the compilation’s title comments on a history of Europe misinterpreting and speaking for Brazil. When the Portuguese anchored off the coast of the continent in January 1502, they mistook the Guanabara Bay for the mouth of a river and called the region Rio de Janeiro (“River of January”). Across the Bay from Rio is the city Niteroi. Niteroi means “water that hides” in the native Tupi-Guarani language. There’s an interesting counterpoint between these two names and styles of perception: the European settlers and outsiders got it totally wrong, went on first instinct and drew on their experience. The natives were in touch with something deeper, truer, more authentic and allowed for something unknown and untouchable.

If you were to extend that dichotomy, I, Brazilian Wax, Sounds & Colours, Mr Bongo, we are all the Europeans approaching a culture that is not ours – a culture that is Brazilian. So, within a history of misrepresentation that begins in 1502, we were adamant that these artists should talk for themselves. The subtitle Strange and Sublime Sounds, I drew from the Thiago Nassif song title Soar Estranho which translates to “To Sound Strange”. Throughout the album, we wanted the musicians and artists involved to describe their own work. With art, essays and quotes from those in the scene, it captures something far more genuine, and the listener can truly engage with a contemporary Rio culture.

Was it important for you that the compilation was made available as a vinyl release?

It was. Part of the fire behind this project, for me, came from me getting a lot of messages from artists asking if I had any routes towards pressing their album. It was something that seemed pretty inaccessible for the smaller artists in Brazil that I’d been reviewing for Sounds & Colours. So, it was nice to be able to do that with some of them. Also, to make something physical like this obviously forces people to stop and think. In the digital age, with instantaneous downloads, you’re never forced to be mindful of what you’re listening to or to dwell on anything. Everything is disposable, and the relationship we have towards cultures other than our own have ever greater potential to become something that’s easy to exploit, appropriate, and misrepresent. So, having a physical record (which is also a historical record) means that people can better engage with music that deserves to be long-lasting.


Where can people hear you DJing or come to your events?

I’m just starting a new monthly residency on the last Thursday of every month at Apples & Pears bar just off Brick Lane. The bar is a long-time stronghold that has survived decades of Shoreditch gentrification and it’s a real pleasure to be working with them. It’s a whole evening thing that gives me time to explore lots of great Brazilian music and they’ve got a caipirinha deal on as well – what’s not to love!?

Many thanks to Joe for taking the time to answer our questions. Make sure to follow him on Instagram, and keep an eye out for the forthcoming DJ gigs he mentioned. 

Hidden Waters: Strange and Sublime Sounds of Rio de Janeiro is out now on 2xLP / CD / Digital.