Each week, we dig in the crates to tell you about a “lost” or classic album we think you should hear. This week’s covers Di Melo's Di Melo.
By the time Roberto “Di Melo” Santos’ self-titled debut album was released in 1975, Brazil’s popular music industry had long been the subject of international fascination. In the previous two decades, the rise of the country’s bossa nova craze came at an opportune time sandwiched between a pair of century-defining military dictatorships. By the late 1960s and throughout the ‘70s though, music was subject to severe censorship and a handful of popular musicians—Caetano Viloso and Gilberto Gil most famously—were arrested and even temporarily exiled for vaguely defined political dissention. Still, many Brazilian musicians endured the military government’s censors with inconspicuous protest music and the country’s recording industry thrived via tropicália and musica popular brasileria (MPB).
While a complex Afro-Brazilian identity had long fueled much of the country’s musical innovation, Brazil’s fascination with the United States’ Black pride movement catalyzed a new political development in the mid 1970s. Even though “Afro hairstyle, dashikis and head wraps [were once considered] to be unattractive and even demeaning,” Tulane professor Christopher Dunn notes in an article published by Brigham Young University, “just five years later…‘they [now] talked about “black consciousness”...and identified with the struggles of black people in the U.S. and postcolonial Africa.’” Brazil’s newfound (or at least newly tweaked) Black pride and anti-racism movement didn’t just accommodate radical politics, it also wove American soul and funk sensibilities into the fabric of Brazilian popular and traditional music.
Acts like Jorge Ben, Tim Maia, and Banda Black Rio are the most internationally celebrated and definitive representatives of what might lazily be described as samba-soul or samba-funk, a music belonging to this “Black Brasil” movement. Roberto Santos’ is a far less-known name, but his sole studio album is one of the best of this class.
Santos was born in the Northeastern Pernambuco region of Brazil, and his Di Melo LP bears out a distinct regionalism on certain tracks. The singer/guitarist reportedly moved to Sao Paulo in the late 1960s and was signed by the EMI/Odeon record label in 1974 after plugging into the city’s live music scene. Di Melo was ambitious not just in the scope of musical traditions it brought to the table but also in the players it unified, including famed Miles Davis and Donald Byrd collaborator Hermeto Pascoal and other Brazilian heavyweights like Heraldo Dumont and Jose Briamonte.
“Kilario,” the lead track and the album’s local hit, is wondrously and economically funky. Everything is syncopated. The bassline enters an immediate groove while an electric piano is constantly stressing the second beat, a minimal horn section stabs in unison in the left channel and a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar fills in blank spaces with forceful upstrokes. And perhaps the ultimate draw is Di Melo’s singing. To American ears, Santos’ Portuguese is likely not only incomprehensible but also rhythmically foreign. His vocal phrasings start and stop abruptly and his inflections and emphases pitter and patter through a low tenor. On “A Vida Em Seus Métodos Diz Calma,” a track highlighted on a Brazilian rare-groove compilation released by Blue Note in 1997, a Fender Rhodes rolls through fast changes and a cowbell sticks out like a singularly funky metronome keeping pace with the twisting rhythms around it.
Other songs are presented as nearly unfiltered regional folk, including a type of music called baião that Santos brought to the city with him. “Sementes,” for example, packages an unexpectedly soulful tango with Jazzy electric guitar riffs sneaking around beneath the romantic accordion and punchy piano. (Brazil had its own version of the tango song and dance in the form of the maxixe.)
It’s the initial three-song stretch on the album’s b-side that drives everything home. “Pernalonga,” which translates literally to “long legs” in English but seems to reference a “bug” or “spider” colloquially, kicks off a trio of Santos’ own groove-forward compositions that give way to a slower and more traditionally Brazilian ending. “João” is one of four songs on the album not written by Di Melo himself and is the closest to a straight-ahead bossa number, the finnicky guitar rhythm held up by sparse piano. “Conformópolis” is in a similar vain, both sweet and haunting with the addition of a swelling string accompaniment and an accordion that sits awkwardly next to a warbling synth.
For years, Di Melo remained largely uncelebrated outside of Brazil, but beginning in the late 1990s the record reemerged in the rare-groove DJ worlds of London and Japan. In 2004 the album was reissued on CD in Europe by EMI and then found a second life on vinyl via a Brazilian repress and an official reissue from French label Superfly Records in 2011 and 2013 respectively, none of which are cheap on the resale market.
On the cover, the singer is enveloped by darkness and bathed in an orangish hue, an effect that fits his sparse output and mysterious nature to foreign fans. In recent years, Di Melo has resurfaced in a documentary about his life and career and has put on a few live performances. For many fans, Di Melo isn’t essential until you’ve heard it. It’s the type of album you can’t put down, primarily because there’s so little else like it.
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