Sayan Ghosh: 'Clube da Esquina,' an introduction to Portugese pop fusion

Sunday, January 7, 2018 - 5:06pm

Any travel guide, book, any piece of media at all about Brazil will tell you that the country lives and breathes music and art. After all, it’s the country of samba, bossa nova, flamboyant soccer players who don’t just play the game, but elevate it into an art. Through this reputation, Brazilian musicians such as João Gilberto and Antônio Carlos Jobim have enticed people around the world with the rhythmic, easy-going nature of genres such as bossa nova and tropicália. Milton Nascimento’s Clube da Esquina is less appreciated outside of Brazil than many other similarly important Brazilian albums, but is one of the finest collections of pop songs I have ever heard.

Clube da Esquina (“corner club”) titled after Nascimento’s musical collective formed in the 1970s in the mountainous, mineral-rich Brazilian state of Minas Gerais (which is featured in an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s excellent TV show “Parts Unknown”). It featured Milton Nascimento, a musician originally from Rio and Lô Borges, another iconic Brazilian musician, as well as some of the country’s most talented session musicians. Despite not coming from some of the country’s more glamourous regions, the collective’s first, self-titled double album eventually found its way into the forefront of Brazilian music.

Clube da Esquina is referred to as an example of a genre known as “Música popular brasileira” (Brazilian popular music), but in reality, it’s nearly impossible to pin down the album to a specific genre. While all the songs feature distinctly Brazilian rhythms and instrumentation, the influences present on the record are all over the map. “Tudo o Que Você Podia Ser” kicks off the record with excellent guitar work and a meandering vocal line from Nascimento, before breaking into a groovy ending from the entire band with Nascimento crying out on top. Two of the songs written by Borges, “O Trem Azul” and my personal favorite, “Um Girassol da Cor do Seu Cabelo” are rather Beatles-esque, with the latter featuring a memorable orchestral breakdown similar to “A Day in the Life.” “Nuvem Cigana” features dreamy guitars accompanied by violins and brass. Throughout the record, one can hear influences ranging from as far as progressive rock to jazz.

Another album I was constantly reminded of while listening to this record for the first time was The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Both are musically ornate and lush, eschewing the sole usage of guitars, pianos and drums for grand, orchestral flourishes, adding an entirely new dimension of richness. Borges’s fondness for Anglophone popular music is evident often, making Clube da Esquina a great example of popular fusion.

Although the lyrics are notably poetic and a large part of what makes the album legendary in Brazilian music, I found that not understanding Portuguese was not a major hindrance in enjoying the record (and speakers of any Romance language should be able to understand part of it). It helps that Portuguese itself, especially the Brazilian variety is such an inherently musical language. As to be expected with a Romance language, it flows extremely well and lacks many of the guttural consonants that make some languages such as German “unattractive.” Even conversational Brazilian Portuguese seems to have a set of lovely shifts in tone and natural elongation of vowels. Even if you know zero Portuguese, simply listening to the vocals and the language is a rather pleasant experience, especially with Nascimento’s smooth-as-butter voice gliding over the instrumentation and rarely stagnating in one dynamic level or tone.

Clube da Esquina sounds like the perfect soundtrack to a pleasant dream or to a lazy Sunday afternoon at the beach or park. The songs are pleasant yet tinged with melancholy, for those relaxing yet reflective moments where you are content with life, but perhaps indulging in nostalgia or remembering people from a past life. While not particularly revolutionary or exotic, it is a near-perfect collection of songs with top-class musical talent featured at every level. There are few better albums to embark on a journey with into the endless ocean of world music.