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8 Tracks: You don't need a deity to pray — just transcendent music

What Luiza Brina's music communicates is beyond words: spiritual transcendence.
Daniela Paoliello
/
Courtesy of the artist
What Luiza Brina's music communicates is beyond words: spiritual transcendence.

8 Tracks is your antidote to the algorithm. Each week, NPR Music producer Lars Gotrich, with the help of his colleagues, makes connections between sounds across time.

It's only June, but I think I've already found one of my favorite albums of the year. Does it matter that it’s sung in a language I don't speak? Not in the least. Melodies and rhythms take on different qualities in other tongues, crafting entirely new musical entities — not only would I miss that creativity but also the chance to grow my understanding of the world.

Luiza Brina's Prece is, from what limited Portuguese I understand from rudimentary Latin roots (and, uh Google Translate), an album of nonreligious prayers. The Brazilian cantautora spent 10 years developing meditations on arrivals and departures, broken hearts and strength, and wrote them as intimate symphonies to the aching-yet-hopeful spirit of humankind. Several guests appear as duet partners, including Sérgio Pererê and Iara Rennó — fellow country persons who share Brina's penchant for mixing Brazilian traditions with modern production — and Mexican folk singer Silvana Estrada. The music moves at an incantatory and exploratory pace, flush with rapturous strings, often inspired by Brazilian masters of yesteryear — Milton Nascimento's soulful sambas and Joyce Moreno's psychedelic folk flourishes come to mind — but with subtle twists of electronics and woodwind bombast that make small wishes sound epic. One might expect Brina to meet the adventurous arrangements at their swooning peaks, but her presence on nylon-string guitar and as a voice is quietly expansive.

What the music communicates is beyond words: spiritual transcendence. That quality, which doesn't need to be explicitly about capital-g God, can be found in deep drone, gospel music and blistering punk, but also in the sugary sweetness of a perfect pop song. Brina's Prece offers something greater than me, than us and even the music itself.

Inspired by Brina's brilliant book of non-religious prayers — and yet another reminder that I ought to learn Portuguese — this edition of 8 Tracks features new music from Brazil, a country that sets my heart to wonder. Ever since I first heard Gal Costa's piercing voice, Antônio Carlos Jobim's sweetly sashaying standard "Desafinado" and Lula Côrtes' trance-inducing psychedelia, this South American country's music has been an obsession of mine. In this list, there's a legend of Brazilian pop music, a current pop star getting back to her roots and so, so much saudade.


Luiza Brina, "Oração 18 (pra viver junto)"

This is, from what I can gather, a prayer that recognizes that one must walk alone before we walk together. "Oração 18 (pra viver junto)" emerges like spring, first tentatively, with finger-picked guitar, pizzicato strings and timpani that follows the bouncing melody à la "Let's Go Away for a While" from Pet Sounds. Brina muses on the moon and the stars in a dawning of the self, then in a burst of horns and martial drums, she urges the world awake. In her still small, yet ever present voice, you can hear the prayer's percussive textures and production details bloom at unexpected moments to catch your heart off guard.


Milton Nascimento & esperanza spalding, "Outubro"

Milton Nascimento's voice is like a whisper on the wind — light enough to catch a current, yet balanced to ride and guide its whims. In 1969, Nascimento released his American debut, Courage, featuring the likes of pianist Herbie Hancock, percussionist Airto Moreira and producer Creed Taylor — in it, the soft sophistication of bossa nova was met with lush, yet ambitious orchestrations. On the forthcoming Milton + esperanza, Nascimento and esperanza spalding revisit one of those tracks. A student of Portuguese and Brazilian music, spalding's elastic arrangement reflects that "Outubro" is, in so many ways, a song about holding two truths: that we will die, but we will also live. These two voices just sound heavenly together. Nascimento's vocals have deepened considerably, yet hold wisdom with a weathered weight; spalding, in kind, brightens the corners, but also dots Elena Pinderhughes' sparkling flute improvisations with scat singing that recalls the great Brazilian jazz singer Flora Purim.


Anitta, "Cria De Favela"

Anitta's Funk Generation is a tribute to her roots as a baile funk MC on the suburban streets of Rio de Janeiro. The album’s "Funk Rave" is an unavoidable banger, and the drippy glitch funk of "Sabana" feels like an alternate reality Anitta. But I keep coming back to "Cria De Favela," a compelling argument for the artist's bona fides as a rapper who can command the chaos of its asphalt-shifting beat, then turn on a dime as the reggaeton pop princess we already know. (If you're curious, NTS released an excellent compilation of São Paulo's bursting baile funk scene.)


Ayom, "Oxalá – Promessa do Migrante"

Saudade is a complex and difficult-to-define word in English, yet the feeling permeates so much music from Brazil. The Portuguese writer Manuel de Mello once described saudade as "a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy." (My colleagues at Alt.Latino once spent an entire episode, one I revisit often, trying to decode saudade.) Jabu Morales — a Brazilian singer and percussionist who leads this band of members from Cape Verde, Brazil, and across Europe — offers her own ode to melancholy nostalgia by way of the diaspora. "Oxalá – Promessa do Migrante" yearns for home in Morales' native tongue — you can hear the smile through tears. But the arrangement, a cliffside splash of accordion and strings that connects continents, not only makes space to remember and renew her love but also celebrates the home she makes now.


Lau Ro, "Onde Eu Vou"

So much of saudade is tied up in memories lost, imagined or yet to be. But what about the sights and sensations we only partly remember… through secondhand stories and hazy recollections? That sun-stained bittersweetness surrounds Cabana, the debut from the São Paulo-born and Brighton-based Lau Ro. "Onde Eu Vou," which roughly translates as "Where Do I Go," sounds like the laid-back late-night session that fueled Jorge Ben's 1970 samba soul album Fôrça Bruta, but filtered through Grouper's ambient grit and grain. A hauntingly beautiful portrait of the Brazilian diaspora.


Lasso, "Raiva Derramada na Estrada"

Not everything in Brazil is drenched in saudade — sometimes, as Lasso screams, o ventre sangra ("the belly bleeds"). In three years, the Salvador-based band has released three 7-inch EPs of blazingly fast, tension-shredding hardcore. This is music that swerves and swaggers with a rabid snarl.


Oruã, "Real Grandeza"

Fuzzy and freaky Dinosaur Jr. riffs, but played through cheap amps. A funky rhythm section schooled on Broadcast's ghostly psychedelia. Synths with their own oblong sense of melody and time. Oruã's unruly indie rock unravels with fake jazz chords and unusual grooves to make something familiar, but with a funhouse mirror.


Amaro Freitas, "Encantados"

When I learned that pianist Amaro Freitas is from Recife, his intrepid take on tradition clicked right away — the capital of Brazil's northeastern state of Pernambuco was also home to the late percussionist Naná Vasconcelos. The latter didn't treat folk, fusion and jazz as separate entities but as a through line. “It’s as though my left hand is Africa and my right hand is Europe," Freitas told The New York Times, which is just a clever way of saying that while his rhythms may samba and shake, his melodies can be quite stately. On the frenzied zen state that is "Encantados," Shabaka's flute gives voice to the rainforest that inspires Freitas, as does Hamid Drake's life-breathing drums.

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