- Text by Alex King
DJ, record label boss and tastemaker Gilles Peterson has been fascinated with the sounds of Brazil since he first heard them on obscure radio shows as a teenager.
His album 2014 Sonzeira: Brasil Bam Bam Bam took us on a journey through Brazilian music culture past, present and future.
To record the album, Gilles booked out a studio in Rio de Janeiro for ten days and assembled an incredible cast of local talent including Elza Soares, Seu Jorge and Emanuelle Araújo, which he christened the Sonzeira collective.
Filmmakers Charlie Inman and Ben Holman went along for the ride as Gilles explored Rio’s street parties, samba schools and favelas; collaborated with some of Brazil’s greatest living musicians; and put together a mind-blowing album.
Huck spoke to Charlie about how the accompanying documentary Bam Bam Bam: The Story of Sonzeira came together, which has now been released online to coincide with the opening of the 2016 Rio Olympics.
How did the idea of making a film about Gilles’ Sonzeira project come about?
In November 2013, Simon Sole, who’s head of Business Affairs at Mother, where I work, had a meeting with Brownswood Records (Gilles’ label). He asked me if I’d like to meet them afterwards, because he knew I was into music and always off making films about music, or putting on club nights, and that I am a big fan of Gilles.
During the meeting they mentioned that Gilles was just about to go off to Brazil to see about making this album so we suggested making a film. Gilles wasn’t totally convinced, as his initial mission to Rio was very much a fact-finding one, and he didn’t have the whole thing sussed-out himself yet, but with all the normal, “You can say no to anything, and you can have final say on the cut” type-sort-of-assurances, he kindly agreed to let me tag along with him and Sam Shepherd (Floating Points).
Gilles and I got on fine. I didn’t piss anyone off by getting in the way (too much) and I managed to capture a bunch of really good stuff over there: Marcos Valle in the studio, Ed Motta playing at home, a couple of bits to camera from Gilles. To cut a long story short, we made a taster and managed to get some budget out of Universal (the Record Label) to make a film.
I have to shout out my boss here at BOSH, Anthony Austin, because this whole thing would never have happened without him seeing how much this film meant to me, and making it happen. Essentially I got to work for months on something that made me incredibly happy, but didn’t contribute much to the company balance sheet. Massive love and respect for that.
What were the challenges in presenting the story to a wider audience?
Watching people in the studio for an hour would be a bit much for anyone but the most passionate music-lover, so we tried to factor in a series of break-out bits where we’d take Gilles out of the studio and show him some of our favourite bits of the Rio music scene. Kind of a Reithian entertain and inform ethos. Bit of travelogue, bit of history, bit of Gilles and the musicians in the studio.
It feels like the doc is doing so many things at once: an album ‘making of’, a portrait of Gilles, an exploration of the artists he works with and also a story about Rio’s music culture. How did you try to weave all these strands together?
We went out with the intention of showing the studio process and showing a bit of Rio, but as you get into it you realise, if this is going to be on TV, you are going to have to really lead people by the hand a bit. Most people in the UK just aren’t going to be that familiar with the music, or the culture. Bossanova was a big deal here and in the states in the 60s, but since then I don’t think Brazilian music has ever really been a part of popular culture. Nowadays most people don’t really know the difference between samba and salsa, let alone who the big artists are in Rio, or how their music culture works.
We felt like we had to get some of that info across for people to understand the scene, but then you think, ‘Jesus! I’m working with Gilles Peterson!’ I grew up on Acid Jazz, buying everything that ever came out on Talkin’ Loud and listening to the Vibrazone, and going to Bar Rhumba on Monday nights and getting all the compilations he put together. Gilles helped spark the love of jazz and Latin music in me as a kid, and I guess I couldn’t help but gush a bit of that into the film as I went along. Plus, if you ask anyone about Gilles, they tend to have the same sort of reaction, so a bit of the film turned out a little bit eulogistic (sorry Gilles!).
What sort of relationship do you and Gilles have with Rio?
Gilles has had a big love of Brazilian music for more than two decades, and he has a huge knowledge of it, especially the jazzier, more psychedelic side of Brazilian music. His relationship with Rio was really as a DJ, he’d been there many times but really only to DJ in the swanky parts of Copacabana and Ipanema. He’d been record shopping and gone out with his mate Ed Motta, which mostly involves fine wine and fine dining, so he’d seen quite a bit of one side of Rio, and had some pretty exclusive access to it, but he hadn’t really seen much of the other side, the earthier, more populist side where the samba comes from.
I’d been to Brazil as a nineteen year-old kid to visit my best mate who was living in Fortaleza in the North-East of Brazil and immediately fell in love with the place, but you have to have a way in to really appreciate Rio. It’s not like the little towns in the North-East where you can just amble up and get involved. It’s kind of big and confusing and was a little bit scarier back then.
Then, about nine years ago, a brilliant Brazillian musician called Rodrigo Lampreia came on tour through Europe and we put him on at a little club night I used to run in Shepherd’s Bush with my mate Sam Sutton. We got on well and he ended up living in my spare room for six months. It was the best move I ever made and I had a succession of Brazilian samba musicians sleeping on my sofa as they passed through town, and there was an almost permanent samba jam going on in my living room. I learned a lot about the roots of Brazilian music during that time.
Rodrigo eventually moved back to Rio at the insistence of his manager, to get on with recording an album with his band Benditos. I totally lucked out, suddenly having a good mate to go and visit in Rio who was totally immersed in the music scene that I loved, and who would put me up and introduce me to all of the people I wanted to meet and make films about. Over the last few years I’ve made several trips over there to film projects of my own, and it has become one of my favourite places in the world.
How did you try to represent Rio’s music culture in the film?
The music culture of Rio is amazingly vibrant, and we really wanted to try and reflect that in the film so we got Gilles out to places where people still gather to play and sing in the street. If you spend any time around Brazilians, you’ll quickly find out that, whether they’re millionaires, or straight out the favela, they all have a deep love for the traditional music of their country. They will all gleefully join in any sort of sing along, and they all know all the words to all the tunes.
It’s the sort of thing we’ve lost here in London. The kind of love for your culture that keeps the tunes alive, you can still see it in pubs in Ireland, but we seem to have forgotten the tunes along the way somehow. The scene is so deep over there though. There are a whole load of scenes we never had time to take Gilles out to see (he did have slightly more important things on his mind, like making an album!). Hopefully there will be a round two and we can get into things like Forro, and Chorinho, and Jongo, and Baile Funk. There’s a whole lot going on in that city.
There are some amazing “cameos” in the film from legends of Brazilian music. Did any moments or any interviews particularly stand out for you?
The day we spent with Ed Motta will go down as one of my favourite days ever. I didn’t really know much about him. I knew that he was Tim Maia’s nephew, and I had a couple of Tim Maia records that I loved, but aside from that I didn’t really know anything about him. He didn’t disappoint. As soon as we got into his house he sat down at the piano and started to play and sing, and I had a really tough time concentrating on filming. It was electric. He’s just so obviously a total master of everything he does, it kind of takes your breath away. Then he took us out to lunch at a super swanky restaurant, where we got considerably drunk on the five bottles of amazing natural wine that he’d brought along with him.
Other than that, Elza making us all cry in the studio when she sang Aquarela Do Brasil, that was pretty unforgettable, and hanging out with Gabriel Moura and Seu Jorge in LA was a trip. Gabriel Moura is the nicest person you could ever hope to meet, and Seu Jorge… Seu Jorge though!!! He could be the coolest man on the planet. To be honest I spent the entire time pinching myself. I mean, Galliano were my favourite band when I was 13 and there I was drinking fruit smoothies and larking about with Rob Gallagher and Gilles Peterson, and getting to listen in on sessions with Marcos Valle, Mart’nália, Wilson Das Neves… what’s not to love?
What are the major things you have learnt from making the doc?
I learnt some really interesting/fucked-up things about Brazilian history while I was filming, like the fact that Brazil imported four times as many slaves as the US because the mortality rate was so high and it was cheaper for them to just get new ones rather than look after the slaves they had. That was a shocker, and was really interesting in the effect it had on black Brazilian culture and music.
I learned that if you’re working on an interesting project, everyone involved goes far over and above the call of duty. I think if you look at Gilles’ career, and at how he’s lived his life, you can see that doing exactly what you want to do all the time is a pretty good move, as long as you do it well, with passion and dedication. So I guess I’ve learned that that’s probably the way to go for a fuller flavoured future.
Check out Huck’s own short film Gilles Peterson: Influences & Beyond.
Bam Bam Bam: The Story of Sonzeira is available to view online now.
This article was originally published in August 2014.