The funky misadventures of a Brazilian music legend and his brief time in a mysterious religious cult.
This unusual installment of the 33 1/3 series—modest volumes dedicated to a single album—chronicles the funky misadventures of a Brazilian music legend and his brief time in a mysterious religious cult. Leave it to the series’ Brazil imprint, just launched last year, to weave what may be one of the most page-turning titles in their roster. Pull up a chair; with Tim Maia’s Tim Maia Racional Vols. 1 & 2 , Allen Thayer has a helluva story to tell.
Thayer credits Tim Maia (1942-1988) with creating samba soul, translating American R&B to Brazil much as iconoclasts such as Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes radically transformed the Beatles and psychedelia. These distinctions point to segregation in Brazilian music, even among the avant-garde, and for all Maia’s commercial success, Thayer explains, he remained a bit of an outsider, upsetting an establishment that “didn’t like the idea of a large, outspoken black singer of imported styles getting too much attention.”
Before he entered his most controversial period, Maia released several best-selling albums in the early ‘70s. He lived the typical pop star life of booze, weed and women. So his 180-degree turn to Rational Culture—the Brazilian equivalent of Scientology—was quite unexpected. Maia found the movement’s founder charismatic, and in a political climate that was increasingly volatile, this seemed as good a place as any to find the meaning of life. And as someone who was long fascinated by UFOs, Maia was attracted to a movement whose voluminous scriptures supposedly came from outer space.
Believe it or not, that’s how the primary subject of this book came about. Maia released the two volumes of Tim Maia Racional himself, using its lyrics to spread the word of Rational Culture. Typical of these tracks is “Que Legal,” (“How Cool”), with lyrics in translation that read: “It’s cool/ The Rational living culture/ It’s cool/ But there are many people who are mistaken/ They think it’s bad.” Somehow, Maia turns those embarrassing lyrics into a smoking Latin-funk hybrid.
In some ways, the cult was good for Maia. Maybe not in terms of the all-white clothing, and the requirement that he and his band (he recruited some of his regular players to the fold) paint their instruments white. But the abstinence from drink and drugs was good for Maia, leaving his soulful voice as strong as ever.
Furthermore, the cult seemed to calm down the notoriously volatile musician. Before he entered Rational Culture, he had laid down tracks for a double-album with RCA Brazil. When Maia got ready to walk away from that deal, label execs expected an angry scene, but Maia was reportedly calm when tore up the contract. He took the session tapes with him and used them as the basis for two albums worth of material espousing his new calling.
Thayer tells this story through interviews with surviving band members, and perceptively puts Maia in the context of the rich and varied music of Brazil. He bases some of his work on previous biographies of Maia, and takes care to correct some misconceptions that arose from that work. The book has a few editorial flaws; one of Maia’s biggest takeaways from American soul is Ernie Isley’s electric guitar, but in multiple references to the Isley Brothers their name is consistently misspelled Isely.
But that’s just a mechanical quibble. Tim Maia’s Tim Maia Racional Vols. 1 & 2 explains how incongruous elements came together to create music that Thayer and other fans consider to be among Maia’s strongest work. The story is a testament to the musician’s fervor for whatever he undertook. But this particular passion did not last long; a year and a half after he joined Rational Culture, he left the movement, destroying any reminders of that unfortunate episode—including the remaining stock of records, which made them impossibly rare. You want to read all about it now, don’t you?