A collective of artists, multicultural and dedicated to expression, is a totalitarian’s nightmare.
The music of revolt isn’t pretty. Rebellion is harsh, choked, rabid. The anthems of disaffected youth and discarded workers is screamed, not sung. In the Northern Hemisphere, images of The Sex Pistols, Neil Young, Patti Smith and Public Enemy are the ragged voices shouting against injustice. It’s what makes Clube da Esquina all the more beautiful and impossible. It is the finest protest art that signals revolution through grace.
In the late ‘50s and ‘60s, on behalf of Henry Kissinger and “Operation Condor,” the United States began supporting coups against left-leaning governments in South and Central America. The goal? “Eliminating Marxist subversion.” And eliminate they did, destroying free expression, a liberated press and the lives of thousands of citizens across the continent. This campaign of terror created the brutal reign of Pinochet in Chile and the legions of the Desaparecidos in Argentina. Brazil was one of the first countries targeted, and in 1964, the coup d’état against João Goulart spiraled Brazil downward into over 20 years of authoritarian rule. In the ‘70s the United States and Brazil’s fascist leaders touted the “Brazilian Miracle,” where the economy took off like a rocket, at the expense of censoring all media, state sponsored killings and a general outlook that made Gilliam’s Brazil look tame.
In response, musicians rose beyond the sound of bossa-nova to create MPB: Música Popular Brasileira. And no collective trumpeted its protest laden glory like Clube da Esquina. Formed from a loose collection of artists from Minas Gerais, their self-titled debut was alien, even in the primordial soup of the new sound. Like the Argentine Peronist Spring which produced a thrilling collection of Art Rock that surpassed its Northern counterpart, the first wave of MPB rewove psychedelic rock, folk, classical and the native music of Brazil into something that even the strongest genre disciples of the North couldn’t match. Sonically and thematically, Clube da Esquina, a double-album released in 1972, is a sequel and expansion on Love’s Forever Changes. In terms of ambition only Pink Floyd and the European Krautrock scene matched them. For pastoral beauty, nothing since The Beatles, Zombies or Love came even close.
Though a rotating cast of musicians flowed in and out of Clube da Esquina, the foundational members were the Borges brothers, Lô and Márcio, and Milton Nascimento. Nascimento’s mother passed away when he was young and he was adopted by a musical family. His father was a DJ and his mother sang under Brazil’s previous greatest musical export (give or take an Os Mutantes) Heitor Villa-Lobos. And Nascimento allowed his new familial roots to shape his voracious musical appetite. The slow, seductive burn of “Dos Cruces” recasts the melodrama of flamenco into an epic in miniature. There are moments of sunshine pop that sound like the bridge between The Beach Boys and the plastic soul of Japan’s City Pop movement. “Um Girassol da Cor de Seu Cabelo” starts as a piano ballad, but tears itself asunder, an atonal swirl of an orchestral madness releasing a thunderous drum part and pushing Lô’s voice into a ghostly chorus as the music grows in volume and desperation. On paper, it was everything at once, all the time. But Clube kept it smooth through general refusal to dive into massive dynamic changes. The music is languid, subtly evolving from section to section. The times where it does burst into rapture is made all the more stunning.
Lô was just 20 when he made the album, and his light, wavering voice gives a childish quality to his songs. It cuts both ways; he adds nostalgic wonder to summery bounce of “Paisagem da Janela” and a sense of betrayal in the wounded “Um Girassol da Cor de Seu Cabelo.” And Nascimento, well, there was a reason his fellow Brazilians deemed him the voice of God. It is a wonderous, haunting thing, always perfectly on pitch, darting with dramatic acrobatics, and delivering emotional blow after blow. Opening entrancer “Tudo o Que Você Podia Ser” has him flying ever higher as he sings about Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata and tells an unseen force “it was going to be better after/ You wanted to be the great hero of the roads.”
Clube’s stakes raise higher and higher, rushing to a ragged finish. The psych freak-out of “Trem de Doido” is half-way between the most melancholy Beatles and Argentine rock godfather Charly Garcia with a guitar lead Television would have salivated over. And reverence devolving into madness defines “Ao Que Vai Nascer,” which promises a bleak end and suddenly subverts itself, wrestling between major and minor and stumbling between hope and fatalism.
With Zapata, mythical phrases and rapturous music abounding, Clube cast itself in legend. “I invented the sea/ I invented the dreamer,” intones Nascimento. To evoke this power wasn’t just ambitious, it was actively dangerous. Authoritarians wish to destroy community above all else. And the Clube was revolutionary simply through its existence. A collective of artists, multicultural and dedicated to expression, is a totalitarian’s nightmare. Even worse, their sorrow and rage was channeled into music this awe-inspiring.