INTERVIEW: NEGRO LEO
photo by Igor Marques
I’ve had Rio de Janeiro-based artist NEGRO LEO on almost constant rotation ever since I was tasked with writing up his recent Genjing split 7″ with Shanghai duo Little Monster. Really mashes all my buttons… late-Flag Ginn chords poured into a blender and pulverized ever so anti-musically, accompanied by a synth player who could have been in The Screamers and an angry sax contortionist. Like my ideal version of sickeningly off-sounding punk.
But of course I’m projecting and realized I have next to zero idea about underground music in Rio. So I asked Leo a bunch of questions about it, and how it might compare with Beijing circa 2008, as it’s having it’s own Olympic moment right now. Here he is on his influences, both international and homegrown, the delicate dance between government and art in 21st-century Brazil, and his forthcoming “anarcho-gospel” album.
First can you introduce yourself? Who are you, where are you from, what do you do? What bands and solo projects are you involved with?
I’m Negro Leo, I come from Maranhao, a state in the north, Amazonian, Indian as well, also voodoo and Guaraná Jesus, all corrupted by sheriff obsession, old-fashioned populism, rough paternalism, French invason, Portuguese invasion, Black slavery, Indian catechesis, Fordlands. It’s very hot there, as much as in Rio, and poverty-stricken enough to a two-year-old boy’s memory not to mystify it when a full-grown man. Rio deserves more than Rede Globo to release its cultural ferocity. Every time anyone is struggling not to be there, this ferocity is brought along and something aesthetically booming happens, something like the five cops shot down in Dallas last month. I also have a band with Eduardo Manso and Renato Godoy called Baby Hitler. Where else, except in Brazil, could one imagine that?
Maybe it’s personal bias but I hear a lot of New York No Wave coming through in the Negro Leo recordings, especially on tracks like “bebês fantasmas das guerras dormindo” from your latest album. But I also hear some damaged punk influences in your chord progressions. What are your musical influences?
Globally speaking Arto Lindsay rules, as well as Captain Beefheart, Thelonius Monk and Ornette Coleman, all these guys who were interested somehow in destroying art techniques, slickness, who did something more “free”, like Duchamp’s sanitary. I pick these ones strictly by personal taste, but I could quote dozens. I did “bebes fantasmas das guerras dormindo” (“war ghost baby asleep”) after seeing a six-year-old old Syrian refugee’s dead, smiling photograph spread worldwide, it shows undeniably that life is not always a boon. The picture itself seemed to keep this mantra, retaining the complete surrealism of a dead smiling face that appears asleep.
What about more “traditional” or local forms of music? Do you have any experience with or interest in genres like samba and bossa nova, and do they snake their way into your songwriting process?
They did, samba did more, particularly that from the ’30s, the golden age: Noel Rosa, Wilson Batista, Assis Valente, Lupicínio Rodrigues, Herivelton Martins, Custódio Mesquita, Geraldo Pereira, Ary Barroso. Now I’m quite interested in the Guarani Indian Children’s Chorus and Congada from Minas, pure magic.
I read the translated lyrics to the songs on your Genjing split, I think it’s a really interesting mix between kind of abstract, surrealistic body-horror imagery and veiled political or social commentary. What message are you trying to get across in your lyrics? Do you plan them out in advance as standalone written works or do they come out in a more improvisational way when you’re writing music?
I write more to complicate, to misunderstand than to realize what’s going on or to unveil something. I always quote Godard’s Dziga Vertov Group adage: two different narrative layers (soundtrack and image) against both the pamphletary left-wing and bourgeois cinema. In “ilha de calor” I set up some characters — Calígula in Hollywood, a fool, nuns, a chief, a mother, the insulated, the children — and tried to narrate something related to my biography somehow. These characters appear all over the album, which has specific psychological features. Ilhas de Calor (“heat islands”) is our first attempt together (me, Felipe Zenícola, Eduardo Manso and Thomas Harres) at first improvising and later writing lyrics and imagining the way they should be sung. So these albums, Ilhas de Calor and Niños Heroes, are both improvised and composed. I remember that on Niños Heroes, at a certain point, I was reading some Chinese classical poetry translated to Portuguese and called a song “toqsean” (“toward the East” in ancient Chinese), because I was interested in geopolitics, BRICS, Brazil’s path toward the East. So the lyrics are meaningful without having any specific message. But songs like “niños heroes”, which speak about underage misfits, panoptic surveillance technology, Monsanto agrotoxins, people who are passed by dreaded self-assured machines and death before fresher opportunities, are clearly political enough. Instead of getting to a point, I prefer more complexity. Political content, when it’s about a solution, is hypocritical, voluntaristic and foolish.
Many Chinese bands default to singing in English since it’s seen as more accessible internationally, and it’s the language most of their heroes’ bands are singing in. Why do you choose to sing in Portuguese? Do most underground or independent bands in Brazil choose to use their mother tongue?
We have 200 million people and an entirely different situation from China: an international contemporary chant, an institution, Tom Jobim, Joao Gilberto, Milton Nascimento, Caetano Veloso, all part of Western ’20s classical pop. So, though my kind of music is very far from these concerns, it’s quite important to observe how such traditions created an environment where the mother tongue could not be despised, even when trying to reach an international market. On the other hand, underground media post-internet found a way to mitigate language obstacles.
In the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, the Beijing government started paying more attention to the “underground” and experimental music scene, which affected some venues and DIY bookers. The Olympic “cleanup” kind of drove the underground scene even further underground for a while, and a significant number of musicians and artists left Beijing for cities with less intense conditions. Is a similar process happening in Rio? In a more general sense, how has the hype and preparation for the Olympics affected the city’s arts & music scenes?
I don’t think so, I think Rio’s mayor is able to use Roman “divide and conquer” war strategies without much noise. Even the underground is esteemed. I don’t have any problems using public funds, unless I can make my counterpoint fighting the government, but of course the gentrification, the removals, the rationalization of public services — which is a euphemism for decreasing government cost — adopting historical Third World economic strategies to preserve the wealth in a few families and a relieved middle-class consuming at First World averages, make me weigh up carefully how I can be more artistically effective in order to produce some language virus in each performance on government equipment.
What are the main venues or spaces you perform in? How many people typically go to your shows?
Audio Rebel. 80 to 100.
Do you tour much around Brazil or South America? What other cities have a strong underground music scene?
No. But I went to Mexico with Ilhas de Calor and to Glasgow and London alongside Chinese Cookie Poets, we played at the Counterflows Festival and Cafe Oto. Bogota, Sao Paulo, Recife, Salvador, Rio, always comes news from there.
Can you recommend some interesting bands or artists from Rio that we should check out?
What projects are you working on now?
Baby Hitler. A pop album, an emulation of Connan Mockasin’s “Forever Dolphin Love”, called “Água Batizada”, and an anarcho-gospel album which will be called “My Kingdom is Not of this World”, based on the Holy Bible, to be released on December 25.