Brazilian-American musician Beto Gonzalez was too young to understand the country around him when his family returned to Brazil in the 1970s. It was only as he grew older, after coming back to the United States, that he learned of how samba music became an important tool in the struggle against Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985.
Now, as the founder and artistic leader of Samba Society, Gonzalez hopes to share that history with a local audience during a time when the current political climates in the two countries he calls home have slid toward the types of attitudes that led to Brazil’s dictatorship.
Samba Society's Brasil 70: Samba/Soul/Resistance, which they'll perform on Friday, Aug. 4, at the newly restored Ford Amphitheatre, explores the rise of samba music in a decade marked by political censorship, repression, kidnappings and torture. Samba, forro and other genres of Brazilian music kept the spirit of resistance alive among the masses as the movement against the dictatorship grew, a resistance Gonzalez learned about during his studies at UCLA and in Rio de Janeiro as an ethnomusicology major.
“I had a big rediscovery of Brazilian music and my Brazilian heritage in my 20s, when I really started thinking more about Brazilian music,” says Gonzalez, who was born in New York but raised in São Paulo until age 10, when he and his family returned to the United States to live in Los Angeles.
“I started playing guitar as a kid, but I was into rock and metal as a teenager,” he continues. “Nowadays, most people have a good idea of what Brazilian music is, and a part of that is because of bands like ours that are first- and second-generation Brazilians who have been here for most of their lives and are doing samba here. That’s how I look at Samba Society. We’re a part of that generation that’s doing samba outside of Brazil even if we’re still drinking from the fountain.”
“The samba of that period was really fertile because a lot of artists were really embracing this Afro-Brazilian identity in the '70s.” -Beto Gonzalez
Samba Society is both a samba band and a collective. The band plays traditional samba music and features members from Gonzalez’s other groups — MôForró, who play a style of music known as forro that was popularized in northeastern Brazil, and Os Zagueiros, who play samba-funk, a style of samba influenced by the funk and soul music of African-American artists such as James Brown and Aretha Franklin. As a collective, Samba Society will bring the three groups together to tell the story of Brazilian musicians who took these influences to push their society into a more open and diverse direction, musically and otherwise.
“The samba of that period was really fertile, because a lot of artists were really embracing this Afro-Brazilian identity in the ’70s,” Gonzalez explains. “At the same time, they were being influenced by the post–civil rights movement, Black Power and all that from the U.S., which was also happening in the ’70s.
“Samba also had sort of a nationalistic feel, really wanting to establish a firm Brazilian identity. There was a friction between the people that were into a more international- and American-sounding music, soul music and funk from the U.S., and then there were the more traditionalists. The samba camp was more like, ‘We have our own music. Why are we playing this imported stuff?’”
The current political climate in Brazil is tumultuous, to say the least. Only 5 percent of Brazilians gave President Michel Temer’s government a positive rating in a recent survey, which comes weeks after he was charged with corruption, for which he could be tried in court. His predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached last year by a commission, 37 of whose 65 members had pending corruption cases of their own to deal with. Her predecessor, Luiz Lula da Silva, recently was sentenced to 10 years in prison on corruption and money laundering charges.
Amidst all this, Gonzalez was left to ponder if Brazil’s future would be a step backward into its fascist past.
“In that battle of impeachment, there was a lot of talk about restoring order in the country by bringing back the military dictatorship, which is fucking absurd to me,” he says. “That was what sparked the idea. Are these people nuts? We’re barely a generation out of the dictatorship and people seem to have no recollection about what the country went through as people were tortured or disappeared. There was incredible censorship.
“The flipside that the right tends to only see was that, for a time during the dictatorship, the country did grow economically. I understand that that’s what they want, but to bring back a military dictatorship to get there doesn’t make sense because that eventually all collapses.”
Gonzalez planned the show in three loose parts. The first part, “The Years of Lead,” covers the early years of the ’70s when the military dictatorship began to enforce its will by clamping down on civil rights through martial law, censorship, kidnappings and torture. The second part is “The Resistance,” an era in the mid-’70s when artists decided to be less lyrically oblique and took bolder stances politically. The final segment, “The Opening,” focuses on the final, waning days of the military dictatorship, which ended in 1985.
“I’d always been interested by the differences that we have between the two countries in terms of race relations, politics and poverty,” Gonzalez explains comparing the two nations he's called home. “There’s similarities but lots of differences and suddenly now here we are with stuff going on all over the world. It got me thinking about that time and it got me thinking about music, which is one of the best barometers of a political climate when you look at the really deep artists that can really talk about a certain period of time [in a way] that feels timeless.”
Brasil 70: Samba/Soul/Resistance, featuring Samba Society, MôForró and Os Zagueiros, happens Friday, Aug. 4, at the John Anson Ford Theatres. Tickets and more info.