AfroJazz: The Voice of Rio de Janeiro’s Underground Jazz Movement

Jesse Bernard
Jun 13 · 10 min read

It’s nearing 10 am on a Tuesday morning in early May, the sun’s begun scorching the streets. Already, the streets of Lapa have awakened, commuters are heading to work, street vendors manning their stations and the forgotten homeless who seem to be increasing by the day, find refuge from said sun. The air was still thick with the smell of revelling that had taken place on these very streets merely hours ago.

The scores of beer cans, empty cups of caipirinhas and cigarette butts have all but disappeared. The sanitation department — the fairies that come in the dark of night to transform sin city into something presentable by the break of dawn — remove the last traces of the various street parties, only to repeat the process the next day. Although, instead of scores of people with drinks in their hands walking alongside traffic, Lapa’s close distance to Centro made it a tourist hotspot during the day.

That morning, I was scheduled to meet with Rio de Janeiro based sextet, AfroJazz while they met for their weekly rehearsal closeby to the infamous Lapa Steps, a multi-purpose music institute with studios and session rooms. When I arrived, perspiring from every possible open pore on my body, AfroJazz had already begun rehearsing.

The jazz they were playing wasn’t unfamiliar but there was feeling as though that at the moment, it was the first time I was listening to this jazz. Keeping tabs on the Brazilian jazz scene has been a hobby of mine for the past couple of years but never had I stumbled across AfroJazz. When I looked them up online, it was as though they were a digital enigma, a whisper somewhere in the deepest corners of the internet. This how it used to be when looking for underground music — before streaming replaced that habit. I had become so used to finding the music I wanted with relative ease that I had forgotten that there was a time when you’d have to sometimes spend hours finding a decent working zip file of an album.

It was jazz quite clearly but at the foundation of it was samba led by the percussion and drum pattern. The saxophone and trumpet brought through the elements of soulful jazz that were reminiscent of Afrobeat in the ’80s. “We had this idea to connect African and Brazilian music through jazz as the African traces in our culture are obvious,” Eduardo says.

The group is made up of Eduardo Santana (bandleader, trumpeter and vocalist), Roque Miguel (percussionist), Rodrigo Ferrera (bass guitar), Felipe Chernicharo (guitar), Daniel Conceição (drums) and Oswaldo Lessa (sax). “The philosophy of the band is to take the music we studied in university to the people. In Rio, it’s all about the parties and we started going to the street in a carnival-like style. We’re taking root music away from concerts to the people in a way that’s fun,” says Eduardo, who recently broke his leg after playing football and told me briefly about his time as a professional and how injuries cut his career short. “Each member has a respect for the tradition, for example, Felipe brings the energy of rock on the guitar and then the samba influence with the percussion and drums.”

Eduardo Santana (Jesse Bernard)

Throughout the rehearsal, there was a sense of impermanence surrounding the music I was hearing. The group’s music isn’t easy to find besides a handful of YouTube videos of past performances and a stagnant but active SoundCloud account but they won’t be found on popular streaming platforms. The minimal digital presence AfroJazz hasn’t been accidental, nor is it a hindrance. Offline, it’s another matter. The group has performed at various jazz festivals including Cotai Jazz & Blues Festival in Macau, China as well as their Sofar Rio de Janeiro set in 2016, various local carnivals and festivals across the state of Rio. They were also recently on a lineup with London-based jazz group KOKOROKO, as part of a project backed by the British Council.

“We want to be able to see, feel and hear our audience,” Eduardo says, and the group’s offline approach is what has kept them going for nearly a decade. “There are 200 million people living in Brazil and maybe 20% are interested in a culture so 40 million people are our market.” As a music lover from Britain, the last time I was able to participate and witness a music scene where impermanence was a commonality was through grime.

The ‘underground’ is a murky concept these days as brands and labels find ways to enter grassroots spaces, largely due to a lack of public funding provided to the arts. Where a showcase of underground artists in the UK would likely be sponsored by a Red Bull or Boiler Room-type brand, in Rio, you likely won’t hear about an artist unless by chance or through word of mouth. The group formed in 2012 and was started out of a desire to reframe the lineage of African heritage music. Their sound is difficult to attribute to any one location it’s West African, Brazilian and American-influenced all at once but at its core, they channel the rhythm of samba through jazz and soul is the vessel through which it all flows. “We’re trying to connect with more artists as jazz gives us more freedom to do that and hip-hop is one of those art forms we’re trying to mix. Hip-hop in Rio is very political here so we want to work with artists like that so we can reach more people,” Felipe adds.

Felipe playing with Sexteto Sucupira at Forró da Rua da Lapa (Jesse Bernard)

After rehearsal, we make our way down to the small courtyard, tucked away in a sea of greenery and serenity but yet a stone’s throw from the Lapa Steps where hundreds of tourists take pictures. A joint goes around the group, as is standard procedure after each rehearsal, and we all find ourselves even more acquainted. Felipe, the band’s guitarist acts as our translator and goes as far to point out that, “the darker you are, the less likely you are to speak English.” It’s a reality that became clear during my time in Rio but even among a group of friends, the disparity in education is stark. Felipe plays a weekly forró night close by to Arcos de Lapa every Wednesday in Sexteto Sucupira. It’s a much more intimate affair with the dance style quite similar to samba and salsa but the difference is that a forró band is often made up of a trio. Despite the rain — which lasted five long days — the forró party I attended was packed out. Men stood to the side eyeing their next dance partner, who was likely already on the dancefloor. It was multigenerational, young and old but as Felipe points out, people from the favelas are less likely to be at these parties but you’ll see them on the streets selling alcohol, drugs and food that’ll ensure Rio lives up to its reputation.

On any given street across Lapa and Centro, you’re likely to come across various sound systems occupying a corner, creating in its purest sense, a sound clash. Pedro Do Sal, a famed weekly samba party in an area where the first slave revolt took place in Rio de Janeiro, is one of those environments where you’ll hear samba in one ear and baile funk in the other. “You can have a musician that plays great music here and people still don't know about them because most want to be able to dance.”

Oswaldo Lessa (Jesse Bernard)

There are no real official organisers of these events, merely a sound system turning up to a bar and using their electricity. The Bailes sprawl out onto the street and since these aren’t official, the party goes on until the last man is standing. While it’s great for the partygoers, particularly the young locals and budget-watching backpackers, the musicians themselves are paid via donations. “Because it’s a beach city, people are less likely to pay to see music so they’re definitely more interested in moving and dancing. I think that’s the conditioning of a city like this. If you go to São Paulo, you’re more likely to hear a wider range of music but because it’s mostly nightclubs and shows, you have to pay,” Felipe says. Most are willing to pay because they were aware that this baile was the only place they’d likely see that artist again. “We’re struggling to get paid and that’s partly because of the music environment and it being mostly a street thing. We’re slowly adapting and doing more closed concerts but I don’t know, the street thing is important to us because we want to communicate our music as far and wide as possible,” Felipe adds. “We just want to make jazz sound attractive and people here love dancing so that’s always been our focus.”

AfroJazz (Jesse Bernard)

After the World Cup and The Olympics which took place in 2014 and 2016 respectively, Brazil had an air of optimism. At least on the surface and what was propagated by media. During the preparations for the two biggest global sporting events, favelas were cleared to make way for new stadiums and a drive was made to clean up the city. “There’s a strange political moment right now because artists and intellectuals are being demonised by the government. It’s different now compared to five years ago when people were optimistic and as a country, we were emerging. Now we have this right-wing government made up of military generals and our former so-called left-wing government failed us in a lot of ways.”

A martyr and community hero, whose name and face is etched into walls across the city, greeted me as I arrived at the music centre. Last year, Marielle Franco was killed by former police in Rio de Janeiro sending shockwaves across the activist community in Brazil and across the world. Like many other activists in Brazil, Franco frequently called out the sexual violence and police brutality plaguing the country. A little over a year since her death, hope has faded for many Brazilians who have found police violence to be a daily occurrence. “They’re trying to get the mayor [Marcelo Crivella] impeached but his views have led to violence, mainly toward Black people. There’s a lot of Black blood flowing in the streets and after slavery, we were forgotten. In America because of capitalism, Black people are recognised due to that money that can be made from us but here, Black money means shit to the establishment.” The evangelical bishop who became mayor in 2016 has been heavily criticised for his homophobic and racist views but Crivella is also emblematic of the attitude across the country that led Jair Bolsonaro to be elected as President this year.

The following week, they were a member down but such is the way of life for Cariocas, or so I’m told. We go back to Eduardo’s apartment, just around the corner from the studio and we find ourselves participating in the post-rehearsal ritual. Eduardo puts on an array of YouTube videos of Brazilian jazz musicians throughout the decades. At that moment, I understood that this was a part of practice. The conversation found its way back to the political climate and after a week in the city, I’d witnessed just how fragile Black life is. “We have a lot of singular religions here that were born after slavery due to the mixing of people. A lot of people still practice religions such as Candomble but there’s always been this tension between Christianity and African spirituality. In the past they co-existed but since the new bishop, there’s been a rise in violence partly because religion has been mixed with politics.” All over the world, from the FBI having files on Wu-Tang Clan to Form 696 and grime, Black music has been censored and policed in a way that often leads to death. “I hope it passes but I don’t think it well. As artists, we have a choice, either we can denounce what’s going on or you can pretend nothing’s happening and just play the music. It’s difficult because the government are trying to erase the roots of where Brazilians come from and that’s linked to the music we make.”

“In the underground artists are inspired but the mainstream music here, you wouldn’t hear artists being political,” Felipe adds. But being an outspoken artist in the underground can lead to fatal consequences. In 2015, funkeiro artist MC Vitinho was killed on stage by an unidentified assailant in São Paulo. Many to this day, including his ex-girlfriend, still believe the police were responsible and due to his anti-military police lyrics. A few years earlier in 2013, another São Paulo-based funkeiro, MC Daleste was killed while performing on stage by a masked motorcyclist.

Where Bailes were once most enjoyed in favelas, these days they usually take place in the city, often pricing out those who come from neighbourhoods where funk emerged. The militarised police presence makes it a precarious affair for darker-skinned people — whether Brazilian and otherwise — and it’s all part of a hundred-year effort to erase the major cultural and societal contributions Afro-Brazilians have made.

The image Brazil wishes to portray to the world isn’t one that includes AfroJazz but as they say, their market is 40 million people who are at the very least, passionate about the cultural scene. It’s difficult to imagine that such a figure could still mean you’re underground but in a country which has for years violently erased Black expression and life itself, AfroJazz says, “We cannot accept people trying to erase us and our culture, we’ll always find ways to express ourselves but we can’t accept them trying to silence us.”

Jesse Bernard

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Music & culture writer. Bylines: TRENCH Magazine The Guardian, The Fader, Bandcamp, BRICK Magazine, Okayplayer, Red Bull & more.