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From Bahia with love

Olodum brings the sound of samba-reggae to Somerville

With a boost from Paul Simon, the Brazilian percussion ensemble Olodum has spread its samba-reggae beat to other countries. With a boost from Paul Simon, the Brazilian percussion ensemble Olodum has spread its samba-reggae beat to other countries.
By Andrew Gilbert
Globe Correspondent / September 19, 2010

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One year after the death of Neguinho do Samba, the gentle but relentlessly grooving revolution that he helped launch in Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia continues to win converts and transform old notions of Brazilian identity.

As the founder of the powerhouse percussion ensemble Olodum, Antonio Luis Alves de Souza, affectionately dubbed Neguinho do Samba, created the irresistible beat known as samba-reggae, which was quickly embraced in Salvador, Bahia’s capital and the heart of Afro-Brazilian culture. Paul Simon introduced the group’s surging sound to North American audiences on his 1990 album “The Rhythm of the Saints,’’ and Olodum gained further visibility with Spike Lee’s video for Michael Jackson’s 1996 hit “They Don’t Care About Us.’’

Performing at Somerville Theatre on Sunday as part of its first US tour in about a decade, a 14-member version of Olodum arrives in the midst of a transition, with a new lineup featuring some of Bahia’s brightest young stars, including vocalists Nadjane Souza and Lucas di Fiori. Driven by eight percussionists, the band is focusing on songs from a DVD released last year celebrating Olodum’s 30th anniversary.

“This concert will be a great tribute to Neguinho do Samba too,’’ writes Olodum executive director Jorge Ricardo Silva Rodrigues in an e-mail. “Neguinho was a simple man and very dedicated to music. The affection he had for African music and his constant initiatives resulted in what is most outstanding in the music of Bahia today: samba-reggae. After that everything changed for the better.’’

More than a mainstay of Salvador’s huge Carnival (which rivals Rio de Janeiro’s and is far less commercial), samba-reggae was a vehicle for popularizing the Afrocentric cultural movement spearheaded by Olodum and Ilê-Ayê , community organizations that celebrate Brazil’s long-marginalized African heritage.

“Olodum is an institution of Afro-Brazilian culture,’’ says São Paulo-raised Sergio Mielniczenko, a Brazilian consulate official based in Los Angeles and longtime host of “The Brazilian Hour,’’ an influential weekly show broadcast on the Public Radio Satellite System. “In addition to all the music classes they offer, they’ve created computer classes for kids and history classes.

“It’s more like a brotherhood to enhance and disseminate the culture. The approach is very Bahian, very mild and embracing, not divisive. You can be of any background and walk in and you’ll always be well received. Being from the southeast, we knew very little about Afro-Brazilian history. What they did was to re align the eyes of history, and tell the story from their point of view.’’

With the largest black population outside of Africa, Brazil followed a very different racial course from the United States after it became the last Western nation to abolish slavery in 1888. Rather than a rigid one-drop rule, Brazil developed a self-image as a fluid “racial democracy’’ largely devoid of racism, a concept introduced by Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre in the 1930s.

In truth, Brazil’s black population faced widespread discrimination throughout the 20th century, and scholars started dismantling Freyre’s argument decades ago. For Afro-Brazilians, the struggle to raise awareness of the pervasive African currents running through Brazilian culture, particularly in Bahia, didn’t take hold until the 1970s, when activists and cultural organizations led by Ilê-Ayê and Olodum began campaigning for greater recognition, jobs, education, and cultural inclusion.

“Especially in Bahia, all our work was fundamentally about creating a sense of self-esteem and appreciation of something that is naturally beautiful and interesting,’’ Rodrigues writes. “Olodum sought to positively motivate people about the possibility of seeking fairness in all aspects, living conditions, work, leisure, education, health and jobs, extending from Bahia to the rest of Brazil. Our stance was never that we are better, but of equality. We’re still struggling to improve further and eliminate every prejudice and any form of discrimination.’’

While Olodum started as a cultural organization dedicated to Carnival performances, within a few years the group’s high-octane shows gained national attention through tours, television appearances, and albums, once again drawing attention to Bahia’s thriving music scene. Many of the leading artists who emerged in the 1980s adapted Olodum’s pliable samba-reggae groove for their own ends, including Carlinhos Brown and Daniela Mercury.

Outside of Brazil, Olodum’s fortunes changed dramatically through the encounter with Paul Simon. While some comfortably situated US critics have chided his incessant prospecting for musical influences, the artists with whom Simon collaborates tend to see the experience differently. After Olodum recorded and performed with Simon, his financial support enabled Neguinho do Samba to buy an old building in the Pelourinho, the historical center of Salvador, where he opened a school that focused on teaching young women drums and other instruments.

“Paul Simon was with no doubt the most important musical partner of Olodum,’’ Rodrigues writes. “He helped spread samba-reggae to several countries, particularly the USA, and literally opened the international market for us. We have great affection for him, and we hope we soon meet again!’’

Andrew Gilbert can be reached at jazzscribe@aol.com.

OLODUM

At: Somerville Theatre, tonight at 8. Tickets: $40. 617-876-4275, www.worldmusic.org.