Taking the measure of Marisa Monte can be tricky in North American contexts. She’s occupied a singular space in the teaming world of Brazilian music for some three decades as a vocalist and songwriter who’s steeped in traditional idioms and insistently innovative, both cutting edge and a bona fide pop superstar. It’s a dual status she attained first as a solo artist and then with Carlinhos Brown and Arnaldo Antunes in Tribalistas.
Marisa Monte, UC Theatre, Oct. 21-22, $63-$103
Picking up the mantle of predecessors like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Milton Nascimento, she’s cultivated a passionate following in the United States since the release of her breakthrough 1994 album Verde, anil, amarelo, cor de rosa e carvão (rechristened as Rose and Charcoal for the US market). Given her stature there’s nothing unusual about her two-night engagement at the UC Theatre this Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 21-22. But the venue has undergone a conspicuous change since Monte’s last Berkeley performance in March 2022, when she was starting a U.S. tour celebrating the release of her 2021 album Portas.
In the past two years the UC Theatre has eclipsed every other venue in the region when it comes to presenting Brazilian artists. And not just stars with long established followings in the U.S. like Djavan, who played the UC in May, and the beloved Milton Nascimento, whose farewell tour brought him to the theater last October.
Reflecting the variety and depth of the Brazilian music scene, the UC has hosted legendary composer and multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal, rocker Lulu Santos, samba and pagoda great Zeca Pagodinho, samba rocker Diogo Nogueira, rapper Emicida, country music-like sertaneja crooners Zé Neto and Cristiano, and the recent sold-out orchestral pop show by resurgent composer Arthur Verocai.
The UC’s reign has not gone unnoticed in the Southern Hemisphere. “Brazil is a huge country with intense and original production and a very strong domestic market for all types of music,” Monte wrote in an email. “The UC Theater has been an important stage for updating the American audience on contemporary Brazilian music.”
In some cases, the UC has partnered with Jazz Is Dead, the Los Angeles label and production house founded and run by veteran R&B and hip-hop composer-producer Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the DJ and producer best known for his foundational work with A Tribe Called Quest. Jazz Is Dead’s promotional savvy has helped draw in new ears to the UC, like the conspicuously millennial audience that came out for Veocai (whose eponymous 1972 debut album became a favorite of producers and rappers decades later, supplying samples for the likes of MF Doom, Ludacris, Snoop Dogg and Little Brother).
“It’s a two-way street, with artists they’re bringing to us, and artists we’ve already booked where we’re bringing them in as partners,” said Matthew “Smitty” Smith, the UC’s general manager and booker. “I would say the Arthur Verocai show was all Jazz Is Dead. They’re really focused on trying to champion people who’ve faded from the spotlight but are still making great music.”
Smith credits the UC’s success with Brazilian artists to the deep roots put down by other organizations and artists. “If you look at the broader community, there’s a massive Brazilian cultural presence here,” he noted. “You have BrasArte in Berkeley right on San Pablo, and the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts has a huge samba program. There must be 30 samba troupes in the Bay Area, and who knows how many capoeira classes?”
Monte in Berkeley
By any measure, presenting Monte is a booking coup. An inveterately creative artist with a lithe and sumptuously malleable mezzo soprano, she played a central role in reviving Brazil’s famously eclectic música popular brasileira (MPB) movement in the early ’90s when it had been eclipsed by rising performers pursuing more focused idioms, such as rock, músic sertaneja, pagode and axé music.
Combining stunning, self-assured vocals, a magnetic stage presence and an audacious vision for expanding the infinitely pliable sound known as MPB, Monte expanded on the songbook that made Brazil a creative force in international pop music during the 1970s. Forged in a crucible of repression instilled by Brazil’s military government, MPB coalesced in late 1960s, drawing on samba, bossa nova, rock, the Tropicália sound of Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa and Gilberto Gil, and the vast country’s regional styles.
“To talk about Brazilian music is to talk about diversity, variety,” she told me in an interview before a Cal Performances concert at Zellerbach Hall in 2000. “We have a huge country with many, many different internal styles and a lot of outside influences from international pop music. We are very used to putting together all these influences to create our music through the differences.”
With the release of her eponymous debut recording in 1989, the 22-year-old Monte became an instant pop phenomenon, featured on her own prime time TV special. What her first album lacked in coherence it made up for in ambition, with Monte singing everything from Gershwin, Kurt Weill and a reggae arrangement of “I Heard it Through the Grape Vine” to 1940s hits by Brazilian icons Carmen Miranda and Luiz Gonzaga.
A series of international hit albums in the 1990s, particularly Rose and Charcoal and A Great Noise (which were both released in the U.S. on Metro Blue/Capitol), established Monte as the most popular female Brazilian singer of the decade, and a worthy heir to the throne of Elis Regina, Maria Bethania and Gal Costa.
Her latest album Portas, Monte’s first solo release in a decade, was already in process when the pandemic changed her plans. She’d been collecting songs for quite a while (“‘Pra Melhorar,’ for example, I wrote with Seu Jorge and Flor, his daughter, in Los Angeles, six years ago,” she wrote), but in recording the material she captured the wary mood that settled across the world. The music is quietly euphoric, as if the joy might slip away at any moment.
Alternating in-person sessions in Rio with remote recordings in Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona, New York and L.A., “it was a big challenge to record, but we faced it with great care and responsibility,” she wrote. “To my surprise, technology allowed us to try forms of relationships that we wouldn’t have tried if it weren’t for the extreme need and it worked very well. Portas ended up being an album that I made with more international collaborations, in more different cities, without leaving Rio and without losing the warmth or collective spirit.”
For the UC Theatre, Monte represents the success of the venue’s larger vision. As an independent nonprofit, the theater mostly avoids competing with Another Planet and Live Nation, concentrating instead on international artists from Latin America, the Caribbean and West Africa.
“I set out to have one of the most diverse calendars in the Bay Area,” Smith said. “Market-rate venues are competing for the next hot act for their festival. That chews up a lot of their bandwidth. We dug into the Latin market, the reggae market, and a lot of West African acts like Tinariwen. It took a couple of years, but we’re creating a home for this music.”
It’s not an easy path. Each artist presents a new challenge when it comes to reaching out to a particular fanbase. The UC has cultivated ties with the venues, organizations and studios where music lovers can be found.
“If I didn’t have this network, all the way down to dance studios and the instructors, these shows would be impossible to promote,” Smith said. “It’s a full community effort. We might reach out to C.K. Ladzekpo at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, BrasArte or Ashkenaz. It’s completely off the map of promoting a rock show.”
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