Aganjú ~ Music and Spirituaity

 

I first heard the song Aganjú on Bebel Gilberto’s album Tanto Tempo. It was written by the Brazilian musician, songwriter and record producer Carlinhos Brown, whose musical style blends tropicália, reggae, and traditional Brazilian percussion. Later, especially the Latin remix by Thievery Corporation, caught my attention because it expresses my love of a Brazilian and European Nu jazz style that never quite took a foothold in America the way it did in Europe. It was a movement derived from drum & bass that started in the early 1990’s.

Always seeking new material and ideas, I thought Aganjú would be a nice tune to play live, which we still do. Even with a very sparse instrumentation as a trio; with voice, bass and guitar, it works very well as a groovy, atmospheric lounge style song.

Aganjú was the last song we worked on yesterday in the studio for my new album Ipanema Lounge. I had actually gone through a bit a of a crisis with it and I think this was our third studio session working on the song. The rhythm section, Sandro Feliciano (percussion) and Isaias Elpes (electric bass), also from Brazil, had created some amazing grooves and my vocal track was in a complementary, nicely contrasting sultry style. That said, I thought it was still plainly boring and that we didn’t “own” the song. I was actually close to taking the song off of the record.

When it comes to recording a song that has already been recorded before, you have to make it your own. I absolutely did not want it to sound like a cover version. Or, like Billie Holiday said,

You can’t copy anybody and end with anything. If you copy, it means you’re working without any real feeling. No two people on earth are alike, and it’s got to be that way in music or it isn’t music.

I had already contemplated horn arrangements but thought it would be too costly and time consuming. But then, after debating with Greg Porée, the co-producer, arranger and guitarist of the record, we agreed on having one of our favourite saxophone and flute players add some movement and interest with some horn tracks in a very last recording session. Greg booked a three hour session which was supposed to give us enough time for recording horns, an additional vocal track, some last mixes and mastering. I admit, I was doing some big time eye-rolling. I thought it was an extremely daunting goal with so little time.

Robert Kyle, a multi-instrumentalist and composer, who also just released a new album himself, came in to the studio. I was thrilled with Greg’s idea of creating some friction and dissonances which was ultimately where I had planned on going with the vocals. Robert played and improvised multiple amazing tracks on tenor and soprano saxophone and some beautiful and haunting parts on the alto flute that you will recognize in the intro of the song. I added another vocal track, the mix was done – et voilà! The track became a wonderful conversation between the vocals and the wood winds over a very infectious Nu jazz groove.

This is exactly where not only excellent players, who can sight read and improvise on the spot, but a production team like Greg and Nolan Shaheed are crucial for any record to sound as good as Ipanema Lounge simply does. Nolan, whose studio we have been recording in for years, is a veteran trumpet player who has toured with greats like Stevie Wonder and recorded with many others. He too, can be heard on the album; on One Note Samba on Flügelhorn and on Sway his trumpet ad libs add a flair that is very reminiscent of Cuban Mambo bands of the 1950’s.

Suddenly, sitting there in the studio, while the end mix was being done, my thoughts started to drift. I think the fact that Nolan is also a world class, medal-winning runner made me think of the 2016 summer Olympics that were being held in Rio de Janeiro – the very place the song Aganjú stems from. Athletes, like any performer won’t survive if he or she is not dedicated to their craft by striving for continuous improvement and stamina. It occurred to me that at the same time, while we were recording those last fragments, It all seemed magically connected and suddenly I realized, that’s exactly what the song is about.

Despite the Portuguese lyrics being really hard to translate, the essence of the song and the name “Aganjú” is that of the African deity of volcanoes and deserts, who spreads magic and protection from Brazil, whose religious culture was originally brought to the country by the African slaves. In an interview Bebel Gilberto, said about the phrase:

‘Aganjú’ ‘Aganjú’ is everywhere, in San Francisco, in New York. People get so hypnotized by this song, so maybe that is a good thing, they see the religion in my music.

Music has always had a place in the history and practice of all religions of the world through the meditative use of chant and hymns during liturgical celebrations. In his book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, the British neurologist Oliver Sacks underscores the power of music to console, nourish and even save us from despair. In the song Aganjú this devotion to the saints for protection, good health and a better life is expressed in both the song’s lyrics and in its trance like mood, which was ultimately, what I was looking to reinterpret.

I suddenly remembered – when writing about the Olympics in my dissertation on the Nazi’s re-enactment of politically occupied, quasi-religious rituals – that the origins of the Olympic games in ancient Greece, being deeply rooted in mythology, were attributed to the gods. The athletes believed their training honoured these gods, and that victory was a sign of favour from a deity.

I finally felt it was all coming together but not only musically. I was suddenly so aware of the principle of dedication and inspiration, of how deeply connected they are, that one doesn’t exist without the other. Olympians were performing at their highest skill level in Rio de Janeiro, after decades of practice, determination, and sacrifice, in the same way as musicians do at recording sessions or live shows. And during that session, the god Aganjú had seemed to have blessed us with that magical spark that even, when the most virtuous musicians record or play together, can be missing. That magical spark, the essence of spirituality was created for that song, that very link that connects us humans to music and something larger, divinity.

aganju

obatala

 

 

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