Attack with ideas

Brazil's Olodum drums up a heady mix of politics and music.

MAKING MUSIC CAN be a rebellious act, but rarely does music in and of itself accomplish rebellion. The Brazilian ensemble Olodum stormed the barricades of racial inequality with its music, but that was just one step in its program of cultural activism. Inspired by civil rights leaders like Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X, Olodum eventually spearheaded a community revolution in its home city, Salvador, in the largely black region of Bahia.

Beginning in 1979 as a bloco, or Carnival percussion group, Olodum (named for the “supreme lord” of the Yorubᠲeligion) developed a distinctive mix of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and Brazilian samba. Dubbed “reggae samba,” this sophisticated combo has become the established soundtrack for Carnival. In America, Olodum is best known for its appearance on Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints and Michael Jackson’s single “They Don’t Care About Us.” Despite its influence on artists like Simon and David Byrne, the ensemble’s records are available in the US only as imports (on the Warner-affiliated label Continental). The Best of Olodum provides an introduction to their work with signature tracks like the sinuous “Reggae Odoyᬢ a collaboration with Jamaican superstar Jimmy Cliff. For a glimpse of the vibrant urgency of Olodum’s beginnings, track down early albums like 1987’s Egito Madagascar.

More recent records, including the new Liberdade, highlight the ensemble’s increasingly polished sound. Produced by bossa nova drummer Paulo Ferreira, Liberdade even contains an English-language love song, “I Miss Her,” amid its suave, percussive pop tracks. In performance, this smooth sound reverberates from guitars, horns, and, of course, enormous drums. Back-up singers raise their voices in an uplifting chorus, responding to vocalists Pierre Onasis and Marquinhos Marques. Olodum completes the picture with lithe, athletic dancers and its trademark red, green, yellow, and black costumes and banners.

Yet Olodum is more than music, costumes, and dancing. Restoring an old theater in the center of Salvador’s then-impoverished Pelourinho neighborhood in the early ’80s, the band created a focal point for the city’s black movement. Olodum’s weekly rehearsals led the Pelourinho’s renewal as the group’s activist arm launched a neighborhood cleanup and recycling campaign and tackled the pressing health issues of AIDS and cholera. Eventually, the ensemble established the Creative School of Olodum, where children—many from disadvantaged families—study Portuguese, history, music, dance, and theater. In addition, Olodum operates a factory for the production of Carnival costumes as well as official T-shirts, baseball caps, patches, and handbags, and a boutique that also stocks records and books about human rights. Every year, the band chooses a Carnival theme that draws attention to the African diaspora (past themes have included Blacks in Cuba and the History of Madagascar). The annual Festival of Music and Art of Olodum draws 30,000 people to Salvador to hear international artists such as Mutabaruka and Linton Kwesi Johnson as well as Brazilian stars like Gilberto Gil.

It’s a rare skill to translate last night’s enthusiasms into the cold light of morning, but Olodum, which now boasts a membership of almost 500, has managed just that. As the group’s cultural director Jo㯠Jorge S. Rodrigues wrote in 1996, “No matter how much we are attacked, we respond only with the violence of ideas. Olodum’s work is a form of nonviolent guerrilla warfare.”