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words Ali Raymond / photography Focus
Breaking down barriers between music and culture with their loud and infectious music, Saravah Soul are afro-meets-Brazilian funk.
Led by Brazilian singer, guitarist and all-round shape-throwing front man Otto Nacarella, the half Brazilian, half British, London-based band have been making waves for more than a minute gaining fans like Unabombers (XFM) and Gilles Peterson (Radio 1). Now with their brilliant second album Cultura Impura, a percussion feast of rhythm released via the pioneering Tru Thoughts label, they are set for further, worldwide success.
I manage to pull Otto away for a coffee to discuss the journey so far. During sound check as the band prepare to perform at London’s Royal Festival Hall as part of the Southbank’s Brazil Festival season, we get straight into it.
“There is really no such thing as pure brazilin music,” Otto tells me. “Choro? No, because it was a mixture of the first rhythms that the slaves played when they came to Brazil.”
As a man who can talk for hours on the varying degrees of music and rhythm in his homeland, he does have a point. To pin down one genre to the melting pot of Brazil is more than difficult; its musical heritage is open to many interpretations. After 500 years of history, the country has developed some unique, original styles such as choro, sertanejo, brega, lalago, frevo, samba, maracatu, bossa nova, MPB, Brazilian rock, axé, and, possibly the most popular, samba.
The special thing about Saravah Soul is that they have crafted a sound that is all their own while still incorporating the many genres of the continent, and it all comes wrapped in that South American vibrancy of good times and percussion. A mixture of various, traditional Brazilian folk genres with the best bits of old-school soul and funk, the band emit a warmer scent than a plate of Feijoada. And it’s the setup, as Otto theorises, that’s the key ingredient.
“Saravah Soul is not a Brazilian band” — to those who need reminding. “The way we approach Brazilian music is not the way we Brazilians do, this is what makes the band so unique. Being here and having that English influence makes a load of difference in the way we look at music.”
As the one of the main composers of the group, Otto knew early on the direction in which he wanted to go sonically. “I made this link in my mind very long ago. I use to listen to a lot of classic Brazilian albums, heavy instrumental albums with top street singers. Then I remember listening to soul tracks and thinking it had the same atmosphere.”
Otto leans in to emphasize his idea. “To hear the same likeness with bells. It was that similarity that made me dig it straight away, you know.”
The band’s front man owes a lot to those early days when he was introduced to the late soul and funk gods for what he envisioned for Saravah Soul’s sound. “I had a friend who gave me a mix tape when I was 16 with the most amazing James Brown and the other side this generic funk,” he smiles, remembering a young, pimple-faced Otto.
Do you still have the mixtape?
“No man, I wish. It would be fucking cool! I use to think man I wish I could show James Brown these Brazilian records, I wish I could show Curtis Mayfield this one,” he says before letting out a warm laugh “It was my dream to say listen to this samba Curtis.
“From then, when I was 17 I started to listen to more funk and I started break dancing. It was more about old hip hop and breaks – DJ Pogo was my first contact with the real deal, you know!” You can feel Otto’s contagious passion as he reels through his early influences.
Encapsulated by this new-found love for other exciting music that shared so many similarities with his native beats, Otto formed a number of bands in his home town of Curitiba, Southern Brazil, during his mid-to-late teens. “At 19 I had a funk cover band: Turbo–Funk,” he chuckles. “It was a great school to be from and learning a bit of English along the way. I was already mixing soul and funk, but my vision as a Brazilian was about mixing the two with native music”
It wasn’t, of course, until he made the brave decision to jump ship for a new world, leaving sunny Brazil for frosty London, that the idea of Saravah Soul truly came to light. “Coming to England changed my life,” he says, clearing his throat, realising that time has turned the coffee tepid.
“I was 25-26. When I came here I managed to learn to look at Brazilian music has if I wasn’t Brazilian. You kind of lose prejudice. I always thought Britain was more elegant and respected their approach to music. One day I had this recurring dream that I was in London and calling my mum. It was the same dream I had had when I was 18 but then it stopped. Then when I was 24 I decided I wanted to leave Curitiba and go back to Sao Pablo but I got this dream again – so I had to do something! I said mum that money you had saved, I’m gonna have to have it, haha!
“I arrived here without knowing anyone but I met Kiris [Houston], the guitar player, who had lived in Brazil for 4 months before. He spoke a tiny bit of Portuguese and I could speak a tiny bit of English. Then I put the band together. He invited Jack [Yglesias] and the others I met in Guanabara — a famous Brazilian venue here in London. That was it, history!”
One of the highlights for Otto so far among considerable numbers of live shows was playing on home soil in Sao Paulo. There, on a Tuesday night, Saravah Soul demonstrated how much their music had travelled.
“You looked in their eyes and they liked it,” says Otto, remembering vividly the beaming, enthusiastic crowd making sense of the band’s Brazilian hybrid sound. “It was quite moving to see how it worked in Brazil.”
“Especially those from the small communities where a lot of the music stems from. I sensed that these guys felt really valued when they heard a bit of their music in our sound.”
Talk of leaving the country uncovers one of the bands biggest recurring obstacles — immigration laws. “The most difficult thing for us has always been that some of us were legal and some weren’t. Our drummer lived here for four years illegally, so he couldn’t leave the country because if he did he would never be able to return. Those times were really stressful on all of us. He has sorted it out but our bass player, who was married to an Italian citizen, is now applying for a visa and we are still waiting. He’s lived here for 13 years but now can’t travel with us so it still affects us”
Any fans of Saravah Soul willing to marry to help their plight, please apply here. Otto is clearly frustrated by the often patchy immigration system that has so often left the band in limbo. The shared emotions ared beautifully vented on lead single “Alforria”.
“To be fair, they don’t even deny his visa — they just hold his passport forever. It’s there on a desk in the home office!”
Mattheus, the bass player of the group, will soon no doubt lay his eyes on a fully equipped passport, and thankfully the problem doesn’t extend to touring in the UK. So with that in mind, and with the new album itching away at our dancing nerve, Otto leaves us with a final request for any new and old fans alike.
“I want people to not be scared, get involved and feel the vibe. If you don’t know the words, blag it!! This is what I want people to get out of us when we play. I want you to feel the atmosphere of Saravh Soul.”
Buy Cultura Impura at Tru thoughts
Read Beatnik’s review of Cultura Impura
Saravah Soul myspace