Today I had the pleasure of finally understanding the key to a small mystery in my research. Why did the album art for Lucas Santtana’s Sem Nostalgia change when it was licensed for international distribution through the UK-based record label Mais Um Discos?
Sem Nostalgia (2009), Portuguese for “without nostalgia,” was one of the albums that convinced me that I had to shift the way that I was thinking about the newer trends in Brazilian music in its global circulation. Since I first heard its connections to MPB and so-called global bass music in 2010, I decided to shift my focus from distribution technologies to geographic mobility, international prestige and the subsequent changes to Brazil’s musical brand.*
Sem Nostalgia was Santtana’s creative update on the classic Brazilian popular music archetype of the voice and guitar composed entirely of effects and sounds from an acoustic guitar and voice. The album’s songs range from creative approaches to carioca funk (above) to a bossa nova adaptation of Dom Um Romão ’70s latin pop tune “Amor em Jacumã.” When people generalize about bossa nova, they tend to describe it terms of new approaches to guitar and voice that were ushered in by João Gilberto’s Chega De Saudade (1959). As is readily audible in this recording, the unique vocal and guitar timbres and rhythms stand out at the forefront of the mix, but they are far from the only instruments present in that recording. From bossa nova onwards, voice and guitar were canonical and they were a way for an artist to riff off the icons of the Brazilian popular music tradition, something that by the late ’90s and early ’00s weighed heavily on musicians who cared about updating the Brazilian musical tradition.
Enter Sem Nostalgia – a fresh update two iconic instruments and their connection to the legacy of João Gilberto’s intervention and nostalgia. From my perspective, Santtana’s approach on Sem Nostalgia and his more recent O Deus Que Devasta Mas Também Cura (“The God Who Devastates Also Cures”) forge some strong audible bridges between musical scenes and tendencies that would be much simpler to cordon off between geographic zones, age groups, and genres. He mixes all of that up. He’s from Bahia, lives in Rio, and regularly collaborates with artists from São Paulo. He collaborates with hip-hop artists and MPB stalwarts. And he is far from alone – there are many interesting artists in Brazil these days who move across all kinds of boundaries to make interesting creative statements.**
When I purchased Sem Nostalgia in 2010, it had cover art that played off the album’s heavy use of effects (above). Its spliced audio frequency graphs reminded me of audio editing software and the bright pastel colors recalled something else more playful and old. It was weird, and told me that I was probably going to hear something that involved overt technological intervention in music.
A few years ago I noticed that the album art I had for the album didn’t match what I was seeing in online retail venues. Instead of the audio frequency graphs, there were three superimposed photos of Santtana in front of the famous Arcos da Lapa, in Rio de Janeiro’s famous Lapa neighborhood. Unlike the audio frequency graphs, the new cover was much more gritty and urban.
I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Mais Um Discos, the record label that distributes Santtana’s music for international audiences. When I asked about the changed album cover, I was told that the original album art, while cool, would not communicate to international audiences. It was originally designed to interpolate the cover for João Gilberto’s famous Chega De Saudade, the root of the album’s critique.
The font and colors are meant to evoke the first big breakout moment for the guitar and voice, and they would be immediately recognizable to anyone who had grown up with its influence constantly touted in popular music. To a gringo, it might take some pointing out, but the album art tells you that it’s a rejoinder to that iconic album and its legacy for those two instruments. Sadly, however, that kind of reference just doesn’t speak to international audiences who would otherwise be receptive to Santtana’s music. The new art shows off the musician who is performing and it conveys some of the music’s urbanity and grittiness through the superimposed photos of Rio’s iconic musical neighborhood. Brazil’s musical history is still referenced without nostalgia, but the kind of nostalgia is what has changed.
For those of us who pay attention to the permutations that an album can take as it finds new markets, extramusical details like album art may not seem all that important; however, they offer surprising revelations about the complication of translating artistic intent for an unanticipated audience.
** N.B. For a great analysis of the scenes focused in Rio de Janeiro, check out Fred Moehn’s book on the subject.