“We haven’t discovered anything”: John Gómez searches for Brazil’s “spaces in between”

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Photo by Lewis Khan.

If, in the ever-populated market of dance music, you’re looking for a label to take into consideration the contextual importance of recordings from days gone by, the delicate relationships formed through their propagations and the legacy of the artists who may no longer speak for themselves, who better than Music From Memory? And who, a more thoughtful an ambassador than John Gómez? From the outset, when we’re welcomed into his London flat, his care and attention to global music exploration is laid bare, fully aware of his role as an outsider going into a nation’s heritage. “We haven’t discovered anything”, Gómez insists, sitting alongside the stack of records that make up Outro Tempo: Electronic and Contemporary Music from Brazil, 1978-1992. A lengthy title, but a necessary one to describe the expansive 17 track compilation he has curated for Music From Memory, that is unique in where it sits within the context of Brazil’s musical history. “This has been meaningful music to people in all these different contexts, for years before we ‘discovered’ it.”

Living a somewhat self-professed “life on a hyphen”, John Gómez was born in Madrid and has existed between his home country and the UK since he was very young. Asking if it is this “in-betweeness” that has formulated his musical tastes and ambitions, he agrees when it comes to the records he pulls out. “That’s when I find music most exciting”, he tells me after remarking how the record he had just played sat somewhere between house, funk and disco. “When music sits between genres, in a way it reflects my own identity, being between Spanish and English; there’s this space in between, which I find most interesting”. If you ever catch one of John’s sets, you’ll be drawn in to this “grey” area of sorts. His vast collection enables him to be able to pack a record bag that is dance-ready and, should he need to, choose music entirely traceable to one country or period (like he has been enlisted to do for two of our Infusions parties, the second this month, focusing on Brazil with Music From Memory boss Jamie Tiller).

John is a serious collector, but for the label’s first conceptual compilation – and his first project of this kind ever – he has embarked on a formative mission that supersedes a “deep dig”. It isn’t simply an amalgamation of nice tracks that are hard to find, nor it is a “a collection of say, two killer tracks and then just some padding” he says. No, this compilation is tied to the last years of Brazil’s military dictatorship and the transition to democracy. In the liner notes, John tentatively writes that the music is from “a wonderful and neglected corner in Brazil’s rich musical history between the years 1978 and 1992”, a decade that is in-between (there’s that word again) the MPB (música popular brasileira) music of the seventies and the poppy, dancey explosion of Brazil’s 90’s output. Both of these periods are well rooted in political landscapes of the time; the former, against the dictatorship in full throws, and the latter, during Brazil’s foray into the globalised world economy. It is within this period that John finds the struggle of identity many musicians were having, transitioning from writing music against oppressors and the introduction of electronic instruments and production techniques as Brazil’s markets opened to the world.

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Photos by Lewis Khan // Left: John sees doubles of Andréa Daltro’s Kiuá. John with a copy he found in Oxfam of Marco Bosco’s Metalmadeira with a note from Marco to a certain Brian Eno.

In formulating the concept behind the release, John was not gung-ho with his observations; he was incredibly aware of his position as an outsider and a representative of a European record label and distributor. Although he acknowledges writing liner notes for something like this is very difficult, because of “a fear of imposing a reading”, he is also aware that he is perhaps showing music within a context it had not been shown before.

Of course he does not do this arbitrarily and spent a lot of time talking to the artists involved. “Going to Brazil was completely essential, I found stuff there that I would never have found before.” While he was there, John went through thousands of records, sifting through what has now become the “in demand” type of Brazilian music. Over the years, as DJs spread further afield for new records, collectors and dealers in Brazil have cottoned onto trends, raising prices when particular sounds, artists and labels start getting foreign attention. “I started asking people in Brazil about [these records] but I was also very careful because once you do, the dealers will just go find them and start charging a fortune”. Given the uniqueness of these particular records, John was aware, through past experience, that demand is sensitive. “We knew that demand was starting for the Maria Rita Stumpf record”, partly from his own doing, he’s not afraid to admit. “I had picked up around nine copies of this amazing record, I put it in a couple of mixes and gave copies to several friends, so suddenly (in a European context) people like Hunee and [Young] Marco started playing it, and people started knowing about it”. What is most interesting is that John is working with a particular set of records that he knows will not need much of a push out the door. “The Andréa Daltro record, people didn’t know yet, but we knew the moment the word was out on that people were gonna lose their shit.”

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Photo by Lewis Khan.

After the compilation had started to take shape and, having made a few initial playlists, John presented his ideas to some of the artists he had been in touch with since starting his search. Their reaction was “mixed” he says, “initially, some people found it very hard to understand. Some were very suspicious of the word electronic, and thought that we were planning on making a straight-up electronic record, and they couldn’t understand how their music related to this.” Bare in mind also, that much of his correspondence with these musicians was in Portuguese; not his first language but he learned as he went, stringing it together with his native Spanish. “Others got it straight away, but were, of course, surprised to have me show up on their doorstep.”

Many of these musicians and artists had not heard their own music in years, even decades. A few had moved on to different careers, like Piry Reis – now a language teacher – who tried to put John onto his more recent music productions. It seemed he was somewhat embarrassed by the idea of someone pulling out his very early releases, which were made in the midst of experimenting with new technologies. “To their ears it might sound tacky,” John explains, “he was talking about music he’d written for Jan Garbarek and Charlie Haden, which is great, but I had to explain to him that people already know that. It’s been issued thousands of times!” It was only when he sent Reis the track he had chosen that things became clear. “I said look, let me send you some files, so you can hear where it’s gonna go and get some context. I doubt he listened to anything else, but he listened to [his] tune and said, ‘Wow!!!! But it is amazing…. Poraaaaa!’” It was as if he had completely resigned his early music to being outdated, without having any memory of what it sounded like 30 years ago. This was a reassurance that the concept of Outro Tempo provided a new context for this music. “It’s very hard because some of these people have had long careers and they’ve produced other types of music. It’s very hard to make them understand what the value is of something they’ve long moved on from.”

Many of these artists simply hadn’t seen their work within the context of this political period before, or at least, hadn’t seen it with such clarity. “This was a traumatised country”, John explains, “in the mid 80s it was coming out of a 20 year dictatorship where censorship was rife, and every song that was produced had to be approved before its release.” As an outsider, John was able to see these developments from a global perspective and noticed that, after the fall of the dictatorship, there were dialogues being initiated; some were centred on globalization, where people were embracing new production methods that they hadn’t done before. John started asking himself questions like “why does the amazon suddenly start to appear in Brazilian music with such force?” He found there had been “a lot of international attention drawn to deforestation in the Amazon basin and to the plight of indigenous tribes” at the time. “Before this period, indigenous tribes had no rights”, he explains, “the Brazilian constitution was rewritten in 1988 and indigenous populations in the Amazon were granted citizen rights for the first time.” After asking the producers and musicians for their thoughts, John was reassured by their answers. “They seemed happy with it and I think they were quite relieved because it was a politically engaged climate, it hasn’t been totally forgotten.”

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Photos by Lewis Khan // Left: Maria Rita Stumpf’s Brasileira, Nando Carneiro’s Violão, also Bené Fonteles, Cinema, and Daltro underneath. Right: Priscilla Ermel’s Tai Chi – Gestos De Equilíbrio.

The prospect of searching through the musical history of a country is daunting to say the least but, after flicking through thousands of records, John was somewhat aware of what to look for. Sure it was easy enough to spot “anything that looked like an independent release from particular years, or a record with an interesting cover” he says, “but I mean, the cover of Anno Luz’s LP looks like a shit house record!” Finding it hard to grasp, I asked how he filtered his search and found records that fit his initial concept for the compilation. It was soon apparent that the musicians he had been most interested in started to show up again and again. “There is a circle of musicians that knew each other and were collaborating”, John says, as he turns over a few of the records, passing over the credits. “Well, at least they exist in little clusters. You’ve got the conceptual sort of pop scene in Rio with Os Mulheres Negras and Cinema.” Then there’s also the grouping around Carmo Records, run by Egberto Gismonti, who John sees as being “at the heart of all of this as a sort of visionary figure.”

Although Gismonti’s music isn’t on the compilation, his name keeps cropping up in the credits of the other releases and name-checked by the artists themselves. “If you speak to people, they refer to him as one of those crucial figures. He was the one pushing musicians to experiment with electronic techniques”. The transition from folk to electronic instrumentation is one of the main cruxes of this project; as Brazil moved into the world stage, post-dictatorship, the new technologies of the 80s slowly crept in, taking over from the acoustic percussion that Brazil is so well known for. It was not a process that was accepted so easily but Gismonti, John explains, was at the epicenter. “Nando Carneiro, told me that while on tour, [Gismonti] made him read a book about programming”. On another level, like Priscilla Ermel, Gismonti also went to study indigenous music forms in the Amazon Rainforest and was, overall, a “driving force behind the scenes”. So at least through all his conceptualising, John was able to trace these small connections between musicians around the period; and given that Gismonti was such a nucleus of Outro Tempo, it would of course be essential that John made contact.

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Photos by Lewis Khan // Right: Bené Fontele’s album Benedito and Daltro’s descriptive Música Instrumental Vocalizada (Vocalized Instrumental Music)

“They say never meet your heroes!” John laughs, admitting that Gismonti was one of the hardest nuts to crack. “I don’t use the word genius often, but he is”, John says. “When I spoke to Egberto, he took issue with everything I said.” For someone that is taking a central role in a musical heritage, it is of course essential that someone like Gismonti can verify John’s perception of the music and the meanings he applies to it. It was through this attempt at verification that John understood his role a lot better, as well as the angle he was coming from as an outsider. “One of the first things I said when explaining the project to him, I was talking about ‘this overlooked music’ and he said, ‘what do you mean overlooked? I’ve sold thousands of records’”. John cites this, as a formative sign, as well as an abrupt realization, that just because music is “unknown” to one in the context of dance and related musics, doesn’t mean it is that same for a musician within the national and international contexts that he was able to create for his own music at the time of making.

“That made me think about my role in this, and what I was trying to say”, John emphasizes. “Oh it’s not been played by this DJ it must mean it doesn’t exist, because it’s not on Discogs or whatever.” This music has its own history, both with the artists who wrote and recorded it, but also with its listeners. So, as John puts it, it is somewhat a “message” to the digging world, not just with regard to these tracks, but of all music that lies in the “desirable” regions outside of the “mainstream” market place: “We haven’t discovered anything.” This has been meaningful music to people in all these different contexts, for years before we discovered it, “and that’s all it is”, John concludes. “We can help create a context in which this has a new meaning, but to people in Brazil this has been music that they’ve produced, performed, and listened to for years.”

Outro Tempo: Electronic and Contemporary Music from Brazil, 1978-1992 is out 20th February on Music From Memory – pre-order from Rush Hour or Sounds of the Universe.

Photos shot exclusively for Stamp The Wax by Lewis Khan.

Catch John and MFM boss Jamie Tiller in London next week for a Brazilian Infusions – tickets and info available by clicking the artwork below. 

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