Brazilian jazz pianist Amaro Freitas brings the Amazon to the BRDCST festival

Tom Zonderman

| Amaro Freitas takes you to the river

Every year, the BRDCST festival celebrates the outer edges of the musical spectrum. Electronics innovator Autechre heats things up, Tirzah curates an entire evening, and Oneohtrix Point Never wows out, but we especially reach for a dip into the spiritual universe of the Brazilian jazz pianist Amaro Freitas.

Anyone who has ever spent a few minutes in the tropical rainforest knows that the jungle is like an orchestra. There can be no better place to experience that polyrhythmic cascade of sounds than the Amazon forest, mother of all primeval forests. Amaro Freitas discovered this too as he travelled into the Amazon basin a few years back for a concert in the opera house of Manaus, the metropolis where the Rio Negro and the Solimões merge into the world's largest river, the Amazon.

“That confluence is a wondrous spectacle,” the Brazilian jazz pianist says over Zoom from his home in Recife. “You see the black and brown water flowing side by side without mixing. I found that a very powerful image, it made me emotional. I saw a totally different Brazil there, a Brazil I did not know.” For Freitas, who grew up in the north-eastern province of Pernambuco, it was very symbolic of how Brazilians live together but also live alongside each other. As a musician, but also as a human being, the pianist is a great connector. A link between Western and Latin American music, a connection between the present and the past, and a bridge builder between people and cultures.

You see the black and brown water flowing side by side without mixing. I found that a very powerful image, it made me emotional. I saw a totally different Brazil there, a Brazil I did not know

Amaro Freitas

Amaro Freitas calls his music “decolonised jazz.” “Our history has always been seen through colonial eyes,” he says. “I want to look at it in a different way, and add the perspective of black Brazil and its indigenous people.” Sankofa, Freitas' previous album, was a spiritual search for the forgotten stories, ancient philosophies, and inspiring figures of Black Brazil. The title referred to a Ghanaian term to show that you can move forward by learning lessons from the past. With the song “Vila Bela”, for example, Freitas honoured Tereza de Benguela, a “black queen” who led a movement that opposed slavery in the 18th century. “She took the guns off the settlers and turned them into tools,” Freitas says. “I really liked that, but I was never told that story as a child.”

In “Baquaqua”, Freitas recalled Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua, a former slave from West Africa who fled to New York in the 1840s and wrote a book about his life there. “Tereza de Benguela, Baquaqua, but also musicians like Milton Nascimento are symbolic figures for me. And there are more. When people talk about bossa nova, they always mention people like Tom Jobim or Vinicius de Moraes. But they never talk about Johnny Alf, a black musician who has been equally important to the genre. I want to change that and make young people reflect about our history and culture in a different way.”

Musically, Freitas stands at an interesting crossroads. In his percussive piano playing he unites the rhythms of traditional frevo and baião music with the quirky fingerwork of Thelonious Monk. Lyrical melodies he breaks open with hammering keys. “I grew up in an evangelical church community on the outskirts of Recife, everything there revolved around melodies, as in European music,” he says. “I have always loved composers like Bach, Chopin, and Mozart.” That was nice, but they did not make him feel black. They also did not allow him to wear his frizzy hair. In the frantic “Dança dos Martelos” on his new album, that harmonic aspect merges with his black roots. “I guess my right hand is the link to Europe, and my left hand plays the African rhythms that have been brought along to Brazil, the samba, the maracatu, and the likes.”

And so Amaro Freitas stood there, at the confluence of two mighty rivers, deep into the Amazon basin. The trip became a rebirth for the pianist as well as a search for connection. “I can't swim, but I dove into the water anyway,” he says. “That was not very smart (laughs), but I also found myself close to the famous floating houses, so I felt safe. The photographer who travelled with me liked the light and asked me to do another dive.”

That picture became the cover for his new album, Y'Y. Y'Y (pronounced “eey-eh, eey-eh”) means water or river in the language of the Sateré-Mawé, a tribe in the Amazon jungle that Freitas visited shortly thereafter. “I suddenly realised how close these people are to nature, and how we have lost that contact in our lust for modernity, and how we should cherish our beautiful planet, with its rivers, forests, and oceans.”

For Freitas, it was clear that his album would be a spiritual ode to the forest and its rivers, a call to respect and cherish it, seeing it as our ancestor. He bought new instruments to translate natural jungle sounds into the studio and experimented with new sounds and structures. Shortly before, he had fallen under the spell of John Cage and his “prepared piano”, the technique by which the American composer and music theorist placed objects on the strings of his instrument to distort its timbre. Freitas wanted to do the same, but in his own way. “I put my hand in the piano for the first time ten years ago,” he explains. “I thought, wow, that's amazing. But I wanted to give the western idea of that prepared piano a Brazilian interpretation. Brazil, that's rhythm, that's dance, that's tropical heat.”

Inspired by Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos' album Amazonas, Freitas began tinkering with Y'Y. He took his experiments further with the prepared piano and had New York harpist Brandee Younger and guitarist Jeff Parker add sounds from a distance. In Italy, he took to the studio with London jazz guru Shabaka Hutchings and Hamid Drake, who worked as a percussionist with, among others, Herbie Hancock and Don Cherry.

The reference to Don Cherry is more than coincidental. In Freitas' compositions referring to Brazilian mythology like “Mapinguari” and “Uiara”, in which he evokes sounds of the forest with shakers, whistles, and percussion, you can hear echoes of Don Cherry's iconic spiritual jazz album Organic Music Society. “It took a lot of time and effort to get the balance between lyricism and experimentation right,” Freitas explains. “Many may wonder if this is jazz or bossa nova. But it's something else, it's free music.”

The BRDCST festival runs from 4 to 8/4 at the Ancienne Belgique, Amaro Freitas plays on 6/4,

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