Afro-Samba and the Music of Baden Powell

There are a couple of guitarists who I would have dearly loved to meet.  Unfortunately, they are both long gone, Wes in 1968 and Baden Powell in 2000. Both of these guys stopped me in my tracks and had me muttering “I’ve GOT to figure out what this guy is doing”.

Wes was the first, and the only event that could have led me astray from my love of his playing was my exposure to the music of Baden Powell.

I was familiar with Bossa Nova, introduced to it as many others were through the music of Gilberto, Jobim and Sergio Mendes.  But this was different.  Where Bossa Nova slid, this Samba romped.  It didn’t drive the sedan, it drove the muscle car, bored and stroked with glasspacks and the whole nine yards…and it drove me out of my mind.

The music of Baden Powell et al can be described as “Afro-Samba”, combining Afro-Brazilian folk/religious forms such as Candomblé, Umbanda and Capoeira with Rio de Janeiro’s Samba.   It defines its own place in the musical universe.  I can, in fact, lift a whole section from a previous article and simply replace the word “swing” with “samba/bossa nova” and it flies just fine:

”Afro/Samba ……………is style-specific much like Bluegrass accompaniment, Travis picking or Blues. The feel, time and sound are the most important elements. The chord voicings necessary to produce that sound…………..”   .

When playing or composing music closer to the roots of this genre, I find myself leaning towards the Blues.  Gee!  I wonder why that is?   Let me lift another section from that same article:

“The effect of West African music on the Americas is enormous. Wherever the slave traders landed, an explosion of musical energy fueled a new fusion of Afro/European music, creating an entirely new style in the process. In Brazil, it produced the many faces of “Samba”; in Argentina, “Tango”, in Cuba/Puerto Rico, it produced what is commonly lumped together as “Salsa” and in the U.S., it became the “Blues” and everything that grew from it.”

And just like the Blues, it leans towards “western harmony” for its complexity.

A fair percentage of Baden Powell’s music is played in a “Drop D” tuning.  Pieces such as “Berimbau” and “Canto De Ossanha” utilize the open D string as a drone or as a vehicle for a repeating figure then launch into a “jazz standard” type chord progression for the ‘B’ section.

For example, in Berimbau the ‘A’ section repeats a D – Am figure, and (in the original version) a series consisting of

| Dm/D     |    ‘/.       |Dbm/D   |  Dbm/D    Cm/D   |

 All very “folk” like.  In the ‘B’ section, however, we are off to the races:

|   Gm7    |    C7     |    FMaj7   |   Cm7   F7    |    BbMaj7    |    A7       |     Dm     |    D7(b9)    |

The guitar techniques used are many and varied, ranging from Bossa Nova style comping to Jazz oriented single note soloing, but the key characteristic is the rhythmic attack and polyrhythms created by a right hand technique that incorporates everything from fingerpicking and strumming to flamenco techniques.

And the instrumentation Baden Powell used was interesting to say the least.  Many of his recordings, particularly those in drop D tuning, eliminated the bass entirely, relying on percussion, sometimes, but not always including the surdo and pandeiro, and background vocals.  Flute tended to be favored as well as (wait for it) bassoon!

Some of his best playing can be found on the early tracks played as a trio that included the German bassist Eberhard Weber.  A very good current compilation that includes many of these was released on a double cd – “Three Originals”.  Check it out.