Gilles Peterson: My Brazil + Exclusive Playlist

As the World Cup gets underway, Alex Moore talks to the legendary DJ about his favourite aspects of Brazilian culture and Gilles presents an exclusive playlist for Port
Gilles Peterson by James Rawlings

Words Alex Moore
Photography James Rawlings

Not much slips past the radar of Gilles Peterson, DJ, producer, record label owner, aficionado – an eclectic 40,000 strong vinyl collection is testament to that. His lifelong championing of world music is arguably what separates him from the corpus of linear, genre-hugging DJs. So it comes as no surprise, given the summer’s sporting calendar, that Gilles has produced the album Sonzeira: Brazil Bam Bam Bam, an incredible journey through the different flavours of authentic Brazilian musical culture, from its majestic heritage to its super-dynamic present. I met Gilles at his Brownswood recording studio, to discuss all things Brazilian.

AM: What was your first experience of Brazilian music?

GP: I spent some time in France when I was about 11 years old, when I lived at my grandmother’s house in Normandy. Now and again she’d take me to the local town called Caen – not Cannes as Afrika Bambaataa found out when he got off the plane and he was like ‘where’s the film festival?’ In Caen there was a record shop and I remember picking up a few bits and bobs, including one record that had a track by Par Ney de Castro, who’s a drummer – it was called ‘Batucada’. Madly enough I think this is the first record I ever bought. It was on a French label called Le Chant du Monde who release world music. And I remember buying that and weirdly enough, I still play that today.

Gilles Peterson by James Rawlings

“Rio was everything that I had imagined it would be, from the favelas to beaches to chaos to beauty to women to Bossa to Samba, it was all there”

When I was 16 I had a pirate radio station in my garden in south London. I remember writing letters to all my favourite band’s fan clubs at the time, to see if any of them would come and be interviewed by me. And I remember writing to the band Level 42, Light of the World – who were the best funk band around – and Incognito. No one responded apart from Incognito. A guy called Bluey – who’s still around now – wrote back to me and he was like ‘yeah I’ll do an interview’. He came all the way to the South London suburbs – my mum made tea and we recorded a radio show in my back garden. And on that show he introduced me to an artist called Airto, who’s one of the greatest percussionists in the world – he made a record called ‘I’m fine, How are You?’ And that record introduced me to a really deep side of Brazilian music.

How did Sonzeira come about?

I went over in September last year with Sam (Shepherd, aka Floating Points) to do a couple of songs with Marcos Valle. When I was there I went and checked out a couple of bands I’d heard about. One of them was a group called Orquestra Imperial, who is an amazing local Rio band. They’re not old, old school but they’d not super electronic, and they’re just a good combination of heritage and contemporary. I introduced myself to Kassin, the guy who was running that band, and said I was looking for a place to record and a band. He was just amazing; he sorted it all out for me. When I came back in January to record, he had organised the studio and the core rhythm section and so it was a lot easier to just get it down. He’s a real DIY indie man. And to me, the band could grow on the back of Kassin.

Can you tell me about the first time you went to Brazil and what your impression was?

I first went to Brazil about 20 years ago, I was so into Brazilian music – I just wanted to go! I went with a friend called Paul Bradshaw who used to edit a magazine called Straight No Chaser, a really good magazine – it was the bible for us. We literally got on a plane and landed and hadn’t got anything prepared. We went to Rio and it was everything that I had imagined it would be, from the favelas to beaches to chaos to beauty to women to Bossa to Samba, it was all there.

“There’s that real emotional side to Brazilian music that hits your happy and your sad side at the same time… they love a minor chord, but they also love the energy and spirit of carnival”

Gilles Peterson by James RawlingsGoing to Bahia, Salvador was amazing for me because that was really different to Rio. Salvador was like Africa: really dry and hot and really extreme colours – greens and browns. It’s the home of Capoeira and the Berimbau so you’ve got people playing it everywhere. Every Tuesday they have a carnival practice where everyone goes out in the streets. You’ve got a lot more of the spiritual stuff going on over. I spent quite a bit of time with the Bloco, the Olodum. Every favela has its own drum school, and it’s all intertwined with the community and working within the social mediums, so the drum schools were almost like social clubs in a way. They help the underprivileged, so it was good to see how they worked on that sort of level.

What is it about Brazilian music that separates it from the rest of South American music?

There’s that real emotional side to Brazilian music that hits your happy and your sad side at the same time. They’re very good with mood and swings and in a way that’s the perfect thing. As a DJ it’s always about taking it and then dropping it and then taking it, and I think Brazilian music does that in one song. It effects all the emotions.

They love a minor chord, but they also love the energy and spirit of that carnival thing, so if you can combine the sad and the happy, that’s what they do really well I feel.

Aside from the music, what other parts of the culture do you enjoy?

I think the thing I like about Brazil is the passion for life. Like anywhere else there are a lot of social injustices and there’s racism, but equally when you walk around the streets of Rio or anywhere else in Brazil, there’s nowhere else where you see such a mixed selection of colours and cultures – anywhere in the world. There’s also a huge graffiti scene and it’s just worth getting on a bike in Rio or São Paulo and seeing the amount of great graffiti that there is everywhere. There’s a real openness to art and youth art, which I think is really healthy.

Sonzeira: Brazil Bam Bam Bam is out now