Friday, December 16, 2011

Criolo Was Here

Criolo performing at Nublu, December 7, 2011
Within hours of stepping off an international flight last week, Brazilian rapper/singer, Criolo, dropped a new music video whose name was trending on Twitter in Brazil in no time. As I write this, he is performing in front of a packed house at one of São Paulo's most acclaimed venues. The show sold out in 30 minutes. And he's booked for three more shows before the year's end. Such is the day-to-day of Brazil's 2011 New Artist of the Year... except when he's performing in New York

I found out about Criolo's New York debut five days before the show in a cryptic tweet by the artist. After some searching, I uncovered more details. On the Nublu Jazz Festival flyer, in tiny lettering, was "Criolo," crowded on a page with the names and showtimes of some 100 other artists. I felt like I had just unearthed a treasure. 

At Nublu's unassuming club on Avenue C, Criolo serenaded and agitated a mostly Brazilian crowd already familiar with his music and excited to see a national star perform in such an intimate setting. 

Criolo's music is similar to that of other acclaimed Brazilian rappers in that it mixes many styles of music: axê, reggae, funk, samba, hip hop and more. What sets Criolo apart from contemporaries, like Emicida and Marcelo D2, is his singing voice. Where other rappers need to collaborate with trained singers, Criolo has it covered. He is free to experiment with his own voice instead of depending on the repertoire of another vocal artist. 

Criolo brings an intensity to performing I've never seen before. On stage, he seems to channel all the sadness and suffering many of his lyrics describe. During "Não Existe Amor em SP" (There is no love in São Paulo), he stood still, his head cocked to one side, his eyes focused in the distance. I wanted to know what he was seeing. Criolo was standing on the stage before me, but his spirit was elsewhere, only loosely attached to the man with the microphone. 
Não Existe Amor em SP by criolo_oficial

Other times, Criolo's movements were agitated, his face contorting with thoughts of the often unpleasant reality of life in São Paulo, the muscles in his neck bulging as he belted out the notes. Criolo is a vessel for stories of neglect and injustice he knows intimately from a career as a counselor to kids living in the street. 

Still, he maintains a positive outlook. After the show, I had the chance to chat briefly with him about his New York debut. We had to move away from the stage, so I could better hear his quiet speaking voice. 

He told me that at age 35, this was his first trip outside Brazil, his first invitation to perform in the United States, and that it was all very exciting for him. He'd never foreseen this happening in this life time. It had been a far off dream, if that. He's celebrated so many milestones in the last year- winning three titles at the Video Music Brasil awards, performing in cities across Brazil, and traveling abraod. None of it had sunk in yet.

I almost asked if he needed me to pinch him to convince him it was all really happening. But it is. I overheard talk of invitations to play in London and performances at the Olympics (2012 or 2016, I'm not sure).

I asked Criolo about his album, Nó na Orelha, which he is distributing freely. "So many people helped me to get to this point for free. I couldn't have done it without them. I wanted to give back and share result with as many people as possible," he explained.

Fame can get to one's head, but as long as Criolo continues to make life's harsh realities and his personal hope for a better future the focus of his music, I'm confident he'll remain the grateful, down-to-earth guy I once had the pleasure of meeting. 

In a cover story of the Brazilian magazine, Trip, Criolo is quoted as saying “Legal esse momento que estou vivendo. Mas legal mesmo seria não precisar cantar o que canto. Sentir essa dor no peito." Translation: This moment I'm living is great, but just as great would be to not have to sing what I sing. Feeling this pain in my heart. I think that says it all. 

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