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Fanfare of ‘Fanfarra’ : After Working With 100 Percussionists on a Track for His New Album, Sergio Mendes Brings a More Modest Five-Piece Band to the Rhythm Cafe

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“We used about 40 microphones--some were hanging from trees. We’d roll tape, then we’d have to stop because there was heavy rain, so we’d break everything down and then, when the rain stopped, we’d set up and start again.”

Sergio Mendes was talking about the recording of “Fanfarra,” the opening track of his recent “Brasileiro” release on Elektra Records, perhaps his most purely Brazilian album.

“Fanfarra” is unlike anything most of us have heard before: 100 Brazilian percussionists from samba schools in Rio de Janeiro, working on everything from the large, deep drums known as surdos to tambourines, recorded in a parking lot in Rio, creating a richly textured, rhythmic fabric on top of which two singers chant. Turned up loud, the piece is nothing less than exhilarating.

“Fanfarra” is a typical pre-parade number of the sort performed during Carnaval in Rio by an escola da samba (samba school), a group that can include up to 300 costumed percussionists and 5,000 dancers/marchers. The thunderous roar put forth by these escolas had long intrigued Mendes, 51.

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“It’s so visceral, so powerful,” said Mendes, who has lived in Los Angeles since 1965 and whose accent blends the Portuguese of his native Brazil with the English of his adopted home.

Saturday night at the Rhythm Cafe in Santa Ana, he’ll play his first Southern California date in three years. He spent a full year in Rio doing pre-production on the album and recording many of the basic tracks. Additional musicians and singers were added in Los Angeles to flesh out the 14-track “Brasileiro,” Portuguese for “A Brazilian Man.”

The album features compositions by Ivan Lins, Hermeto Pascoal, Joao Bosco and Carlinhos Brown, a broad array of contemporary Brazilian music from sweeping, lyrical sambas to the Brazilian form of rap.

All the music, though, has a “sensual quality” that is uniquely Brazilian, Mendes said. “It’s very rhythmic, very romantic. You can dance to it or just listen, and it makes you feel good. It’s important and vital. It’s in my blood.”

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He says there’s no contradiction in his love of Brazilian music and his far better-known renditions of such pop hits as Lennon-McCartney’s “Fool on the Hill” and Bachrach-David’s “The Look of Love,” because “whether it was ‘Fool on the Hill’ or Jorge Ben’s ‘Mas Que Nada,’ it all had an international flavor.

“Music is an international language. If it feels and sounds good, then why not do it? Musicians have always borrowed from other musicians. The bossa nova had a lot of American jazz. Paul Simon uses the music of Bahia; Sting goes to Amazonia. This mutual attraction leads to a tremendous exchange of ideas. We, as musicians, like to learn from one another.”

At the Rhythm Cafe, Mendes will lead a five-piece band and three singers, Gracinha Laporace (his wife), Kevyn Lettau and Carol Rogers, all of whom took part in “Brasileiro.” The program, he said, will be an overview of his career (but, because he brings along only two percussionists, he won’t do “Fanfarra”).

There’ll be some music from the album, though, as well as “tunes from the film ‘Black Orpheus’ and some of our old hits.”

* Sergio Mendes plays Saturday night at 7:30 and 10:45 at the Rhythm Cafe, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. $26 to $27.50. (714) 556-2233.


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