It’s a pretty safe bet, year after year, that Brazilian music will rank among the highlights of the Hollywood Bowl’s annual World Festival concert series. This year, the matter was settled quickly with the series’ opening program Sunday: “Brazil Night” featured the diverse talents of veteran Jorge Ben Jor, Bahian firecracker Margareth Menezes and emerging star Daude.
For U.S. audiences, that program lacks most of the familiar landmarks of the Brazilian music that has penetrated through the levels of pop music -- i.e., the songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim, the singing and guitar playing of Joao Gilberto and the floating rhythms of bossa nova. For most of the non-Brazilians in the moderate-sized audience, in fact, the sole familiar song was Ben Jor’s “Mas Que Nada,” a monster hit decades ago for Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66.
But the evening had a centerpiece performance exploding with enough galvanizing energy to bring life and passion to an event that might otherwise have slipped quickly from memory. That centerpiece performer was Menezes.
Surfacing in the ‘80s while touring with David Byrne, she was among the first to bring the high-decibel excitement associated with Bahia’s trio electricos -- the truck-driven bands of Carnaval -- to the concert stage. But her performance Sunday made it clear that whatever the style, Menezes has the talent, the drive and the charisma to make it come alive.
Constantly crisscrossing the stage in a flowing succession of dance steps, occasionally foraying out on the semicircular banquette that arches through the lower boxes, she was a study in motion. Singing with the rhythmic drive of a Brazilian Aretha Franklin, flashing her tanned legs, she delivered her songs with an intensity reminiscent of the stunning Bowl appearances of singer-dancer Daniela Mercury.
Daude, however, didn’t quite live up to expectations. Her recent album, “Neguinha te amo” (Little Black Girl, I Love You), is a rich, chromatic blend of musical styles and substance, enhanced by an all-embracing cultural view.
Sunday’s performance included only three numbers from the album. Especially in the early part of her set, the Bahia-born singer, a slender, mobile figure, seemed overwhelmed by the broad expanse of the reconstructed Bowl’s new stage, with the roots-driven dance grooves associated with her music too rarely surfacing through the low-key atmosphere.
Ben Jor was better, but compared to Menezes, he was a statue. Standing in the middle of his 10-piece band, wearing sunglasses, virtually immobile, he simply worked his way through the many attractive songs in his extensive repertoire (including “Mas Que Nada”).
But it was the vitality of his band, especially the propulsive drummers and the vibrant horn section -- reminiscent of Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago -- that fully brought his music to life. And by the end of his set, the audience, too, finally came to life, dancing in the aisles with the joyous abandon that transforms Brazilian concerts into all-join-in musical pleasures.