Radiola State of Mind: The Strange Case of Reggae in São Luís, Brazil Building in São Luís, Brazil; photo © David Katz

Radiola State of Mind: The Strange Case of Reggae in São Luís, Brazil

July 8, 2020

Written by:

David Katz

Edited by:

Andrei Rusu

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1. A Cultural Connotation

São Luís is one of Brazil’s most beguiling and unusual cities. The capital of the state of Maranhão in the country’s far northeast, this former slave trading port lies midway between the tourist hustle of Fortaleza and the ornate Amazon gateway of Belem. There are large black and indigenous communities here and many poor people of European descent that fled the drought-ridden sertão - that is, the barren hinterlands of the sparsely-populated interior of the Northeast; it is one of the Brazilian cities hit hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic, the crisis exacerbated by the difficulty of implementing social distancing, but mostly due to the failure of right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, to take the disease seriously. Overwhelmingly poor, long associated with governmental corruption and suffering from decades of underdevelopment, São Luís is also the site of a highly unusual reggae scene that cuts across boundaries of race, class, age and gender, despite no obvious links with Jamaica. Instead, the peculiar sound system-driven reggae culture evolved organically, becoming an important part of local identity in a place where few speak English and most are practising Catholics or Evangelicals.

“In Maranhão, reggae has this cultural connotation,” says Fauzi Beydoun, leader of the iconic local band, Tribo de Jah. “We absorb reggae very intensely because it’s music that speaks from the heart. This is not a commercial movement; it’s cultural, it’s identity. It really touches the heart of the people here.”

I first travelled to São Luís in 2010 and was fortunate to return last year, trying to better understand its reggae obsessions. The city has a rugged beauty, its crumbling mansions topped by distinctive decorated tiles that were imported from Europe during the 17th and 18th Centuries, but most are roofless and falling to bits and the coastline flanked by dozens of hulking oil tankers, rendering high beachside pollution; many surrounding communities have substandard breeze-block dwellings.

I met the historian and author Bruno Azevedo at a vibrant street fair held in the historic centre. He tells me that cocoa, tobacco and cotton made São Luís a wealthy centre of the Portuguese empire, especially in the mid-19th Century, when its cotton was exported to America during the US Civil War. Cut off from the rest of Brazil due to a lack of roads and its remote geographical location, the city had stronger ties with Europe and a tradition of romantic and Parnassian poetry; for instance, Antonio Gonçalves Dias was a São Luís resident regarded as the National Poet of Brazil for his 1843 work “Song of Exile,” and there was Joaquim de Sousa Andrade, an abolitionist that wrote a famous poem called “Guesa,” published in 1871 as a grand exploration of the Americas. Yet, above all, Azevedo emphasizes the terrible human cost of the wealth accumulated through slavery and he describes clear parallels with Jamaica, which also saw a dramatic economic decline when slavery was abolished. The end result for the contemporary realities of both locations are drastic forms of social inequality based on race and conflicted identity issues.
Radiola Aryane Extreme Sound; photo © David Katz
Radiola Aryane Extreme Sound; photo © David Katz

2. Radiolas

“São Luís is an island with about a million people and even though we had five times more slaves than Europeans in the city, the whole identity was associated with Europe,” Azevedo explains. “We were very wealthy, because they had a lot of plantations here, but central to the narrative about the history of the city is that we had this economic decay when they abolished slavery and sugarcane started to be a very bad product to produce. And then there’s this narrative of a decadent city: we were a big, beautiful colonial city that just went bankrupt from the early-to-mid 20th Century. And then, after World War II, we had the ascension of the whole idea of modernisation in Brazil that started with Getulio Vargas, that was the president and dictator before and during the War, but in Sao Luis it didn’t really start happening until the mid-1960s.”

By the 1950s, São Luís had Brazil’s highest rate of infant mortality and although modernization began during the military dictatorship of the 1960s under controversial governor José Sarney, Maranhão retained low ratings for health and literacy, especially in rural areas; according to 2007 data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, the infant mortality rate was 22 per 1,000 live births, compared to 4.4 per 1,000 in São Paulo.

“We have the worst numbers in the country for pretty much anything,” says Azevedo, regretfully. “I used to say that in every car, there’s one person who can’t read and write. The last time I checked, 17% of people here are absolutely illiterate. So, the capital is not only a physical island, it’s a symbolic island too. We have investment and other things going on, but if you go to the countryside…oh, God!”

Because of its relative geographical isolation, unique forms of cultural expression took hold through Afro-Brazilian Candomblé practices that remain deeply embedded. Additionally, local sound systems, known as “radiolas” (the word equating to “radiograms”), began playing a mix of Brazilian and foreign music at informal street parties, mixing samba-rock and sentimental seresta and brega with Caribbean rhythms such as mambo, salsa, cumbia, compass and cadence. It was a heady mix that kept couples dancing and the faster Caribbean-derived rhythms were simply referred to as “merengues” and the slower ones “boleros,” local misnomers for vaguely related forms. There was also Brazilian rock and mainstream pop from Britain and America.

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Riba Macedo; photo © David Katz
Riba Macedo; photo © David Katz

3. Riba Macedo

The academic and activist Carlos Benedito Rodrigues Da Silva was one of the first to explore São Luís’ reggae fascination. I met him at an Afro-Bloco Carnival rehearsal in the gritty Bares neighbourhood on the southeast outskirts, the venue of a former hospital for incoming slaves who survived the middle passage, many arriving with debilitating illness or injuries.

“Some say that reggae came through the airwaves,” he says, of the music’s contested arrival. “The people in the countryside used to listen Caribbean radio stations, so they were used to hearing reggae as Caribbean music. Others say that reggae came through the ports, that sailors used to trade records and leave them with the prostitutes in the brothels, but what we know for sure is that reggae came from the countryside to the capital back in the 1970s. There are many characters attributed to being the pioneer, but the name most associated with it is Riba Macedo, who used to be a DJ; from my perspective, the most important thing is that reggae came from outside and started to be popular through an identification process with the black poor population of São Luís.”

I find Macedo at his modest home in the village of Rosario, about 40 miles south, surrounded by obsolete speaker cones. Through tales of ancient radiola battles, he proposes something different to Da Silva.

“The stories people tell about sailors coming to prostitutes, those brothels never had a turntable to play records, so it is a lie.”

Raised in the Sacavem district, on the southeast outskirts of the city, where his father was a radiola owner before him, Macedo reveals that, during the early 70s, Trojan Records began licensing reggae to Brazilian companies like Beverly and Caravelle. He purchased some of these early releases at a local street market and brought them to radiola parties, before launching his own set in 1976.

“I had two singles, one from Dave and Ansel Collins, ‘Double Barrell,’ and the other from Toots and the Maytals, ‘Night And Day’ with ‘Monkey Man’ on the other side,” Macedo continues. “And you never know what you buy because you couldn’t listen to the records, but I remember that I bought ‘Double Barrel’ because of the sleeve, which had two girls with guns.”

As in Jamaica, exclusivity was extremely important. “I remember buying a second-hand Johnny Nash album in 1972. At that time, this album was very rare here, so I did something that people in Jamaica sometimes did too, which is to take the disc and put it in a sleeve of a Johnny Mathis record. So people say, ‘Which album is this? Oh, Johnny Mathis!’”

4. 'Som Guarani' Radiola

Jimmy Cliff made major inroads in São Luís in the mid-70s because his EMI releases were widely distributed in Brazil, with songs like “Long Time No See” and his recut of “No Woman No Cry” being particularly popular. Soon, songs by the Twinkle Brothers, Max Romeo and Guyanese singer Mark Holder filtered in, though local audiences never knew the names of those artists, since the Brazilian compilation they appeared on credited the fictitious Jamaica Reggae Band. Nevertheless, in the late 70s, Macedo’s radiola, named Som Guarani, became the chief sound system promoting reggae.

“Everything started at Sacavem, a neighbourhood very far from the centre, and everything starts with poor black people,” Macedo emphasizes. “Sacavem was the first to embrace reggae, so I played more in my neighbourhood than anywhere else. My radiola was the first to have transistor equipment, so my sound was clear and better than the others, so people began to hire me to play in other places and the other radiola owners became jealous. My biggest competitors were Nestabulo and Carne Seca, the latter known as the King of Merengue.”

Macedo explains that, since reggae had a slower pace, it was often played between boleros, so it became associated with circular close-couples dancing, leading to a unique reggae dance style. And although the radiolas always played a variety of music, including disco, it took ages for reggae to be accepted.

“Nestabulo said, ‘Reggae’s no good, what’s the meaning of reggae? No, you have to quit reggae,’ and years later it was Nestabulo that declined because he didn’t like reggae,” chuckles Macedo.

By the early 1980s, licensing deals with Island and Virgin and Jamaican record producers such as Joe Gibbs were bringing artists like Jacob Miller, Pablo Moses, Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown, Junior Murvin and Ijahman Levi to the forefront of São Luís’s growing reggae consciousness. Soon the “Reggae Night” radio show, presented by the journalist Ademar Danilo and radiola owner Fauzi Beydoun, took things to a whole new level by introducing the music to middle class listeners.
Fauzi Beydoun; photo © David Katz
Fauzi Beydoun; photo © David Katz

5. Fauzi Beydoun

Beydoun’s sprawling homestead lies in an area of unpaved roads, with massive fruit trees, clucking chickens, and plenty of children’s laughter in the yard. He says he discovered reggae during his teens in the 1970s when he travelled to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to reunite with his Lebanese father, who had fled Brazil after experiencing financial problems; moving to São Luís in 1984 to work in maritime insurance, he says reggae was scorned because it was championed by the urban black poor, yielding unwarranted associations of criminality and other misconceptions.

“Reggae was negative,” he explains. “It was thieves and smokers of ganja and people from the ghetto. But when I started the radio show, we started translating songs and then the people started getting proud of it. It was a big change, because for the first time, people could understand the name of the song, the name of the singer and the translation of the lyrics.”

But the reggae stigma involved more than just language issues and class prejudice. Bruno Azevedo emphasizes that the music was deemed dangerous during an era of authoritarian repression.

“The police were in the reggae clubs, rioting, raising hell in the place,” he says, disdainfully. “That’s how the state was present, repressing it. If you go to the newspaper, you find that reggae’s always in the crime part of the paper, not in the cultural stuff. Marcus Ramusyo Brasil wrote a book about reggae and politics in São Luís and he said that, in our context of extreme poverty and violence, leaving your home to go to a reggae party, where you know the police can just shoot people out of the blue, it’s an act of resistance. So, even though people don’t get the actual lyrics, they’re being political by gathering together all the poor and black people and dancing to this foreign music.”

Things came to a head in November 1990, when police attacked reggae fans at the popular club, Espaço Aberto. Ademar Danilo, current director of the Reggae Museum of Maranhão, gives an eyewitness account: “There was an invasion of police. I was arrested that night and other people were arrested and I worked in a newspaper here; behind the news station there was a police station where I went to report that I was a victim of police violence and this fact was on the front page of the biggest newspaper in São Luís. So this caused a reaction of São Luís society. Leading the movement were the students of the Federal University and we had the support of the Catholic church, of the lawyers’ order and all the democratic groups. We did a demonstration in a public square where we had almost 10,000 people and it was very important because from that date, the middle class began to see reggae in a different light; at that time, reggae was almost strictly in the ghetto and after this, reggae went to the society. So we have this debt to the violent police. Reggae is music from poor black people, and we have the social prejudice and the racial prejudice, two discriminations in reggae. But we are not little victims. We are the resistance and we are victorious.”
Natty Nayfson; photo © David Katz
Natty Nayfson; photo © David Katz

6. Natty Nayfson

During the early 90s, the São Luís reggae scene was further transformed when radiola owners began travelling to Jamaica. Until then, reggae was played on LPs, but the introduction of Jamaican 45s permanently changed the focus of the local reggae scene. A copy of obscure records long considered passé in Jamaica, such as Jackie Brown’s “Feel No Pain,” The Eagles’ “Rasta Pickney” and Larry Marshall’s “Brand New Baby,” became highly coveted possessions.

Natty Nayfson is a radiola owner with an indigenous Amerindian heritage. At his compact home on a Liberdade backstreet (the neighbourhood another stronghold of radiola culture), he highlights the importance of Jamaican 45s. “I made my first trip there in 1991 and I discovered 45s,” he says with a grin. “It was a different style and it caused a big explosion. I came back with 1,500 45s and 700 LPs.”

On that same maiden voyage, Nayfson and his friend Dread Sandro contracted Gregory Isaacs to perform in São Luís for the very first time, organizing a high-profile show in collaboration with Pinto from Itamarty, São Luís’ biggest radiola; they later brought largely-forgotten singers such as Eric Donaldson, Jimmy London and Stanley Beckford to perform at massive stadiums and Jackie Bernard, Jackie Brown and Vernon Buckley of The Maytones also enjoyed robust career revivals in the city.

Of course, the São Luís reggae scene is not exclusively a radiola universe. Live bands and solo artists have impacted in their own right, with Tribo de Jah the most prominent. Formed in 1986 at the Maranhão School for the Blind, they began their long ascent after Fauzi Beydoun became the frontman, helping to spread reggae culture across the country with a sound Brazilian audiences could relate to, the lyrics delivered in Portuguese.

“Tribo has a very important role in the national reggae scene,” Beydoun emphasizes. “We played in the regions that, until now, no other bands went there. For example, in what you call the sertão, in these very faraway places, sometimes the people didn’t know that it was reggae; in the past, I had to explain. When we started playing in places like Ceara and Cariri, we were the first reggae band that ever played there and now reggae culture is strong in these places, because Tribo brought credibility, talking about serious things with a strong message. It was the first band that brought to Brazilian language the reggae concepts, like Jah, Babylon, Roots, so people started to understand it.”
Celia Sampaio; photo: © David Katz
Celia Sampaio; photo: © David Katz

7. Celia Sampaio - “First Lady of Reggae”

Tribo’s success inspired others to take up the mantle, including Mystical Roots, Mano Bantu and Banda Guetos, the latter formed in 1993 by members of Akomabu, a Carnival Afro-Bloco based at the black cultural centre in Bares. Former Banda Guetos member Celia Sampaio began her solo career in the late 90s and is known as the “First Lady of Reggae” for her pioneering work.

“I got this title because there was no other female reggae singer in Brazil,” Sampaio explains, on the veranda of her home. “Other singers would play one reggae here, one there, but someone specialized in playing full-scope reggae, I was the first.”

Sampaio laments that reggae bands have always comprised a niche interest in São Luís, due to the radiolas’ overarching dominance. “The big visibility that reggae has in Maranhão is through the sound system. Unfortunately, we’re not used to hearing a lot of reggae with bands as well; it’s very expensive and the owners of the sound systems never thought about investing in bands because they don’t want the competition. Everybody in reggae knows about me and my work but it doesn’t play on the radio and it doesn’t play on the sound system; they don’t play anything Brazilian, or just a little bit.”

During the late 90s, rare vintage reggae was getting harder to find, so radiola owners began commissioning new music from producers such as Bill Campbell, making London-based lover’s rock singers like Donna Marie, Johnny Orlando and Bill’s brother Pete the new stars. At Joe Gibbs’ studio in Kingston, Sidney Crooks of The Pioneers made music specifically for São Luís reggae fans, often working with roots veterans such as Jackie Brown and Brent Dowe of The Melodians. Crooks became so smitten with the São Luís reggae scene that he relocated there in 2000 under the alias Norris Cole and his wife, known as Lady Conceição, now sings with him.

“When I came to Maranhão, I noticed how the people were dancing to reggae as if they were dancing to the biggest jazz singer or folk singer in the world,” he emphasizes. “So I went back to Jamaica, went in the studio and start hitting like hell.”

This new style was based on semi-electronic reggae rhythms with easy production values, sparking a new type of locally-made sound system exclusive by singers such as Dub Brown, Peter Toty and Ricky Murvin. As the pace of the music accelerated and the sound rendered more two-dimensional, it became known as “robozinho” or “robot reggae,” favoured by São Luís’ young black radiola devotees, but derided by older folks and the largely white patrons of the city’s roots bars, as well as reggae fans based in the countryside.

8. The Ballot Box

While electronic reggae clashed with vintage roots on the dancefloor, other battles were taking place in the ballot box. As is often the case in Jamaica, music and politics are heavily related in São Luís: Ademar Danilo was elected City Counsellor in 1992, partly through his work as a reggae broadcaster, and Jose Eleonilda “Pinto” Suarez, who runs the Itamaraty sound system, has been in politics for over 18 years as a City Counsellor, a Federal Counsellor and currently a substitute Senator. Then, a dramatic change in local government finally came with the election of communist Governor Flávio Dino in 2015, finally ending the tarnished reign of Jose Sarney’s daughter Roseana, long associated with corruption scandals; the subsequent establishment of the Reggae Museum of Maranhão finally gave the music official state recognition.

“Now the State, they recognize reggae as a cultural element which helps to form the way of life of the people of Maranhão nowadays and the focus of the Reggae Museum of Maranhão is the reggae in our state, the reggae here in São Luís,” says Danilo. “I think we are having success with it, because we had almost 51,000 visitors in the first year, including 18,000 tourists.”

In the wake of the presidential mishandling of Covid-19, Flavio Dino has since become one of Bolsonaro’s strongest and most consistent critics and his progressive policies have remained widely popular in São Luís; although the shape of the city’s Covid recovery remains to be seen, it is clear that São Luís’ unique reggae culture will ultimately endure, just as it has through the decades.

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Main photo: building in São Luís, Brazil; © David Katz
About the Author

David Katz

David Katz is the author of People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee "Scratch" Perry and Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae. He has also produced documentaries for Afropop Worldwide and other entities.

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