Mellow bossa nova or booty-shaking samba is what comes to mind when most people think of Brazilian music. But O Rappa, the Brazilian reggae-rock group that makes its Miami debut Sunday at the Fillmore Miami Beach, shows another side of Brazilian music: urgent, rock-powered and raging.
Musical escapism is not for O Rappa, says lead singer Marcelo Falcão.
“For us it was about developing our own natural sound and our own identity,” he says from his home in Rio de Janeiro. “The reality is we live in Brazil, a country with many challenges. Regardless of class or origin, these problems of violence and education affect everyone. We all want to see a better Brazil, a better society.”
O Rappa comes to Miami (courtesy of the Rhythm Foundation) from Lollapalooza in Chicago, where it will be playing with the likes of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Franz Ferdinand. It’s a big break for a band whose previous U.S. and European shows have mostly been for the Brazilian ex-pat community.
In April, O Rappa played the first Brazilian edition of Lollapalooza in Sao Paulo, so impressing festival founder Perry Farrell that he invited the band to Chicago. Perry has called Falcão “the new Bob Marley.”
“Perry Farrell said so many nice things about the band and even about me that I was embarrassed,” the lead singer says. “But we’re very happy about the chance to play for a wider audience in Chicago and Miami. We hope this will be a springboard to other things.”
O Rappa draws its energy from its base in the poor neighborhoods and mass audiences of Rio de Janeiro. Falcão grew up in Engenho Novo, a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Rio that’s surrounded by favelas, as the city’s slums are called. His family was deeply involved in Independente de Padre Miguel, a samba group and school his great-grandfather helped found, but by his late teens, Falcão seemed set on a career as a medical technician.
A chance to front what had been the backup band for a reggae singer named Papa Winnie changed that. Inspired by reggae, hard rock, politically conscious hip-hop and the radical musical experimentation of Brazilian acts such as Chico Science, O Rappa was born in 1993.
The band found its first audience in Rio’s notorious slums, and its songs dealt with the hardship, social injustice and violence that plague these areas.
“We wanted to play live whether we were getting paid or not,” says Falcão. “These communities opened their doors to us, which is incredible, because the music of the favelas is samba and samba-funk. So their opening their doors to this reggae, rock, hip-hop sound was very important in shaping our identity.”
Albums like 1996’s Rappa Mundi and 1999’s Lado A Lado B launched the band on the national scene, where it won awards on MTV Brazil and played arenas and stadiums. Its success enabled O Rappa to help the neighborhoods that gave it its start in concrete ways, supporting education and music programs in the favelas. Its touring drummer, Cleber Sena, came out of such a program.
“It’s not just that we write songs about social justice, we also brought someone out of the favelas and into the band,” Falcão says. “Any power we have to change people’s lives by getting kids off the streets and learning a skill is really important. That’s what makes me happy, is when I see us making a difference.”
The band’s involvement has had a price. When original drummer Marcelo Yuka tried to stop a mugging in 2001, he was shot and paralyzed from the waist down. Yuka continued to write and produce with the band for two years after the shooting, but then moved on.
“We talked about it and decided that if we’re faced with a criminal, give them what they want, your life is the most important,” Falcão says. “Our whole career is about overcoming these difficulties.”