Brazilian musician Mariá Portugal: brown algae, monsoon, low tide

Drummer Mariá Portugal is an innovator in improvised music. She performs with her band Quartabê at the Berlin Jazz Festival.

Quartebe on a beach in matching windbreakers.  Maria Portugal far left

Special band from São Paulo: Quartabê with Mariá Portugal (left) Photo: Ilana Bar

Serial music, techno, MPB (Musica Popular Brasilieira) and jazz – all this combines Mariá Portugal. She is currently one of the most influential artists of improvised music. The Brazilian drummer first studied classical composition in São Paulo and in 2007, at the age of 23, attended a summer course by Karlheinz Stockhausena few months before the composer died.

During her studies in communication and semiotics, Portugal investigated cognitive relationships between body and sound in the context of improvised music and dance. Since then she has continued to explore tonal possibilities and electronic extensions: in her own compositions for dance theater and film – most recently for “1976”, a work by Chilean director Manuela Martelli.

Finally, with her band Quartabê, Portugal explores the improvisational possibilities of Brazilian popular music, as on hers current album “Lição #2: Dorival” with compositions by the Brazilian guitarist Dorival Caymmi. She sees herself as a student of the great masters, albeit a rebellious one. “We delve deep into the repertoire of these teachers and incorporate elements of it into our own design language,” Portugal explains to the taz. She deconstructs the material and, together with two clarinettists and a keyboard player, reassembles the fragments electronically and in serial modulations.

For her current album, which she is now presenting at the Berlin JazzFest, Portugal has selected ten of Dorival’s compositions. “We transform phrases from his guitar playing into musical cells and passages of a melody into a baseline. We convert the timbres into new material and create new compositions through improvisation.” After her bassist left, she had the idea that the keyboard could replace the bass. Two bass clarinets were added, and she herself creates the bass with a drum machine.

Troubled landscape

A restless, troubled oceanic landscape emerged from Dorival’s compositions. From the opening song “Onda” (wave) to “metric wind”, brown algae, monsoon and ebb. That as a political statement on the Bolsonaro government’s environmentally destructive agenda runs as an accompanying track.

The artist is relieved that Lula is now returning as President. From their point of view, however, he will not be able to solve the country’s problems immediately. “Cleaning up the destructive legacy of Bolsonaro will take a long time to get back what we had in our fragile and very young democracy: to end poverty, reduce deforestation and guarantee civil rights for all.”

Portugal has been living in Cologne since her scholarship as “Improviser in Residence” at the Moers Festival 2020. “Germany has fascinated me since I studied at Stockhausen have. As a young woman, I was interested in twelve-tone music, as well as raves. Both exist in Germany. At the same time, I am shaped by the heterogeneous Brazilian music culture.

Distant and friendly at the same time

I studied classical music, composition and conducting, while playing drums in a pop band specializing in Brazilian music and going to techno parties. For me there is no contradiction. And yes, I’m glad that I was still able to study with Stockhausen. He was distant but very friendly and even signed a score.”

As innovative as Stockhausen was in his music, he was attached to the traditional family model, at least outwardly, as his lover, the artist Mary Bauermeister, described in her book “Stockhausen und die Frauen”. From Portugal’s point of view, the Covid pandemic has once again shown how disadvantaged women are. “I am married to a woman.

So at home I was not confronted with how to coordinate family and work. The pandemic has made the serious shortcomings of patriarchal social structures visible. And it has revealed major differences in dealing with this existential situation in the individual countries. In Brazil, unlike in Germany, there were no health policy concepts. That was a very painful lesson.” Facing pain through music, also the one “Lição”. For resilience in dark times.

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