Born in Rio de Janeiro but based in São Paulo, Max de Castro straddles spaces, genres and eras with his rich, vibrant sound. His official bio manages to describes it as, “Samba, rap, soul, jazz, afro-beat, funk, rock and other beats. There’s always space for new experiments in the cauldron of harmonies of this singer, composer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Max de Castro. What does he make? Brazilian music.”
I first learned about him in 2001 when Time profiled him in their special edition of music around the world. It’s funny to look back on that now because the article “Max de Castro: Beyond Bossa Nova” starts out with a description of São Paulo, “the city that foreigners don’t know.” My sixteen year old self was intrigued by this mysterious, glamorous sounding city and put it on my long list of places to visit.
After reading the article, I bought his album Samba Raro blindly, and fell in love. My only exposure to Brazilian music up until that point had been my parents’ old bossa nova records, but this was an eclectic mix of different genres and beats layered beautifully, different than anything I had heard before.
The title track “Samba Raro” (Strange or Rare Samba) immediately sucked me in.
Samba Raro immediately became one of my favorite albums, despite not knowing a single word of Portuguese yet (although I had fun singing já chhhegou, já chhhegou). Now that I am fluent in Portuguese, it is interesting to listen to the album again because it sounds different. No less great, of course, but different. Before it sounded like a little bit like Spanish but with a lot of “cheese” and “geez” and “õe” and “ão” and other weird nasal sounds. But now that these sounds have meaning for me, there’s a new depth added to the lyrics.
Max* has an interesting song on his second album Orquestra Klaxon called “O Nêgo do Cabelo Bom,” or “The Black Man With Good Hair.” Sung with Paula Lima, an MPB/soul/funk singer from São Paulo, it’s a more straightforward jazz and soul piece.
The song talks about a black man who is teased because of his natural hair and told not to swim in the ocean, but his nêga, or black girl, assures him:
Alisa ele não / Don’t straighten it
Você é meu nêgo do cabelo bom / You’re my black man with good hair
Alisa ele não / Don’t straighten it
É você quem dita a moda em Paris / You’re the one who sets trends in Paris
His father is the late Wilson Simonal, a legendary artist who rose to prominence in the sixties by mixing samba, soul and blues, and was one of the first black musicians in Brazil to achieve mainstream success. However he was ostracized from the music industry after collaborating with the military dictatorship and the secret police in the seventies, and he died from alcoholism in 2000. Max and his brother Wilson Simoninha contributed to the 2009 documentary about their father Ninguém Sabe o Duro que Dei, or No One Knows the Hardship I’ve Endured. That same year they paid tribute to their father by recording the show Baile do Simonal, or Dance of Simonal, with artists such as Caetano Veloso and Seu Jorge, and released it on DVD and CD. The two brothers took the show on tour in 2010, which was met with so much critical and public success that three years later they are still performing.
Max plans to release a new album later this year called A Fantástica Fábrica de Champigon or The Fantastic Mushroom Factory, a nod to his father who often used the expression “com champignon” (with mushroom) to refer to something with swing or movement. He’s already released his new single “Entrar Para Ficar,” or Enter to Stay.
*It’s a Brazilian custom to refer to people by their first names. Even the current President is more often called Dilma than President Rousseff.