By James Gui March 25, 2022
The best way to understand the work of Leonardo Campelo Gonçalves, alias Leo Negro, is by listening to it. This of course involves listening to his music. An ever-growing number of politically and musically provocative albums whose sounds range from no wave to música popular brasileira (MPB), his discography touches on topics such as Brazilian working class culture and liberation theology. But listening to Gonçalves speak is an instructive experience in itself, like listening to your favorite teacher walking around after class with a smoking joint in hand. His thoughts on music, politics and his career were enough to justify a 2020 documentary by Paula Gaitán, sparking interest for two and a half hours with her words alone.
“Fighting for freedom is part of my job,” he says in this film. Under the current Bolsonaro regime, which has eroded labor rights and sparked racist police violence, the work of Gonçalves is all the more relevant. A sociologist by training and a musician by choice, his thoughtful approach to the fusion of art and politics is evident in the way he talks about his music. But his recalcitrant spirit has older origins. He laughs as he recounts an episode from his childhood when a shopkeeper thought he was stealing: “He started yelling at me and my dad just punched him. It was the first time I saw that we could do justice on our own.
Although some may object to this type of reprisal, Gonçalves’ anecdote reflects a decades-long history of liberation struggle that emerged in Brazil in response to the violent legacies of Portuguese colonialism and a US-backed military coup. The filmmaker Glauber Rocha (and, incidentally, Gonçalves’ father-in-law since he is married to another experimenter Ava Rocha) once asserted that “the aesthetics of violence is revolutionary rather than primitive” in its manifesto for the Cinema Novo movement. You could hear this violence made sonic in the sound of CAC CAC CAC or the dissonance of primitive ideal. Conversely, the more pop projects of Gonçalves like Agua Batizada and action lekking draw from the experimental verve and sardonic wit of tropicalia and Paulist Vanguard. “I became interested in the Brazilian tradition of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil at Arrigo Barnabas and Itamar Assumpção,” he says.
While the tradition of political art in Brazil is an essential component of Gonçalves’ musical syncretism, he draws inspiration from all sorts of places. He grew up on a healthy diet of samba from his father and Motown from his mother; discovered prog as a teenager (which ironically first led him to Mutant Bones); had his brain rewired by bebop; and stoked its political flame by Chilean Víctor Jara and Violeta Parra. But his experiences with people may have shaped him the most. “I have always loved myths. The words of Lévi-Strauss on the myths of South America, they had me,” he recalls. As a university student, he traveled the interior of Brazil to research indigenous mythology, exploring how the culture adapted to material conditions. Later, as he began his musical career in Rio in the early 2010s, he cut his teeth playing with Audio Rebel’s Quintavant team. At the same time, he frequents the favela to recharge his batteries on the grass and participate in the bodily dynamism of carioca funk and its hyperactive little brother, funk 150 bpm. “I had college, I had my friends from music and I had my friends from the favelas. It was an environment where I grew up, learning, listening to this music,” says Gonçalves.
It goes without saying that the aforementioned genres – tropicália, funk carioca, etc. – are indebted to Afro-Brazilian innovation. Even if he is black, Gonçalves is careful not to appropriate the marginal sounds of the favela. “I wasn’t interested in making that kind of music [funk carioca]he says, “because to me it seemed like they created this. I [felt] like if I do something like that, I fly. Now based in São Paulo, he looks to his own roots in the northeastern state of Maranhão for his next project. Corn nordestinos are often the subject of classist and racist remarks discrimination, the region has also historically been a source of culture, if the emergence of Tropicalia in Bahia is any indication. “Being black in Brazil is something that is part of the culture,” Gonçalves says of this duality. “You have this contribution on one side, and on the other you have racism.”
In Maranhão specifically, bumba-meu-boi emerged in the 18th century through a combination of European, indigenous and African musical traditions. A party organized in the streets, bumba-meu-boi is both a form of social criticism and collective joy. “People who go dancing also have instruments to play. It’s unbelievable,” said Gonçalves. “I want to work with this traditional stuff to produce [modern music].”
Ironically, this return to his roots was inspired by a trip further east. In 2019, he flew to Beijing with Ava Rocha to carry out and disk alongside Chinese artists, including SVBKVLT 33EMYBW (Wu Shanmin) and GOOOOOSE (Han Han), Li Jianhong and Bayandalai. Because Han spoke English, they quickly became friends. “He took me to a lot of places, like ALL in Shanghai, and introduced me to a different world, that of electronic music,” he says. “It’s not that I wasn’t already in this world at all, but it was really cool their [Han and Wu’s] approach. Things started to change after that meeting. At Han and Wu’s DON projectwhich samples the traditional choral singing of China’s Dong minority and reworks it for an electronic context, was a direct source of inspiration for Gonçalves’ next album.
Chance encounters like these have fallen in his lap over the past decade. AI and Google Researcher Alert launcher Timnit Gebru once wrote to her encouraging her after listening to a track he named after her (“She used, not Google Translate, but I think it’s a better translator” ). Paal Nilssen-Love once hired him to perform together in Denmark in 2018. (“I hadn’t played an electric guitar in five years!” he laughs.) And while it might not have been the recognition he wanted, TortoiseJeff Parker once spat after mishearing the name of Gonçalves’ first band Baby Hitler (“‘Baby Hitter’ is so much worse than ‘Baby Hitler'”), which led to the name of the last track on their first album. “I met a lot of people around the world and I played,” he marvels. “I have this opportunity, and it’s really good.”
Like the syncretic Brazilian religions of candomblé and umbanda, Gonçalves’ work is a unique amalgam that reflects the hybridity and socio-political history of his country. Rather than displaying virtuoso musicality, his artistic talent lies in his ability to organize the ideas that overflow in his brain and translate them into sound. Both modes of music-making are important – “That’s why you can love a guy like Captain Beefheart and at the same time love a guy like Burt Bacharach”, he says – and his collaborations with others often combine the best of of them. Although some of his work has already been covered in the Dailyhere’s a guide to the rest of Negro Leo’s decade-long oeuvre.
Desejo de Lacrar is Gonçalves’ latest feature film, and he will be taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with his band in August. One of his most sonically diverse records, his vocal delivery ranges from a haunting falsetto on the title track to a soft MPB croon on “dança erradassa” to a staccato bark in overdrive on “absolutíssimo lacrador”.
Conceptually too, this record remains particularly relevant in the Brazilian political context. “I was interested in this slang called ‘drop‘, which is the verb ‘seal’ in English,” he says. “That word might tell me something about the behavior we’ve developed using social media.” Specifically, it refers to the political polarization that social media has spawned, the sealing of discourse, and the resulting spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories. “Q surgem no vacuo das noticias/ Tudo foi feito pra gnt lacrar” (“Q arises in the vacuum of news / Everything was done to seal”), he sings on a warm guitar melody on “tudo foi feito pra gnt lacrar”.
Here, Gonçalves and his QTV colleagues tackle the growing animosity of the Brazilian left towards Christianity, which he sees as a critical strategic error. This disc, and its continuedare the musical form of a argument he highlighted in Jacobin Brazil, arguing that the left should engage with its religious opponents with explanations, not vitriol. “Jesus said [a] a lot of good things, you know? he says. “We need this on the left in Brazil to learn with the Bible.” Sonically, the first volume is the quintessential experimental Leo, while the second volume takes the form of a dark hymn for organ and mellotron distorted by a cassette. “We have to put religion in politics because God is not dead yet; no matter what Nietzsche said,” he jokes. “God is alive, and he is a coward.”
Gonçalves’ debut album is an emphatic statement of his signature style, full of waveless atonality and stream-of-consciousness lyricism. “I’m trying, in this album, to develop a way of playing acoustic guitar in a slightly different approach to traditional acoustic guitar,” he says. Instead of playing in melody lines or virtuoso beats, he strips his strumming to the bones, leaving a skeleton beat on the title track and “Autoestudo 2”. To learn more about this vein of no wave and free jazz, see primitive ideal, Ilhas de Calor, Hero Ninos, Taraand baby Hitler Hi baby.
Here, Gonçalves tries, in his words, to “surf the wave of Connan Moccasin.” Agua Batizada is a psychedelic pop record that proves that Gonçalves is more than just dissonance and noise. However, his words on this disc are still as enigmatic and poetic: “Naquelas horas de fascinio e perseguição onde/ O corpo é vento/ O jovem voa por cima dos pés” (“In these hours of fascination and pursuit where / The body is wind / The young man flies above his feet”), he sings in “Marcha Para Longe” before launching into a song that could be the soundtrack of a cowboy chase in the highlands of Brazil. He honed those pop sensibilities in later records like action lekking and the above Desejo de Lacrar.
INFELIZMENTE east of Gonçalves Death Grips moment. With the help of his frequent collaborator Sergio Machado on drums and production, he combines tribal drumming, metal percs and a stream of noise-cutting machine guns. It’s unlike anything else in his discography, a promising step in a new sonic direction.