Interview: Bernardo Santos – BNegão & Os Seletores de Frequência (July 2017)

They don’t visit London and the UK very often (the last time it happened was for the 2012 Olympics closing ceremony), but when they do, they always give an electrifying and memorable experience to their audience.

It happened again just a few days ago when Bernando Santos (better known as BNegão) and his Os Seletores de Frequência played on the first day of the Walthamstow Garden Party 2017.

The band from Rio de Janeiro has an unmistakable groove assembled, matching together Brazilian sounds like funk carioca and samba with more universal styles like hip-hop, reggae and jazz. They then heat everything up with a strong social and political drive. It wasn’t indeed by chance that their Walthamstow performance ended with a “Fora Temer” call-and-response choir with their fans.

Their latest fleeting appearance on British soil gave us the opportunity to have an interesting chat with Bernando and discover a bit more about one of the funkier Brazilian bands.

I personally started playing music at the end of 1980, but I’d say that I professionally started doing it only in 1994. My first album was launched in 1995. It was called O Usuário and I released it with a band called Planet Hemp.

It was a strange experience because when I originally entered the sound studio I decided to do a solo project. I invited some friends and asked them: ‘please, help me with my solo project’. In the end, it changed from a solo project to a team collaboration. That’s because everyone was contributing in his own way to the album. Some of them are still involved with Os Seletores de Frequência. For example, Pedro, who’s the trumpet player and sings, was part of O Usuário too.

For this reason, it wasn’t fair to call it a ‘solo project’, and also because everyone involved changed the sound in many ways. It has been a collective project since its beginning”.

We discovered that Os Seletores de Frequência is a quite a meaningful name, as Bernando explained the band’s philosophy…  

“We chose the name Seletores de Frequência, (Selectors of frequency) not just in relation to the dial frequency on radios, but also in terms of energy; like vibes and vibrations. Our idea of music is to create a sound like a picture without the frame so you can expand it without rules and borders”.

As Bernando revealed to us, it was also without rules and borders that the band grew up.

We released our first album with Os Selectores in 2003 and it was titled Enxugando Gelo. That allowed us to reach a wider audience, far outside of our scene and even our country. That’s because we decided to do something different, distributing the album in newsstands. That turned out to be a great idea because that helped us reach a lot of people. We also used the internet quite extensively. I reckon that we were the first band to do that in a professional way. Other bands after that referred that they did the same because of us.

I originally uploaded the album through the Independent Media Centre (IMC), which was considered as an influencer for YouTube creators. It didn’t have too much music on at that time; it was more for ‘guerrilla’ files. The funny fact was that we got more of an audience outside Brazil than inside. We were having shows with a crowd of 300 people in Rio de Janeiro, while when we had our first show in Barcelona we had an audience of 2,000. Also, here in London, at our first show, there were 1,000 people.

The internet has always been life to us. We are here in London today because of the internet. If there was no internet, we would be working at a gas station or snack bar.”

After almost 15 years of collaboration, BNegão & Os Seletores de Frequência has become a household name in the Brazilian music scene and the project has found its creative harmony too.

“I’d say that today we are more balanced but still evolving and developing our sound. We are always mixing our point of view on the social with the spiritual because the human being is embedded with both and both are important. Unfortunately, people usually pay more attention to one or the other, but it is important to have and relate to both, or none!”

The band’s latest album, published in 2015, clearly reflects this philosophy.

TransmutAção was a very important work for us because we finally included percussion in it, while our first two albums don’t have any or very few parts. My will is to go even deeper and expand this idea, but almost like a parallel project.

With Pedro [Garcia, who plays the drums] we are creating something mixing electronic music and drumming. That’s something that I wanted to do for many years and finally, things are moving forward. Our song titled ‘In the Air’ is an example. We are also working on another song titled ‘Sorriso Aberto’. I recorded that song a long time ago with Digital Dubs, originally as a samba tune. We just kept the melody of the voice and modified the rest. These songs indicate quite clearly what we will do next year”.

After having spent a few years in a limbo state, it sounds like BNegão & Os Seletores de Frequência are finally back on track and going to spread their sound all over the world.

When we started, we were playing a lot of shows and it was mainly thanks to the Internet that we were known all over the world. Between 2004 and 2006, we did incredible things, playing in famous places such as the Roskilde Festival. We also did not have a manager or anyone organising things for us. We had a friend who was dealing with bookings, but at some point, he could not take care of it, so we went 10 years without playing. I still came to Europe sometimes. I even played at the Olympics here in London, but the band stayed for 10-12 years without playing a gig. It was a long, long time. Now we are happy because we finally have someone who’s managing us and we are also doing amazing things. One was playing in Switzerland at Musiques en Eté in Genève. It was a very impressive place and the audience was great.

On the other hand, when Bernardo and his music partners go back to Brazil, they tend to face troubled times.

News from Brazil is very gloomy. I’m not saying that I supported the last government, but in any case, what we are experiencing is a coup. The country is experiencing a social and economical regression and living in an odd moment. The mainstream media are deeply influencing people who have no awareness, and TV commands the public opinion. This is very sad because lawsuits are filed from false news and not facts. If Brazil had a neutral judicial system, this would have never occurred. It’s clear that this entire situation was staged to take down the previous government.

However, Bernardo thinks that there’s an ongoing global crisis, which doesn’t affect only Brazil.

We can say that this is a crisis of capitalism as a system. I remember when I was studying, at the age of 13, 20% of the world’s population had more money than the other 80%. It was already a lot, but if you consider that the 20% is now reducing to 5% or even 2%, you have the full picture. Many of the world’s problems derive from this condition, which has many collateral effects. I came from a family of activists. At the time of the military dictatorship in Brazil, my relatives were against it, so I’ve always been used to it. If you study, analyse and read the news between the lines, you inevitably find out what people want you to think.This is the starting point”.

As a matter of fact, the singer/songwriter, MC and guitar player never sat on his hands, but always used them to write challenging and inspirational songs.

I feel really happy because, since 1995, when I started writing songs, I know that people quote and use my lyrics during philosophy, history and literature lectures at universities and colleges. Many teachers also told me that they use them with their children. That makes me really proud, not because of a question of ego, but because I believe that in this way I’m able to influence people positively. That’s why we do what we do. I used to say, “I love music because small things change big things”.

Music has constantly tried to change and “fix” Brazil. It’s not by chance that today’s Brazilian music scene is livelier than ever.

There are a lot of great things happening in the Brazilian music scene. Baiana System for me is one of the best. It is far beyond the others because of the concept. They really create their own music. The four members are like brothers to me, but I consider them as geniuses. They have a multimedia perception. The world today is both audio and visual, but they moved this concept beyond that.

There are other very interesting names, like Omulu and Tantão e os Fita in Rio de Janeiro or Rincon Sapiência, Bixiga 70 and much more like Metá Metá in Sao Paulo. Finally, there’s Antonio Carlos Tatau, who’s an influential artist from Bahia and I really esteem him. He’s totally different from the ones I mentioned before because he is 100% into the Brazilian melodic tradition.

Brazilian music is living one of its best periods. There is a lot of wonderful stuff being produced; recordings that people listen to everywhere in the world. It’s also a bit disappointing because there is quality music being produced in Brazil by great Brazilian musicians, but at the same time, it’s becoming more popular outside of our country. Brazilian radios and televisions are not broadcasting that kind of music. You can’t listen to anything else apart from the mainstream. The motto is: ‘do not pay, do not play!

For sure, BNegão & Os Seletores de Frequência have never jumped on the mainstream bandwagon. The band has always kept its decency and safeguarded its characteristic, open-minded and engaging style in Brazil as much as abroad.

I’d say that our music can be defined as ‘Black music’, which is also an international concept. It’s music that has always been made from heart to heart and spirit to spirit, meant to be shared. It can be called hip-hop, samba, jazz, Jamaican music, African music, Santeria from Brazil and also hardcore, but it’s all about sharing the energy.

I’ve always had a theory, since before I even started playing outside Brazil. For me, the greatest communication of all is energy. You can change the words, but the energy is either there or not. The biggest proof I had of that happened at the Roskilde Festival. The English language still has a small connection to Portuguese, but Danish sounds like an alien language and from the first until to the last second of our performance, it was a very beautiful thing and was one of the best shows we’ve ever done. We have scheduled shows for three years due to the hype of that one show. For this reason, I believe that energy is the best way to interact with the audience. Music has that power too. It’s about that kind of communication and interaction, which is spiritual but physical at the same time”.