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Vivendo de Pão starts -- but doesn't stop -- with Brazilian grooves

Wednesday, Feb 2 2000
You work through the lens of what your environment is," says Kevin Welch, singer, guitarist, and founder of the Brazilian-tinged Vivendo de Pão, as he relaxes in the sunlight of a Mission cafe patio. "It's an organic process. Whatever your influences are, you work with those, and then whatever comes out, comes out. If people want to hear it, cool. If they don't, they don't."

But in his case, as Welch is quick to acknowledge, they do. "We've been pretty fortunate in that regard," he says of the roughly 5-year-old San Francisco ensemble, which has built a steady following with its blend of Brazilian samba rhythms and more Bay Area-familiar elements like jazz improvisation and acid jazz-influenced funk grooves. Welch and his bandmates -- bassist David Ewell, saxophonists Richard Howell and Daryl Wilburn, and percussionists Wilson Low, Eddie Torres, and Walter Mackins -- started out playing Tuesday nights at North Beach's late, lamented Gathering Cafe and have gone on to hold down a weekly residency at the Elbo Room for the past three years.

"It actually started, in concept I think, as more of a bossa nova-type trio thing," says Welch of the first nights at the Gathering. "But I wanted to do something very different with it, and turned it into more of a samba thing, and eventually even brought in the traditional percussion. But I think it was mostly what we chose to do that changed the sound -- we didn't do 'Girl From Ipanema,' you know? We specifically didn't do a whole lot of bossas and typical stuff that people hear here, so that's what changed it. Right from the second week into it we started choosing very different types of songs, and then I started writing and that changed it a lot too. Then it became its own thing."

What has mostly shaped the group into its present state is Welch's own time spent in Brazil. Raised in Europe, Welch went to high school in New Jersey and college in Rhode Island; while at college, he undertook a six-month stay in Brazil. It was there, studying development issues in the Amazon basin, that he was first exposed to the music that would later underpin Vivendo de Pão. "My first experience was when this group of musicians was traveling around -- and you know, they have festivals every couple of months down there," recalls Welch. "So this group of musicians came to the town I was in, and it was really great. They sang this one song that I loved, and that kind of started it, because I went and hunted down that song, and hooked up with some record collectors, and we'd sit and listen to samba for hours."

Moving to the Bay Area, Welch only gradually worked his way into the local Brazilian music scene, performing capoeira -- the Brazilian martial art that also combines with drumming and singing -- and listening more and more to the old recordings he had picked up in Brazil. "Half of travel is when you return, and your experiences start to filter out and you digest them," he says. "It took kind of a couple years for those things to come to fruition. Sometimes things have to settle."

The latest example of where Welch's experiences have settled is Vivendo's second CD, Scratch Cooking Vol. 1: Excerpts From the Bryant Street Sessions, one of the warmest and most natural-sounding local recordings released in the last year. Combining a wall of traditional Brazilian percussion with horn solos, Welch's strummed guitar, and his own impassioned singing (sung mostly in Portuguese, with a few lyrics in English), the disc is proof positive that whatever you want to call the group's fusion of traditional samba rhythms with non-Brazilian music, it works. "Atabaque" -- the name of a Brazilian drum -- samples an old samba recording before it drops a gorgeous chorus ("Atabaque, Atabaque/ Your thunder reminds me of the sad earth") over the sway of a samba percussion track. "Eurydice Arising," the disc's only English-language track, mixes an Afro-Brazilian percussion rhythm with an inspirational shouted chorus reminiscent of Bob Marley: "Eurydice arising/ With the music playing/ Eurydice arising/ Rise up, rise up, rise up, rise up/ Don't let them hold you down."

Perhaps the two tracks most indicative of Vivendo's aesthetic are the album's closer, a remix of "Samba Sambei" by DJ Iz that, with its trancelike percussion loop, wouldn't sound out of place blasting over the dance floor of any after-hours SOMA nightclub, and the beautiful opener "Meu Samba Não Foi Importado (My Samba Is Not Imported)," where Welch pays tribute to many of the Brazilian musicians who have guided him so far: "Martinho [da Vilha]) planted the seed/ Gilberto [Gil] gave me/ Water of subsistence/ Caetano [Veloso]/ His wisdom guides me night and day." This pull between looking toward a new audience and staying true to the music's Brazilian roots is what defines Vivendo de Pão. According to Welch, it isn't arbitrary. "There is a certain amount of feeling like I want to be respectful with what I do toward the music's source," he says. "But at the same time, you can't be held by that, or else you'll be creating what's already been created. There's no innovation there."

Welch is emphatic that Vivendo may be perfectly positioned for a new global culture that stews in elements from a variety of genres. "I sort of view us as being progressive in the sense that there's going to be this meshing of cultures the way that the cultural flow and global communication is happening," he says. But he's also admirably honest when he points out that this meshing has been done before by Brazilians. "They did it 30 years ago in Brazil!" he says. "All those guys, Caetano, and Gilberto Gil, they went abroad and they took the sounds of America and England and brought them back and started singing in English. They got a lot of flak from the critics and from the purists, but ultimately that's what artists are doing, taking things and changing them and recombining them and crafting originality. So it's funny, because it's not that revolutionary, what we're doing."

Perhaps not, but the group has been and will likely continue to be embraced by a diverse segment of the Bay Area community -- including those who may not have much familiarity with the Brazilian influences present in Vivendo's music. "That's a very funny thing," says Welch, "because here's this huge country down there, bigger than the continental U.S., and here are these people, 30, 40 years old, and they've never heard samba before. But that was one of the reasons why I chose to play at the Elbo Room, instead of going to a Brazilian club. It was a very deliberate decision, because I wanted the average person to hear the hipness of these sounds, you know?"

Vivendo de Pão performs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. at the Elbo Room, 647 Valencia (at 18th Street), S.F. Tickets are $5; call 552-7788.

About The Author

Ezra Gale


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