In The Middle with Brazilian Wax

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A caipirinha is meant to be an easy drink to make. Brazil’s national cocktail consists of just three ingredients: ice, lime and a distilled spirt made of fermented sugarcane, cachaça. The ice clinks against the glass as I stir a healthy dose of sugar into each cup. Sitting on the my living room floor, I make 4 caipirinhas. One for me, one for my roommate who refuses to leave, and two for Joe Osborne and Henry Weekes who you may know as Brazilian Wax. Henry, on seeing the size of his beverage, expressed some alarm. ‘‘but aren’t you meant to be half Brazilian?’’ I ask, quizzically. ‘‘Yes, but I am not meant to be half drunk’’, he fires back.

Protests notwithstanding, Brazilian Wax have come some way since their small LSR radio show in first year. As DJ’s they have played venues and festivals up and down the country, established a residency at NT’s in London and have performed with the likes of Nubya Garcia, Mafalda and Mr Bongo. Their 2020 tour will see them playing with Trepanado who co-founded the hugely influential Selvagem party collective and currently heads the Selva Discos label. They have dates confirmed in London, Brighton, Edinburgh, Leeds (March 20 th ) and Sheffield.

Both members of Brazilian Wax came to the music from very different angles. Both have family connections to Brazil. Henry’s mother was born and raised in Sao Paolo while Joe had a Grandma who grew up in the northeastern city of Recife, as well as an Uncle who emigrated from the UK to Porto Alegre. It was Joe who was the first to properly encounter Brazilian music and somewhat unsurprisingly, his exposure to it was dictated by Brazil’s other cultural export, football. Whether it was playing Futsal in a local town hall or slogging through Fifa’s management mode, Brazilian tapes and vinyl provided the backing track to Joe’s primary school years. This eventually culminated in his first gig, watching legendary Brazilian pop samba artist, Seu Jorge. With America Brasil: O disco on repeat, a young Joe’s hunger for Brazil’s music scene was entrenched. 

Despite his more apparent ties to Brazil, it was Joe that introduced Henry to the music which had helped narrate his childhood. Together, they began Brazilian Wax as a radio show for LSR, in 2016. Here they played tracks which put Brazil’s rich and dynamic sounds on display while also exploring the complicated and turbulent history which contextualised them. Instrumental to the country’s past and to Brazilian Wax’s early sound is Tropicália. Beginning in the late 60s, Tropicália was an artist movement which distilled new directions in Brazilian art, music and performance. Joe explains that musicians would take inspiration from the colours and imagery presented in the immersive installations by artists such as Hélio Oiticica. In reference to Oiticica’s Tropicália: Penetrables PN 2 ‘Purity is a myth’ art installation Joe says that ‘’musicians would see the green leaves of the tropical plants and touch the white sand on the floor as they walked through the hut …it had an inherent Brazilian feel to it’’.

The Tropicália movement was an artistic expression of Brazil’s cultural cannibalism. Popularized in the late 1920’s by the Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade, Henry explains that ‘’cultural cannibalism is the idea that Brazilian nationalism is inherently outward looking, and is continually reconstituted by its devouring of other cultures that it comes into contact with’’. From the West Africans forced to work on the northern sugar plantations during slavery to the Germanic and Japanese diasporas in the South, Brazil’s musical production has continually incorporated the nodes, rhythms and beats of different groups into its sound. Joe exclaims that ‘’musically, Tropicália does stuff that all art does on a grander scale – it communicates with what comes before and navigates what their own country does in a more interesting way than in a genre of music that is just inherent to one country’’. Though the movement was initially apolitical, Tropicália increasingly situated itself in opposition to the state through its celebration of liberty and the freedom of expression. The music that came out of the movement was seen as so transgressive towards the coercive military dictatorship (1964-1985), that two of Brazil’s most important musicians, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, were forced into exile. Both artists fled to London where they resided in Chelsea and then North Kensington: a path across the city which Brazilian Wax retraced last year.

For Joe and Henry, it was the music and art produced within this reactionary period of Brazil’s history which made them fall in love with the country. However, due to the current political climate in Brazil, these past events have taken on a new contemporarily relevance. Both DJ’s see President Jair Bolsonaro as an apologist for the old military regime, and his authoritarian tendencies to marginalise women, indigenous and LGBTQ+ communities as reminiscent of the same oppressive policies that it pursued. Nevertheless, just as Tropicália provided new avenues for political and artistic dissent, Brazil’s increasingly hostile political environment has resulted in artists, musicians and activists developing new strategies to resist and oppose the new regime: according to Joe, ‘‘groups such as Mamba Negra, who are a female and non-binary collective, and are throwing free parties in Sao Paoulo. They want to create a safe space for marginalised communities and for a general freedom of expression’’. One of Mamba Negra’s founders, visual artist Laura Diaz, is also part of Teto Preto, a collaboration beloved by Brazilian Wax. Their 2016 release, Gasolina, was seen as a track encapsulating an anger and discontentment in Brazil society which would ultimately result in Bolsonaro coming to power. ‘’Oh yeah, the tune also bangs’’, Henry adds.

Throughout our chat, Joe and Henry gave me a vague picture of how they want Brazilian Wax’s work to evolve. They want to engage more with the modern musical and political trends in Brazil, with Joe floating the idea of going over to make a documentary about the country’s thriving club scene, and how today’s transgressive social movements and collectives compare to the time of Tropicália. Moreover, they want to avoid perpetuating the misplaced exoticism and romanticism that often pigeon holes Brazilian music. ‘’It would be doing the country an injustice if we just played stuff from the 1970s and 80s, because that’s not the country it is today’’, Joe explains. ‘’I want to play the real sounds of Brazil’’.

Caipirinhas half drunk and our words beginning to slur, I concluded our chat by asking Brazilian Wax for the songs and sounds currently influencing them. This year, Joe has taken inspirations from the darker house beats and heavier Brazilian techno played by the likes of Cashu and Gop tun. Henry on the other hand has fallen head over heels for Batucada, an Afro-Brazilian percussion style from the north east of the country. ‘’I love that angle on it ‘’ he says excitedly ‘’for me, its music without any of the synthesis, it just makes you dance’’ – a final thought that I think sums up a night with Brazilian Wax pretty well.