The Portuguese word baixo translates to both "bass" and "low / beneath." The register of notes played by a bass guitar is low, beneath the registers of guitar and voice. Human bodies, once expired, are hidden low, beneath elaborate gravestones and mausoleums. A neighborhood bar sits low, at the bottom of a hill on Rua Cardeal Arcoverde, where my bandmate and travel companion Fil Corbitt and I once sat across from one another, drinking cheap beers and listening while smiling with disbelief as a Brazilian version of "16 Tons" played over the speakers.
The bar was named Bar Do Baixo, a name that served a few separate meanings. It seemed, with black and white posters of Rolling Stones, Black Flag, Charles Bradley, among many others, that the bass guitar played a part in the naming. While it could be said that the bar was low, or beneath, many other locations, we were also higher, above various others. São Paulo is a city of rich texture, an urban hillscape that will occasionally surprise pedestrians with sweeping views, steep staircases that lead down to pathways that lead to more staircases, up and down and up again, as limitless and fluid as the waves of an ocean.
We left the bar feeling up. On our way back, we encountered the vast walled graveyard that we'd seen on our way down: the Necrópole de São Paulo, a city within a city, rows of stone boxes with human remains concealed low, beneath. We noticed that the gate was open, and felt up to venturing within.
The moon shone bright overhead as we walked among the graves. Most had ornate crosses mounted at the head, biblical scenes performed by statues. Many were overgrown, and a few were open, so we could stare down into the abyss. Mostly I found just a few discarded soda bottles and cigarette boxes at the bottom, but occasionally my mind drew human forms out of the darkness, a case of mild hallucination, an expectation of what might be there, based on all the clues around.
Once we'd seen enough, we turned around to leave, only to find the gate closed. On our way in we saw, but didn't pay much mind, to a pickup truck still running on the road leading into the graveyard. It must've been a maintenance guy there for a job. He'd locked the gate up behind him, and the perimeter of the Necropolis walls were lined with razor wire. It was our first night in São Paulo, and for a minute it seemed as though we'd spend it sleeping among the dead.
We spotted a gap in the razor wire just above the gate and decided to climb. The gate was twice our height and the top was shaped like spears. We went up, over, higher. Then descended lower, to freedom.
I developed a theory that the bass is an inherently subversive presence in music. The suffix -sub being the latin for "lower, beneath" led me to draw the comparison. I reached out to Joe Lally, former bassist of Fugazi, for comment. I believed his unique style, which brought the instrument out from the background and into a bold new frontier, would be perfect to compare the idea of subversion with bass playing, since it seemed to defy its role in traditional band structures.
"Well, you're welcome to make that comparison," said Lally, chuckling. "Not like it was an intentional thing. That's just the way I saw it. When you don't really know anything else, you're just trying to make the one thing that you do see, happen. Just the one thing you know, and the way you hear the bass working, you just keep trying to make it work that way. You're insisting as you're writing songs with different people, that it can work that way. You're either convincing them, or you're not. They might think the bass line is cool, or they don't."
Maybe it would help to form my own definition of the word subversive. Think of that robot from BattleBots, the one everyone agrees is the most effective in combat. It has a little scooper, like a dustpan, that's spring loaded to get underneath the other robot and flip it over, rendering it useless. Every BattleBot needs a sturdy foundation to be able to work it's carnage, and without that, it's useless. This is the way I view the word subversive: to upturn, flip over, and ultimately, defeat. Death from below.
For Joe Lally, his dustpan perspective was born in part from a lack of formal training.
"Yeah, looking back at what happened, I didn't pick up a bass until I was 19, which can be considered pretty late. But I had been listening to music pretty seriously for quite a long time, because I saw a lot of R&B bands when I was about ten or eleven. They did afternoon shows, so I was able to see the OJs, Spinners, Jackson 5, the Isley Brothers. The last show was at night and it was in an arena, it was Grand Central Station, which had Larry Graham, the bass player from Sly & The Family Stone.
"Junior High, I got into hard rock. So having this R&B background, and then going through regular rock, I was then ready for something different, and that's when I discovered punk rock, going into high school. It was really hearing bands like Joy Division and Public Image Ltd. where the bass had such a specific, repetitive role that was new in a way, and yet totally derivative of different forms of black music, whether it was reggae, or funk, or soul music. It took a part of that, and then brought something new out of it. Something in me totally related that to the way the bass works in James Brown or other things.
"Those things stuck out. I didn't know how to apply that, or how to get anyone else to work with it. When I met Ian [Mackaye], it was something that made sense to him."
It wasn't some conceited effort to change music from below that brought Fugazi's signature sound to prominence. Lally and Mackaye simply played what came naturally to them.
I found a similar attitude towards free musical expression in Brazil. With Lally recently having returned from a tour of the country, I decided to ask him.
"Ever since the first time Fugazi went there, Brazil is remarkable for, the music that just seems to be in the air," he said. "Brazil in general, you hear drumming in the street, and you follow it up and it's little kids playing super complex rhythms. I love so much music from there, it's such a rich environment to be making music in."
Part of the reason I'd jumped at the bit to go on a harebrained tour of Brazil was due to what I saw as a vibrant scene of daring, adventurous bands, with as storied a history as here in the US. In the 60's and 70's, there were corresponding psychedelic rock bands to our own: Tim Maia, Os Mutantes, Caetano Veloso. In the late 70's and early 80's, there were punk bands, Ira! Inocentes. Then later in the decade, post-punk bands.
One such post-punk band, Mercenarias, also happened to be the first prominent all-female band in Brazilian music history. As it so happened, Sandra Silva Coutinho, bassist of Mercenarias, lived in the neighborhood where we were staying, not far from the Necropolis.
"What I think now, when I see the history of everything. You have a movement, and then the next one, is a movement to go against the other movement," she said, as I sipped on coffee and nibbled on cake she had set out for us. "Because of course, all the scene is changing. Political, social, economics. Sometimes this art doesn't express anymore what we are feeling."
Watching live performances of Mercenarias, it's clear that Brazil had never seen anything of the sort on television. In one particular performance, you can see frontwoman Rosalia Munhoz sway around and slide on her feet in an off-kilter sort of dance, while letting out screams that sound like a garbage disposal filled with glass, as the band plays a jarring, funky sort of rhythm, shouting in unison like a gang of protesters.
"With my friends, the girls, we could do everything," Countinho recalled. "We could express the way we wanted. I knew that when we were on stage, we were like an army. We were the four or the three, we were there together to go "AAH!!" you know? And fuck everybody who don't like it!"
Mercenarias met while attending art school at ECA-USP. Countinho was studying to be a journalist, and had a class with guitarist Ana Machado. They met Rosalia Munhoz, and Edgard Scandurra (now a household name in Brazil as a guitarist), and formed the band. Coutinho had been inspired by seeing a show of paulistano punk band Inocentes.
"What we tried to express, first came the punks, they started early '78. The real punks, they didn't come from here, in Pinheiros, they came from places like Bairro do Limão, somewhere else. The girls at the time were all "ho, hi, ho!" after them. In this time I tried to go near men, because I loved. They used to smell, how do I say? You have shoes, you have the glue to fix it, and you would take the glue, and.." Coutinho placed her face in both palms and breathed in deeply. "It was the cheap thing to do. Like schnapps, or beer. So to get near them, I went there, went (sniffs) oooh!"
"Then one day I was in Bonrichiro. It was the first time I saw Inocentes. It was such a power. They were there on the stage with black jackets. The public, the band, they were all one. I thought 'This is avant-garde.'
"They walked downtown, ten/twenty punks together with black jackets. It was so hot, but anyway. Because you must wake up the people what's going on here. So it was very strong. Then I decided to do a band, and stopped studying music, piano. I said I don't like the piano, so I tried the bass."
As with my interview with Joe Lally, I had in mind to extract what it was that had made Mercenarias so subversive. I asked Coutinho what it was like to be in such a cutting edge band, before society had caught up with such an artistic vision.
"The only thing that was in my being, we just like to express ourselves. Near as possible from we. It was an opportunity to put out all I want to do. So if I want to cry, or whatever, I could do that, because I felt so familiar."
Listening to Coutinho talk, it was clear that expression played a central role in her personality. She often communicated abstract concepts physically, or with vocal sounds. At one point, she illustrated how the Mercenarias song "Trashland" came together, first by delivering her bass line acapella (Do-Do-TAH-Dong), then the guitar line (Taka-taka-Ta!), then explaining how the drum line tied both together (To-to-TA-to, dong taka-taka-ta!).
"So the music sort of feels like this," she said, moving her head and hands in a jerking, a-rhythmic pattern.
Similarities between Countinho and Lally are apparent upon listening to Mercenarias and Fugazi back to back. First, both bassists have a punchy, percussion heavy sound. Second, since both were removed from the initial wave of punk rock, they both were more free to incorporate a wider range of influences in their style. Third, both picked up their instruments late in life, and were thus forced to develop their own unique ways of approaching the instrument.
Fourth, both took a chance on touring solo in a foreign country.
"There was a band here from Germany. My boyfriend was with them. I was in a very depressing time, I saw this band, and it was really a poof! I thought 'Wow, I want that.'
"I thought 'I don't want to listen to rock anymore, don't want to know about rock scene. No!' So I started with experimental music. I play a little with the band, then I started a solo performance. A lot of effects. I traveled alone around Germany. One Woman Show! Avant-Garde! Bass Player From Brazil! Ba-pa-pa! I could do all the things I wanted, everything I wanted to do. Very strange things. If I listen today I can say, oh I was very courageous to do that."
A few years into her stay in Germany, the Berlin wall came down.
"When I came to Germany, my husband wanted to live in Berlin. I didn't want to live there, I felt very depressive there, so I went to south of Germany for seven years. Small city, but there was a jazz club, so I saw all kinds of performance. New York players. My husband managed a group of musicians, very avant-garde, you know, like this... Aah! Plink Plink! (A la dissonant piano chord) Grr! (Screech of violin) (Operatic howling)
"I was far away from this kind of feeling. The people from us, they are more open than the other Germans, they lived for a long time in this kind of [environment]. After the wall, people are more nice to be with. Now it's very mixed. You find this kind of difference between people."
When she returned to Brazil, Coutinho discovered a renewed passion for the music of Mercenarias had taken root. After several pleas to reunite, she reached out to the band, and they performed a packed reunion show.
"The first time I had bodyguard. Security man, like this," she said, imitating a strong, stoic man with arms folded. "A black one too, he needed to be black. And without hair.
"I think, my band is sleeping for 14 years, and the people are like, wow! The people are singing. I don't understand.
"This is the underground of the internet."
We're capable of necromancy. We can revive ancient passions, alliances. Words from dead poets can return to our lips.
This is because nothing dies, only changes. One moment we lie low, the next we soar high, like the waves of an ocean, like the hills of Sao Paulo. Our heroes are those that ride that wave, and show us that we can, too.
The next morning, we discovered the Necropolis had emptied, the dead were bearing banners reading Eu Luto!