Emilia Dellemonico and James Mrohs play Brazilian music: bossa nova, samba, tropicalia, and so on. You might assume you don’t know any Brazilian music. On the contrary, you almost certainly know one piece of Brazilian music intimately, whether you mean to or not. It’s a song the pair happened to play when I sat in on their KCSB show Desafinado one Sunday evening. It’s Stan Getz, João Gilberto, and Astrud Gilberto’s recording of “The Girl from Ipanema,” a towering cultural fixture since it swept into every living room worthy of its hi-fi in 1964.
It is thus not impossible to hear the track elsewhere on the airwaves, but it’s only on KCSB that you’d hear the lowdown on its original recording session. Teaming up on the mics, Dellemonico and Mrohs alternated back and forth, relating the main points in the history of the song’s iconic yet wholly accidental vocal. It seems that composer, guitarist, and non-anglophone vocalist João Gilberto’s wife Astrud was only in the studio as her husband’s translator.
“She wasn’t meant to sing this song,” said the hosts, “or any song.” Yet when the musicians heard her voice, they knew she’d be perfect to sing the English verses. Now who could imagine the piece without her? “That’s the quintessential bossa nova song,” Dellemonico explained. “If someone’s heard bossa nova, they’ve heard ‘The Girl from Ipanema.’ But I hate when they compare it to elevator music!”
As these co-hosts and longtime friends have developed their appreciation of and enthusiasm for mid-century Brazilian music, it’s only become more and more tiresome that the public mistakes it as anonymous background texture for department stores. There’s a vast, kaleidoscopic soundscape of unmistakably, innovatively Brazilian artists, albums, and songs out there. Each week Dellemonico and Mrohs strive to expose it to as many people as possible.
Having done the show since winter 2008, collecting intensively all the while, Mrohs told me that, as far as finding the music goes, “The easy part has been over for a while.” Both hosts bring in large cases of CDs from their personal collections, but they also dip into vinyl and internet sources like Grooveshark. They make regular trips to that lifeline for KCSB music programmers, Amoeba music. They closely follow labels like Soul Jazz, Waterloo, and Verve, who tend to bring out the best re-issues of classic Brazilian albums. They’re always doing research on the Internet. They buy releases found only in Brazil, or in England and Japan, hosts to many non-Brazilian fans of Brazilian music. There’s some frustration to the quest since, as Dellemonico explained, “A lot of Brazilian artists didn’t want to leave Brazil. Ever!”
But that’s hardly slowed the duo down. Since discovering Brazilian music independently of one another and converging at the point where they knew they had to put on a radio show about it, they’ve explored and presented to their listening audience such Brazilian sub-genres beyond the norm as fado, corvo, the “afro” segment of tropicala, as well as the more psychedelic side, and, of course, Brazilian television-show soundtracks. “Bossa nova totally changed Brazilian TV,” Mrohs noted. The two DJs each bring slightly different sensibilities to the musical quest. “I like more lighthearted stuff,” Dellemonico told me, “stuff I can dance to.” Mrohs provides the contrast: “I like all the somber, depressing stuff,” he said, “especially when it’s psychedelic.”
“Somber,” “depressing,” “psychedelic,” and even “dance” aren’t words an unfamiliar listener would immediately associate with a style like bossa nova. Certainly some part of Desafinado’s loyal audience tunes in for a weekly two-hour chill-out session. “When we’re gone and have a sub who doesn’t play bossa nova,” said Dellemonico, “people will call in and say, ‘This isn’t relaxing!’” This demographic probably skews slightly upward on the age graph relative to KCSB’s average listener.
Since the station isn’t the type to do market research, that’s hard to prove. But when I asked the hosts, both in their early twenties, if they knew anyone else their age who played this type of Brazilian music, the answer was emphatic: “No!” Dellemonico described her struggles to expose her family and friends to the music, an effort that seemed mostly to draw weird looks. Some of them used to listen to it in college, way back when. Dellemonico assessed the overall situation: “Not to be ageist, but we get a lot of old people.” Callers with incredulous questions like “Wow, you know about Brazilian music?” aren’t uncommon.
And they do know about Brazilian music. Sitting in the studio, I listened in on numerous exchanges between the hosts about how best to move from one type or era of Brazilian music to another, the career details of stars like Tom Zé and Caetano Veloso, which tracks belong under which precise category or era heading, and how to most correctly pronounce “João Gilberto.” Such is their enthusiasm not just for Brazilian music, but for the webs of knowledge binding Brazilian music together, that they once considered devoting 20 solid minutes each show to discussion of, as Mrohs put it, “the ramifications of bossa nova. How the government was once against it. How these aren’t just musical movements, but cultural and political ones.”
“Are you guys grad students studying Brazil?” asked one caller. Neither of them are—Mrohs is an environmental studies student at UCSB and Dellemonico is a recent graduate in psychology, cultural anthropology, and education with plans to teach English in Brazil—but they’re both deeply fascinated by the country. The learning that comes from interest this strong makes possible the kind of radio you wouldn’t hear anywhere else. Dellemonico told me about the time they read an Amazonian folktale live on the air, complete with Amazonian tribal music and the ambient sounds of the rainforest. (They’re considering bringing the feature back, even using stories that aren’t strictly Brazilian but setting them to Brazilian music.)
Facts aside, though, it all comes back to the aesthetics of Brazilian music: the evocative (or, for non-Portuguese-speakers, evocative-sounding) words, the subtly shifting waves of melody, the unmistakable mood. “I love the lyrics,” Dellemonico said. “Such beautiful, simple imagery. These Brazilian musicians really appreciate the beauty in simplicity. You find that in bossa nova, where there will be, say, a song just describing a plant.”
“Oh, there are so many,” added Mrohs.
Desafinado airs Sundays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on KCSB, 91.9 FM.