The town of Curitiba sits in the southern part of Brazil, a flat and humid outpost in the largest country on the South American continent. With a population of 2 million, it’s no small town, but it has neither the bustle of São Paulo and its 20 million people, nor the glitz and glamour of Rio de Janerio.
But there is a nascent-yet-vibrant music scene. The sounds span the spectrum of modern day Brazilian music from rock, bossa nova and “funk carioca” to the all-encompassing genre known as MPB, short for Brazilian Popular Music. In 2009, a ragtag group emerged from this scene, a group that included members of various bands, some solo musicians and even one professional actress.
They called themselves A Banda Mais Bonita da Cidade, which translates loosely from Portuguese into English as “The Most Beautiful Band in the City,” a moniker inspired by the Charles Bukowski poem “The Most Beautiful Woman In Town.”
While some members brought original songs from their side projects (guitarist Rodrigo Lemos, for example, has a solo act called Lemoskine which contributes some songs to the setlists), they focused mostly on reinterpreting other people’s songs—songs by songwriters in their community, friends and other bands they admired. It was fun—a weekend thing.
Then, in November of 2010 they came up with the idea of making a video to spread to their friends and family as a Christmas gift. The song was “Oração” by their friend Leo Fressato. Well, they didn’t get it done in time for Christmas. In fact it wasn’t until February that they got around to filming. In May, almost as an afterthought, they put it up on YouTube. By the end of that week, the video had over a million views. By the end of the month, five million. Suddenly, they were superstars.
They hadn’t expected or even sought it. After all, they’d put their music on YouTube before. “We had a few videos online,” says Lemos. “One of them was already very popular, for us.” That song, “Canção Pra Não Voltar” had about 10,000 views, what seemed like the pinnacle of exposure at the time. “That was…wow!” says Lemos. “Too high of a number for us.”
But with “Oração” the views kept coming and so did the local press. As word spread, demand did too. The band had yet to release an album and had played only about a dozen shows.
To understand this rapid ascent, it helps to know what drew them to the song and the communal aspects that were ascribed to it. “This song is kind of a mantra,” says Lemos. “[Fressato had] a small gig for 50 people and the people kept leading the song in a way that he lost control. So the song doesn’t belong to him anymore. It belongs to the people. We were very impressed by the power of the song. So we asked him to let us make a version and then we decided to make a video with all the friends who were there.”
The song itself is simple, and so is the video. Fressato appears in a house with a microphone and begins singing the simple incantation.
The title translates into “prayer” and indeed, it consists mostly of a simple refrain: (“My love, this is the last prayer / To save your heart / The heart is not as simple as you think”) followed by a series of declarations about how complex that heart is (some of which might not translate culturally): the heart holds three lifetimes, it holds my love, both of us, as well as “what does not fit in the cupboard” and “a dresser.” These repeat in sometimes hypnotic fashion. Like a mantra.
The camera follows Fressato from room to room as he encounters new people (and dogs!), some of them are members of the band, some just friends. Each of them exuberantly unite with the mantra, joining the accompaniment on guitar, mandolin, xylophone, ukulele, flute, toy piano and all manner of percussion instruments until the singer arrives at last in one large room where everyone reconvenes and the song builds to an ecstatic, dancing crescendo that ends with everyone a huddled pile of happy humans, smiling and chanting.
Sure, it’s a flower-power love fest. But the song’s cheerfulness is contagious and the joy genuine. It’s easy to see why it went viral. It’s infectious.
After recovering from the shock of sudden success, the band turned to a Brazilian crowdsourcing website called catarse.me to raise the funds to release a proper album. The self-titled debut album came in November of 2011 and is available as a free download on their website.
The album shows a penchant for a wide-ranging soundscape that incorporates rock, sweeping ballads, and hints of bossa nova and even electronica. It’s an expansive pallete, but one that’s held together by sharp instrumentation and impressive, often collaborative, vocals.
It’s a sound that reflects their live performances too. “The thing we do is like a rollercoaster when we are playing live,” says Lemos. “Because the songs are very distinct from each other, it’s difficult to only categorize us as only MPB because some of our songs are really rock. Some of them are really down and melodramatic.”
The band has been touring Brazil extensively, garnering a strong audience in São Paulo, regularly playing to crowds of 500 or more there. But now they’re traveling even farther. Regional festivals have put them in front of as many as 15,000 fans. They’ve played France and Portugal. And in September, they travel to perform at Madrid’s YouFest which is touted—fittingly for the band who reached worldwide exposure via a six-minute Internet video—as “the festival of the YouTube generation.”
For A Banda Mais Bonita Da Cidade, places like Madrid seem closer to Curitiba every day.