“Time passes in a different way for me,” Renata Rosa says, when I ask her if it does in fact feel like twenty years, or just yesterday, when she released her award-winning 2003 debut album Zunido Da Mata: “I recently met a good friend of mine, and we were talking about time and age…how the past is sometimes built from other versions of ourselves who are living in other experiences and moods. For me, each song on the album is another version of myself, another fragment of my identity. Looking back, when I reunite those pieces in my memory, it doesn’t feel like 20 years have passed—not in a straight line. In those 20 years I’ve been many different me’s, sometimes one after the other, sometimes all at once. It’s more like a wave.”

The Brazilian musician is calling me from Paris, fresh off a new tour and a particularly energetic show in Switzerland. She’ll be performing in the ville-lumière for four nights, but, just for today, she’s allowing herself some rest. Alas, peace is fleeting, and a few times during our conversation she apologetically takes a moment to ward off calls from friends who are also vying for her attention. By the third time this happens, I’m starting to feel very lucky to have an hour with the most in-demand musician in France. Our business isn’t to discuss Renata’s new tour, but to rewind time about two decades: where a ‘previous version’ of herself first started working on what would become her debut album. 

Zunido Da Mata has become a classic in Renata’s motherland Brazil and a cult classic everywhere else. Upon its release, it won the prestigious World Music award the Choc de l’Annee. More importantly, it brought international attention to the sounds of the Brazilian Northeastern states that Renata grew up around. The songs are tributes to the greats that came before her, many of which she knew personally. Some are re-imaginings of older classics, while others were penned by Rosa and her bandmates. Each track is brought to life by the regional instruments of the outback: from the viola caipira (a Brazilian ten string guitar) to the trumpet to the Ganzá shaker. “One of my master’s used to say ‘here nothing is taught, everything is learned’, Renata muses, when discussing her musical influences and the tribe of artists that passed down their knowledge to her.I quickly realise while talking to her that this exceptionally singular album was built on the precipice of that very philosophy.

Renata’s weapon of choice is the rabeca, a fiddle local to Portugal and Northeastern Brazil, and a sound you’ll hear all over Zunido Da Mata. It’s a special instrument, Renata tells me, due to its ability to pass through the soundscape without missing a single frequency. In other words, it can perfectly imitate the emotion and melodic potential of the human voice—“it’s free,” she says. “When I would listen to music, my attention was always going to the fiddle over everything else. When I met my master and saw him playing, I thought, yes, that’s how I want to live. I came to him and I said “I want to learn with you,” and he just said: “Okay. I live in the countryside here. Just come.”

Now, if you’re tuning in from the UK or the States, the idea of “just coming” to the countryside might not seem so daunting; a handful of hours in a car or on a bus, maybe. In Brazil, for Renata, it meant: 

  • A forty four hour bus from São Paulo to Pernambuco.
  • Another two hour bus from the city to a small Northern town nearby.
  • Another half-hour bus to, in Renata’s words, the middle of nowhere.
  • From there, a motor taxi, from the middle of nowhere into the fields.

And so, when she finally arrived, she never left. “It’s like two and half days of travelling. Back then, the internet didn’t exist. I would never tell him that I was coming. I would just appear. And I wouldn’t leave for months.”

The master in question is Seu Luiz Paixão—in his time, he was the biggest rabeka player in Brazil, and it’s for him that Renata often made the 22,000 km trip to Pernambuco, a place she would soon consider home. She informs me of Paixão’s unfortunate passing last year with bittersweet resignation in her voice—the same fate, she says, has been meeting many of her musical elders over the last handful of years—but is quick to remind me of the musical legacy that endures in the virtuoso’s wake, and his contribution to Zunido Da Mata. “On the album, when you hear the sound of rabeca sounding the most free, it will be him.”

Renata talks about her masters with the reverence one might reserve for the great Kings. She owes a lot to Paixão, who first invited her to play in his traditional band years before Zunido Da Mata was ever conceived. On his frequent extended leaves, she would fill his role as lead rabeca player (and, to this day, remains the only woman to play the traditional fiddle.) She tells me about her experiences visiting the state of Pernambuco as a young student, playing in the traditional bands, soaking up, not just the artistry of her elders there, but the ideology of the land they play on. “When I talk about my relationship with this group, and with my masters…It’s a different way of living. You become part of the family, you live with them. Everything becomes connected”, she explains. “My masters in Pernambuco were mostly sugarcane workers. They had their work, they had their ways of making a living. But the music of our culture was made on the weekends, in the countryside. It was natural. This is what I do as a way of life, and my profession would be something else, something separate.” 

She describes the cultures she takes part in as two environments with unique traditions attached to each. The first is the indigenous people’s Kariri Xocó, where Renata would spend long summers as a spirited 16 year old, joining in the rituals that were permitted to her as someone outside of the tribe. The other is the Mata Norte, which translates to “The Zone of Forest” and is the tradition inherent to Pernambuco. It includes the Cavalo Marinho, which the rabeca originates from, and a practice where all the different artforms from music to dance to poetry come together in vibrant theatre. “In our tradition and in our countryside, it’s like in the oriental world. We don’t separate music from dance from theatre. Everything is together.” 

Renata Rosa
Renata Rosa with her mentor, Seu Luiz Paixão, by Jason Gardner.

It was through these earthly customs passed down to her by her masters that Renata would form the basis of Zunido Da Mata, which literally translates to The Hum of The Forest. But the truth is that music always ran through Renata’s veins and her upbringing in São Paulo was filled with the joy of expression; an artistic sensibility that her family and many other families brought with them to the South-East from their diasporic home in the North, near the desert state Bahia, from which they migrated due to a decades-long drought. “In our neighbourhood we had many poets and musicians. My father became a lawyer, but he was also a poet. He used to bring us to events where we would play games that revolved around improvisational poetry. They were childhood games, but we were already starting to challenge ourselves with language and music.”

It surprised me to hear that when Renata finally decided to pursue music, her family weren’t too happy about it. But it turns out that in 80s and 90s Brazil, although it came so naturally to the populace, it was no place for art to thrive. “We had this period of military dictatorship that destroyed all the educational bases in Brazil. It was all supported by the United States. They didn’t want our governments to work for the people, they wanted our governments to give them all our resources: our gold, our manganese. From the 60s to the 90s, our structure for art and education was broken. The generation before my parents didn’t have the luxury to study, so my parents became professionals. When I told them I wanted to be an artist, they were afraid for me.”

The irony isn’t lost that the country in which music is the way of life and the country where art is suppressed can be the very same. But just as artistic self-expression is laced in the soil of the Brazilian diaspora that Renata hails from, such was the case for her own musical ambitions. She couldn’t be stopped. “I was studying music and literature, but I didn’t finish literature. I realised music was the pathway for me. I had to put all my energy into music, or else I wouldn’t be able to become as good a musician as I wanted to be—I knew I could be.” 

Renata Rosa
Renata Rosa at Carnaval. Courtesy of Renata Rosa, circa 2000.

From there, Renata would meet Performing Arts director Massoud Saïdpour, who overheard her improvising poetry in the middle of Pernembuco Carnival and, impressed, invited her to take part in a month-long workshop in Rio. He needed someone who could work traditional chants with his actors in order to bring out their inner-qualities into their performances. Who better than the woman who lived and breathed such practises? “During that time, I was playing in the traditional groups, but not creating my own music. For me, that was enough. It was a spiritual experience. I wasn’t even thinking about anything beyond that. But this creative theatre work I was doing opened a window in me, and I started to compose. These were the first seeds of what would become Zunido.

Renata didn’t waste a second. After graduating she packed her bags and took the forty-four hour road to Pernambuco, this time indefinitely. The mission was to start work on an album under the Renata Rosa banner that would encapsulate the enchanting environment that had adopted her in her formative years. I ask her what she wanted the public to feel when they listened to the album. “I wasn’t thinking about the public, I was thinking about the people,she replies, without missing a beat. Society is organised in a way that leads people away from themselves, so that they can be an instrument in a larger machine, and not think too much about that fact. Only work. Just work. In the end, when they’re getting tired, the machine just throws them away, and moves on to someone younger. Everything is built so that the individual can’t make contact with themselves. So what I wanted to provoke with this album was the activation of the spirit. Every culture has its own way, and this was mine. We were losing our connection with earth. But for me, it’s always been connected.”

Renata Rosa
Renata Rosa. Courtesy of the artist.

You can hear this philosophy in every melody on Zunido—a sonic link between the world we experience through sight, sound and smell and a spiritual other-realm which can only be felt. On the title track, which Renata wrote herself, she repeats two lines, more like incantations, as if possessed: Ô, Zunido da Mata / Asde cundum vem agora.

“ô, Zunido Da Mata’ is a calling. ‘Oh, the sounds of the forest!’ Asde cundum is a name that I invented. But in my imagination, I’m referring to a spiritual entity. It’s not an entity that exists, I gave him his name. ‘Asde Cundum, come now.’”

This track isn’t the only time you’ll hear Renata allude to an omnipresent entity on the album. On the track Me Leva, a standout on the album, in which Renata sings of a visit to the forest, she addresses an anonymous presence that haunts the area. Translated to English, it goes: I went into the woods to pick flowers, and I found you / Take me, take me / in the midst of the swirling veil / I could then see you / take me, take me. 

What does this entity represent? God? The Earth? “The energy of the forest. The guardians of the environment. You must understand: all of this religion connected to the forest, connected to the indigenous tradition, our African diasporic traditions, it was forbidden for centuries by the Catholic church. So, we found a way to communicate these spiritual ideas under the surface of these lyrics. So only those who know will understand. So, in Me Leva, I say take me away, but I never say who.”
It’s a lyrical Trojan Horse that announces itself proudly as an act of defiance against cultural erasure, and once Renata points it out, it’s impossible not to see her references to the forest entity everywhere. The most vivid of these portraits arrives in Mucunã, a song written by Guilherme Medeiros, a friend of Renata’s who isn’t a songwriter by trade but shares her affinity for music and the hum of the greenwoods. It’s perhaps one of the most life-affirming moments on the album, with Renata singing his love letter to nature over an upbeat guitar strum and the joyful twang of the rabeca. I recite his lyrics to her, pointing out the entity once again; ”I climbed the mountain to answer your call in the middle of the woods / I saw it all begin.” It only takes a second for her to jump in. “No meio da mata vi tudo começar…all of it is connected”, she says with a smile. “This was the only song he had ever written in his life. He was part of the band I used to play with in University, but now he’s an archeology professor. The song is so deep for that reason, though. It comes from his experience of going to the countryside for archaeological research. In the mountains, going back in time…it’s an ode to archeology.”

Alongside the spiritual undertones of Zunido Da Mata, what makes the album a work of extraordinary resonance is the sense of community and collaboration that feels built into its DNA. If you follow Renata on Instagram, you’ll regularly see stories of her cooking up impromptu melodies with friends; they won’t be in a studio, though, but sooner sitting on the grass in a wide-open garden space or around a kitchen table, rapping their knuckles against the nearest surface. Her friends and family are the musicians, and the world is their studio. Those who were lucky enough to see the first official Renata Rosa concert in February 2001 might not be aware of the fact, considering that by the time Rosa and her band of around a dozen musicians took the stage, they already had years of experience playing together in the traditional bands. “We knew each other very well”, says Renata. “We felt each other. When we’re on stage, there’s something on stage with us that isn’t visible, which is the spirit of the countryside: our experiences there, everything that is all around us. It gave us energy on the stage.” The concert marked the first time that the compositions that would eventually become Zunido Da Mata were played on stage, and so it’s not surprising to hear the same vivacious collaboration bleeding through on tracks like Là Em São Paulo and Serrador, where you can literally hear the sounds of the musicians clapping, laughing; so textured and alive that you can visualise the spaces they’re performing in. This noise, Renata says, was a fundamental element to making the album. “While recording, we would often think ‘It’s strange, a song like this… It’s nice, it has energy, but it’s too clean.’ Then we had the idea to go to the kitchen, and we took a bunch of plates and pans and wooden spoons and glasses etc. and went back to the studio and we started to have fun [laughs]. We were laughing and feeling joyful, and making sounds to bring this music to life. The song already had energy, but we needed to bring some chaos into it. Beautiful, joyful chaos.”

Renata Rosa
Renata Rosa performing in the Cavalo Marinho, 2000.

Like many artists, when I ask Renata which track is her favourite twenty years on, her instinct is to compare the question to the near-impossible task of a mother having to choose a favourite child. Finally, she settles. “For a long time, Assentei Praça was my favourite of all. Because it’s a tornado. The melody spins around. I didn’t want development for the strings, I just wanted it to keep turning and turning. It gives the mood of the trance. And the way the voices arrive in the song…it’s like a celebration.” A tornado might just be the perfect way to describe Assentei Praça, a track that will send your imagination skyward like a bottle rocket. It’s a song that on paper doesn’t make much sense at all: the instrumental loops and spins like a carnival carousel, technically stagnant but always moving, not to mention the fact that the instrumental washes over Rosa’s vocals with such intensity that she has to scream to be heard. But this is also what makes the track such a treat of sonic imagery. If you’ve never had the pleasure of visiting Brazil during Carnival, this is probably the next best thing. Picture this: you find yourself in the back alleys of São Paulo hearing the muted sounds of a celebration a few streets over. As you follow the music, your perception of it begins to evolve, and the notes start to come together in communal dance, the hint of a structure of a rhythm settling in as you approach a colourful crowd, moving in harmony; laughing; singing. “It brings lots of images to the imagination. Other musicians might analyse that song and come up short. ‘It’s doing the same thing over and over again, the harmonies don’t develop’. Well, I don’t care. [laughs]. The mood is there. Let’s break the rules. Singing is not only music, but also an action on the world. Your chant is an action, it can cure, it can make people dance. It can make people happy.” 

This is what Renata Rosa’s music inspires. This is the true spirit of Brazil. And, if Zunido Da Mata proves anything, it’s that when the music kicks off, the two are one and the same.