Bossa man

Music 2 byPhil Johnson

In the work of the American composer, guitarist and singer Arto Lindsay, everything has its double. Lapping waves of Brazilian bossa nova are dashed against the rocks of downtown New York noise; lyrics in both English and Portuguese recall the oral traditions of South America as well as the tropes of surrealist love poetry; chattering electronic rhythms borrowed from drum'n'bass are mixed with the humble sounds of acoustic guitar and home-made percussion instruments; and conventional song structures dissolve into dizzying, expressionist perspectives that refer to Weill, Eisler and Varese.

Perhaps as a consequence, Lindsay's brand of avant-garde pop isn't actually very popular, but it's certainly very good. "I'm getting a little tired of being part of the intelligentsia, and I'm looking to branch out," Lindsay says laconically. "It's more fun to play to people who don't know what to expect. It's also one of the ten basic rules of seduction." His recent series of three albums, O Corpo Sutil, Mundo Civilizado and Noon Chill (all released here on the Rykodisc label) are as seductive as you could wish for. They comprise an informal trilogy of what might best be described as proto-21st-century folk music, although this is hardly Aran sweater territory. Like the folk traditions that once developed along age-old trade routes, Lindsay's music follows the flightpaths and digital phone lines of modern communication, from New York to Rio to Tokyo. His musical accomplices are equally wide-ranging and include Ryuichi Sakamoto, Brian Eno, Bill Frisell, Laurie Anderson, Caetano Velosa and DJ Spooky.

While the resulting bricolage of different musical styles and cultural traditions relates to a larger social context, it also reflects Lindsay's own background. From the ages of three to 18, Lindsay (who was born in Virginia) was brought up in north-eastern Brazil, where his parents were serving as Presbyterian Church of Scotland missionaries. After attending college in Florida, where he read literature and produced a book of poetry for his dissertation, Lindsay moved to New York at the time of punk rock.

Despite the handicap of not being able to play the guitar, he soon became the bandleader and guitarist of the "noise" group DNA, who were included in Brian Eno's influential No New York compilation album. Later projects included the groups the Ambitious Lovers and the Golden Palominos, and work as a sideman with the jazz experimentalists John Lurie and John Zorn.

In parallel with his interest in serious noise, Lindsay was also beginning to let his Brazilian roots show through. "There was always melody in my music, but my idea of melody is probably broader than most people's," he says. "Even in DNA, I used Portuguese lyrics and Brazilian rhythms, and with the Ambitious Lovers I began to mix samba with elements of funk and noise." The big breakthrough came when Ryuichi Sakamoto asked him to make a bossa nova album for a Japanese label. "I said I'd do an album about bossa nova," Lindsay says. His second career as a producer - working with Marisa Monte, Caetano Velosa and Vinicius Cantuaria - has also helped to define the new wave of Brazilian popular music, where traditional song-forms have been infused with elements from hip-hop and dance music.

According to Vinicius Cantuaria, "bossa nova needed help. It went to sleep and the new generation of DJs and samplers helped to wake it up. But the lyrics remain the same; they are like a newspaper." For Lindsay, his lyrics are of paramount importance. "I guess I thought of myself as a poet, and even the music is conceived of as working like poetry," he says. "The Brazilian thing in particular is about poetry. It was an oral culture and people couldn't read so the political and philosophical weight that writers have in South America went into songs as well as books. The level of the lyrics, and what is expected of the songwriter, is incredibly high."

The Arto Lindsay Band plays Birmingham CBSO Centre (0121-236 5622) on 23 April. The tour continues via Oxford, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, London and Brighton. Telephone the Contemporary Music Network (0171-973 6504) for dates and details

This article first appeared in the 19 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Prepare for a brave new world