The Story of Axé Music in Brazil

By Fiona Hurrell, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Music is an indelible part of Brazil’s soul, a country which has nurtured and immortalized some of the world’s most distinct and renowned styles including samba, bossa nova and baile funk. Today, in Brazil at least, the sound of axé has swept the country with mega-stars like Claudia Leitte and Ivete Sangalo.

Claudia Leitte, one of Brazil's most popular musical talents performs axé, Brazil News

Claudia Leitte, one of Brazil's most popular musical talents performs axé, photo by Roger/Wikimedia Creative Commons License.

The story of axé started some 1,200 km north of Rio de Janeiro in Salvador, the capital of northeastern Bahia State.

The name axé is a word from a Yoruba (African tribe) greeting, and used in the Candomblé and Umbanda religions, meaning ‘soul,’ ‘light,’ ‘spirit’ or ‘good vibrations.’

Axé was not officially labeled until the eighties, despite its early development being traced back to a guitar style instrument from the fifties known as ‘guitarra baiana’ which incorporated electrical sounds commonly used in frevo music from Pernambuco.

In the beginning, axé remained largely instrumental in tone until the early seventies when musician, Moraes Moreira, left his band the ‘Novos Baianas’ to concentrate on axé alone thus transforming it, for a brief time, in to a solo music performance.

It wasn’t until Salvador’s 1974 regional Carnival however which, unlike its hugely spectacular counterpart in Rio de Janeiro, strongly features musical groups that axé really made its mark.

Prominent Axé artist Ivete Sangalo, Brazil News

Prominent axé artist Ivete Sangalo, photo by Raphael Koerich/Flickr Creative Commons License.

A group of Afro-Brazilian civil rights activists formed the Carnival band Ilê Aiyê and, rather than playing traditional Rio style samba, opted to perform a mixture of heavy rhythms, commonly associated with Candomblé religious ceremonies.

The group gained a huge following and inspired many other musicians in to incorporating this new and intriguing musical style which spread like wild fire through the Salvador Carnival blocos. These ‘bloco beats’ are credited for influencing popular eighties artists such as the group Banda Mel and Daniela Mercury.

The axé style is defined as a fusion of African and Caribbean genres such as marcha, reggae and calypso, along with some Afro-Brazilian overtures such as frevo, forró and carixada. It was finally granted official recognition following the release of Luiz Caldas’s album Magia in 1985, after which Caldas was given the title ‘King of Axé.’

This development then paved the way for wider recognition which came in the form of Daniela Mercury, whose hit album O Canto da Cidade sold 1.2 million copies in 1992, positioning her amongst the crème de la crème of Brazil’s musical talent.

Soon, axé music was everywhere, and by the mid-to-late nineties it was opening doors for several artists and bands such as Ivete Sangalo, Banda Eva and Chiclete com Banana.

The current, most popular axé artists are Ivete Sangalo and Claudia Leitte and a six member band called axé Bahia. The band has a modern style which combines Eurodance with axé and has earned the group a number of successful hits including ‘Beijo Na Boca,’ hugely popular throughout South America.

In Bahia today, axé music is very much maintained and passed on to new generations. The ‘Axé Project’ is one example, a band made up of teenagers and children from some of Salvador’s poorest areas, helping to keep them off the streets whilst preserving an important cultural legacy.

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