Mar Aberto SoundSystem: The Camp Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: Afro-Brazilian-rhythmically-based dub-reggae-cumbia-down-and-dirty-funk-and-then-some. In short: A good time.
File next to: The Meters, the Skatalites, Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes, Manu Chao, Jimmy Cliff, King Tubby, Abyssinians, Luiz Gonzaga, MAKU Soundsystem and more.
Playing: Camp Wavelength, Saturday August 29 (Late Night Set) at Artscape Gibraltar Point (Toronto Island) Get your ticket here! *Late Night Ferry Ticket Required. Purchase one here!

Hit up the band’s Bandcamp before you dive in to soundtrack the interview with a live recording.

Mar Aberto is Portuguese for “open sea” — fitting for an Island festival, even if our Lake, Great though it may be, lacks the oceanic flair of the Brazilian coast where the band’s musical roots lie. But Camp Wavelength will help pick up some of that slack — and the eight-piece-and-then-some collective known as Mar Aberto SoundSystem will definitely help with the flair, bringing to Camp the influences of not only the South Atlantic, but the Caribbean, and even Lake Ontario’s own contributions to the mix.

Rooted in maracatu, a northeastern Brazilian carnival parade tradition featuring drumming, dancing and costumes, two of MASS’s members also perform and teach with Maracatu Mar Aberto, an Afro-Brazilian percussion and song troupe that represents the living tradition of maracatu and hosts workshops that focus on its rhythm, technique, language, songs and instruments — drums, bells, shakers and other percussion. If this were rock’n’roll, we might call Mar Aberto SoundSystem a side project, but that seems an unfair demotion, so we’ll just call the groups cousins, and focus on MASS.

As the name implies, the group embodies the sound of the open sea, playing with the connections between various people, traditions and cultures separated by vast distances.

Wanting to spread their proverbial wings beyond the maracatu tradition, Mar Aberto SoundSystem add melodic instruments to the percussion base, and mine other traditions and African-derived rhythms from regions neighbouring maracatu’s home turf in the Brazilian northeast. These styles include cumbia, carimb ó and samba, along with those sounds of the Caribbean islands that lie between there and here, particularly the Jamaican sounds of dub and reggae, all served with a healthy dose of funk.

With members culled from across the local music scene — musicians from local funk/brass-band heavies the Heavyweight Brass Band, roots-reggae band the Human Rights, funk outfit Yuka, Cuban-jazz group Maqueque and with space-funk/electro artist Maylee Todd, the aforementioned Maracatu Mar Aberto, and more, playing drums, percussion, guitars and horns — their music is primarily new arrangements of songs from up and down North and South America, with a few originals thrown in as well.

Ahead of their late-night set at Camp Wavelength, we caught up with members Alex Bordokas and Jonathan Rothman for a massive MASS primer.

How did the group come together?

AB: Well as our name suggests, it came out of Maracatu Mar Aberto. Several of us percussionists playing maracatu wanting to expand and play other stuff using our influences in dub and reggae.

JR: Alex had long been talking about starting a band, a project he described as a “dub roots soundsystem,” with maracatu and other Brazilian percussion but also with instruments like bass, guitar and horns. He first put together Repercussions around 2009, and, with a bit of a rotating cast of musicians, it lasted for about a year or so. Once he had Maracatu Mar Aberto going strong, in late 2011, a few of the core members of the maracatu started talking about mounting a stage group to explore other rhythms and performing in a smaller formation. MASS debuted in April 2012, at an Uma Nota reggae party.

What’s a nice Greek boy and a nice Jewish boy doing eyeball-deep in the Toronto Afro-Brazilian scene?

AB: I guess it is the downtown Toronto multilingual CIUT- and CKLN-listening nerd-boy who happened to travel a lot early on and became more than comfortable listening to music that wasn’t in English. After I moved to Brazil in 2000, it totally changed my perspectives on the world. It was like school. I’ve been part of the scene both here and in Brazil, ever since.

JR: My Brazilian-music journey began in Victoria, B.C. around 2000, where I was training in the Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira while at UVic and soon became obsessed with Brazilian music and rhythms, playing in some of the capoeira group’s shows, and in San Francisco, where I briefly lived after Victoria. I’m from Toronto and would visit often, and had already been involved in that scene somewhat, through playing in various groups when I moved back to the city. I soon became very involved in Samba Elégua and later more with Maracatu Nunca Antes, and when Uma Nota started all of that seemed to grow together for me.

Uma Nota is an event series co-founded in 2007 by Alex, me and our partner in crime Jason “General Eclectic” Sanders, a well-known local DJ and graphic designer. At the time, Alex was co-leading the first and original Toronto-based maracatu group (Maracatu Nunca Antes, now defunct), Jason was the resident DJ and visual artist, and I was leading Samba Elégua.

Pretty soon I was both one of the Uma Nota organizers and playing in several local Brazilian groups.

So Uma Nota inspired MASS?

JR: In a sense, it’s true that MASS is the perfect Uma Nota party band, as the music and vibe — the great mix of influences and lots of Brazilian drums, creating that space for people to just let go, hear new sounds and enjoy — is in some ways the essence of the Uma Nota experience. But the band wasn’t created specifically for Uma Nota parties. While they are a great fit together, Uma Nota remains in many ways a rotating spotlight performance series, so we’re careful not to overdo it with our own band. But sometimes it’s the right act for a given party, just like sometimes the all-percussion Maracatu Mar Aberto performance can be as well. But we try to keep it varied. Uma Nota has presented and continues to present many Brazilian bands and percussion groups based locally and abroad in our own events and festival as well as for others, like Luminato and elsewhere.


MASS (with special guests) at the Uma Nota Block Party, Aug. 9, 2015. Photos by Yo Dub

Talk about the music you guys play. Inasmuch as we know that no two artists (should) play the same thing, would it be something that the average Wavelengther would have come across in our adventures? Where could we come across it in Toronto, and who might we listen to to get a sense of what it is? It looks like a party onstage; is that accurate?

AB: Hmmm… I think what we do in Toronto is very unique. There are a few people doing similar stuff with percussion, dub and cumbia — like Tdot Sound Crew — but not many. MAKU in New York is one, and there are a number of bands in Brazil.

JR: I’d say to prepare, people should listen to this tune: It’s about drinking cachaça, the famous Brazilian sugarcane spirit [Ed. note: famous for appearing in such cocktails as the caipirinha]. In the background, you can hear the singer and his pals, as though they are at the bar, talking about how drunk they will get. “Nobody will get drunk tonight” is a loose translation of the chorus, though in addition to the usual kind of drunk, it can also mean intoxicated, say by an atmosphere, like a lively party. [Ed. note: the motto, coincidentally, of Camp Wavelength. Or the opposite of the motto of Camp Wavelength. Ed. is having a hard time remembering].

AB: The music we play [looks like a party] but I would say it’s more like a liminal state of bliss that can take you on a ride in a party but can also elicit emotions [that make] you feel like a kid again.

Describe the “sound system” referenced in your name.

AB: Sound system is what we are. A live system. It’s a reference to the sound system sound played live and connected to a generation that doesn’t see things in terms of one genre only.

How would you prepare an island full of Campers for the MASS experience? Rhythmically, for one, samba and cumbia aren’t quite the four-on-the-floor rhythms rock-fest folk might be used to. Any tips?

JR: We’re planning something special and fun for our Camp Wavelength beach set. This video might help get people ready — but note that the video doesn’t feature our new line-up. For the first time in the history of the project, we have a full drum-kit drummer. Up until now, it was always more pairs of hands-on percussion, so the addition of Magdelys Savigne on drum kit and percussion, was big this year. We also have added new songs, including some reggae gems, and our live sound has been coming together like never before in recent shows.

AB: My one tip: Just give in.

— Interview by Jonathan Campbell

Photo credit Pascaline Le Bras

Mar Aberto SoundSystem play Camp Wavelength Saturday, August 29 at Artscape Gibraltar Point (Toronto Island). Get your single day tickets here! Or better yet, join us for the whole weekend and get a Festival Pass!