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Brazilian Girls

Playful Prodders

Brazilian Girls When Madonna sings on a shiny crucifix, she’s martyring herself for the children of the world. When Christina Aguilera drapes herself across a piano, she’s insisting she’s “trouble.” But if Brazilian Girls’ singer Sabina Sciubba was making a statement by appearing at Club Soda for this summer’s Montreal Jazz Festival wearing a blindfold and very high heels, dragging a ball and chain, and apparently struggling with a straitjacket, her aim was much less obvious.

In the diva sweepstakes, Sciubba occupies a niche all her own: she’s the Surrealist’s sex symbol. She’s been hailed by critics whose overheated prose might as well be describing the Brazilian Girls’ Beach Volleyball team (“When the black bar covering Sciubba’s chest finally fell off,” enthused one Washington Post scribe about watching her perform in a flesh-coloured body suit, “I nearly fainted”), but she achieves her attraction through unorthodox means.

Together with her bandmates (none of whom are Brazilian, and of whom she is the only girl), Sciubba makes music which resists stylistic categorization and evokes complicated mixtures of emotions — it’s certainly sensual and occasionally celebratory, but sometimes also disturbing. The group’s new album, Talk to La Bomb, has sharper edges than their self-titled 2005 debut, with Sciubba’s effortlessly sultry vocals often set off against menacing rhythms.

Dressed down in her hotel room before the Montreal gig, the animated singer remarks, “A lot of times, people try to dress me up Jennifer Lopez-style, with sexy push-up bras – they don’t get my vibe at all. I like concealing, mystery, and something that’s visually enticing.

“The blindfold has different associations. One of them is erotic; another one is poetic – Justice is blindfolded. Also, people can’t see my face properly. Everyone probably imagines some totally over-the-top supermodel kind of face — fine with me!”

Sciubba, who looks much too healthy to be a supermodel, developed her stage aesthetic while jamming with keyboardist/programmer Didi Gutzman, bassist Jesse Murphy, and drummer Aaron Johnston at NuBlu, a small Brooklyn club where the quartet met in 2002. NuBlu’s lack of a stage created an atmosphere where Sciubba could feel close to her audience but also needed to stand out — hence the costumes and blindfolds. The post-9/11 atmosphere in New York City itself, she explains, was also a big influence.

“The political events of the past couple of years almost made this band happen. We hate to be told what to do, and [the U.S.] government has this authoritarian thing going on, which in all of us created this [reaction]: ‘Excuse me?’ In NuBlu, there was a big sense of community, togetherness, purpose.”

Sciubba notes wryly that the Girls thought of thanking the Bush administration in their liner notes; after all, “an artist always needs a person to rebel against.” On Talk to La Bomb, the band positions itself against constraints and restraints, most explicitly on “Le Territoire.” With its martial bossa nova rhythm, the song tells of a strong-willed but “tender” girl who unwittingly trespasses in an unwelcoming “zone” in a foreign country, with frightening results; it was inspired by an attack on Sciubba’s dog by rabid street dogs in Mexico.

“I think that territorialism is a human instinct,” she says, “and together with nationalism and religious fanaticism, it’s prevailing. The song ended up being about the underdog stepping on the wrong ground.”

Montreal is undoubtedly the “right ground” for the band – a multilingual, international city with uninhibited fans who respond enthusiastically to the Girls’ arty grooves. At Club Soda, Sciubba, who was born in Rome, grew up in Nice and Münich and lived in London before New York City, addressed the crowd in both official languages after symbolically breaking out of her mock straitjacket. Soon, she had fans eating out of the palm of her hand: breaking open the ball that was attached to her chain, she unveiled a stash of candy, which she threw into the audience.

Even though the Girls like to prod their fans to think about authoritarianism and paranoia, they’re always playful, and sometimes, like the Surrealists and Dadaists Sciubba admires, they get downright silly. The reggae song “Pussy,” with its chorus, “Pussy pussy pussy marijuana,” has become the group’s signature audience-participation number.

“They pass up joints,” says Sciubba, “which sometimes is to our detriment. I remember when we played a smaller place in Montreal, somebody passed us this powerful joint, and it felt like everything had slowwwwwwed waaaaay down. I was doing some strange interpretive dance on stage’ I had no idea where it came from. It was not such a good idea.”

The song’s counterpart on Talk to La Bomb is the soon-to-be-infamous drum’n’bass-influenced number “Sexy Asshole,” whose slinky verses are in German. Sciubba can foresee bemused audiences asking, “What is she saying? ‘Sexy Sad Song?’” but the polyglot insists, “In German, it makes all the sense in the world.” No matter in what language Sciubba sings, it’s the tension that underlies the Brazilian Girls’ appeal: “It’s obviously about someone who’s a little bit of an asshole, but the sexiness prevails – for a minute.”

— Originally appeared in The National Post, Sep. 12, 2006


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