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Portrait: Arto Lindsay
Philosopher of Sound

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 15 April 2000
- The son of a Presbyterian missionary in Brazil, Arto Lindsay, born and raised there, is also a child of Tropicalia. A mixture of Anglo-American rock with regional and international currents, the sophisticated musical movement called Tropicalia came out of Brazil's 1960s counterculture.

It was mostly samba-based. One critic called it ''radically ingenious'' pop music. It did not last long; the rest of the world never really caught up with it.

Lindsay spends three or four months a year in Rio. The rest of the time he lives in downtown Manhattan, where once upon a time he helped found a gritty post-punk movement called ''no wave.'' He is a genre-breaker, and broker, he says, a hybrid par excellence.

Not that his sort is in short supply. They are a movement. The planetary fusions of people like Lindsay, Kip Hanrahan, David Byrne, John Zorn and Bill Laswell have been our most interesting, if not most profitable, contemporary music for some time. And there is more and more of such music as it rises from the underground.

Lindsay's press kit describes his new album, Prize (Rykodisc), as ''edgy sounds with a Brazilian beat.'' Lilting, slinky, literate, it can get quite dense with its Brazilian and Afro-Cuban percussion, tight string and horn backgrounds, electro-acoustic constructions, static, loops and silence.

Even the silence is dense. Lindsay, who writes and sings in English and Portuguese, produces and mixes his songs with sensitivity and attention to detail.

His first major group was called DNA. They described themselves as ''noise architects.'' Wired magazine called Lindsay ''the most dangerous man in New York.'' Part of DNA's aim was to impose nonmusical structure on music, breaking down a spoken sentence, for example, into its rhythmic components.

Over the years Lindsay has crafted soundscapes from delicate pop to sonic assault. He has worked with the performance artist Laurie Anderson, with Brian Eno, and with the Tropicalia giants Caetano Veloso, Vinicius Canturaria and Gal Costa.

Ben Ratliff of The New York Times called Lindsay an ''all-around musical weather vane with a particularly keen desire to introduce the pleasures of Brazilian music to the rest of the world.'' His lines of communication are connected to the popular music of New York, Rio, Salvador, Naples, Tokyo, Cologne, Lisbon and Paris.

Not mentioned in many music encyclopedias, however, Lindsay is not yet exactly mass-marketed.

Over the years, he connected with other cult heroes such as The Lounge Lizards, The Golden Palominos and The Ambitious Lovers - the kind of bands that worked downtown clubs like Max's Kansas City and CBGB's, where people were too busy relating to the opposite sex and getting high to bother listening.

As he recalls it, ''We just had to get in there and do battle with them.'' Performance is still a battle in North America for him. Now his band is currently touring France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Greece, Macedonia and Slovenia in support of Prize.

Lindsay considers the album to be merely ''an extension of earlier ones.''

''People seem to be disappointed when I do something that is basically a continuation,'' he said. ''They expect something earth-shattering each time. Sometimes I just feel like working harder on the old things, making them better. 'Prize' has more hip-hop, more of that Brooklyn funk, than earlier records. The idea was to blend those basic beats into the Brazilian stuff we've been doing.''

Lindsay is a philosopher of sound more than a sound engineer or producer. ''I'm not a hands-on sort of guy,'' he shrugs. For a long time he resisted having a Web site because he did not have the time or the interest to make it more than an advertisement. (His manager finally convinced him that something basic would be better than nothing.)

He would rather think about ''new ways to use old technology. Let's see if we can break this thing. What will it sound like when it breaks? Things seem to sound good when they sputter and die. Basically, I just try to do things that will sound new when you hear them 10 years from now.''

Rejecting the communications superhighway, Anderson was recently quoted saying: ''I want to be where I am.'' Lindsay was struck by that. He had been thinking along the same lines: ''People are away all the time now. They are on the Internet, on cell phones, flying off in airplanes. In a sense it's like leaving your body. They are not really concentrated on where they physically are. The thing I really like about music is that it wakes you up to where you are. Here and now.''

Specifically, Brazilian pop music is strong enough to be both ''here'' and ''there.'' It projects the best face of a country as well as a world view. Of course there is such a thing as bad Brazilian pop, but the country is ''so huge that many styles grow and develop in isolation from each other.''

The best of it is deep - it makes you think. It makes you want to dance. However, it is sung in Portuguese and, largely for that reason, never had the influence it deserved.

Lindsay continues to think that ''it is inevitable that Brazilian music will become really popular and mean a lot to people all over the world. People are finally beginning to look and see that Brazil is capable of pointing to new directions - rather than as only a beautiful but primitive and violent place. Now they're saying, 'Hey. Maybe these people are as smart as we are.''

Arto Lindsay Prize

Arto Lindsay: Prize (Rykodisc)

An edited version of this article first appeared in the International Herald Tribune.

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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