The ‘Brazilian Electronica’ Of César Camargo Mariano And Prisma (1984-7): Hybridization Or Tradition?

Mixing Synthesizers and Brazilian Music

This paper discusses the work of the Prisma project, which happened between 1984 and 1987 and whose main purpose was to introduce synthesizers and MIDI technologies to the tradition called música popular brasileira (‘Brazilian popular music’; the anacronym ‘MPB’ is widely used as well) as a significant purpose of their work, by making extensive use of state-of-the-art technology and introducing electronic sounds (including sound effects) and music sequencers in their studio and onstage performances. Unlike those involved in the making of funk carioca in Rio de Janeiro and technobrega in Northern Brazil some years later, most of the Prisma participants were established professionals who had been working with acoustic or electromechanical instruments for a decade or more when the project started. Since electronic musical instruments were rare in Brazil in the eighties and MPB comprised a long-standing controversy about musical Brazilianness (including the use of imported electric and electronic instruments) and a portion of Prisma’s music was influenced by the use of technology in the studio and onstage as much as borrowing from experimental electronic music and electronic dance music, it proposes a question: can the music recorded and performed during the project be called a hybrid or does it integrally belong MPB? Looking for an answer, it refers to ethnomusicological works and literature on hybridity in popular music to explore the antagonism between electronic music and tradition in Brazilian music in the seventies and eighties.

Pianist and keyboardist César Camargo Mariano, who had been experimenting with synthesizers and MIDI devices at his own home studio, started the Prisma project in early 1984. He formed a new band and wrote some tunes for a new show, which premiered in late August. The intended five-day season was acclaimed by the public and by the specialized media and ran for another weekend. When a major technology and home appliance conglomerate, proposed a long-term contract which allowed the group to release two instrumental albums, Prisma (1985) and Ponte das estrelas (1986), and perform two different nationwide concert tours: Prisma-SID (April-September 1985) and Prisma II or Ponte das estrelas (April-October 1986).

According to César Camargo Mariano, the project participants did not intend to make any kind of ‘electronic music’, but bring new sounds and musical practices into MPB. They wanted to use the latest gear in his studio sessions and concerts, including MIDI sequencers and computer-based applications. This approach became more visible after December 1984, when Dino Vicente de Lucca Jr. joined the band. He was one of the very few synthesizer and MIDI specialists in São Paulo at the time and would work as a MIDI technician and synthesizer programmer and stay at the sound booth during the concerts, but it was quickly decided that he would perform onstage instead.

Dino Vicente’s arrival brought new influences to Prisma. He used to work as a session musician in MPB recordings, but favored progressive rock and electronic music and listened to Karlheinz Stockhausen, Kraftwerk, Afrika Bambaataa, Jean-Michel Jarre, British synth-pop bands and Giorgio Moroder’s productions. He and Mariano saw their collaboration as a great opportunity to search for a new Brazilian electronic sound with the help of the latest recording and performing techniques and technologies, particularly the MIDI sequencer[1].

Since its early days, revamping MPB through the use of electronic sounds was one of Prisma’s most important purposes. In the liner notes of the Prisma LP ‘white-sleeved’ special edition (aimed to be distributed as a Christmas gift to the sponsor’s clients and friends), the sponsoring company states:

Brazilian instrumental music has moved to a new direction with the help of computers. It is no longer possible to say that the sound is exclusively acoustic. By the way, each new instrument that happens to be used, like the computer at this very moment, opens new creative possibilities […] this is a real innovation on technique and on the art of sculpting new sounds, renovating MPB. (SID Informática: 1985, author’s translation)

The Ponte das estrelas liner notes are even more emphatic:

The eyes of the purists will widen up and, as usual, they will keep their ears shut tight to this new experience. They believe it is absurd to see masterworks like Chico Buarque and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘Sabiá’ re-arranged with high tech sounds. When the future knocks at their door, they will be taken by surprise. They will say they are not home. They believe the past must be preserved and, whenever it comes back, come back exactly as it happened first. They forget that music is not static or conservative like their minds. Music travels in time. It does not have a past or a future. It is subject to transformation. It is here and now, all the time. (Mafra: 1986, author’s translation)

No one in Prisma has ever aspired to create a so-called ‘electronic music’ – which means here a music fundamentally based on aesthetic possibilities provided exclusively by electronic means, and not a music produced with the help of electronic means as Simon Emmerson (2007) describes it – but instrumental MPB with a new element: electronic sounds. Like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes and the other Tropicalists two decades earlier, they wanted to ‘be in the world’ and to create a brand new musical synthesis whose nationality would be clearly Brazilian with the help of analog and digital synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, computers and MIDI interfaces. However, some pieces written and recorded by Prisma had been written as part of a multimedia spectacle and functioned as a soundtrack in some moments, which led participants to explore different aspects: non-tempered synthesized sounds and recorded audio as compositional materials.

Hybrids and Hybridization

According to César Camargo Mariano (2012):

I would call most of the Prisma music as Brazilian music because Brazilians have conceived it and its essence is Brazilian regardless of the rhythms. But some of our pieces cannot be considered as such: we quoted foreign sounds in some specific moments of our records and concerts. In the end, we had an unclassifiable mix. Nevertheless, those moments were sparse in our activities. We saw them as gimmicks. The core of Prisma’s music is made of Brazilian music (author’s translation).

When a potential new musical blend comes before our eyes, its results and impacts arouse curiosity. Attempting to fit it within a preexisting tradition – which means a systematically arranged compendium of cultural values, which are seen by a group of people as part of their collective identity and therefore subject to preservationism and transmitted from generation to generation – or to create a new one from it, might be seen as an inevitable consequence of our tendency to classify music. Yet sometimes a single category is not enough for that particular music, as it may still show a state of alterity in its constitution and expose numerous important exceptions. Therefore, the class of ‘hybrids’ has been set to encompass all beings and things located across a boundary zone. According to Néstor Garcia Canclini (2005, p. 31), the image of a precipice can be used to describe a boundary zone. When someone builds a bridge over it, people from both sides start to cross it and experience life on the other side, absorbing foreign cultural elements and eventually mixing them with their own ones.

Some of the most important anthropological studies on hybridity, hybrids and hybridization treat culture under a national state perspective and investigate its interactions with global phenomena. But no group of people is immune to difference within itself; hence it is not possible to talk of pure national cultures but stable traditions that are always subject to change as a consequence of contacts with the outer world. The crossing of boundaries may result in the mixture of two or more dissimilar elements and give birth to cultural products whose fitting into a single existing tradition is impossible due to a multiple patchwork structure where every single component, and consequently the presence of the other, can be perceived. Nevertheless, cultural hybrids are always questionable as stable traditions are very frequently invented and imposed by an act of political, economical or even military power.

Electronic musical instruments and Brazilianness

Brazilianness in culture has always been a problematic topic and both scholars and artists have been attempting either to support it or to question it through the years. In spite of its diversity, Brazil has taken a protectionist stance not only in foreign trade but also in culture, seeing a number of official and unofficial efforts to invent a for-export national culture with doors shut to imported elements and relying on scholarly research to identify what is effectively Brazilian and what is foreign. According to recent ethnomusicological studies, the concept of música popular brasileira has been invented during the thirties and forties (particularly during the Estado Novo dictatorship of President Getúlio Vargas, between 1937 and 1945) when some elements (particularly the samba) have been cemented as the foundations of all local music. Charles A. Perrone and Christopher Dunn (2002) state that Brazilianness functioned as an ideology of national identity transcending varied differences of class, race and region and causing a surge of cultural nationalism and a flourishing in popular music. Although it was not part of the everyday life of many Brazilians, samba gained a status of the premier genre of national popular music since the thirties. This status has reached the U.S. Latin music landscape, according to Deborah Pacini Hernandez (2010, p. 165). As a consequence black, poor musicians from Rio de Janeiro benefited from the popularity of that kind of music among the higher classes and participated in efforts to legitimize it and institutionalize it.

According to Bryan McCann (2006, p. 41):

Between the late 1920s and the early 1940s, samba evolved from a marginal musical genre performed almost exclusively in a few, predominantly poor and Afro-Brazilian neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro into the mainstay of a burgeoning industry and a widely recognized symbol of Brazilian national identity […] The authority of the icon depended on at least the illusion of unanimity and inevitability. Assertions that samba was the principal expression of Brazilianness fostered an ahistorical understanding that samba had always meant Brazil, and vice versa.

In this sense, Brazil has shown a different outlook than the one provided by Pacini Hernandez in her book Oye Como Va: Hybridity and Identity in Latino Popular Music. Although racial and group issues were very important aspects in the making of its national music, the federal government has been instrumental on the process of establishing samba as the country’s musical expression par excellence. It became part of a modern society plan and, even though many people have proposed changes to its main features, subject to preservationist efforts intending to keep it intact.

The discussion concerning music and Brazilianness has reached musical instrument technology and record production with the ultimate rise of Brazilian rock during the ‘Jovem Guarda’ wave in the mid-sixties. Although the industry and the media nurtured controversy to boost either rock or MPB record sales and increase record sales and audience ratings, electric guitars were actually seen by many Brazilian fans, musicians and scholars as a symbol of foreign threat to the national music purity. The Tropicália movement, which, according to Perrone and Dunn (op. cit), critiqued orthodox cultural nationalism and renovated the popular music of Brazil by creatively engaging with international countercultures and trying to achieve a new sound, has openly contested this opposition, in addition to practicing cultural cannibalism to devour foreign pop music. The Third Festival of Brazilian Popular Music, organized and aired by São Paulo’s Record TV in late 1967, marked the beginning of a new phase where MPB started to seek internationalization. Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, two Tropicalist artists who participated at the event, were after a synthesis of the tradition of Brazilian song and the latest developments in international pop (particularly influenced by the Beatles and by Jimi Hendrix) that they called ‘the universal sound’. It was at this point that electrified instruments started to be used at Brazilian music festivals and events, which caused controversy among conservative music fans and critics since ‘the use of electric instruments and rock arrangements was often regarded as a capitulation to U.S. cultural imperialism’ (Dunn, C: 2002). Some artists who took part at Tropicália, most notably the band Os Mutantes, explored new sonic possibilities.

As John J. Harvey (2002) explains:

[guitarist] Sérgio Dias Baptista played a number of unusual, homemade electric guitars provided by Claudio César, the third Baptista brother […] who fabricated guitars and equipment with built-in distortion, harmonic filters, and other sound effects that were not common in the United States, as well as amplifiers, a wah-wah pedal, and a guitar wired to a sewing machine. The adoption of technology was key to the Tropicália movement, helping to destabilize facile alignments of ‘authentic’ or ‘indigenous’ with a notion of edenic premodernity.

Tropicalists made critical interventions in discussions about cultural authenticity in national popular music. Artists, according to singer and songwriter Caetano Veloso, assumed a posture of ‘being-in-the-world’, rejecting official standards or the role of a Third World country living in the shadows of richer and more developed nations (Dunn: op. cit). Some of them, like Os Mutantes, showed even irreverence toward hegemonic valorizations of cultural production, examining its own location in comparison to European and North American cultural industries as a primary discussion theme through their art. Their music, according to Harvey (op. cit), was first and foremost a juxtaposition of elements coming from different places.

While electric guitars caused controversy among conservative MPB fans and artists through the sixties, electric keyboard instruments were generally well accepted and used without major dispute in recording sessions and concerts. Hammond organs, combo organs, Hohner Clavinets and electric pianos were being used for more than a decade. And the first ARP and Moog synthesizers started to land in Brazil by 1971, brought by musicians who traveled overseas, purchased the instruments and smuggled them into the country[2]. The first national recording featuring a synthesizer solo (‘Balada do Louco’, by Os Mutantes) was released in May, 1972; one year and a half after Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s ‘Lucky Man’, reputedly the first-ever rock track with a lead synthesizer solo (Calado: 1995, p. 266), hit the record stores. In spite of their peaceful acceptance among MPB artists and fans (particularly if compared to the electric guitars), electric and electronic keyboards remained rare and never led to new major aesthetic changes through the decade. Like in the North American and European ‘moog albums’, they were generally treated as exotic sound machines complementing pop and rock bands. Under this perspective, some Brazilian synthesizer albums were released in the seventies – starting with Banda Elétrica’s Banda Elétrica (1973) and organist Renato Mendes’s Electronicus (1974) – with little commercial success. In spite of the release of some limited edition print classical electronic albums in the following years (for example Rodolfo Caesar’s A arte dos sons, released in 1978), no synthesizer-based rock or MPB album has been released in Brazil until Prisma’s first LP hit the stores in early 1985.

The Prisma blend

Unlike what happened in the United States when hybrids of rock and rap emerged, as described by Jason Middleton and Roger Beebe (2002), the Prisma project participants were not focusing mainly on boosting record sales or reaching new audiences when they started using new technologies. Backed up by sponsors who financed their activities and made the access to overpriced and hard-to-find equipment feasible to them, they wanted to find ways to use synthesizers and computers and retain the usual Brazilianness while making music for their usual audiences. Therefore, most of the project’s music is based on musical notes, twelve-tone scales and tonal structures. It stresses some key characters of the instrumental MPB tradition as described in some studies carried by ethnomusicologist Acácio Piedade (2003): the brejeiro aspect (cheerful exhibitions of playing virtuosity and improvisational skills); extensive use of the Northeastern Brazilian mixolydian mode; the época de ouro (‘golden age’), comprised of some references to the works of Chiquinha Gonzaga, Ernesto Nazareth, Heitor Villa-Lobos and some other Brazilian classical music composers of the early 20th century; and the use of uneven rhythms with a swinging feel like the choro, the baião, the frevo and the samba (in addition to foreign-born rhythms which have been already integrated, like the salsa and the North American funk). And the band members saw the recording engineer as a band member, even though traditionalists favored a very human and intuitive approach to music and the ability to sing or play in real time, no matter if the musician had formal training and could read or write music.

Most pieces recorded during the Prisma project featured simple arrangements where musicians looked for a handful of synthesized sounds and synthesizers could be playing approximately like electronic organs. In this sense this perspective is not different from the one César Camargo Mariano had been taking since 1963, when he first played a Hammond organ in the studio. In spite of that, a small number of tracks have been directly inspired by the possibilities made available by electronic instruments. The title track of the Prisma album features a patchwork structure where completely different segments featuring different instrumentations – but always highlighting sequenced parts and human musicians playing together and emphasizing interactions between men and machines – are put together thanks to tape splicing. It begins with an ‘electronic intro’, created with four basic non-tempered synthesized sounds: a drone and three sound effects. It does not offer a sense of pulse and most of its sounds move back and forth through the stereophonic horizontal plane. When the intro ends and the main theme begins, a sequenced drum machine and a root synthesizer bass triggered by the repeat function of a Sequential Pro-One monophonic synthesizer and synchronized through a FSK connection are joined by two human percussionists and three keyboardists playing in real time. Sequenced drum patterns, most of them featuring a single synthesized handclap sound, come and go while musicians play their parts (and improvise) taking care not to disturb the overall rhythm synchronicity even when the drum machine is muted. However, they could not play all their parts on a single take: the arrangement had many different synthesizer parts requiring multiple rig set-ups and the studio rooms were not large enough to accommodate three keyboardists, a drummer and a percussionist with their full rigs playing together. Hence, in addition to heavy overdubbing, the group has split the arrangement into eight different segments and recorded some of them separately. The recording and mixing engineer was left with the task of splicing them together. Analyzing the sound file with the help of a time stretching-capable computer program like Ableton Live, one can notice that it is difficult to quantize even the sequenced parts, which means that the process of putting all segments together has left some small imprecise gaps in between.

In ‘Os Breakers’, a foray into electro-funk that has been inspired by the sight of a street dance performance and recorded for the Prisma album as well, a sequenced drum machine eight-bar loop plays repeatedly in the first part. At a certain point a section of loop is repeated to create a non-regular drum break, and shortly after the whole loop is played fully inverted. Given the fact that no samplers were used in the recording sessions, both sections indicate a creative use of tape splicing. Whenever the ideas were too much for the electronic instruments and the computers, there was still the recording engineer with his splicing blocks, blades and adhesive tape. Shortly after the inverted drum loop and the breaks, the Pro-One synth has been used to emulate record scratches and play nine different phrases with varied pitches, thanks to low-frequency oscillator routings. The Prisma group has never featured a disc jockey in its line-up, but its members were not immune to turntablism. Turntablist DJs were very rare in Brazil at the time and vinyl scratches were new to mainstream Brazilian popular music at the time and would only start to be taken seriously by the tradition stalwarts after some truly crossover tracks like ‘Kátia Flávia’, by Fausto Fawcett e os Robôs Efêmeros, and ‘Condição’ by Lulu Santos, started to climb the national charts in 1986/7. The Brazilian hip-hop movement was starting, particularly in São Paulo, but its representatives needed some years to emerge from the underground. In the meantime, its music attracted artists like César Camargo Mariano, who quoted it occasionally.

Also, ‘Os Breakers’ is an electronic groove-based track. Most of its structure is based on a repeating block pattern that attempts to leave the listener with a feeling of being pushed and move to its rhythm. The rhythm section, comprised of the same drum machine loop that keeps sounding from the very beginning of the track, and a synthesizer bass line, plays on and on without major changes. Meanwhile, César Camargo Mariano plays the main theme over the groove with a Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer. Little by little, he starts improvising until it is time for the band to play the tune’s ‘part B’, where guitarist Crispin del Cistia takes the lead and all sequenced parts disappear for a while.

The 1986 live album Ponte das Estrelas features a seven-member band and appears to be a step backwards on electronic experimentalism. Attempting to expose integration between the acoustic and the electronic instruments, according to producer Luiz Carlos Maluly (2013), it does not offer an adequate picture of the concerts where the recording sessions were held, as two tunes with heavy sequencer use have not been included on the album track list due to commercial reasons. CBS seemed to target the album to the jazz segment and to want to market this updated Prisma group to worldwide jazz audiences as something like a Brazilian Chick Corea Elektric Band. However, the track ‘Dom Quixote’ shows an example of the use of a MIDI sequencer in a live performance with a software-based system controlling drum and synth bass patterns and providing a click to keep musicians playing at the same tempo, even when the sequenced lines gives way to a wholly human performance in the middle of the song.


When we focus on popular music, the mere recognition of a blend is not enough to define a hybrid: it must contain a considerable aesthetic instability. Consequently, investigation must be carried out on a case-by-case basis. If we consider the Prisma project albums and their heterogeneous track lists, we will find some arrangements where synthesizers can be replaced by non-electronic instruments without major adaptations. With a peaceful introduction of new sounds to an established tradition as its main purpose in mind, we can state that those particular tracks are not hybrid and do not expose a boundary zone between different traditions, but a desired perfect integration of electronic sounds within the limits of a non-electronic single tradition: música popular brasileira. But a small group of tracks, where the music belonging to another tradition has been quoted or results from some specific possibilities revealed by the use of electronic devices, reveal an indeterminate zone where a multiplicity of compositional materials and sounds intermingle without control. Consequently, it is not possible to provide a single classification for the music or fit it perfectly inside the boundaries of a single tradition. Considering the Prisma project as part of Brazilian popular music, we can describe tracks like ‘Prisma’, ‘Os Breakers’ and ‘Dom Quixote’ as hybrids. As a result, its music can be the outcome of hybridization in some moments and be part of the tradition in others. However, given some particularities of Brazilian culture and music (like the invention of música popular brasileira due to a government-backed political project), this specific process involves music style, consumption and market issues, instead of racial or regional ones.


1. De Lucca Jr. (personal correspondence to the author, 2009) and Mariano (personal correspondence to the author, 2012).

2. Both César Camargo Mariano and Dino Vicente de Lucca Jr. agreed that it was very difficult to buy a new synthesizer or keyboard instrument in Brazil in the sixties or seventies. According to Mariano (2012), ‘they were very expensive and very hard to find! Also, we had very little information about new models and the only place where we could find one would be a recording studio’ (author’s translation). And Dino Vicente (2009) states: ‘somewhere in the seventies, the federal government banned imports, supposedly to protect the national industry, but it was a bad move which has kept musicians from having the best instruments in their hands and favored smuggling’ (author’s translation).


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—————– (2012,b) Personal correspondence to the author. Unpublished.

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