The story of Uniao Black mirrors aspects of Brian Wilson’s Smile mythology. The thirteen-piece combo was literally the sound of Brazil in the late ’70s: Its members had backed major figures across Black Rio (a movement from the late ’60s to late ’70s that fused Brazilian aesthetics with American soul and funk music) including Tim Maia and Tony Tornado and had formed the backing band of the seminal Gerson King Combo. Yet at the height of its popularity the group did not have an album of its own. Unlike Wilson, who succumbed to pressure trying to complete his masterpiece, Uniao Black eventually released its self-titled opus in 1977. And it was everything anyone could have hoped for — a head-nodding, hip-shaking/thrusting affair on par with Kool & the Gang’s and Earth, Wind & Fire’s debuts. However, the label broke up the group over a financial dispute before the album was released. The members quickly dispersed, the album fell into circulation mostly among collectors over the years, and the group became more of a legend than a reality.
In 2004, this changed when four of the group’s core members reunited after nearly thirty years to record the long-awaited follow-up — and to re-realize the group’s potential. And, much like Wilson’s twenty-first-century triumph, Banda Uniao Black is more than a comeback in that it exceeds all expectations, especially for a reunion album. Under the careful guidance of Daniel Collas and Sean Marquand, both noted experts in music from Uniao Black‘s heyday and all-around Brazilophiles, the pair known as Embassy Sound Productions (ESP) walks the high road by using a deejay/collector’s appreciation to preserve the aesthetic of the band while updating it only when necessary. As a result, the album balances the band’s strengths with contemporary retro-minded tools.
The song selection, notably the opening cover of Hot Chocolate’s disco stroller “Everyone’s a Winner,” and the band’s earthy vibe, such as when it comfortably stretches out on the velvet haze of “Tudo Azul,” are distinctly ’70s feelings preserved in an air-tight time capsule, excavated, and reopened refreshed and ready to go for a few more decades. ESP updates this mood just a touch by arranging the material, particularly the singles “Been So Long” and “Na Palma Da Mao,” with steady drum intros and soulful hand claps ideal for deejay mixing. With this balance, Banda Uniao Black is a dream realization of retro sensibilities. Quite possibly, this may be a tougher album for Uniao Black to follow up; I hope it won’t take another thirty years.