How Mitar Subotic moved to Sao Paulo, recorded Sao Paulo Confessions, produced Bebel Gilberto, and became a huge influence on Brazilian electronica.
by Marshall Bowden
“São Paulo, Brazil. The world’s fourth megalopolis with over 18 million souls, and more arriving every day. A stressful maze of massive skyscrapers, kilometric avenues, and relentless chaos. Think “Blade Runner” in the Tropics. Life in São Paulo is fast, crazy, and dangerous, as reality changes constantly. The city is full of people from all over Brazil and foreigners, all trying to make sense out of it. With time and patience to dig deep enough, you can make discovery after discovery, you find very strange people and very special places… Here, they call me Gringo Paulista. I’ve been in this city for 10 years, and it already feels like I’ve lived several, parallel Paulista lives…“
—Mitar Subotic aka Suba, October 1999—
Sao Paulo is Brazil’s most cosmopolitan city, filled with artists and musicians, top tier restaurants, and lots of clubs. Sao Paulo is home to growing communities of expatriates from Portugal, Italy, and Bolivia, along with many other countries. There are more Japanese living in Sao Paulo than anywhere else in the world except Japan. It is Brazil’s financial center and it includes both the very rich and the destitute within its city limits.
It’s a place of great modernity and yet it is full of ghosts. With a history of Portuguese colonialism and the continued practice of Macumba, a mixture of African and Catholic practices, it has an air of mystery and intrigue. One imagines secret histories filled with unspeakable violence, twisted sexuality, and intoxication.
Arriving at the start of the 1990s, Mitar Subotic, the self-dubbed “King of Illusions,” didn’t speak Portuguese, but as he began taking the temperature of the nightclubs where some of the cutting edge DJs and tastemakers of the country were spinning records. The Serbian left home while Slobodan Milosevic stayed in power during the breakup of Yugoslavia and presided over the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, comprised of Serbia and Montenegro.
Sao Paulo is the kind of place where people from anywhere can fit in and not be noticed if they don’t want to be, but Subotic already had a running start at elusiveness:
“He began his professional career in Novi Sad under the pseudonym Rex Ilusivii (King of Illusions) by brilliantly creating and recording a mix of new wave, electronic/ambient, and sophisticated funk. There is still Rex Ilusivii graffiti on some buildings around Novi Sad, reminding his fans of the period between 1982 and 1986 when Yugoslav radio played countless hits by this mysterious artist whose material was always at the top of radio station playlists and was being covered by the scene’s best groups.” (“New World Sonority” by Bruce Gilman, Brazzil, March 2000)
Subotic took the working name Suba and began to collaborate with a variety of musicians, singers, artists, DJs, fashion designers, and other creative people. His name began to appear more frequently on production credits by some of the more adventurous Brazilian pop musicians. The rhythm and the people of Sao Paulo worked a kind of magic on this Serbian who seemed to understand Brazilian popular music and was able to create stunning work by recording and manipulating the organic sounds of musicians and vocalists, creating something that was still distinctly Brazilian, yet very modern, diverse, and cosmopolitan.
Sao Paulo Confessions, his 1999 album, captures the cutting edge of a burgeoning Brazilian electronica movement that Suba himself had helped usher in. It’s a brilliant album that manages to incorporate the historic Brazilian musical styles (bossa nova, samba, Tropicalismo) into a studio-based electronic DJ gumbo that illuminates both the country’s history and its place in the future world. ,
The word ‘confession’ connotes something that was hidden and is being revealed as well as suggesting a transgression of some sort. Confessions can be both a window into the darkness of the soul and a source of liberation. By the time that Suba was creating Sao Paulo Confessions, he had lived in the city for nearly a decade, so his confessions could be many. In the late-night world of shadows and noirish nightclubs, there arise so many temptations, so many appetites, so many secrets. Things that were done and those that remain undone.
The record is like a book in that it reveals new pleasures with each listen. Suba’s work with his musicians, and especially the female vocalists who give voice to some of his compositions, is organic in its energy even though it is highly manipulated and constructed in the recording studio. Cibelle, a Paulista visual artist and musician, provides some memorable vocal work on the album, becoming his voice on songs like “Tanto Desejos” (‘So Many Wishes) and ‘Sereia.’ Taciana Burrows, another Sao Paulo resident who continues to make music and has scored several films, provides the vocals on “Voce Gosta” (‘I Know What You Like’). Arnoldo Antunes, a more rock-oriented artist who Suba also produced, collaborates on “Abraco.”
Suba’s production work and Sao Paulo Confessions ushered in an era of Brazilian DJs and musicians inspiring each other and looking to the musical history of their own country rather than merely throwing Brazilian samples or vocals on top of a beat. The release of Sao Paulo Confessions and another album that Suba had been working on, Bebel Gilberto’s Tanto Tempo, brought a distinctly Brazilian sound to the electronica game. Unfortunately, Suba died of smoke inhalation in an early morning fire at his home studio in November of 1999. It is possible that the producer fell asleep with a cigarette in his hand, and according to one account, he made it out OK, only to be overcome by smoke when he re-entered his apartment to save the Tanto Tempo master tapes.
Tanto Tempo was completed and released in the spring of 2000, and it was a hit in terms of the world music market, spreading its influence across the globe. The record included songs written by Baden Powell, Joao Donato as well as some lovely originals by Gilberto, Suba, and other collaborating musician partners. Tanto Tempo set Gilberto apart from other Brazilian singers as the combination of quiet vocals, acoustic guitars, and electronic washes of sound was new to many listeners across Europe and the United States. Prior to this recording, Bebel Gilberto had been a conventional cabaret-style singer in New York, but Tanto Tempo put her firmly at the forefront of this new sound.
The album’s opening track “Samba de Bacao” sets Gilberto’s vocals over the track “Nova” by Amon Tobin, an adaptation of the Baden Powell/Vinicius de Moraes song–a classic Brazilian song re-interpreted into an electronica track, used as an electronic base for another vocalist to record the classic Brazilian song over.
“The mark of this recording,” said fellow producer Béco Dranoff of Sao Paulo Confessions shortly after Suba’s death, “is that it is really a bridge to the millennium, something that is going to be heard and studied for years to come. This album is far ahead of its time, really ahead of the curve.”