By Cynthia Gross
This Alchemical Records article is read by the author to provide a multimedia experience for our audience while increasing the accessibility of our content to persons with hearing loss, low vision, dyslexia, physical or motor disabilities, or are on the autism spectrum.
Salvador, Brazil-born and Washington, D.C.-based artist and social justice advocate Rafael Pondé is a visionary. Engaging in conversation with him feels like reconnecting with a dear friend. You leave inspired by his depth of perspective and sensitivity to the people and places that surround him. In addition to managing a highly successful solo career, Pondé has collaborated with many heavyweights in the industry, including Hans-Martin Buff (Prince, Joss Stone, Scorpions), Grammy Award-nominated Bill Anschell, and Natiruts, Brazil’s all-time biggest reggae band. Learn more about Rafael Pondé’s fascinating journey with contributing writer Cynthia Gross, including what identity means to him as a Brazilian artist, the best piece of advice he’s been given, and the one thing he’s never shared about his great uncle, legendary composer Humberto Porto.
What attracted you to the nation’s capital from your home in Brazil?
A: My journey started 25 years ago in my hometown of Salvador, Brazil. Salvador is the first capital of Brazil and one of the country’s oldest cities. We have one of the largest Afro-Brazilian populations in the world, and I’m very connected to African traditions. I started playing reggae music in the 90s with Diamba. Later, I played with Natiruts, one of the biggest reggae bands in Brazil today. I toured with the band from 2005 to 2006. Early in my career, I had an opportunity to travel to Europe, including Portugal and Spain. I recorded a solo album in 2009 in Germany with Hans-Martin Buff (Prince, Joss Stone, Scorpions).
I ended up in the U.S. in 2015 through a Brazilian friend from Salvador who was living in Florida. He was trying to bring more Brazilian artists to the States through an exchange program. I ended up coming, released my fifth solo album, and toured the east coast. After the program, I returned to the U.S. and ended up in Philly. I really enjoyed the cosmopolitan music scene and moved to D.C. in 2019. Since that time, I’ve been focused on my solo career and collaborating with other artists. I’ve produced an album for DeSanguashington and others. I’m honored my work has been well received and looking forward to releasing new music soon.
Who are your biggest influences and why?
A: Because of my roots, you can say that my biggest musical influence is Bob Marley – not just because of his music but also because of the spiritual and political themes in his work. He spreads positive messages in his music and always responds to stuff that’s happening in the world. With my music, I try to elevate people. My music has a spiritual purpose as well. Since the beginning, I’ve created music that I love. I’m not driven by what the market is saying. I want to create music that fulfills me and brings a positive message to audiences. I also have a lot of influences from Brazil. Luiz Gonzaga, a master musician from Northeast Brazil, and also Dorival Caymmi, one of the first musicians from my hometown who was widely recognized in Brazil as a songwriter.
What does identity mean to you as a Brazilian artist?
A: I travel a lot throughout the world. Brazilian people are some of the most diverse people on earth. Brazil is home for all kinds of people. I’m not speaking of immigrants but natives who are so different socially, ethnically, culturally. Being a Brazilian artist is having all of these influences inside of you. Our music is diverse because our people are diverse. To me, being a Brazilian artist means representing plurality and embracing the rich culture of my people. Promoting Afro-Brazilian values is also a goal of my music. In the U.S., this perspective allows me to be very open and welcoming to different influences and backgrounds.
Resistance work is imperative, but it can also be admittedly exhausting for those on the frontlines. As a long-time social justice advocate, what keeps you grounded?
A: Great question. I’ve gone through so many different phases in my life, and what keeps me together has always been the music. These days, I tend to think my resistance work is a mission for me. When I think of music as a mission, it all makes sense, and I keep doing it. I’ve been doing this work for so long, it’s now part of my life. You don’t think about what it takes, you just do it. It’s a part of your being. Last year, when the pandemic hit hard, what saved me was making music. I continued my movement work in other ways like writing and releasing “Vidas Negras Importam” (Black Lives Matter). I’m proud of the song, and I created a video walking the streets to highlight the injustices. Projects like this keep me going.
As the great nephew of legendary Brazilian composer Humberto Porto, was there ever any pressure to meet certain standards in your music career?
A: I’m going to be very honest. I’ve never shared this. Humberto Porto was the brother of my grandmother. He took his life when he was very young. No one ever talked about this in my family and considered it a bad thing. I had to overcome his death through therapy over the years. My brothers and I started to bring back my great uncle’s work only about two to three years ago. I really love his music, and I think of him as a creative force. It was not easy to get here because of the tragedy and how my family responded, but when I look at him as an artist who was a brilliant creative, it helps. I try to understand that his life in the 1930s was very different, and he lived in a different time and age. These days, I don’t only focus on the tragic aspects of his life but appreciate him as an artist. His music inspires me. I’ve been playing some of his songs live as well.
Who was the first person (other than yourself) who believed in your music career?
A: My father. Early on, when I was 15 or 16, he gave me a guitar. He keeps pushing me and influences me, too. My father is a great influencer. He’s not a musician, but he’s in the lineage of Humberto Porto, so he appreciates art. My father inspired me to do music in the beginning, and to this day, he gives me strength to continue.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
A: Saiba seus valores e viva de acordo com eles. Não deixe que outras pessoas determinem quem você é.
(Translation from Portuguese: Find out what your values are. If you don’t know yet, find out what really matters and live according to those principles. Don’t try to live according to what other people believe. Know who you are.)
Which two of your songs would you recommend to a new fan?
A: Well, I would say my latest song, “Cartagena,” and “Vidas Negras Importam.” They represent two aspects of my work: one is a reggae-inspired track and the other is Brazilian. Perhaps people are listening to “Cartagena” in their daily lives. “Vidas Negras Importam” showcases the political and spiritual aspect of my songwriting.
What’s on the horizon for you?
A: Right now, I’m excited – very excited – to go to Brazil and spend some time there. It seems as though we can perform music in public again in Brazil after a long time without it. When I got the news, it gave me great joy. I’ll play with my band again in Brazil and reconnect with family.
Maryland-based singer-songwriter Cynthia Gross seeks to inspire an awakening to all we are and all we can become. With a passion for language in all of its forms and more than a decade of experience as a professional ghostwriter, she is a light seeker who understands the power of each individual’s voice to create positive, meaningful change.
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