Our Crate Diggers series profiles record collectors around the world. Next up is a veritable giant of Brazilian soul music, and the most dedicated of international collectors Ed Motta.
A big personality with an encyclopaedic mind and a 30,000-strong record collection (housed in a custom shelf built by his wife), Ed Motta is a Brazilian icon – an artist himself, the nephew of the soul legend Tim Maia and a true collector’s collector.
Moved to learn to play the piano by his love for listening to records, he’s forged a career as one of Brazil’s most successful contemporary MPB, soul, jazz, and more recently AOR, artists, touring the country and the world, feathering his record collection at every opportunity, from Japanese City Pop to Mississippi swamp blues.
When in Rio though, he rarely leaves the house, preferring to surround himself with a seriously impressive, immaculately kept archive that really has to be seen to be believed.
We trekked across Rio (in a cab soundtracked by Tim Maia) to Motta’s flat in the Jardim Botânico to talk to the man himself about the city’s musical topography, the unequivocal genius of Steely Dan and how he had to come to England to discover Brazilian music.
Interview and photos: Anton Spice
We’re sitting here surrounded by records, but how did your collection begin?
I grew up in a neighbourhood of Rio called Tijuca, which is famous for many second-hand rock stores. Blues rock, European rock, progressive, things like that. Many people grew up there. My uncle Tim Maia, Jorge Ben, it’s a rock neighbourhood, different to here, in the south zone which is more related to bossa nova and jazz. It’s reflected in the second hand stores, you see the tastes of the people.
So I started as a rock collector, a crazy rock snob with encyclopaedias in everything you can imagine. ’60s and ’70s rock, and even the ’80s, which was exactly my cup of tea.
Was this mainly Western music?
In the beginning for me it was mostly UK, like Traffic, Led Zeppelin, Rory Gallagher, and from US Johnny Winter, Vanilla Fudge, Iron Butterfly. These were my roots. And I was a drummer in a hard rock band, we played AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Thin Lizzy, things like this.
I imagine there was a lot of music in your house growing up?
My father and my mother, they were from a very distant generation, so they were deeply into the music of the ’40s and ’50s. But I wasn’t into that. I became freaky about this after I got into jazz, Broadway and song-writing. But because of this blues-rock thing I started to listen to the original USA blues, and close to the blues, the soul material.
I remember I had a friend, who had a Rory Gallagher fan club, he had some Stax records, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Booker T and the MGs, Rufus Thomas. And then I started to listen to this, and the album Blow By Blow by Jeff Beck. That was like a watershed moment for me, because it was related to my rock background but it was full of soul and funk. Because the first artist that I had in a collection was Earth, Wind & Fire, but I wasn’t into record collecting or collecting albums. I was into the music of the radio, it was in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I went with my mum and dad to see Earth Wind and Fire when I was ten years old.
But the collector psychology, the craziness of plastic protection, alphabetical order, encyclopaedias… I started this kind of relation with soul music. I remember an encyclopaedia from Salamander from the UK about soul music, that encyclopaedia was very important to me to find things at the second hand stores in Rio.
And this was interesting, in Rio downtown in the ’80s, it was a period that all of those collectors from the suburbs were selling those collections to the second hand stores. It was strong in the ’80s and easy to find originals.
Because no one was looking?
It was super easy. Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Bohannon, Leroy Hutson.
Did you buy systematically at this point or where you just buying what came in?
In Brazil it was kind of impossible to really search for the ones you wanted. I had this kind of information because of that encyclopaedia from Salamander and I was crazy about it.
Was there a scene of this kind of music played in clubs or was it more purely for collectors?
It was played in the ’70s in the suburbs, the suburb clubs, they called them equipes. They were like Jamaican sound systems, a bit more closed, but those guys used to play those records there. I remember there was a famous DJ and this guy used to work at a record company as a publisher. He put his collection to sell in the ’80s, I bought some of those things, originals from that Miami label Cat, Invictus, lots of rare soul that is considered rare nowadays.
And jazz… There’s lots and lots of jazz, if you buy jazz in Brazil it’s dangerous! Sao Paulo is strong with jazz, but not as much anymore.
Why is that?
People started to travel to Brazil to buy records in the ’90s searching for the Brazilian things. And after the year 2000 people saw that private press, Strata East, Tribe, Hawaiian records, lots of these things were easy to find here. Cheap and possible.
Do you think that having people from abroad come and buy records has put the price up? Has it made it less accessible for Brazilians?
The rare stuff became absolutely impossible for most of the guys who started to collect in the last 15 years. The prices are very different. Some were always rare and expensive, like Arthur Verocai’s only album. That wasn’t expensive in the ’80s, but I wasn’t into it in the ’80s unfortunately.
You didn’t grow up with Brazilian music?
I was not into Brazilian music at all. I started listening to Brazilian music because of jazz, in the early ’90s. I was studying piano and studying chords and I went from Bill Evans to Jobim. And then I went to the UK to do my first concert at Dingwalls, and I remember a guy called DJ Mitch – Mitch is from the same generation as Gilles, Patrick Forge, Paul Murphy – and he came with lots of Brazilian things and he was like “what do you think?” and I was like “I don’t know any of this stuff”! And then he showed me lots of things and I had time to go back and buy those records with a good price during the ’90s.
So it was an Englishman who introduced you to Brazilian music?
Yes to the Brazilian groove, it was an Englishman. Before that I was already listening to the Harmony Cats, Jobim, Ed Lobo, Egberto Gismonti – who lives here in the same building – because I was studying harmony, listening to classical music, complex jazz, Charles Mingus, Ellington.
But to learn that Brazil had a Sly Stone too, it was in the UK really. I knew the music of my uncle but I thought it was just him. But no, lots of people were doing interesting things.
When you were buying, it sounds like sometimes you buy as a musicians listening for influences and sometimes you buy as a collector, to complete catalogues?
For me it’s the same, the collection is personality, it’s the thing that moved me to make music, to go to the piano and to be one of them. I’m going to do that thing that I love to hear so much.
Was your uncle a strong presence in your musical development?
Yeah in my formative years. I went to see him live very young with my mum in the mid ’70s. When he went to that religion, the Racional and released those two albums that are super rare, that are like Sun Ra and Moon Dog, he gave part of his collection to many people and part of his collection went to my mother. The Drifters, Curtis Mayfield, Isley Brothers. I was relating this to his music a lot.
He was trying to express a culture that came from soul and mixed it with Brazilian music. Alongside Cassiano, because Cassiano is more North American influenced, and has less of the Brazilian flavour. I love Cassiano, I used to listen to his stuff a lot, it’s like Stevie Wonder in the way he writes. But Tim Maia had something that I relate to Jon Lucien. Jon Lucien is more complex.
Is that sound something quite representative of the different influences that exist in Rio as opposed to other parts of the country? Carioca soul sounds like a real melting pot of influences…
The Carioca music is pretty much a melting pot, because it starts with the city that samba comes from, so the strongest Brazilian musical identity is from Rio. And then the composers of the ’20s and ’30s they were inspired by Gershwin and Cole Porter, Rogers & Hart and that kind of thing. And even the samba cats after this period, they were affected by this music too. It’s pretty cosmopolitan, and then bossa came with that west coast jazz influence, Stan Kenton, Julie London and the ’70s with soul funk and progressive rock…
But in Sao Paulo it is more intellectual. There’s lots of cerebral music. Free jazz, it’s like Anthony Braxton, more German, in a way.
Do you think it reflects the identity of the city?
Yeah, Rio is more French, it has this savoir faire. The south is pretty close to the roots. So classical music is strong there, but popular music is not so strong. And the north is brilliant, from the super naive Afro that comes from almost a Jamaican thing, to very complex Hermeto Pascoal, a super genius who plays every instrument.
The things are more African, and more roots in that sense. It’s brilliant.
You sound like you have a pretty open attitude to music of all kinds.
I’m open to lots of things but I have a problem with periods. For me the music the music that effects me, that I have a certain interest in is the music until 1983. I’m not into the music produced after that. I was never into this stuff, since the beginning. I remember in the mid ’80s a friend of mine came with Mantronix on vinyl and I was like “oh man my head is hurting”. I prefer to listen to the most dirty rock band than listen to this. It was not my thing at all.
And it’s not something you would revisit?
No, I have a big problem it. I don’t think it’s music, it’s something that uses sounds to express something that passes through music, but music is another thing. Music needs notes, chords, or if it’s not notes and chords like the free jazz guys, they were free but they worked inside a certain system, a musical system. Some of those things have no musical system at all, it’s a pattern of drum machines and someone sampling a small beat, and they repeat, like copy paste that thing and then comes a little keyboard on top.
So more to do with the creation of the music than the end result?
It’s not the music contact as we know. Because it’s like a painter who is not painting.
How do you use your collection now?
I have something like 30,000 records so I don’t buy records like I used to. So now I go straight to that special record. And maybe there’s something I see with a good price, but usually the good prices are in the USA. There’s nothing like that, the $1 culture. Europe is usually very expensive.
Also the quality, because I’m freaky about the mint condition. You find this more in the United States, lots of people who have records who never listened to them.
So originals in mint condition are important for you?
Yeah, absolutely. Because I don’t use these records outside my house. I used to have a radio program and I used to also make the music for a flight company like Brazilian Pan Am, that I used to make exclusively from vinyl. But these records aren’t used for parties. When I was young I used to be a pseudo-DJ trying to help to pay for my rehearsals. But one of the things that hurt most was going out of the house with those records. I had them in plastic to go to the club and then I would change it again when I got home.
Not at all. It’s just methodical. It’s very Japanese, the way I collect. Plastic all of the time, in alphabetical order.
By first names as they do in the record shops?
Yeah exactly. So Abdullah Ibrahim would be under A. And then inside the alphabet, the style.
So you’d never buy a reissue?
No, I love reissues too. I’m not rich, so I’m avoiding to buy ultra-expensive records. Except if I’m sick searching for something. The last one I bought was in Japan, the AOR band Archie James Cavanaugh. That thing was 400, this kind of thing. It is a super rare album in shrink wrap and everything.
How did you get into AOR? It’s been a big passion of yours in recent years.
I bought lots of things, but the good thing about AOR is that most of them are $1. Some of them are expensive, but not really. I prefer to pay less for something and that’s the good thing about AOR, it’s like natural wine in my life. I started to drink natural wine because it’s cheap and good.
The Japanese stuff City Pop thing is more expensive. And Japanese jazz is horrible now. There’s this crazy prejudice against Japanese jazz that this just imitation, that’s not true, this is ignorance, because they are brilliant.
What is it about the Japanese stuff particularly that you’re into?
I might say that after the United States, they’re the most inspired jazz players. They’re superb jazz musicians, that sensibility that you feel in everything they do. They have their own music of course. Crazy precise, paranoiac.
But not the most technically talented musicians make the best music…
When you have all the things together… It’s like Steely Dan. Japan is like a Steely Dan country. It’s like everything is perfect all the time. A Steely Dan country for sure. It’s like the talent with the passion, and the technique.
So you’re a big Steely Dan man?
It’s my favourite. If I have to choose one album from all of these it would be Aja by Steely Dan. I love everything they produce. For me it is the top of the hill.
Do you have several copies of the same record?
I have this only with Steely Dan, which is my mania. I have the USA print, Japanese print with obi, if there’s a reissue, I’ll buy a reissue. I have this with Led Zeppelin too. And the albums I have lots of copies of are Aja and Physical Graffiti. I used to make cassette tapes of Led Zeppelin bootlegs in the ’80s.
What does your collection mean to you? People talk about it as their collections as diaries of sorts…
Yeah for sure, For example, Sundays, if I have a free day, I used to listen to rock and rock blues a lot, to remind me of my Sunday’s with my family, it reminds me a lot of this period. Records are portraits of everything that you pass.