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Belgium unlikely hub for latest wave of Bossa Nova

Ah, the sweet sway of bossa nova. The coolest of rhythms, born in cafes of southside Rio, inspired by the golden sands of Ipanema.

Now it reaches the world from the drizzly back streets of Brussels.

No. 43, rue General Patton is an unlikely hub for the latest wave of Brazilian music to enchant world markets. But behind its unassuming front door is Crammed Discs, the label behind Bebel Gilberto, Celso Fonseca, Cibelle and other leading lights of the "nu-bossa" sound which has brought Latin sophistication to chill-out zones around globe.

Gilberto's Grammy-nominated, million-selling 2000 debut "Tanto Tempo" remains Crammed's best selling album, but the label has developed a habit for notching up unlikely successes with its eclectic stable of artists. Kocani Orkestar, a Macedonian gypsy brass band, are riding high after bursting onto the soundtrack of the Borat movie. Kinshasa's Konono No. 1 are currently backing Icelandic pop diva Bjork with their unique brand of traditional Congolese trance beats played through the distorting matrix of a homemade sound system.

"Crammed are very significant because they have ranged across a very wide variety of music, music very much off the mainstream, but music that has an international appeal," says Simon Broughton, editor of British world music magazine Songlines.

The man behind Crammed is Marc Hollander, briefly a euro-pop star with his own band The Honeymoon Killers before setting up the label in the early 1980s.

While the trend of the time was post-punk posturing, Crammed cast its net wider and was soon working with musicians from around the world, pumping out Norwegian electro-folk, Israeli funk, Californian art house rock.

Brussels may have been on the margins of the emerging world music scene, but Hollander thinks being Belgian helped forge the label's unique melange.

"My interest was always in mixing different styles of music in a playful way, just playing with styles and cultures which is maybe a natural thing when you are growing up in Belgium where there is no strong national identity or culture," he said in an interview.

"It's pretty split up, it's open to influences and the filters are much thinner than if you are English, American, French or German."

Twenty-five years on, Crammed remains committed to genre bending and genre blending.

Hollander is wary of the world music tag and the current vogue for what he calls "artificial fusion." Instead he looks for artists whose music evolves naturally along new paths, like Cibelle, the 20-something Brazilian songstress who moved from Sao Paulo to London and has wowed British critics with a wistful repertoire that includes covers of both Kurt Cobain and Caetano Veloso.

"That loungy, electronic bossa style ... that's not what she wanted to do," Hollander says. "She has a Brazilian influence, but she's also influenced by electronic music, the new, so-called weird folk, American bands ... for her it was a bold move, because people want to chain you to one style."

Cibelle was a protegee of Yugoslav-born producer Mitar Subotic, also-known as Suba, whose Sao Paulo studio was influential in developing the globally successful amalgam of European electronica with Brazilian bossa nova. Suba was killed in an apartment fire shortly after completing the production of Gilberto's "Tanto Tempo" CD that went on to become one of the best-selling Brazilian albums of all time.

Bebel Gilberto comes from Brazil's musical aristocracy. Her father Joao Gilberto helped launch bossa nova in the late 1950s and mother Miucha chalked up a string of silky-voiced hits in the 1970s and 1980s. Uncle Chico Buraque is a Brazilian cultural icon.

Living in London and New York in the 1990s, Bebel Gilberto blended sensual bossa understatement with inserts of lazy electronica to develop a million-selling, much-imitated synthesis for Crammed's Brazilian sub-label Ziriguiboom.

Gilberto is currently touring Europe and North America promoting her new CD "Momento" which the Boston Globe called "the year's ultimate make-out album."

Crammed's next project will feature Romani superstars Taraf de Haidouks taking on gypsy-inspired classical compositions by the likes of Bela Bartok, Aram Khachaturian and Manuel de Falla.

World music expert Broughton says such idiosyncratic initiatives by small labels are vital in a market increasingly dominated by big commercial interests.

"Music is more and more a globalized thing. It's become a sort of MacDonalds' culture and anybody who's looking for something a little bit original needs to look at labels like Crammed," he said. "They fill a gap that no one else is doing really."

Crammed employs just seven people in the cluttered Brussels headquarters and a still smaller office in Paris. The company's turnover of up to EUR2 million (US$2.7 million) a year is dwarfed by the billions of recording industry majors or even New York-based world music label Putumayo, which recorded sales of US$24 million (EUR17.8 million) last year.

Although Hollander wants to get the widest global audience for Crammed's artists, he is keen to avoid the label outgrowing its original concept as a platform for offbeat performers.

"We don't want to be a global operation," he said, stressing his resistance to advances from bigger competitors. "It's the kiss of death really, all of these labels that were absorbed, they get discarded after a while."

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