POPgoji Brings Together American Soul and Brazilian Rhythms for a Cross-Cultural House Party

The band formed with the idea of “Brazilifying” popular English-language songs for house-party sing-alongs. It quickly became something more.

WHO: Michael Galen (percussion), Pyata Penedo (percussion), Peter Fung (guitar, cavaco), Hans Barklis (guitar, cavaco, vocals), Renata Austin (vocals, percussion), Vaughn Kimmons (vocals), Michael Dougherty (bass).

SOUNDS LIKE: An American indie-pop band hopped up on caipirinhas and Carnivale.

 FANS OF: Bebel Gilberto, Ozomatli, Radiation City.

At a POPgoji show, you won't hear blast beats, screeching banshee vocals or even many amplified instruments. But that doesn't mean the Brazilian music tradition the band draws from isn't extreme.

"I love the energy and power," says founding member Michael Galen. "It's really unapologetic, the way Brazilians play music, on these drums that are so loud—they're made to be heard from so far away. Or even if they're playing quiet instruments, they're playing so fast sometimes, with such syncopation and swing, it's relentless. If you get lazy, it doesn't work."

A musician and dancer who studied jazz at the University of Oregon, Galen first encountered the rhythms of samba while attending his first Burning Man. A year later, in 2011, he immersed himself in the real thing, spending six months mostly in Rio de Janeiro, where he participated in massive street parties driven by dozens-strong percussion ensembles. Coming back to Portland, he began attending local pagode jam sessions—house parties thrown by Brazilophiles where everyone is expected to either pick up an instrument or sing along.

It reflected, on a much smaller scale, the overwhelming sense of community Galen saw in Rio. But he noticed a problem: Outside of the native Portuguese speakers, few attendees seemed to know the lyrics to the Brazilian pop tunes they were jamming on.

In an effort bring more people into the party, Galen formed POPgoji with the idea of "Brazilifying" popular English-language songs. Recruiting singer Renata Austin and other musicians, the band set out reinterpreting mostly classic American soul songs, such as Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" and Sam Cooke's "Cupid," playing them on traditional instruments like the four-string cavaquinho and tambourine-like pandeiro. At the time, Galen's only goal was to fill a niche within the Brazilian house party scene. But the blend of angelic R&B melodies and shuffling pagode beats caught on, and the band quickly picked up regular gigs at venues like the Goodfoot and Mississippi Pizza.

"Because it grew out of a need in the community, it was received well immediately," he says, "and we jumped to big parties in no time."

Personnel has expanded and contracted in that time, and it continues to shift—singer Vaughn Kimmons is leaving after their upcoming fourth anniversary show to focus on her buzzing R&B project, Brown Calculus. But with a debut EP arriving next year, Galen is hoping to finally take POPgoji on the road, and introduce a wider audience to music that he sees as some of most powerful on earth.

"Brazil just has this really high energy. It's the same energy you feel in New York," he says. "There's a ton of people. There's this shadow to the city, this contrast of really rich and really poor, and an element of danger and an element of joy. You're just living to the max. And I think that comes out in the music."

SEE IT: POPgoji plays Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., with DJ Anjali and the Incredible Kid, on Thursday, Dec. 7. 9 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. 21+. Get tickets here.

Willamette Week's journalism is funded, in part, by our readers. Your help supports local, independent journalism that informs, educates, and engages our community. Become a WW supporter.