Black Pantera: Brazilian crossover thrash trio speak to Chaoszine about music, society and sharing the stage with Living Colour at Rock in Rio Festival

Author Flavia Andrade - 24.2.2022

Founded in 2014 in the city of Uberaba, Minas Gerais, by brothers Charles Gama (guitar/vocals) and Chaene da Gama (bass/vocals), and soon joined by Rodrigo Pancho (drums), Black Pantera is a band that unites elements of crossover, hardcore and groove, funk and thrash metal to social activism. In little over 7 years, they have been acclaimed by critics, having become one of the most relevant bands in the Brazilian underground scene. Social, political, and economic matters dictate the verses that come with a direct message, accessible to all. They have performed at international festivals like Download (France), Afropunk (New York, Paris and Miami) and Altavoz (Colombia), alongside the likes of Slayer and System Of A Down. They have recently been announced as part of the line-up of the Sunset Stage, at Rock In Rio 2022, sharing the stage with traditional Brazilian rock band Devotos. The stage will be headlined by Living Colour and Steve Vai; Metal Allegiance and Bullet For My Valentine will also perform.

Chaoszine had the opportunity to chat with Black Pantera via Zoom. In a conversation both amusing and very serious, they spoke of their origins, influences, and important social matters, which always shows up in their lyrics. They also spoke of their upcoming album, “Ascensão”, and their anticipation for playing at Rock In Rio 2022.

Black Pantera was founded in Uberaba, in the state of Minas Gerais. How was the beginning for you and, if I’m not mistaken, it was founded by one of the Gama brothers?

Chaene: Yes, it was Charles’ idea. We used to have a band that played covers, called Metal Machine. We covered Sepultura, Metallica, stuff that people liked to hear back in the 2000s, 2010s. One day, he said he didn’t want to do that anymore: he wanted to play original songs. There were five of us, and we even gave it a try at the time. Rodrigo was on that band for a while. My brother only sang back then, but he gave that up and the band couldn’t play anymore. So, he bought a guitar and learned to play it a certain way, on his own, which is the formula for Black Pantera’s sound. He wrote the first album on his own. I only wrote one song “Rede Social”, but he wrote all the other tracks. At first, we didn’t want to record the songs he wrote, because we didn’t believe it would get anywhere. So, everything began with him: the trigger of it all was Charles Gama.

Rodrigo: Yeah, it’s even funny what Chaene just said, because at the time they invited me to join the band, I was studying music in college, in Uberlândia. So, Chaene called me and said Charles wanted to record some of his original songs and asked if I wanted to join in on drums. Chaene was being forced to go by their mother!

Chaene: Yep, that’s true.

Rodrigo: No one wanted to record Charles’ music. So, because I was in another city, on a totally different vibe, I turned it down. So, they recorded two songs with a friend of ours on drums.

Charles: Yeah, this whole thing is true: my mom felt sorry for me and made my brother participate. But now it’s all good!

Chaene: I heard the songs for the first time at the studio, because I really had no faith in all this. As soon as I heard it, wow, I flipped at how good it was. Rodrigo heard it afterwards, when we released it.

Rodrigo: I said, my goodness, I’ve gotta be on this band! This sound is great, it’s what I wanna play! So, I kinda jinxed their drummer, he only played one concert, and then I got the job. The band was founded as Project Black Pantera and became just Black Pantera on the second album.

Did you really jinx the drummer, Rodrigo?

Rodrigo: Yes, I did! I said to Chaene I really wanted to play in the band. The project was great, the sound was perfect for me, a dirty, in your face kind of garage sound, so, they performed one gig with the guy, and he couldn’t handle the pressure.

Chaene: It was a real jinx. The guy missed all the tempos. I said to Charles we couldn’t play like that and “Let’s call Rodrigo because he really wants it.” So, he arrived on the first rehearsal with the mask on already, we couldn’t understand what the hell was going on.

Rodrigo: Yeah, I was so excited about the whole thing, I just wanted to create a character for it, right away. They didn’t understand it, asked why, and I just said: “Because I want to. It’s an original band, I’m creating an original character.”

Which brings me to the mask. Why do you wear it, why do you keep doing it, and how well do people like it?

Rodrigo: It’s crazy when you think about it. It’s already part of the package, it’s a symbol, and part of what the band has become. But, at first, the mask didn’t have a specific meaning. Here in Uberaba, Chaene and I play in other bands. We play as session musicians with other artists, we both make a living out of music. So, the importance of playing on an original project, with original songs, made me want to create a character. It’s an alter ego. Then I found this mask, it wasn’t of any character I know. I always customize it, so it looks a bit different in each one of our music videos. I called the character “Pancho” and later found out that one of my late grandfathers, that I never met, had that nickname. So, it even gained a bit of a spiritual meaning to me. Besides, I find it great to get into character when performing with the band.

Chaene: Even though everyone knows us around here, when we first posted a picture of the three of us at rehearsals, announcing we had a new drummer, most people couldn’t tell it was Rodrigo, because of the mask. That created a buzz and a mystery around these parts.

Rodrigo: There are also the influences we have from other bands that wear masks or mask-like make up, like Kiss, Wes Borland of Limp Bizkit, Slipknot, Secos e Molhados, it all has a theatrical vibe. I’m a very relaxed guy, but when I get into character, it’s like a transformation.

So, let’s talk a little bit about the themes you speak of in your songs. You talk about politics, racism, discrimination in general, themes that are very present in Brazil nowadays.

Charles: From the beginning, I thought the band should treat these themes that bother us in our daily lives, like racism, and touch upon these wounds we have deeply rooted in our society. Nowadays, it’s become something even bigger than that. And we can see that the audience expects that from us. And we don’t do it because of those expectations, but because we have this need in us to show the world what we go through as black men. Our sound empowers all of us who go through this, but also empowers all who like to go to a concert and headbang, who are into this type of music. On the first album, I wrote most of the lyrics, but from the second album onwards, Chaene started doing that, too, and he writes intelligent lyrics, and now, on the third, Rodrigo is also writing. So, we are just putting in our lyrics the daily tragedies we go through, from the time we wake up in the morning until we go to sleep at night. So, there is no way to keep silent anymore.

Rodrigo: This is our role as a band. We were born in the 80s, we listened to bands that protested in a way, like Titãs, who wrote the song “Polícia”, that says: “Police for those who need it”, which speaks of police brutality and racial profiling. And, as time goes by, we can see that mainstream bands here in Brazil are not touching upon these themes anymore. We all come from the underground, garage bands, influenced by punk and hardcore, bands that touch upon these social wounds. But the mainstream bands stopped taking a stance. We have been lucky enough to have had some space, playing for a larger audience, playing bigger festivals, even in Europe. So, we use that space to take this stance. Even our name, Black Pantera, makes people kind of expect that from us.

Chaene: The band is now bigger than us individually. People come to us and tell us that they feel represented by us, that we are necessary, and that they believe in us. It’s really emotionally charged for us.

Rodrigo: It only makes us study more, go deeper in learning about these subjects. This third album “Ascensão”, that will be released now in March, it’s our deepest yet, in terms of how we talk about these subjects. It sounds heavy and dirty like the previous ones, but with lyrics that dig a lot deeper.

What about the album art for “Ascensão”? It is beautiful and so charged with meaning…

Rodrigo: The essence of the album is represented in that picture. Fight and power of black people. Women protecting their children, the next generation to come.

Chaene: We spent months looking for this cover art. It depicts what we wanted to say with perfection. The black boy, the black king, the black god that could be rising then and there. Against all forms of oppression. It’s a picture by Victor Balde, who spent a few months in Africa. His work is fantastic. The record label bought the rights from him, but he didn’t keep the money, and donated it to the women in the picture, who are from Mozambique.

Your album will be released on March 11th, so how was the making of it?

Charles: We cannot wait for it to be out there. It’s been ready for a year. We had to postpone it because of the pandemic, but now we feel like it’s the right time to release it. The first couple singles are already out, two songs fit for the times we’re living in…

Chaene: Yeah, all this fascist talk on Brazilian YouTube channels, plus the brutal murder of the Congolese refugee that took place in the past few days. We could write a whole album every day with all the terrible stories of racism and bigotry that happen in Brazil…

Rodrigo: There was also the story of the man that was getting home from work and a neighbour shot at him because he thought he was a burglar, but, in fact, the shooter only thought that because he was black.

Chaene: The other day something along those lines happened to me. I was at a store and the security guard started looking at me sideways. He was black, too, but just assumed something about me because of the colour of my skin; this is what society does to us. Even this other black guy has that idea about black people.

Rodrigo: This is what the band is about. We denounce these things in our lyrics. I’ve been stopped and frisked by police while coming home from school, or when I’m standing on a corner talking to a friend, or even in front of our homes.

Chaene: It happened to us in Italy. We were in a gas station, and we were clearly racially profiled: everything was right, all the papers, all the things about the van, everything was by the book, so, they invented there was something wrong with the tires of the van and called a tow truck. I mean, there was nothing wrong. We were driving towards the airport, and we were afraid to miss our flight. We are not saying Italians are racists. But these specific police officers who were Italian clearly were racists.

Talking of police brutality and racism. You have a music video called “I can’t breathe”, inspired by the George Floyd murder in the USA. How was the song written?

Chaene:I can’t breathe” came to life after I saw that grotesque image of a black man being suffocated to death, calling out for his mother. The chords and the words came to me very quickly. I wrote the song on a Thursday, we rehearsed on the same day, recorded it on Friday, on Saturday we shot the video. We had a sense of urgency with this song. Charles’ idea for the video was to have only one white hand around his neck. It was released on Tuesday because it was Black Out Tuesday. The message is very powerful. It’s necessary.

Rodrigo: You wrote it as you saw the images, it’s your emotion about the whole thing. It affected us all.

Charles: We wanted to just record it. And it worked well from the get-go.

What are your main influences? How do they come into play when you write your music?

Charles: Since I put this band together, I had this idea that I wouldn’t follow a certain rule within one genre. So, back then I was listening to two bands most of the time: Chevelle and Bad Brains. But I come from a background of thrash metal bands, like Metallica and Megadeth; I also listen to Motörhead and Living Colour, and then grunge bands, like Soundgarden. Also, Ramones, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against The Machine. But sometimes I want to listen to Tim Maia. So, no rules. And this idea of crossover, which is really a mix of many different elements within the realm of rock’n’roll, is really interesting to me.

Chaene: Well, Charles said it all! I also like Brazilian rock, especially some bass players out here… but that’s it, a mix of thrash, hardcore, speed metal, it depends on the song. What matters is that it’s Black Pantera.

Rodrigo: We never think of a certain style when we are writing music. The guys bring a riff, and it just flows from there. “Punk Rock Nigga Roll” was written like that, it came from a jam session and it’s our most watched YouTube video so far. But we grew up listening to everything. My father listened to traditional country music, samba. My first band was a samba band. When I was younger, Charles and Chaene were part of the metal crowd, but I was part of the emo movement out here: we were sort of rivals in that way (laughs).

Chaene: Yeah, there was this thing at the mall: the emo guys with their caps with buttons and pins, and us, wearing metal t-shirts, like King Diamond, Mercyful Fate.

Rodrigo: Back then, even though we listened to it all, we put ourselves within a box.

You will share the stage with Living Colour at Rock In Rio festival later in 2022. You have also recently done an interview with them, in which you spoke about the importance of black music to the origin of rock’n’roll. How do soul, blues, and Motown artists influence your sound?

Rodrigo: We listen to those and play it often, as session musicians. Chaene and I also played in party bands, where we played all kinds of music, including soul, funk, James Brown, Guns N’ Roses, samba, country music, anything people want to hear at parties, really.

Chaene: The Rock In Rio line-up for the Sunset Stage was about to be announced, so they had the idea of having us as a newer band interview one of the top bands of this genre, for a big newspaper out here in Brazil. So, we came up with questions for Living Colour. You can see I have a picture of them here on my wall, just next to Sister Rosetta, the Black Mother of rock’n’roll, it’s a pity many people don’t even know about her. Anyways, we spoke to Will Calhoun, their drummer, who had said he liked our music. For us, that was brilliant! We also always hear people question us for being black and playing rock’n’roll, and we think, so, what? People just ignore the fact that it began with black people, its roots are in soul, blues. So, the questions went along those lines. And further down the road, when we play the festival, I think we’re going to have our “fan” moment ̶ no kidding, I wanna shake their hands, see if some of that genius rubs off on us! This is a great honour for us. And lately, I’ve been listening to Living Colour a lot more, but also Sister Rosetta, Fishbone ̶ the latter inspired Red Hot Chili Peppers, but people don’t seem to know this.

Charles: For me, I’ve always listened to Motown, I’m really interested in their history, the difficulties that group of artists faced to be featured on radio stations at the time. I also listen to more contemporary hip hop artists, like Travis Scott, Kanye West, Jay-Z. I listen to the blues, Robert Johnson, B.B. King. James Brown is an influence, especially for his energy on stage: my reference as a frontman.

Chaene: It’s like all this black culture was erased. “Summer of Soul (Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”, the documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival that happened in 1969, was only able to be released now. No one spoke of it, whereas Woodstock was televised and always attracted attention. It took 50 years for this documentary to see the light of day.

Charles: Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, they all performed there, in Harlem. The director of the movie explains that the TV execs didn’t think it was good business. And let’s remember that the most watched Woodstock concert to this day is that of Jimi Hendrix, a black man.

Chaene: There is this thing that Elvis is the king of rock’n’roll. Of course, he’s important, he was truly talented, but Chuck Berry came before.

Charles: Little Richard also, all that Elvis did music wise, he did before.

Rodrigo: Death, in punk rock. They were the creators of the genre. And most people never heard of them.

Chaene: I find it unbelievable that the first recorded punk rock band is a black band, and most don’t know it… These things need to be said. And it’s really great to have this space to talk about it.

You will play your Rock In Rio concert with Devotos as a guest band on your set. What are your expectations for this gig?

Charles: It’s an old dream of ours. It’s like reaching a goal we didn’t know we could reach. I know that when the date approaches, we will be more apprehensive about it. But we played big festivals before, like Download. And Rock In Rio is here in Brazil, we know there will be friends of ours in the crowd. Playing with Devotos, then watching Living Colour, man, it’s a dream come true! And we understand the weight of being a band of black musicians playing on the heavy metal day of Rock In Rio. We understand the importance of that for a kid who wants to pick up a guitar and just do it, if he can see someone who looks like him on stage, rocking out heavy metal music. We can also be an example for future generations. We’re really excited about it!

Rodrigo: Devotos is a reference for us. Together with Ratos de Porão and Plebe Rude, they brought punk rock to Brazil. Devotos have been around for over 30 years. We are still to rehearse, of course, but we want to play some of their songs with them, and hopefully they can perform some of our songs with us.

Chaene: It’s incredible, just like Charles said it, the influence for a kid who looks like us, and feels represented by us on stage. About Devotos, being able to bring another rock band made up of black people, especially after this pandemic, after more than 600,000 dead here in Brazil. Hopefully, everything will be better by then, everyone is getting vaccinated. We know this concert is bigger than us. It’s a lot more than music.

Some say rock is dead, but there are many good bands around. What Brazilian bands do you listen to? Can you suggest any for our readers?

Rodrigo: I want to suggest a horror punk band from our city, called Nekrotério. I’m a really big fan of theirs; there is a lot of humour in their lyrics. Uganga is also a local band that has been around for 20 years at least, they play metal, and deserve our respect. Punho de Mahin, this is a band that fights racism, like us, Ossos Cruzados, Caska, Seu Juvenal.

Charles: I will also go for the local bands: Broken Jazz Society, Clandestinos Rock, Ferpanozöi, Baltazares, Tiranossauro.

Chaene: Toi e DJ Nene, they are rap artists, and have a project of hip hop battles, which makes a difference out here. Also, Ysaac, another rap artist. But Brazilian bands, well, this country is so big… there is Endigna, Chafun Di Formio, Plastic Fire.

So, thank you for talking to Chaoszine. Is there anything you would like to add before we go?

Charles: Thank you for interviewing us, we are really happy to talk to you. I hope everybody listens to our album, coming out on March 11th, hope you enjoy it, also look us up on social media, we’ll be happy to interact with you.

Rodrigo: I’d like to thank our friend Prudencio, who made the bridge between us. This is how it goes in the underground, little by little, and thank you for talking to us!

Chaene: I want to thank you for this opportunity. There is a new video out there, a new single “Fogo nos racistas”, and we miss playing live, we miss the mosh pit: bands are made on the road.

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