Everything Old is New Again: The Music of Dead Combo

Dead Combo (gongaz - photobucket)

Dead Combo (gongaz – photobucket)

To put it simply, Dead Combo is an obscure (at least for Americans) Portuguese band. Obscure, yes, because they are relatively unknown stateside. But also obscure in a musical sense.

When you listen to Dead Combo, made up of Tó Trips (guitars) and Pedro Gonçalves (double bass, electric guitar, keyboards) it’s hard to pin down exactly what they do. Add in The Royal Skulls Orchestra they sometimes play with — consisting of a piano player, drummer and three-piece horn section — and the task becomes even more formidable.

Part of the reason for Dead Combo’s obscurity is the sheer amount of musical genres they incorporate into their style. And yet, this myriad of genres is also part of what makes them so innovative.

At their roots, the band is grounded in Fado, a traditional music genre from Portugal, characterized by mournful tunes and sentiments of resignation and fatefulness. But Fado is only the musical base for the group, a jumping off point. From there the band blends in styles as diverse as jazz, alternative and world music. Dead Combo’s musical sensibility is even clearly inspired from the music of spaghetti western films. In a sense, then, their innovation comes from taking the old and making something new out of it.

Still, the obscurity (and innovation) doesn’t end with the music. According to their website, Dead Combo’s two main members “incarnate two characters that could have come from a comic: a caretaker and a gangster.” Just what they are trying to accomplish in these roles is anybody’s guess.

Their albums are filled with cryptic references to the Lisbon of the past and the art world, with a special emphasis on the cinema. This almost visual-like aspect of their music can especially be  seen when accompanied by their music video for “Quando A Alma Não É Pequena.”

And yet, even though you aren’t exactly sure of what you are supposed to be thinking or feeling as you listen to Dead Combo, you are sure that it is good music. Although it’s not easy to understand or categorize, the music allows you to let your mind wander and create its own scenes and characters as the band provides the soundtrack to your thoughts.

Although Dead Combo seems destined to remain in obscurity in America due to the nature of their music, it doesn’t seem to matter to them. The band has been awarded “Record of the Year” and “Record of the Decade” in Portugal and has played all the major festivals and venues in their homeland.

Perhaps part of the reason Americans won’t latch onto Dead Combo is because their music is so heavily invested in Portuguese culture, a culture that most Americans simply aren’t that familiar with. But whether or not they realize it, Americans do appreciate the idea of taking something old and making it new, especially in music, which is the precise territory that Dead Combo is working in.

Hip hop is based on sampling old music and making something new out of it — think Kanye West sampling Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” in “Touch the Sky.” The blues rock revival sound of bands like Alabama Shakes and The Black Keys wouldn’t exist without groups like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones and those bands wouldn’t have existed either if not for bluesmen like Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf.

The idea of taking the old and making it new is just about as old as music itself.

And these days, nobody is doing it quite like Dead Combo.


CharlieCharlie Crespo (@Little_Utopia) is the editor-in-chief of Little Utopia.

Previously from Charlie Crespo:
Welcome Back, Landon Donovan
Lionel Messi Battles the Robot Keeper
Beertopia: Rogue’s Bacon Maple Ale
Kim Kardashian is Really Bad at Acting (But She Doesn’t Care)
How Did “This is the End” Get So Many Famous People in One Movie?

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