Polysom is Brazil’s most popular—and only—vinyl pressing plant
Around the Praça Tiradentes in downtown Rio de Janeiro, used vinyl abounds. Vendors haul crates in with wheelbarrows and prop records up on building façades, lazily keeping an eye out for customers while they chat with taxi drivers and doormen. Start showing some interest they will quickly point out the organizational scheme of the day: pricier imports vs. bargain domestics, an economic equation that holds for most goods in the Brazilian economy (appliances, clothes, beer).
Imports can fetch a reasonable sum—at least 20 reais ($12.50)—for anything from Euro dance records to Grace Jones to ’70s R&B. But Brazilian wax here is much cheaper than in a beauty salon. Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben Jor and other stalwarts of tropicália and música popular brasileira (MPB) are usually 5 reais ($3) or less. Funk carioca records, documenting the early days before mp3 CDs took over the distribution channels, can run to the dirt cheap: try twenty-five records for 50 reais ($30).
When a trademark tropical shower rolls through, Cariocas act like the Wicked Witch from the West, avoiding the rain at all costs. As the vendors run for cover under the awnings of nearby botecos, the crates sit forlorn in the rain, not even elevated on a pallet to evade the water rushing down the sidewalk.
The cavalier and careless attitudes are all the more disconcerting given the perilous state of record production in Brazil. At present Polysom, located in the Rio suburb of Belford Roxo, is the only vinyl pressing and production plant in Brazil and indeed in South America. If you accept owner João Augusto’s dismissive assertion that the only remaining plant in Mexico barely deserves the distinction, then Polysom is the last homem standing below the Rio Grande, which is to say the only vinyl pressing plant in all of Latin America.*
Orfeón in Mexico, Discos Fuentes in Colombia, and Polygram in Brazil are just a handful of the record labels that supplied the music for the vibrant market in LPs throughout Central and South America. But the advent of the compact disc era was a global phenomenon, and the bottom largely fell out of the Brazilian vinyl market by the ’90s. As of 1995, there were no domestic producers of vinyl records.
The gap was short-lived, however, before demand from an unlikely demographic: Evangelicals. Brazilian churches were—and still are—voracious consumers of gospel music, as movements like Pentecostalism are slowly eating away at the Catholic majority. Why they preferred vinyl over CDs remains unclear, but, they sustained the nascent Polysom, founded by Nilton Rocha in 1997 with equipment purchased from Brazilian major labels Poly Gram and Continental. Rocha had worked for Brazilian majors since 1969 in other vinyl plants and running his own shop had long been a dream.
Of course, there was more than just praise music coming out of Polysom in the 2000s. In the 2006 music video for “Curimba Riddim,” Brazilian reggae purveyors Digital Dubs Soundsystem pay respect to Jamaican tradition by hauling down fresh 7-inches from Polysom for their regular sound clashes in the nightclubs of Rio.
Rocha made it ten years before delays, technical problems, canceled orders, and diminished demand pulled the plug on Polysom. Buoyed by the rapid growth of new vinyl purchases in the U.S. and Europe, however, the owners of Brazilian independent label Deckdisc purchased Polysom in 2009 and reopened it the next year. Evangelical music was out and a Brazilian record collector’s wet dream was in: “Classics in Vinyl,” featuring remastered versions of Ultraje a Rigor, Titãs, Jorge Ben Jor, Tom Zé, Secos & Molhados, Rita Lee, and Chico Science e Nação Zumbi, among others.
In 2011, they are still going strong, and on a typically hot Rio weekday, I took the decrepit commuter train from Central do Brasil station out to Belford Roxo. Far from Rio’s postcards, the train trundles past seemingly endless favelas and into a poor suburb whose biggest claim to fame is a minor league samba school, Inocentes de Belford Roxo. A short motorcycle taxi ride from the train station leads to Rua Prudente de Moraes, a dusty unpaved road not to be confused with the luxurious promenade of the same name that runs parallel to Ipanema Beach. At the end of a row of modest houses capped with corrugated tin, an auto body shop, and some corner bars whose patrons are working on their 10 am beers, about the last scene one expects behind the nondescript gray façade of #101 is a 180-gram repressing of Nação Zumbi.
But it’s out here, where the urban periphery of the Rio mega-city begins to melt into the countryside, roosters crow, banana trees grow, and vinyl is cut to exacting specifications. João Augusto, who came to meet me from his office in glitzy Barra da Tijuca, is adamant that Polysom’s product is up to the snuff of the northern hemisphere plants in the U.S., Germany, and elsewhere that set the global standard. In fact, Polysom only went full steam ahead with 2011’s reopening when they compared one of their records with one from Bill Smith Inc. in the U.S. and saw that the two were of identical quality. That now places them in the proud company of only a dozen factories worldwide that perform the complete process of acetate, plating, and pressing.
João Augusto, an ardent defender of vinyl, attributes much of this to the “genius” who he kept on board, the aforementioned Nilton Rocha. While the modest technician demurs when asked if anyone else in Brazil knows as much about the vinyl fabrication process as he does, one only need look at his workshop—where he hand makes parts that are no longer manufactured—to know that one is in the presence of a true master at his craft. While João Augusto refers repeatedly to the “magic” of Polysom and describes it as the “fábrica fantástica” in an almost Willy Wonka tone, the seeming alchemy of acetate is quickly demystified by a handful of dedicated and knowledgeable employees who bring a perfectionist’s eye to the process from acetate cutting to plating to final pressing, explaining to me in Portuguese down to the details of egg white proteins in the chemical mixture. And all to a swinging soundtrack of Brazilian classics—during my spin through the acetate room I was treated to “Homem Gol” on the master control panel by Rocha’s son, audio supervisor William Carvalho. I later passed by stacks of Jorge Ben Jor’s África-Brasil and was greeted at the entrance by a jukebox soon to be stocked with Polysom’s catalogue.
“Vinyl is fundamentally a tactile, visual, and audio experience,” declares João Augusto, sounding like the consummate vinyl junkie. He is prepared to discuss the finer points of 130 vs. 140 vs. 180 grams, argue for the richer sound in the uncompressed vinyl format, and note the return of vinyl in an increasingly digitized world.
As Polysom owner, he sees potential growth from Japan, whose mania for all things Brazil would lead labels, in his opinion, to produce their vinyl in humble Belford Roxo. South American neighbors Argentina and Chile both have fervent vinyl cultures that also offer markets outside of Brazil. Inside Brazil, whose labels generally turn to the Czech Republic, vinyl is also a creative response to rampant music piracy—it’s much harder to find an official CD than a CD-R copy—which João Augusto rails against in his capacity as a label owner. Polysom’s next step is to begin offering picture discs and colored vinyl.
In a growing sign of vinyl’s foothold in Brazil, Polysom will open a temporary store in the Cidade do Rock, the sprawling venue for September’s Rock in Rio IV. With seven days of music spread over two weekends and featuring a roster of international pop and rock headliners as well as Brazilian favorites, there are some oddball predictions that it could be the largest music festival ever. At the very least, the 100,000 tickets per day sold out at lightning speed.
Unfortunately, the brutal economics imposed by Brazil’s staggeringly high import taxes necessitates passing on the cost of materials to the consumer. The average new, domestic LP in Brazil runs for 75 reais ($47). Perfection most certainly has its price, but with disposable income rising vertiginously and a consumer class conditioned to high prices for imported goods (which, for a while, almost all new LPs were), there is certainly a growing legion of Brazilian record nerds eager to plunk down a 50 real note and take home 12-inch of national pride, with Brazilian music that can finally read on the back: Fabricado no Brasil.
*A Chilean record label, Discos Río Bueno, kindly pointed me in the direction of Retroactivo, which runs a store and pressing plant in Mexico City. They specialize mostly in indie, psychedelic, and punk, and I decided not to fan any flames between Latin America’s lonely vinyl producers by testing the waters with João Augusto’s opinion of their product.
Gregory Scruggs is a freelance writer, DJ, and urban researcher who lives in Rio de Janeiro. He focuses on the intersection between audio culture and urban space.
Originally published at an earlier date on waxpoetics.com
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