The Story Of The Lambada


Jean Georgakarakos (commonly known as Jean Karakos or simply Karakos) has always loved the music and people of Brazil. The second record he ever produced and released, in 1961, was a 7” Brazilian Samba record. In 1985, he was living in New York when a friend of his from Paris took him to Brazil and introduced him to Gilberto Gil and Maria Bethânia among scores of other musicians. The reason why his friend brought Karakos to Brazil was because Karakos wanted to establish Brazilian music in America. Karakos realized that not many of Brazilians were represented in America as no major record label was interested in their catalogue.

In 1985 Karakos created his own label called Braziloid and released a compilation called Brazil Is Back. This record featured artists he had met in Brazil like Gilberto Gil, Maria Bethânia and Sandra Sa amongst many fantastic musicians. As a promotional tactic Karakos sent his promo cassettes to the press in golden boxes filled with flowers and other aromatic things. This venture paid off and the press came to know and refer to the record as the ‘smelling cassette’. What impressed Karakos most about Brazilian music was the way the people were living it; the clubs, the people the musicians, the fraternity, the friendships between the musicians and the fact that they were all politically engaged. Musicians like Gilberto Gil and Maria Bethânia were involved in a political movement called Tropicalism (Tropicália) and along with many other musicians lifted their voices against the dictator. Karakos made a deal with RCA Brazil; they would distribute celluloid in Brazil and he would distribute their records in America. Once he started releasing the records in America to further develop the influence of Brazilian music, he would also do special promotion events like Gilberto Gil in New York, etc.

In 1988, Olivier Lorsac, a friend of Karakos was have some time off after his latest movie received some luke warm support from the critics. Karakos asked him to come to Brazil to help him out of his somber state; also he would be going there himself in March or April. Olivier came from Paris, and Karakos from New York and they met in Brazil. They went to Salvador and a little island called Trancoso. It was hear where the seed for the Lambada was planted. They discovered Lambatteirias, a big bar and where young, popular people danced the Lambada. The girls had on little dresses just like in the movies. The pair of Frenchmen stood their with admiration in their eyes. This was truly an experience for the both of them, as they were both patrons of good music and sensuality.

They found that the Lambatteirias at Salvador and Sao Paulo were packed up to a capacity of 2 – 3 thousand people, but there were no representatives from record companies at these places. The record companies were only interested in the very popular places in the golden triangle – Sao Paulo, Rio and Belo Horizonte – where the several million poor from the northeast of Brazil would come to work. These were the only people who brought records. However, the record companies found the Lambada too vulgar and not interesting enough to create hype. Olivier and Karakos knew that what the record companies did not understand was that the Lambada, a music form that came into existence in the ‘80s, descended from musical styles like forró and calypso. The record companies merely saw the sexual aspect of the Lambada and failed to see the sensuality and beauty in the music and dance. Both Olivier Lorsac and Karakos thought that if people reacted the same way as they did to this music, they would be able to sell some records. This also came at a time when Karakos had made a promise to his wife that he would have a hit the next year. He really needed the money and Olivier needed the help so they visited people on the beaches of Sao Paulo and Rio to discuss what they could do. They wanted to have a summer event, but it was too late for that in that current year. So Olivier and he decided that they would spend the next 6 months planning and do something in the summer of next year, keeping it a secret till then. It was their plan to drop a bomb on an unsuspecting audience.

October ’88, in Paris, they came to a conclusion that the Lambada was a visual experience; Olivier and Karakos decided to make a short film on the Lambada and show it to people. Since they decided that the movie should be shot in Brazil, Olivier organised a trip to Sao Paulo, Trancoso, and Porto Seguro – the capital of the Lambada – 60 odd kilometres from Salvador. Even before he made this movie, Olivier had a very successful advertising company. He knew the importance of creating an image. This 10 minute movie, which Karakos funded with the last of his money, was shot beautifully shot in Porto Seguro and Sao Paulo by Oliver and his team of professionals. The film was shot in natural settings like on the beach or in the streets, featuring Chico and Roberta; it turned out more like a short documentary. When Olivier came back in January with his film, everyone was interested in it. It was Olivier and Karakos’ plan to use the TV like radio and have a 1 to 3 minute clip from the film play on the hour, every hour. For this they needed sponsorship because no TV channel would give them free airplay. They convinced Orangina to be their sponsor and TF1 to play the clip 350 times from July to August ‘89. The clip was first aired on the first day of the Fête de la Musique, 21st June. They also convinced the number one radio station of the time, Europe 1, to play their clip. Orangina ended up spending only 200,000 Euros on the video clip. Also, because Olivier knew the worth of a very good clip, he went to Ibiza and made an awesome commercial. Karakos and Lorsac did have a lot of arguments because of the involvement of TF1 after they saw the potential of the Lambada being a hit.

From January to April, they did not have a song only the short film. In April a deal was made, but not signed, by Orangina and TF1. This is when Karakos and Lorsac realized that they needed to have some music. So they went to the lambatteiria and videotaped dancers and reviewed the tapes the next day. This was because Olivier wanted the dancers to have a solid on-screen presence. Karakos would suggest that some dancer was good, but Olivier would ask him to watch the tapes. Olivier was right; on screen, certain dancers that Karakos wouldn’t remember actually stood out. So they tracked down those dancers themselves. They told the dancers to meet them the next day at the hotel if they wanted to go to Paris. The dancers were all flabbergasted and looked at them with some suspicion. They even thought Karakos and Lorsac were pimps! To convince them to show up, Karakos invited them to come to the hotel along with their parents. The father of one of the main dancers, Gabriella, told Karakos that he would not let a young, 18 year old girl go to Paris by herself. Gabriella’s father and he started speaking about music and when Karakos found out that the girl’s father was a big jazz fan. Karakos caught his break because he could speak for hours on jazz. The father appreciated his knowledge on the subject and when Karakos told him that he had released four Paulo Moura records, who was a master Brazilian Gafieira musician who he was a huge fan of, he and all the other parents relaxed and started to trust Karakos. The parents all signed the contracts because they thought that someone who released 4 Paulo Moura records could not be all that bad. Karakos and Olivier Lorsac had the dancers, which were the most important thing for them. This was in April. Now they needed the financing to buy the dancers plane tickets and find accommodation for them. They had hired the dancers because they knew one thing for certain – this would be a success. Karakos never doubted the fact that this would be a big hit if he saw it through the end and even spent his last money on this project. He also knew that to make this a success he and his partner would have to see this project through to the end. The last thing he did was make a deal with the record company because he was aware of how record companies functioned. “The more biscuits in the bag he better deal you make. So I waited till I had enough biscuits in my bag.”

Karakos and Olivier Lorsac now had the 16 dancers that they signed on a monthly salaried basis. They put them up in a hotel and provided them with food. They also had to pay for a teacher for Chico and Roberta because French law specifies that you cannot bring a child who is going to act in a movie or be in showbiz without authorization from the government. Karakos and Olivier Lorsac did not have to show the dancers what to do because the dance was natural to them and there was no need for choreography, plus Karakos and Olivier Lorsac did not want to change anything. At this time, Karakos was completely broke. When he had gone to New York to Sao Paulo, he had but a few dollars. He was supposed to receive money via Western Union, but the money had not arrived. He had also lost his luggage at Sao Paulo and so did not have fresh clothes. Penniless and without clothes, he soon started to smell pretty bad. However, he couldn’t let Olivier know that he was broke because he was afraid that Olivier would back out of the project. Karakos started talking to Continental, a major independent record label and specialist in the music of the northeast, who also had the largest Lambada catalogue. He signed a 60 album deal with Continental without much of an advance or what was a good amount in Brazil. Continental thought he was insane, they did not see the popularity of the Lambada outside the lambatteirias. In Brazil, the Lambada was non-existent outside the lambatteirias as the media would not give it any attention. After signing the contract with Continental, Karakos and Olivier Lorsac came back to Paris. All this time Karakos had neglected his work in New York, but he knew if he had to make this work, he would have to focus completely on this thing.

In Paris, he visited TF1 and Orangina and signed the deal. Olivier and he created a French company called BM Productions. Between Olivier and him, BM stood for French for jackpot (Bandit Manchot) but to the press they defined BM as Bonne Music Productions. Everybody accepted the idea; but they had not yet signed with a record company and hadn’t decided on a song. Olivier on one of his trips to Brazil found a cassette in the market place. This cassette had one song, Llorando se fue, on it by as singer called Márcia Ferreira. When Karakos discussed this with Continental he found out that they owned the masters and the publishing rights. He wanted the rights from them and even put a clause in the contract where Continental states they “sell the complete rights of the song”. It was at this point that the pair also decided to rename their recording of the song Lambada,as they liked after the dance to carry the whole project.

What was forgotten in all of this was the recording and the frontline artist who would define Lambada on TV and to the press. Karakos and Olivier Lorsac knew that if this was successful we would have a lot of TV appearances to make. So they were looking for musicians living in France to fill this part as they were still not sure it would become an international hit. Karakos and Lorsac were sure the Lambada would be a hit in France because national TV would be playing it 350 times. Also they could not afford to bring a Brazilian musician all the way to France.

It was at this point that luck struck again. An artist called Torue Kunda had been working with Karkakos since 1976. In February 1989, Torue Kunda made the slight mistake of firing all the musicians of Their backing band; the bass player, the drummer, the main arranger, the guitarist, all of them. Because Karakos was good friends with the musicians and because they were very good, he suggested the creation of Kaoma. They also found Loalwa Braz a Brazilian singer who was already living in Paris. She was a jazz and bossa nova singer with an amazing voice. Immediately they knew she was the one. They chose the name of the band as such because they wanted it to sound Brazilian. Karakos and Olivier Lorsac called the song the Lambada song, which cost 5000 Euros to record. The song was recorded by the end of May and shortly after they agreed to enlist CBS to assist them release the song on a licence basis. When Karakos first approached CBS they refused to licence the song and called the record crap. So he flew to Miami and met the president of Sony at that time, who agreed to go ahead and sign the video. The musicians arrived on the 9th of June. Karakos recollects telling his wife, who he married in the south of France, that he would make a hit. The night before he was to be married in the south of France he had to make a compilation for CBS of 20 Lambada songs, a double album, as a part of a deal with CBS, TF1 and Orangina. Karakos knew that Kaoma would not have the time to compose new songs for Kaoma Album and he definitely did not want them singing old songs. He decided that Kaoma would work on new songs for the album World Beat in the summer. So he made the compilation for CBS from the 60 albums he had brought from Continental. He was working on this compilation till half past six in the morning on the day of his wedding. He hurriedly packed a bag and dropped everything at Olivier’s house to catch a flight to the south of France to get married.

The main video for Lambada was shot in 5 or 6 days, featuring the dancers from Brazil. Olivier had discovered Chico and Roberta when he made his first documentary. The main dancers along with Kaoma and some extras had to be managed which was a very expensive operation. The movie cost close to 200,000 Euros. Karakos and Olivier Lorsac decided, together with TF1, that they would release the video on the 21st of June, the first day of the La Fête de la Musique. The band and the dancers played at the Champ de Mars, where the Eiffel tower is, for tens of thousands of people in an open air show sponsored by Orangina. That night, for the first time, the Lambada played by TF1 on the air 7 times. The next day they sold 25,000 records. And 3 weeks later in one day they sold 140,000 albums of the Lambada compilation.

Karakos and Olivier Lorsac chose the Lambada song after listening to about 1000 songs. This was at the time when Karakos was working on the compilation, and they had the dance and the dancers, all that was needed was ‘the song’. When Karakos and Olivier Lorsac initially heard the Lambada, they were not too sure of it themselves. The evidence of the song being a hit was not very obvious. But after listening to it a few times, it stuck in their heads. Continental had declared to them that they were the sole owners and publishers of the Lambada song and that the author and composer of the song were dead. What proved to be a mistake, as he learnt only much later that the song had been released before by Los Kjarkas, a Bolivian band. Many believe that Los Kjarkas (including the South American Musical Professor specialist Karakos consulted with) did not compose the Lambada song, but simply were the first to adapt it and sing it on a record. This was actually a very popular old song from the streets of South America.

The Lambada was an immediate success. As always, when anything becomes so popular there were hundreds of people claiming that they composed the song. People went to the SACEM with cassettes containing similar music and would claim to have written the song earlier in the decade. Oliver confided in Karakos his concerns of the deal with Continental not being solid enough. Karakos and Olivier Lorsac wanted to control the publishing rights to the Lambada song because control of the publication meant control over any rerelease or adaptation of the same. They wanted to protect the image of Lambada and keep it strong. Since Olivier was author and composer at SACEM he proposed to register the Lambada under his alias, Chico De Oliveira. Karakos admits in hindsight that this move was a mistake; he also states that he did agree but was not completely sold on the idea. After the success of Lambada, Karakos told Olivier that they had to find out if this song really did belong to somebody.

As part of the team looking after Chico and Roberta, was a man who had worked for Karakos in New York. He was Brazilian in origin and spoke perfect English, so Karakos and Olivier sent him to Brazil to try and find who wrote this song. It was this man who suggested that one of the tracks could be the two guys from Los Kjarkas. Olivier and Karakos’s lawyers flew to Buenos Aires, Argentina where Los Kjarkas were playing and signed a deal with them. When it was discovered that Chico De Oliveira was not the composer of the song there was some scandal. Olivier was called a colonialist who took away the rights of the poorer people, when in fact Olivier and Karakos had tracked down Los Kjarkas and signed a publishing agreement with them for the songs (after Continental had told us they were dead). Los Kjarkas signed the agreement and were paid handsomely in return for their songs, but EMI came into the picture and offered them more. In 1990, from New York Karakos went to Cochabamba in Bolivia for a meeting with the managers of the musicians. Los Kjarkas was offered the price and they signed again. Feeling exasperated Karakos and Oliver had now signed the publishing rights to the songs three times. However where there is a hit, there is a writ and the scandal continued until EMI / Los Kjarkas finally agreed with BM productions to share the publishing rights to the song. This settlement has stood to this day where the publishing is still paid to both Los Kjarkas and to BM.

Karakos and Olivier Lorsac spent all of ‘89 and ‘90 very successfully, in stadiums, travelling all over Latin America, Brazil and Mexico. They sold 750,000 copies in Mexico alone. People were crazy for the Lambada all over Latin America. They had to tour all over Latin America playing the same song over and over. In France publications like Time and Newsweek, the most sold magazines in France, who are known to have a leftist inclination decided to do a huge summer campaign promoting the song. The cover featured the now famous picture of the lead dancers Gabriella’s curvy rear as her yellow dress blows up. This cover was all over the Paris, the subway, the busses, etc. They admitted to Karakos that this was their highest sold copy yet and he counters, “I know why!”

By then Karakos was so tired of listening to the Lambada he decided to go with his wife to Thailand, which was not a very popular tourist destination then. Karakos and his wife decided to rent a land rover and go to the golden triangle where Thailand, Cambodia and Laos shared a border. At this place there was a tiny village, 2 days away from anywhere on a mountain with no electricity. Suddenly Karakos heard the sounds of the Lambada come from the village; there was a guy listening to it on a battery operated radio! Karakos then flipped and screamed “get me out of hear, the Lambada even in the middle of nowhere”. Later that day in the market place in Thailand he saw that there were hundreds and thousands of bootleg copies of the song. They officially sold over 20 million copies of the record; this is not counting the hundreds and thousands that were bootlegged and sold in Southeast Asia. As downloads did not exist then, people had to buy the record to make a copy.

According to Karakos, the purpose of doing free jazz is to develop a culture which is unknown and to be part of a movement that is pushing hard to be known. Participating in something like that, which is important, has always been what he has wanted to do. He also states that making a multimillion, international hit from nothing takes another kind of creativity. Having a concept, finding the dancers, putting them together with the right music, finding the right musicians, and putting together a creative, successful market campaign all needs creativity. He says that this was other type of creativity is not superior or inferior, just different.

Karakos admits that he is very good at recognizing a hit as he has done it several times in his life. By the time he released the Lambada; he had produced Herbie Hancock’s Rockit and sold a few million records. The Lambada has officially sold over 20 million copies. It was the highest selling record in the world in 1989. However if you were to count the bootleg copies worldwide it could have easily sold 3 or 4 times this number. Selling lots of records was never Karakos main goal. It was nice to keep his promise to his wife of course . In fact, however he states that he never chases anything, a band or a particular music. He always made music and met people by accident. He says that it is as if there is some force driving him to do whatever he does, almost as if he is obliged to do it.

Story based on an interview with Karakos by Marc Verte in Paris, 2011. Translated and transcribed by Lima Yanger