Just when you think that Brazil must surely have exhausted its supply of irresistibly jazzy, funky, sexy, soulful electro-pop singer-songwriters, someone like CéU (pronounced Say-You) comes along and makes you think that maybe that particular well is bottomless after all.
Her full name is Maria do Céu Whitaker Poças, but she goes by the simpler moniker CéU. It's a name that can be translated into English in a couple of subtly but significantly different ways. CéU means either "sky" or "heaven," depending on context, and either translation applies quite nicely in this case: think of her as "Sky" when you hear the soft blue clarity of her voice, or "Heaven" when one of her sweetly bubbling melodic hooks takes you by surprise and makes you shiver with delight. CéU's U.S. debut comes hot on the heels of a Latin Grammy nomination for "best new artist" of 2006. She is also riding high on a wave of international success in France, where the influential Les Inrockuptibles recognized her as one of the top 5 musical revelations of 2005, Holland, and Italy, as well as in Canada, where she was recently the fourth highest-selling artist for the Archambault chain of music shops while simultaneously holding the number 32 slot on the pop charts. Originally issued in 2005 on the São Paulo-based Urban Jungle label Jungle and Beto Villares' Ambulante Discos, CéU was picked up by Six Degrees when members of the staff heard the album and found themselves entranced by the warm, fresh sound of her voice.
The momentum didn't stop there, as Starbucks Entertainment selected CéU as the fourth artist to be featured in the innovative Starbucks Hear Musicâ„¢ Debut CD series. Her self-titled debut will be a co-release by Starbucks Hear Music and Six Degrees Records and will be released simultaneously at traditional retail and Starbucks Company-operated locations in the U.S. beginning April 3, 2007. CéU is the first international artist featured in the Starbucks Hear Musicâ„¢ Debut series.
CéU's stateside release gives a whole new population the opportunity to be equally entranced. The album opens enticingly with "Vinheta Quebrante," a brief introductory track that builds itself up in delicate rhythmic layers. With "Lenda," the album's first full-length track, CéU stakes out her musical territory more assertively: anchored by the juxtaposition of a subtly chromatic melody and a lazy funk groove and ornamented with a gracefully understated turntable scratch, the song sways seductively like seaweed in a warm ocean current, hints of reggae and dub lurking tantalizingly in the background. Next comes the album's first single, a sweetly tuneful and more explicitly reggae-flavored song titled "Malemolência" (if you're lucky enough to have satellite access to the TV Globo network, then you may recognize it as a featured song in the soundtrack to Cidade dos Homens, the television adaptation of the celebrated film City of God). Then, as if she's unwilling to let go of a good thing, she follows up on that track with the slightly more muscular "Roda," on which she delves deep into the rich soil of dub-funk grooviness again. Yet despite its quietly chugging and soulful rhythms and its insinuating touches of turntablism, this song is actually quite spare in texture: its basic structure consists of little more than turntable scratches, a percolating bassline and a straightforward drum lick, while guitars and keyboard are allowed to lurk around the outside edges of the sound.
But as intriguing as the musical arrangements are, it's CéU's voice that really grabs your attention and won't let go. On "Rainha," a jazzy and more conventionally Brazilian number, she delivers a beautifully cascading melody over rich, thick layers of horns and percussion, while on the drier and more bluesy "10 Contados" her song, CéU croons with a warmth and sensuality that is much more interesting and complex than the voice whispers the melody softly and warmly into your ear with an almost unbearable sexiness. On every warblings of the sex-kittens-of-the-month that perennially inhabit the American R&B charts; CéU sings as if she were imparting secrets. Her songs sound as if they're informed by life as it is really lived, in all of its emotional difficulty and complication, rather than by gauzy romantic illusions or sexpot posturing.
There are good reasons for the depth and complexity of CéU's songs. She was born into a musical family in the artistically diverse city of São Paulo; her father, a locally renowned composer, arranger and musicologist, taught her at a young age to appreciate the music of Brazil's great classical composers, including Heitor Villa- Lobos, Ernesto Nazaré and Orlando Silva. By age 15 she had decided to become a singer, and pursued music studies in lieu of a college education; trained on the violão (a nylon-stringed Brazilian guitar) and in music theory, she was performing onstage with major artists and exploring the repertoire of the marchinhas (turn-of-the-century carnival music) by her late teens. Soon after that she relocated temporarily to New York City, where she had a chance meeting with fellow Brazilian musician Antonio Pinto, who became her flat mate while he was going through some financial difficulties. She later learned that he was actually a distant cousin, and their relationship was renewed when he teamed up with lead producer Beto Villares to help her record her album. Pinto, who produced CéU's song "Ave Cruz" is the composer of the musical score for two Oscar Nominated films, Central Station (1999) and City of God (2003.)
Following her stint in New York where she was influenced by the sound of Hip-Hop, jazz singers Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald, Lauren Hill and Erykah Badu, she returned home to São Paulo, where the young up-and-comer fronted a samba funk outfit and then an electro-dance group and caught the attention of several major record labels before agreeing to join forces with Urban Jungle, an indie label whose managers promised her the respect and independence that are clearly her due.
That freedom has resulted in an album that is surprisingly mature and fully realized for a debut effort from such a young musician. On every track you find yourself being pleasantly surprised by her delicate and elegant balance of inventive experimentation and reverence for tradition, in particular for the samba sound that is so beloved of her countrymen (the sound which she sings on "Samba na Sola," "sticks to the soles of my feet"). Note, for example, the unique ambience she creates on "Veu da Noite," with its wispy, abstract groove, blippy synthesizer warblings and floating shreds of vocals and horns. Compare it to the sturdy funk and hypnotically bluesy singing that power "Valsa pra Biu Roque," and then skip over to the album's most surprising track, her cover version of Bob Marley's archetypal sufferer's anthem "Concrete Jungle." This is a song that has tripped up many a cover artist in the past; it's easy to accidentally turn it into simpleminded political sloganeering or, even worse, some kind of beach-party tune. CéU avoids the first pitfall by delivering the song's lyrics of searing despair in a somber but gentle voice, thus nailing Marley's original tone of understated heartbreak rather than turning it into a caricature of political anger. She avoids the second pitfall by taking the tune essentially out of reggae territory altogether, shifting the rhythmic emphasis into a swaying, swinging groove that would sound perfectly at home in any São Paulo club. CéU feels that though this song was written about Kingston Town it just as easily describes São Paulo.
The album's most whimsical and charming moment comes on "O Ronco de Cuica," a celebration of the cuica, a Brazilian percussion instrument that looks like a drum and sounds like an agitated monkey or tropical bird. Although CéU carefully avoids the drum'n'bossa sound that is so much the rage in her native country these days, there are definite hints of junglism in both the drum sound and in the manipulated cuica samples that are layered throughout the track; a messy guitar part lurks in the background, hinting at an impending chaos that never quite takes over.
Samba, reggae, dub, electronica, love, heartbreak, chaos and sweet, sweet tunefulness – sounds like the perfect recipe for an irresistible album by a thrilling new talent. And so it is.