Artists are often expected to reflect their native communities, but Céu doesn’t claim that her music captures the essence of her hometown, São Paulo -- and she doesn't need to.
Countless musical currents flow through the teeming, supremely cosmopolitan commercial capital of Brazil, by far the largest metropolis in the Americas (add Chicago’s population to Mexico City and there’s still a quarter-million more Paulistanos). Céu’s music doesn’t try encompass that multiplicity, but her new album Tropix, on San Francisco-based Six Degrees Records, sounds as if it's risen sleek and cool from São Paulo’s ceaseless nocturnal energy.
“The greatest thing about music in São Paulo is that we are really connected to all Brazilian culture, not only the roots like samba,” says Céu, 36, who performs at the Great American Music Hall on Friday, June 17 (and the closing day of the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival in Boonville on June 19). “We have these Brazilian rhythms and styles, but we’re always connected with the world. Sometimes it’s chaotic, but I grew up here and it’s my city.”
Working with French producer Hervé Salters (aka General Elektriks) and Pupillo, drummer for the influential manguebeat band Nação Zumbi, Céu sounds more at home than ever on Tropix, which evokes São Paulo's collision of past, present and future. Focusing on her telegraphic original songs, Céu wends her way through a thicket of electronic beats. Lithe and unsettling strings add darkly shimmering undercurrents on several tracks, with charts contributed by Los Angeles composer/arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (the sonic wizard who put his stamp on recordings by a far-flung constellation of artists, including Lianne La Havas, Rihanna, Seu Jorge, Flying Lotus, and Céu’s labelmate Bebel Gilberto, for starters).
“We’ve watched Céu grow into a really confident, really strong woman who has found her true voice in music over a series of albums,” says Bob Duskis, who co-founded Six Degrees with Pat Berry and has released all four of Céu's studio releases. “Each record has been very different. Her second album Vagarosa was more into dub and hip-hop. Her last one Caravana Sereia Bloom is more rocky and influenced by older Brazilian psychedelia. Tropix is funkier music. She really delves into electronics, and even disco.”
A decade after Céu's Grammy Award-nominated self-titled 2005 debut, she decided to “bring beats back to my sound,” she says. “Brazilian music is so rich with imagery. We have this natural swing in our songs and way of life. On this album I was trying to find a machine way of playing in my musical environment, while still being tropical.”
In concert, Céu is anything but machine-like. She projects cosmic warmth, sliding around the stage with a beatific smile as her soft voice glides over her insistent beats. The band she’s touring with for Tropix is anchored by bassist Lucas Martins, the foundation of her sound for more than a decade. Belgian guitarist David Bovee, keyboardist Joao Cardoso and drummer Thomas Salgado round out the combo, while Céu also plays percussion.
If there’s one track that captures the intricate conversation animating Céu’s music, it’s her rousing interpretation of “Chico Buarque Song,” a song by the cult post-punk São Paulo band Fellini that honors Buarque, a legendary songwriter, musician and man of letters. Describing her teenage love of the Velvet Underground and Joy Division, she decided to bring some of that post-punk aesthetic into Tropix via Fellini.
“When I heard [Fellini] I fell in love with their sound,” she says. “It was so raw and interesting. It talks about what I was trying to do with Tropix: a very dark way of being in Brazil, which is so colorful. I liked the whole album, and I choose this song because I like the melody and it’s so wonderfully strange to have Chico Buarque, such an important and brilliant composer, in this post-punk song.”
Christened Maria do Céu Whitaker Poças at birth, Céu adopted her severely edited moniker as a performer. ("Céu" translates from Portuguese as either “sky” or “heaven,” appropriate for her ethereal voice.) While living in New York City in the early aughts, she absorbed the sounds of Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald, sculpting from the greats her own songwriting voice. She also forged a tight creative bond with fellow Brazilian musician Antonio Pinto, best known as a film composer for his work on two Oscar-nominated films, 1999’s Central Station and 2003’s City of God.
When she returned to Sao Paulo, Céu set about making demos of her trove of original material. Signed to the important São Paulo indie label Urban Jungle, she found an ideal situation when she connected with Six Degrees to release her music in the U.S. and U.K. The label had already delivered hit albums by Brazilian artists like Bebel Gilberto and Bossacucanova, and Céu’s debut received a tremendous push as the first non-English-language album co-released with Starbucks' label, Hear Music.
“We were known as the place for Brazilian music that wasn’t exactly traditional,” Duskis says. “That first album by Céu came as a submission. We were getting deluged by so much Brazilian music in the wake of our success with Bebel Gilberto’s Tanto Tempo it took several nudges by her people before I played it for Pat. He was the one who said, 'I think there’s really something here.'”
Céu performs at the Great American Music Hall on Friday, June 17. Details here.