Vinicius Cantuaria: Nova nouveau

Vinicius Cantuaria blends the art of Brazilian bossa nova with pop, jazz and electronica to produce a unique, international sound. He tours the UK next week, writes Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture

"I try to write this beautiful bossa nova music, with traditional Brazilian grooves and harmony, but then my terrible friends trash it up," says the singer-songwriter Vinicius Cantuaria. He's won't say who the terrible friends are - sometimes he calls them "the dangerous friends" - but they include David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Sean Lennon, Bill Frisell and Arto Lindsay, all of whom appear on Cantuaria's slim but exquisite catalogue of recordings.

That the Manhattan art-rock elite is happy to contribute to the creative distressing of Cantuaria's work tells you something about how valued an artist he is. It also indicates how much the art of bossa nova - of which Cantuaria is perhaps the leading contemporary exponent - is responding to worldwide changes in musical fashion. As a Brazilian in New York, Cantuaria is perfectly placed to absorb the experiments of the pop and jazz avant-gardes, and to incorporate elements from them in his work. Indeed, this is one reason why he moved to Brooklyn from Rio de Janeiro eight years ago.

The other reason, he says, is that it makes him feel more at home. "Here, every day, I feel more Brazilian, because when you leave your country you focus on it more. My harmonic perspective, my chords, my melody, they all become more Brazilian. Also, your music can change every day in the US. One day I perform with Arto Lindsay, another day I perform with Bill Frisell. In New York you can find musicians from all over the world; sometimes you can even find US musicians too! It's not just Brazilian music I become more involved in, it's everything; language, art, politics, whatever. It's always about yourself, not just your music."

I first met Cantuaria four years ago at Ronnie Scott's, where he was presenting songs from his debut album for Verve, Tucuma. The beauty of his songs shone through, and reading the translation of the lyrics afterwards made them more beautiful still. "Let love arrive completely, it alone brings transformation", went the opening verse to "Amor Brasileiro". Set to trumpet, cello, percussion and Cantuaria's own accomplished guitar-playing, the gentle waves of the music lulled you into a kind of narcotic trance. Verve dropped him shortly afterwards.

Before Tucuma, and the 1996 album Sol Na Cara that preceded it, Cantuaria, now 49, had been the drummer in the band of the Brazilian superstar Caetano Veloso for 10 years, and a member of the rock band O Terco before that. Cantuaria also wrote songs, which have been recorded by Brazilian stars such as Chico Buarque, Gal Costa, Marina and Gilberto Gil. His main influences, he has said, are jazz musicians Chet Baker and Bill Evans and the co-creator of bossa nova, Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Cantuaria's most recent album, the rapturously received Vinicius (2001), took the amalgam of bossa nova with the avant-garde even further, but we haven't heard the half of him yet. As well as continuing to work with Arto Lindsay, Cantuaria recently became a member of the guitarist Bill Frisell's new group, The Intercontinentals, who look likely to become one of the biggest acts in jazz and world music. His band for next week's British tour consists of two Brazilian percussionists, Nanny Assis and Mauro Refosco, with trumpeter Michael Leonhart and bassist Paul Socolow. "I perform 15, 16, 17 songs, with things from Tucuma for acoustic guitar and hand percussion mixed with experimental things, and stuff with samples and electronics," he says. "Sometimes it's relaxed, and sometimes it's modern and noisy."

Asked to explain how his music relates to the bossa nova tradition, Cantuaria gives an entertaining discourse on the history of jazz and how it is continuously renewed. "Bossa nova is the opposite. In the beginning, when Jobim played at Carnegie Hall in 1963, everybody loved it, but nothing happened after that. It wasn't until young DJs from England and Europe started to play bossa nova records at dance clubs that it got strong again. Now it's growing, and getting stronger all the time."

If Cantuaria has taken bossa nova into the 21st century, the 21-year-old vocalist Cibelle might take it into the charts for the first time since Astrud Gilberto with Stan Getz in 1964. Her remarkable debut album Cibelle, on the Ziriguiboom label, pushes the aesthetic further, into pop electronica. Produced by the young Brazilian artist known as Apollo 9 and mixed by Morcheeba's Chris Harrison and Pete Norris, Cibelle completes an informal trilogy begun by the late producer Suba with Tanto Tempo and his own Sao Paulo Confessions, on which Cibelle sang.

Cibelle - who wrote all but one of the album's tunes - downplays the conscious elements in her music in favour of chance, love and inspiration. "We don't just have bossa and samba in Brazil, we have loads of rhythms," she says. "I say it's like cooking; you get all these different elements and you just play about with them."

Describing her singing as "emotional rather than technical", Cibelle insists that the processes in the recording were "organic", something she learned from Suba. "It was all improvised, we just had fun with it, 80 per cent or 90 per cent fun, doing what we liked and not using our brains too much. Then, afterwards, we used our brains."

The result is thrilling; light and easy on the ear, but full of ideas. Like Bebel Gilberto, however, Cibelle is Brazilian music for anywhere in the world but Brazil, where it's too in advance of popular taste to sell many copies. In comparison, the latest album by the usually reliable Marisa Monte, a huge star in Brazil, sounds hopelessly outdated. Just as Vinicius Cantuaria had to go to New York to find his way back to the music of Brazil, Cibelle may have to be a queen in exile for a while yet.

'Cibelle' is out now. Vinicius Cantuaria's tour (part of the Arts Council's Contemporary Music Network) begins at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (020-7960 4242) on Monday