Zuco 103: Untypically tropical

Zuco 103 take traditional Brazilian styles and mix them with a wide variety of international trends. Phil Meadley meets the band

The charismatic Brazilian singer of Zuco 103, Lilian Vieira, met the German keyboardist Stefan Schmid and the Dutch drummer Stefan Kruger at the Rotterdam Conservatory in 1989. Not afraid to mix live musicians with DJ-manipulated drum'n'bass, or splice cool Latin soul with classic jazz-funk workouts, they began moving the parameters of Brazilian music further than most and built up a considerable fan-base.

"Recently a journalist mentioned that Seu Jorge had been influenced by us and it made me very proud," says Kruger. "When we started you could only buy our records on import in Brazil. There was no music like this on the market, only a very small scene around Suba and later Bossacucanova, but not this 'European-mixed' Brazilian music. So it's funny to think that we're now influencing musicians over there."

Whaa! is the band's third release, and could be the album that breaks them in the UK. Aside from Vieira's distinctive vocals, there are guest contributions from Lee "Scratch" Perry, the acclaimed Brazilian guitarist Roberto Menescal, the Spanish singer Dani Macaco, and the Ethiopian discovery Minyeshu. "We aimed for a mix of electronic and acoustic song-based material with a strong African flavour," Kruger says. "Before recording we listened to a lot of rootsy stuff from the Congo, Senegal et cetera, alongside very dark Brazilian music from indigenous Indians, northern samba schools, and traditional flute music from the South. We also took in Cuban rhythms, New Orleans music, and Ethiopian funk. The basis of this album was simply listening to the rhythms and essence of music."

Lyrically the songs are light-hearted in nature, unlike the previous album, Tales of High Fever, which was a pretty dark affair reflecting the lead singer's tumultuous personal life. Vieira moved to Holland at the age of 23, having married a Dutchman eight months earlier. "The economy in Brazil was very uncertain, so I moved to Holland with the intention of finishing nursing school," she says. "It was a very difficult time without my family, and became worse when they wouldn't accept my qualification papers. I was asked to retake my exams but didn't have any money so I started cleaning hotel rooms. Occasionally, I was also invited to dance as a samba girl. I was a mulata - a black girl with a wonderful body, almost naked, dancing the samba in very high heels. But I didn't have the long legs that everybody wanted. It was horrible and I only did it a couple of times. Yet from dancing, someone asked me if I could sing: that's how it started."

Vieira was born in the small mountain village of Terezopolis - a 45-minute drive from Rio de Janeiro. Her father worked in a textile factory, but was also the president of the local samba school. Her mother had a passion for singing and would often get the three children to accompany her on backing harmonies. "When we made a mistake, she complained a lot," she says. "You could say that she was my first manager."

Where once Zuco 103 relied on samplers and electronic beats, they've ditched their DJ for a guitarist and created three-minute pop songs. "The whole electronic vibe is changing these days," says Kruger. "Producers are discovering that acoustic instruments can be interesting. Guitars were almost banned in the Nineties."

Kruger says that the band are inspired by people who are original, whether it be Perry, John Lee Hooker or the Sugarhill Gang. "We've been searching for new sounds ever since our early days of mixing lounge with Brazilian electro. As an artist it's always nice to surprise yourself. That's why Lilian came to Europe and Stefan moved from Munich to Amsterdam. It works through everything we do from buying records, to asking DJ friends what the latest hip sounds are."

Whaa! is the epitome of cultural and musical integration. "The government [in Holland] say we're not living in a multicultural society any more. Well, they need to wake up," Kruger says. "In my daughter's school the kids have created their own language made up of all the languages they hear in the playground: Spanish, English, Dutch, Surinam, Turkish and Moroccan - 24 per cent of youngsters are listening to multicultural music these days."

'Whaa!' is out on 29 August on Ziriguiboom