With her black bobbed hair, endearingly retro spectacles, Op Art sun dress and Puma trainers, Joyce Sliveira Palhano de Jesus looks like an unusually hip schoolmarm. The Brazilian singer, songwriter and guitarist, who was born in Rio in 1948 (though she seems two decades younger), also has a charming classroom manner that communicates itself, in both Portuguese and English, with uncommon ease.
But while she may appear all teeth and smiles to the audience, her politenesss conceals a core of cold, steely determination that would be the envy of any big stick wielding-bandleader.
For Joyce is the inheritor of a tradition of strong women in MPB (Musica Popular Brasiliera) that goes back as far as her heroine, the 19th-century composer Chiquinha Gonzaga, who, when asked by her husband to choose betwen family and music, replied: "Sir, I am going to leave you, as I can't imagine life without harmony". Though her recording debut was in 1964, Joyce's big breakthrough came with the album Feminina in 1980, whose controversial context of first-person observations from a proto-feminist point of view had already become her lyrical specialism. Born into the Ipanema milieu of the founders of bossa nova (Vinicius de Moraes wrote the sleevenotes for her first LP), Joyce now mixes samba rhythms with jazz harmonies into a variant she calls "hard bossa". You might be able to dance to it, but you have to think on your feet as you do so.
But while one of the pleasures of global warming is the way it can briefly make Exeter feel like Ipanema, steamy heat isn't always enough. This opening date of her British tour took a while to get going. The arts centre's black box theatre with the seats removed felt rather too much like a school disco, and the curious crowd wasn't quite large enough to create an instant atmosphere. This is when Joyce's bandleader savvy kicked in. After five or six excellent numbers had passed to a response of polite English appreciation and no more, she sudenly upped the pressure. Intimidating the bassist, the drummer (her husband, Tutty Moreno) and the reeds player with flinty stares that it would take a very strong man to withstand, she forced them to shift up a gear and the whole thing took off. A series of songs from her latest album Rio Bahia led into some marvellously airy, scat-singing sambas and the audience went compliantly wild. As it gathered energy from the dance floor, the appeal of Joyce's music was easy to understand: she plays her guitar superbly, chopping out sharp rhythmic strokes that intersect master-drummer Moreno's more conventionally jazzy style. The songs (mainly in Portuguese, with a few excursions into English) are internationalist in character, addressing the debt of Brazilian music to Africa and to its own indigenous population. For an encore Joyce sang - as you do in Tropic of Devon - "Brazil".
Tour continues: Across the Tracks, Leeds (0870 8030 871), tonight; The Hub, Edinburgh (0131 473 200) Tue; Truck Theatre, Hull (01482 323 638), Thur; MAC, Birmingham (0121 440 3838) Fri, Zoo Gardens, Bristol (0845 4024 001) SatReuse content