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When Cezar Santana arrives, acoustic guitar in hand, at Gil's Café on 71st Street near Collins Avenue, he expects the unexpected. He'd received a call from his friend Gil Santos, inviting him to take a turn at the new café Santos was about to open in NoBe, the increasingly South American oceanside neighborhood where Brazilian Portuguese peppers Argentine Spanish. The long-time Gil Santos Dance Studio owner from Brazil's Minas Gerais state told Santana to show up on October 6 for what could be a regular Saturday-night gig but offered no further details. "Mineiros are very much to the point," Santana would later shrug with a smile. Walking past the tables set out on the sidewalk and into the quaint restaurant, Santana wonders if he would be performing bossa nova standards solo, or if something else is in store.
As it turns out, he finds familiar faces already set up on the small stage: Trinidadian guitarist Clarence Charles and Brazilian drummer Elson Salgado. Although it has been three years since Santana last sat in with Salgado, he hooked up with Charles a few months back at a Brazilian house party. Taking in the unplanned reunion, Santana slaps his hands together and says, "Okay, let's jam." He admits that a trio of two guitarists and a drummer is "unorthodox"; still the sinuous bossa nova melodies flow out into the breezy night as easily as the complimentary caipirinhas poured by Gil's friendly bartender.
"I welcome spontaneity," Santana says afterward, sitting in a North Bay Village apartment whose décor makes the statement ring true. The words love, peace, and happiness are engraved in stones strewn across his glass dining table; books on Taoism are stacked beside his computer; two golden pathos plants dangle from the ceiling, their leaves cascading to the tile floor; a hammock hangs across his balcony.
Born in the Amazonian state of Acre, Santana moved to Rio de Janeiro with his family when he was four years old and picked up the guitar at age seven. "I grew up on the bossa nova wave," the musician recalls warmly, indicating that the genre's cool swing, characterized by clever harmonies and an underlying Afro-Brazilian beat -- the heart of Brazilian music -- is his first love. But foreign currents influenced Santana as well. "I also had high doses of Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and the Stones," he adds.
Santana takes his cue from Gilberto Gil, the bossa nova pioneer who also brought reggae to Brazil, releasing a Portuguese cover of "No Woman No Cry" that went platinum and fortified the roots of reggae in that country. "For me Gilberto Gil is the best," Santana affirms. "He knew how to grab onto many different genres, from Brazilian folk to reggae. He has a universal antenna."
Like his hero, Santana has his antenna tuned to international frequencies, entertaining audiences around the world for more than two decades. Before moving to Miami in 1993, he performed in Europe, playing Helsinki's Winter Carnival in 1984 with his Brazilian jazz group Batuke and then heading off with the band to Morocco in 1986 for the International Music and Youth Festival. Before arriving in the United States Santana was the arranger and musical director for the hit Brazilian revue Oba-Oba in Rio and later in a casino in Aruba from 1991 to 1992. In Miami he has opened for well-known Brazilian bands on tour, including Asa de Aguia and Paralamas do Sucesso. He has even toured with salsero Luis Enrique's orchestra.
Predilection is not the only reason Santana has tuned in to fusion. Versatility is a key to survival in a city where Brazilian music has never really caught on in live venues. For a restaurant or café gig, he has no problem playing anything from jazz standards to James Taylor. "When I would say I was from Brazil, people would ask me to play “Besame Mucho,'" says Santana of the limited appreciation here for his homeland's musical heritage. "In the eight years I've been living here, places dedicated to only the Brazilian sound have opened and closed," he observes. "The Brazilian music scene, if there even is one, is very unstable. There are hardly any places for Brazilians."
But now there's Gil's Café. "A huge point for Gil," Santana smiles. "The time is right, and there's a need."
Yet Dianne Mason, Gil's co-owner and Santos's wife, is aware of the limited marketability of strictly Brazilian sounds. She says Gil's will not restrict itself. "There are only two Brazilian entrées on the menu, and our staff speaks a total of five languages," Mason points out. "The other night there were six Germans in here. This is a place where a person from any nationality can eat good food and listen to good, live music from many different backgrounds."
That much is in evidence at Santana's first show at Gil's. Santos, the stoic owner, takes up the tambourine known as a pandeiro for a cover of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Aguas de Marco" ("Waters of March"), an intoxicating litany made softer by Santana's smooth voice. Later, during a rendition of Vinicius de Moraes's "Tarde Em Itapoa" ("Afternoon at Itapoa"), Santos's hands bring the congas to life with a soft patter.
As the second song fades, Santana introduces himself to the audience and warns that bossa nova and samba are but the musical basics of Brazil. "We have many different rhythms," he explains, including afoxe, the Afro-Brazilian carnival beat from Bahia that Santana incorporates into his own music.
Back to bossa nova, Santos loosens up, abandons the congas and dances cheek to cheek with a woman in the audience. A blond Cuban at the bar who has recently traveled to Rio wiggles her hips on her barstool. Next to her a man from São Paulo remarks that Brazil's music raises his spirit, along with the hairs on his arms.