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Back in the days when the U.S. dollar was strong, Sabina Sciubba, a young chanteuse of German and Italian parentage, decided to emigrate from the south of France, where she had been singing atonal free jazz, and settle in New York City. "I had already worked here a little bit," says the Brooklynite, who speaks five languages. "It seemed like a good challenge." The year was 2000.
It wasn't long before this musical Mata Hari made her way to Nublu, a nightclub and artists' haven in the East Village. There, Sciubba met Didi Gutman, a dreadlocked Latin Grammy-winning keyboardist and composer from Buenos Aires, who had a steady Sunday night solo gig at the lounge. Gutman knew Jesse Murphy, a bassist from Santa Cruz, California, who had played with a bevy of big names, from Milt Jackson to U-Roy. Sciubba, Murphy, and Murphy's roommate Aaron Johnson, a journeyman drummer from Kansas City, were invited by Gutman to jam together one Sunday night in April 2003. According to Johnson, the four had a "crazy dynamic" among them, and they decided to perform together as a band.
Then one day while joking around and laughing it up they decided to call themselves Brazilian Girls, because everybody loves Brazilian girls, right? Thanks to an acclaimed EP they released last fall, Lazy Lover, their zany plan worked. New York Times critic Jon Pareles wrote that the group was "irresistible," while Billboard editor Michael Paoletta called them "sublime."
This quartet of self-proclaimed surrealists who profess disinterest in the "obvious" produces a music that eschews categorization. Some call it broken beat, and others call it acid jazz or nu-jazz. It has elements of club beats, dub, world beat, punk rock, and funk. The CD case for the Brazilian Girls' much-buzzed-about self-titled CD, released this month on Verve/Forecast, instructs merchants to file the disc under "pop/electronica."
"It's kind of hard to describe our music," says Gutman on speakerphone from a publicist's office in midtown Manhattan, where the four members of Brazilian Girls have assembled for a photo shoot. "I don't want to define it in any way because it's still changing. All the music we do is just some kind of ingredient that we throw into a stew."
For sure, an internationally flavored commingling of sounds and languages is what Brazilian Girls serve up. The first track on the album, "Homme," is a melancholy lullaby with français lyrics over a tango inspired by Juan Carlos Cobian's "Niebla del Riachuelo." Meanwhile, Gutman punctuates the track with quirky Eighties electronica and a jazzy melodica solo. Think Grace Jones's "I've Seen that Face Before," but slower.
The quixotic junctures on this twelve-track disc, the crossroads at which the form of the music abruptly morphs, are entrancing. The aquatic-sounding guitars on "Lazy Lover" give it a dreamy Fifties feel reminiscent of The Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes for You," but it's really a breezy bossa nova with a funk bridge and Sciubba bitching in Italian on a pay phone to a disappointing "Casanova." "La-zy lo-ver" she croons, hearkening back to Billie Holiday's lilt in "Lover Man."
Then there's the stirring "Me Gustas Cuando Callas." Primarily a Spanish march with a reggaeton undertow, the hardcore dub break at the end stuns the listener like a Washington Square Park goon. As with most Brazilian Girls songs, this adaptation of a Pablo Neruda poem was composed during an improvisation session at Nublu.
"Didi had started a track," remembers Sciubba. Though the New York Times has compared her to Björk and Gwen Stefani, her speaking voice over the phone is a bit duskier and more sophisticated than the timbre of her girlish, mezzo-soprano vocals. "He had an intro, a few chords, and I had this book of Pablo Neruda poems in my purse that night, and I said, öLet's see how this works,'" she says.
Meanwhile, Sciubba has taken to wearing some sort of eye mask when she performs. On the back photo of the disc she bears a lacy, dainty, and black piece of fabric. Other times, she uses masking tape, or a large hat. "Just because I'm a singer doesn't mean you have the right to look into my eyes," she quips with a flurry of giggles, adding that she wants her art to make "abstract sense."
"It's really important nowadays to do things that people have to think and wonder about," says Sciubba, "because it causes them to be introspective and look into themselves and try to understand what is going on inside themselves."