Brazilian Wax

There must be something in the water of Brazil — the country produces a seemingly endless stream of innovative musicians. Maybe it has more to do with the fact that music is as common as water in Brazil, played everywhere from the streets to the shopping malls to the corporate cubicles.

It should come as no surprise, then, that São Paulo native CéU (pronounced "sa-eu") has made a splash on the international music scene. Last year, she nabbed a Latin Grammy nomination for best new artist. Her celebrity fans include fellow Brazilian superstar Marisa Monte. Her self-titled debut record is already a sensation overseas, and will drop this spring in the states, with the help of Starbucks, which recently made her the featured musician in the Hear Music Debut CD series. (Yes, this means you'll be hearing her silky voice practically every time you walk into a Starbucks. And yes, you will be happy about this arrangement.) With a U.S. tour in store, the comely 26-year-old aims to conquer America next.

In fact, CéU (born Maria Do CéU Whitaker Poças — ergo her abbreviated stage name) lived briefly in New York, where she studied music and occasionally performed bossa nova tunes at small local venues. "When I first left Brazil I was listening to a lot of Brazilian music by [the late samba singer] Clara Nunes, the bossa nova of Baden Powell and Dorival Caymmi," she explains by phone from her home in São Paulo. "Once in the U.S., I had access to rap, Erykah Badu, and other sounds that are present on my record."

Indeed the disc is a beguiling melange of musical influences ranging from hip-hop to electronic music to fado, the traditional Afro-Portuguese folk music that has been enjoying a revival in recent years.

CéU cites Monte and Elis Regina as major influences, and one hears echoes of both on tracks such as "10 Contados" ("Ten Counted") and "Vinheta Quebrante" ("Breaking Prefix"), and especially on the disc's final song, "Samba de Sola" ("Sole Samba"), which calls to mind the simple, upbeat music played on the streets of Brazil during Carnaval. CéU exudes the same jazzy sophistication that made Regina famous, a refined manner that never abandons the popular roots of her songs.

On "Lenda," ("Legend"), CéU uses a bluesy structure to showcase her vocal range, while her cover of Bob Marley's "Concrete Jungle" (the only English-language tune on the album; the rest are sung in Portuguese) blends African acoustic sounds with drum samples, scratching, and vocal overdubs. "Mais Um Lamento" ("Another Sorrow") has a retro feel, as if written back in the Seventies by the likes of Caetano Veloso or Gilberto Gil.

"I have no specific rules when it comes to my songwriting," she says, of her creative process. "When I began working on the lyrics for these songs, I was already playing the melodies on my guitar. In songs such as 'Lenda' I mixed things up; it was kind of a crazy process. But I guess everything came together when I began recording." The key, she says, is allowing time for the songs to mature in the studio.

CéU has already toured France, Holland, and Canada, and her US tour will include thirteen dates stretching from Miami to Seattle. While she's grateful for the interest of foreign audiences, she concedes that performing away from home is a challenge. "European and American audiences tend to be more conservative in their response than those in Brazil, who are a little crazier at times," she says. "There is also the language barrier, so you send your message out through the music."

CéU says her live show will consist mostly of material from the new album, with some mellower material, and some aimed at getting folks dancing. To reproduce the sonic diversity of the disc she recruited a diverse pack of backing musicians. "The band has people with rap, jazz, and samba backgrounds playing with me," she says. It probably won't hurt that she's one of the sexier women making music today.

She's hopeful she can generate the same kind of enthusiasm in North American crowds that she was able to elicit in Europe. If her sets live up to the quality of her debut disc, she's got nothing to worry about.