By Steve Barnes
Picking a favorite Brazilian singer would rank pretty high on my list of impossible activities—there are simply too many great ones to choose from. Such icons as Gal Costa, Elis Regina and Caetano Veloso are just a starting point of a lineup that, to me, could easily go into the hundreds of names.
Part of the appeal of so many of that country’s singers stems from a few natural advantages. The lyricist Marilyn Bergman pointed out one of them in a video that is currently up on the New York Times web site here. In that video, about Barbra Streisand’s soon-to-be-released CD, Bergman notes that Streisand got the great Brazilian songwriter Dori Caymmi to write new Portuguese lyrics for “So Many Stars,” a Sergio Mendes tune for which Bergman and her husband, Alan, wrote the original English-language lyrics. For Bergman, Streisand’s request was perfectly reasonable. Portuguese, she says, is “one of the most beautiful languages to sing in.”
The beauty of Brazilian Portuguese is a major force behind the striking conversational style that so many Brazilian singers have. The sinuous way that consonants and vowels bump together give that language such a natural rhythm and music that simple speech can take on the feel of a melody. And that leads to another of the advantages that Brazilian singers have: Brazilian composers have responded to their language’s beauty with a repertoire of such great songs that generations of singers have been able to mine them in a variety of ways without their essence being lost.
New York audiences are getting a chance this month to see one of this generation’s leading Brazilian singers working in several different settings. Bebel Gilberto has settled in at the City Winery for a “residency” that got underway on August 3. The shows yet to come in the residency include two with Gilberto and her band on August 17 and 31, and a date on August 24 featuring Forro in the Dark, a band of Brazilian ex-pats that specializes in the booty-shaking dance music indigenous to northeastern Brazil. There will also be, on August 27, what is being billed as a “Very Special Intimate Acoustic Set,” a description that kind of speaks for itself.
Gilberto is about as close to royalty as you can get in the world of Brazilian music. Her father is Joao Gilberto, the man who helped turn “The Girl from Ipanema” into a worldwide sensation. Her mother, Miúcha, sang with Joao, as well as with Tom Jobim and many others. Her uncle, Chico Buarque, is one of the cornerstones of the Tropicalia movement, a group of countercultural 1960s musicians who brought the culture of the samba and bossa nova into the world of rock and roll.
And Bebel’s work moves that music forward again. Her 2000 release “Tanto Tempo” ventured into the world of electronic music, and her CDs since then have married the natural breathiness of her voice to a range of backgrounds that can turn sultry, soothing or—at her best—both at once. A songwriter herself, she also shows a strong connection to the classic Brazilian songbook, covering her father’s “Bim Bom” and the Carmen Miranda standard “Chica Chica Boom Chic.”
Her takes on the standards always give them just enough spin to make them feel fresh without violating the song’s spirit. On “Tanto Tempo,” she covers Marcos Valle’s “So Nice (Summer Samba).” For most of the track, she breathily croons the lyrics over a loungey electronic backdrop. But in the instrumental break, things begin to rearrange slightly. Rhythm and melody separate just enough to make us take notice without falling totally out of the song’s mood. We get something new and different, but we get in a context that we feel comfortable with.
Bebel might not be the world’s most prolific recording artist (2009’s “All in One,” her last CD, was only her third since “Tanto Tempo”), but she’s been very active as a musician in a wide variety of situations. Just last month, she appeared onstage in Central Park with the Brazilian rapper and singer Marcelo D2. In this past spring’s animated feature “Rio,” she provided the voice of a toucan named Eva, and sang a lovely version of her uncle Chico’s “Samba de Orly” (have a listen here).
She is also part of the stellar lineup of musicians that appears on “Red Hot + Rio 2,” the latest CD from the Red Hot Organization (www.redhot.org), and the second that they’ve dedicated to the work of Brazilian artists. Founded in 1989, that organization has produced a series of musical collaborations celebrating an extremely eclectic group of musicians and composers—from Cole Porter and George Gershwin to the Nigerian icon Fela Anikulapo Kuti. The proceeds from those CDs (over $10 million so far) have gone to help groups that are fighting AIDS, helping the disease’s victims, and searching for a cure.
Bebel’s contribution to “Red Hot + Rio 2” is a lilting, dreamy rendition of “Acabou Chorare,” a song originally performed in the 1970s by Novos Baianos, a Bahia-based band (hear Bebel’s version here). The recording exudes the sensual, relaxed vibe that is likely to match up with what she’ll be doing at the City Winery. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect focal point for a late summer outing than a voice that can feel like a warm breeze—carrying both sweetness and sadness with it. Bebel Gilberto has such a voice, and hearing it in just about any setting should be a more than worthwhile experience.
Steve Barnes is a freelance writer based in New York City. His work has appeared in such publications as ARTnews and the Wall Street Journal.