They all want to record a Chico César tune

    Fans say that Chico César is the greatest because
    he has style and because his lyrics are not shallow. Brazilian pop music
    has not witnessed this sort of vigorous creativeness for a long time. Chico
    César is now seducing the leading Brazilian singers who have been
    disputing his tunes.

    Bruce Gilman

    Not very long ago, the foremost singers of MPB (Música Popular
    Brasileira – Brazilian Popular Music) had a habit of recording well-known
    material rather than risking a new song by an unknown composer. They recycled
    a familiar repertoire to insure the success of their latest releases. You
    could have asked 10 different people to list their personal MPB “top
    ten” and chances are that many of the same tunes would have popped
    up. Now however, with the recent arrival of a new wave of MPB composers,
    these same prominent singers have started to veer away from the established
    repertoire and compete with one another to record the latest works of a
    musician who was virtually unknown a year ago.

    Following the lead established by Elis Regina (a performer who always
    looked for fresh material to add to her repertoire and who introduced the
    world to, among other talents, João Bosco and Aldir Blanc), Daniela
    Mercury, Elba Ramalho, and Zizi Possi have been busy recording and quibbling
    about the compositions of one particular writer, a sensation who is conquering
    the stars of MPB with a breathtaking writing style. This new meteor of
    MPB is a 32 year old Paraibano named Chico César.

    Last year Chico César released his 15 track CD Aos Vivos.
    The project had been recorded live in 1994 at his own expense and was later
    sold to the Velas label (owned by Ivan Lins and Vitor Martins). Radio play
    of tunes from Aos Vivos, made César the most requested artist
    of MPB. Conspicuous sales and the musician’s obvious potential prompted
    Velas to press an additional 10,000 copies. This additional pressing disturbed
    many singers who were planning to record covers of tunes from the disc
    like “Tambores” and “Benazir,” works that hadn’t already
    been grabbed up by MPB’s prima donnas. Some tracks like “Mulher Eu
    Sei” (Woman I Know) and “Mama África” had already
    become MPB hits. Another one, “Templo” (Temple) was quickly grabbed
    up by Daniela Mercury’s sister Vânia Abreu for her first release.
    This year Aos Vivos was awarded the Prêmio Sharp award for
    best regional discovery.

    Just two years ago, César had been in a position where he was
    forced to solicit top notch singers to record his compositions. Now it’s
    just the opposite. These same singers are literally making a pilgrimage
    to his door, looking for ammunition for their latest projects and making
    sure that they are the ones who secure his work before someone else does.
    With more than 300 finished compositions that were written over the last
    12 years, but which have never been performed or recorded, he can offer
    singers an extensive variety of tunes without having to take requests or

    Maria Bethânia recorded two of his songs, “Invocação”
    (Invocation) and “Onde Está o Meu Amor” (Where Is My Love).
    Zizi Possi recorded the toada “Beradero” for her latest release
    Mais Simples (More Simple) and has nothing but praise for the musician,
    saying that Chico’s poetry is consistent, absurdly contemporary, and has
    all the elements of romanticism contained within it. Elba Ramalho also
    recorded “Beradero” on her most recent recording Leão
    do Norte
    (The Lion of the North) but with a completely different interpretation.
    She says that Chico came on the scene unarmed, but that he will worry many
    who are going to see him as a threat. Ramalho goes on to say that Chico
    César has a modern vision and is one of the greatest revelations
    of MPB in recent times. She and Daniela Mercury actually had a falling-out
    stemming from a quarrel over which one of them was going to be the first
    to record “À Primeira Vista” (On First Sight). The tune
    appears on Mercury’s latest offering.

    Mercury, an adamant Chico fan, listened to over 40 songs by the singer/composer
    before she chose the one for her latest release. The electric Baiana
    asserts that she wants to continue being the voice that presents great
    new talents like Chico César and that she prefers taking risks because
    she is also “new generation.” She considers Chico an inspiration
    and says that he does not have to look up to anybody, that he is not only
    a composer of great depth, but an extraordinary artist, an entity complete
    in and of itself. Her habitually aerobic repertoire was reworked to include
    the beautiful “À Primeira Vista.” The tune has become
    the theme for Brazil’s most popular prime time TV soap opera O Rei do
    (The King of the Herd). Now everyone in Brazil is hearing this
    pop anthem, a tune that was known before only to listeners of São
    Paulo FM radio and the regular crowd at the Blen Blen Club in São
    Paulo, where Chico had established a large following early in his career.

    César comes from Catolé do Rocha, Paraíba, a city
    of 12,000 inhabitants and the cradle of the traditional Northeastern family.
    It’s an area where existence is hard and life expectancy is short. Hundreds
    of people go hungry. From every 100 boys that are born in Catolé
    do Rocha, maybe 20 will survive their first month. From these 20, maybe
    5 will enter school, and one the university. The stark reality of this
    area has consistently given its musicians a rare vision that is manifested
    in their lyrics.

    Words are extremely important in the Northeast of Brazil. One’s word,
    many times, is worth more than a document. In fact, the literature and
    folklore of the area still exists primarily as an oral tradition. Repentistas
    (troubadours) sing improvised stanzas as they tell stories or perform in
    desafios (improvised poetic duels). The stories told are told well
    and are genuine inspirations. These stories have created a link between

    repentistas and popular poets. As a boy Chico coexisted with this richness
    and its wisdom.

    The 7th son of a poor, uneducated farm worker and a washer woman, César’s
    harsh early life was made softer by the kindness of an unmarried aunt who
    helped him get a scholarship to a school run by German nuns. The nuns had
    escaped from Germany during World War II and established a boarding school
    with a demanding curriculum in Paraíba. Originally it was only for
    the daughters of the wealthy but had eventually opened its doors to boys.

    At three years old, César learned to read. By twelve, without
    knowing a single musical note, he composed his first song “Quando
    Chega o Carnaval” (When Carnaval Comes). He just kept repeating the
    melody until it was memorized and only later composed the lyrics, a technique
    that to this day remains his singular method of composition. César
    claims that his melodies bloom in every situation and that they have a
    lot to do with musically producing certain images. It’s not his habit to
    have a deluge of ideas, but rather one idea that takes him. That way, the
    music really becomes a part of him.

    When asked what comes first, music or lyrics, César echoed the
    words of the internationally acclaimed Mineiro, João Guimarães
    Rosa, author of the Grande Sertão: Veredas (The Great Interior:
    Trails/Man’s Quest for the Meaning of His Existence). “The word already
    has sound, and the sound already has meaning.” César says that
    it is difficult to write the lyrics first, then the music, but that doing
    the opposite is like taking sweets from a baby. When the writing is a partnership,
    César prefers that his collaborator give him the lyrics first. Then
    he adds the melody, harmony, and rhythm that the lyrics demand. In this
    way, he works with the sound of the word, the sound that was already given
    to him.

    Like João Guimarães Rosa, César has always been
    impassioned by words and recognizes that one language does not always have
    all the words necessary to express our inner most feelings. Words just
    seem to come to him, and he can’t resist putting them together. His lyrics
    demonstrate an intimacy with words — many of them invented. At times the
    words sound as if they are from another language because they serve solely
    to enhance a particular sonority.

    For example, during his live performances, a choir of feminine voices
    sings one strophe of the beautiful “À Primeira Vista”
    that says absolutely nothing:

    amarrara dzaia soiê


    In the tune “Saharienne” he manipulates words to create a
    poetic-musical dialect:

    Saravá sarah vaughan
    quem te escravisaurou
    o que fez a beirute fez ao rio
    a teia de aranha midi

    me dá conforto e arrepio.

    Sarah Vaughan
    that may be a slave
    that made Beirut, that made Rio,
    at the spider’s web,
    gives me comfort and shivers.

    Seen in this light, the lyric work of Chico César can be summarized
    as free association, as an imaginative freedom with words, as poetry. Overall,
    his lyrics are introspective and preoccupied more with immediate personal
    concerns than with political issues. “When I hear people talk about
    the lyrics of Northeastern musicians not being understood, I believe it
    is because there still exists a strong prejudice.”

    The Northeastern accent has always been the subject of extraordinary
    bias due to the high illiteracy rate in the region. However, César
    disagrees with people who say that Northeastern music is the music of the
    uneducated, impoverished people. He believes that FM radio stations that
    refuse to play Northeastern music are the backward ones.

    Writing comes easier for César than for most. He holds a degree
    in journalism and worked in São Paulo as a reporter, a proof reader,
    and a music critic. He wrote about everything from a 007 soundtrack to
    reviews of Edson Cordeiro. Composing his own music, however, instead of
    writing about other peoples’, was what he really wanted. And a tour of
    Germany promoted by the Brazilian German Cultural Society convinced him
    to focus his journalistic talents on music.

    Rave reviews in the Sudwest Press spotlighted his stage presence and
    his talent for engaging an audience. After returning to Brazil, he quit
    journalism and started to seriously cultivate his career as a musician.
    By participating in more festivals, by placing well, and by winning a prize
    for best lyricist, Chico César started to become well known.

    Donning military boots and African style clothing, César, at
    5’2″ and 150 pounds, delivers a show that is far from conventional.
    Concerts are attended by hordes of adolescent girls who become unglued
    and pierce the air with cries of ecstasy, bringing back memories of the
    Beatles. These fans say that Chico César is the greatest because
    he has style and because his lyrics are not shallow. MPB has not witnessed
    this sort of vigorous creativeness for a long time.

    With his head shaved except on top, where thick hair projects wild and
    curly, reminding one of the mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion, this
    newest sensation of MPB has dragged an ardent following to every performance
    venue for over three years. They sing along with his music, and his music
    becomes more symbolic for them with each passionate performance.

    It is his punctuated, often sinuous melodic lines, the intimacy of his
    lyrics, the reggae, Caribbean, and the Bahian rhythmic mixes of
    his songs, that distances César from other MPB artists. Another
    reason that Chico has become so successful stems from his ability to develop
    these elements. It’s not that César has reinvented the wheel, it
    is just that he is more in sync with those things that the new generation
    wants to hear without loosing the traditional view of MPB. César
    is a natural. His artistic sensitivity provokes peoples’ emotions and hooks

    One of the best tests Chico’s music has had recently was during a presentation
    with the Orquestra Jazz Sinfônica. The ensemble had been presenting
    a series of works by developing composers. On this particular occasion
    Dorisa Teixeira de Castro, a 63 year old violinist who for thirty years
    has been dedicated to performing classical music with the Teatro Municipal
    de São Paulo, called public attention to her opinion of Chico César’s
    music when in her elegant, black concert attire she started to wave her
    head of white hair from side to side in time with the chocalho (shaker)
    on the tune “Mama Africa.”

    The violinist says that playing popular music is exhilarating. “It
    takes me to another world. For me, it is more interesting what the artist
    gives to the public, not the type of music that he creates. I’ve played
    with many of the greatest musicians of classical music who were not emotionally
    connected people. And suddenly I saw a singer creating a very funny choreography
    and everybody singing. I am happy watching people creating new styles.”
    Maestro Nelson Ayres, the ensemble’s conductor referred to Chico as “a
    musician among musicians.”

    With so many of today’s leading singers attempting to record his work,
    César had become the center of a dispute between several record
    companies that were vying for his contract. Finally, producer Marco Mazzola
    (director of the Brazilian night at the Montreux Jazz Festival) got César
    to sign a contract. It was Mazzola who took the material taped by Chico
    for his latest release to Polygram. And as a result, the company decided
    to become the disc’s distributor. Chico’s contract with MZA includes plans
    for career development and two releases in addition to (the almost impossible
    to find) Cuscuz Clã.

    Following in the fiery wake of Aos Vivos, César’s new
    release, Cuscuz Clã, has been painstakingly produced -as
    would any project by a first-line artist with a major label. The disc demonstrates
    clearly the virtues of the singer/composer. It affirms his dexterity as
    a lyricist and his ingenuity in working with words. It also reveals his
    unparalleled talent for writing alluring melodic lines and a talent for
    embracing the irrepressible traditional rhythms of the Northeast .

    Some listeners have compared Chico’s vocal timbre with that of Caetano
    Veloso’s. Others have said that his vocal acrobatics are more akin to Gilberto
    Gil’s. Those who are familiar with the music of the Northeast say that
    his guitar technique and vocal phrasing is reminiscent of Geraldo Azevedo’s.
    “When we played “À Primeira Vista” there was a riot,”
    recalls FM radio producer Adriana Cynthia Souza. “Some people called
    and wanted to know what song by Caetano Veloso had just been aired that
    was so beautiful.” But Souza went on to say that after the initial
    listening, people pick up on Chico’s unique style which has a captive place
    in their programming.

    The confusion makes sense. Chico, like the artists he is often compared
    with, is from the same part of the country. And it is from there that César
    brings the same peculiar regional accent with its distinctive vowel pronunciation
    — more open and elongated — as well as its nasal quality. In addition,
    César was strongly influenced by Tropicalismo. Who can deny the
    influence Caetano and Gil exerted on everyone who came after them? So when
    critics say that Chico sounds like Caetano, they are failing to confront
    the new values that are coming up in his music. They are discounting the
    importance of his work, but at the same time they are conferring upon him
    one of the most important references of Brazilian music.

    It was originally through his neighbors blaring the music of Luiz Gonzaga,
    Trio Nordestino, and Jackson do Pandeiro that Francisco (Chico) César
    Gonçalves received his initial contact with music. When he was a
    teen he worked at a record store where everything from sertaneja
    to Tropicália was being played constantly. It was inevitable
    that Chico digested and assimilated the music of those who came before

    Nonetheless, it is marvelous that so many established artists have received
    Chico’s music with open arms and that his musical exchange will continue
    to develop. Chico maintains that for him the past two years have been a
    rite of passage, that he did not come to change anything, but came merely
    to participate as a brother. One explanation for the musical opulence of
    the Northeast in contrast to its poverty stricken setting is that everyone
    who comes from the Northeast — Caymmi, Gonzaga, Caetano, Gil, Carlinhos
    Brown, Chico César — everyone that survives, has a great commitment
    to life. And for them, life translates in the form of music.

    Bruce Gilman plays cuíca for
    Mocidade Independente Los Angeles, received his MA from California Institute
    of the Arts, and teaches English and ESL in Long Beach, California. You
    can reach him through his E-mail:


    Chico César

    Se você olha pra mim
    Se me dá atenção
    Eu me derreto suave
    Neve no vulcão

    Se você toca em mim
    Alaúde emoção
    Eu me desmancho suave

    Nuvem no avião

    Himalaia himeneu
    Esse homem nu sou eu
    Olhos de contemplação

    Inca maia pigmeu
    Minha tribo me perdeu
    Quando entrei no templo da paixão


    If you look at me
    If you give me attention
    I melt agreeably
    Like snow on a volcano

    If you touch me
    I get emotional
    I come apart lightly
    Like a cloud parted by a plane

    Himalaya wedlock
    I am that naked man
    Eyes of contemplation
    Inca Maya Pigmy

    My tribe lost me
    When I entered the temple of passion.


    À Primeira Vista

    Chico César

    Quando não tinha nada eu quis

    Quando tudo era ausência esperei
    Quando tive frio tremi
    Quando tive coragem liguei

    Quando chegou carta abri
    Quando ouvi prince (Salif Keita) dancei
    Quando o olho brilhou entendi
    Quando criei asas voei

    Quando me chamou eu vim

    Quando dei por mim tava aqui
    Quando lhe achei me perdi
    Quando vi você me apaixonei


    On First Sight

    When I did not have anything, I wanted
    When everything was absent, I waited

    When I was cold I shivered
    When I had the courage, I connected

    When the letter arrived, I opened it
    When I heard prince (Salif Keita), I danced
    When the eyes shined, I understood
    When I created my wings, I flew

    When she called, I came
    When I realized where I was, I was here

    When I found you, I got lost
    When I saw you, I fell in love.


    Mama África

    Chico César

    Mama África (a minha mãe)

    É mãe solteira
    E tem de fazer mamadeira todo dia
    Além de trabalhar como empacotadeira

    Mama África tem tanto o que fazer
    Além de cuidar neném
    Além de fazer denguim
    Filhinho tem que entender
    Mama África vai e vem

    Mas não se afasta de você

    Quando mama sai de casa
    Seus filhos se olodunzam
    Rola o maior jazz
    Mama tem calo nos pés
    Mama precisa de paz
    Mama não quer brincar mais
    Filhinho dá um tempo

    E’ tanto contratempo
    É ritmo de vida de mama


    Mother Africa

    Mother Africa (my mother)
    Is a single mother
    She has to prepare the nursing bottle everyday

    Besides working as a packer
    In the stores of Bahia

    Mother Africa has so much to do
    Besides taking care of a child
    Besides playing with the baby
    My children have to understand
    That Mother Africa comes and goes
    But she won’t let you go far from her

    When Mother Africa leaves the house
    Her children hold her essence with compelling drums
    Creating the greatest jazz
    Mother has calluses on her feet
    Mother needs peace
    Mother does not want to play anymore
    Little boy give me some time
    There are so many setbacks

    In the rhythm of Mama’s life.

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