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Céu sings out to the world

July 16, 2009 |  4:41 pm

Ceu_3_ On her sophomore project, 'Vagarosa,' the Brazilian singer-songwriter continues to embrace music from far and wide.

If you've set foot in a Starbucks lately, chances are you've caught a few bars of Céu's music. The Brazilian singer-songwriter's self-titled debut album was picked by the coffee chain to be the first release from an international artist featured in its Hear Music Debut CD series.

Critics showered praise, the disc rose to the top of Billboard's world music chart and Céu (pronounced say-u) scored a Latin Grammy nomination for best new artist of 2006 and a Grammy nomination for best contemporary world music album of 2007.

Céu's creamy vocals and camera-friendly looks helped make her the rare foreign chanteuse who can break through the English-language barrier that often blocks world music artists from the U.S. market (she sings almost exclusively in Portuguese). With her much-anticipated follow-up, "Vagarosa," to promote, she's back on tour and has a return engagement Friday at the Roxy.

But on both her first recording and her new album, the São Paulo native demonstrates that she's a serious artist who's not making music simply to serve as a pleasant aural backdrop for coffee klatching.

Speaking in English by phone from her São Paulo studio, the 29-year-old singer born Maria do Céu Whitaker Poças said that she didn't plan for her new record either to meet or sidestep the expectations born of her previous success.

"What I wanted to do is be honest with myself, doing what I really feel I should sing," she said. "Because when you do this music, you're going to be with this music for a long time."

Fluent in the rhythms and emotional palette of bossa nova and samba, a sort of birthright for Brazilian musicians, Céu cultivates a cosmopolitan interest in electronica, Brazilian northeastern regional music, reggae and Ethio jazz. She absorbed American blues, jazz and hip-hop while living in New York in 1998, and also developed a taste for neo-soul artists such as Erykah Badu.

Several life-altering personal experiences also shaped "Vagarosa," Céu said. "I had a baby and a lot of great things happened, like going around the world and playing with my band. I didn't know I could live through music."

However far she ventures into new sonic fields, inevitably Céu returns artistically to the classic Brazilian music that her father, a composer and musicologist, introduced to her and her brother (also a musician) as children.

Among her enduring influences are Marisa Monte and Elis Regina, the great vocalist-popularizer of Tropicalismo, that too-brief blooming of political activism and utopian art-making that swept Brazil in the 1960s. Céu's new record includes a lovely, dub-tinged cover of another mentor, samba-rock master Jorge Ben's "Rosa Menina Rosa."

"I think if you want to do something new you must always look back," she said. "I am a vintage person, old-school person. I like vinyl, these kind of things. I just like to have the music in my hand physically. And it sounds different, the bass is more profound."

If much of the music that shaped her early career flowed from the breezy cultural vibes of Rio de Janeiro, today Céu's artistry is grounded in the ultra-urban milieu of São Paulo. Although Rio's sybaritic beach culture still dominates touristic fantasies of Brazil, it is gray, traffic-clogged São Paulo, South America's largest city, that's now the country's financial center as well as its capital of cultural production, including art, fashion and music.

Céu's Perdizes neighborhood lately has become a particular magnet for the city's young, creative classes.

Last year Céu and several producers and musicians formed the São Paulo collective Sonantes. A number of collaborators, such as drummer Curumin and vocalist Luiz Melodia, appear on "Vagarosa."

"Céu shows a way to other Brazilians musicians of how [to] do something new and exciting, with a lot of influences . . . but with a strong personality too," wrote Ramiro Zwetsch, a Brazilian music journalist and creator of the website www.radiolaurbana .com.br, in an e-mail message.

"You can recognize her music in a few seconds, and I think that is so much important because we have a lot a singers in Brazil who are very similar, without a personality. Céu knows the ways to assimilate a lot of influences and create something new."

--Reed Johnson

Photo: Associated Press