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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