Brazil seems to pick its musical stars carefully and for the long haul. When they hit, they hit hard, which helps explain how in the course of five years, Brazilian singer and composer Chico César has gone from obscurity to being one of the country's most in-demand songwriters and performers.
"Chico is such a mature songwriter," said vocalist Vania Abreu, who has recorded his work. "His melodic flow and his unique point of view, combined with his simple background and sophisticated soul, are what attracted me to his writing."
With two new albums out in the United States his self-produced 1994 debut, Aos Vivos, and Chico César, a compilation of his studio work he's also beginning to receive attention abroad. (His latest Brazilian disc, Mama Mundi, has yet to be released in the States.)
César, 36, was born in Catolé do Rocha, in the rural northeast Brazilian state of Paraíba. The seventh son of a farmer and laundress, he was rescued from a life of poverty at the age of 7 when he was awarded a scholarship to a school run by German nuns. There, recalled the diminutive artist with the distinctive vertical coiffeur, "I came into contact with European culture and music."
School wasn't much easier than home. At age 8 he was working part time in a record store while living with the family that owned the place. It was child labor, but the job opened his ears to Brazil's budding tropic´lia movement as well as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
After César composed his first song, at 12, the music bug bit deep. He obtained a degree in journalism before moving to São Paolo in 1985, where he wrote and played gigs for free. "I never did cover songs," he said. "It was always my own material, which made things a lot harder."
César's musical epiphany arrived in 1991. Invited to tour Germany, he realized, "If I can do it in Germany, I can do it in Brazil." He decided to pursue music full time.
Record's Splashy Mix Attracts Stars
But it wasn't until the 1995 release of the stripped-down Aos Vivos, which consisted primarily of him and his acoustic guitar, that he began to be noticed. With its mix of reggae and folksy northeastern forró, the record immediately made a splash. The track "Mama África" (RealAudio excerpt) became a national hit.
When the album was released, César made of a point of sending it to the singers he most wanted to work with. "They liked the songs," he said, "and they came to me."
Among this group was axé (Afro-Bahian music) superstar Daniela Mercury, who recorded "A Primeira Vista" (At First Sight). Her rendition of the tune ensured César's reputation nationally when it was used as the theme for a Brazilian soap opera, "O Rei do Gado" (The King of the Herd). Abreu, Mercury's sister, snatched up "Templo," also off Aos Vivos, for her eponymous debut album.
" 'Templo' is a love song about the peace in love," she said. "I like singing about both the sadness and the peace in love, but only a few songs describe the peaceful part of love. This is one of them."
There's a lot more where that came from. "I have around 300 songs I've written but never recorded," César said.
Composer Expands On New Album
César's subsequent studio albums have employed more lavish instrumentation than his debut. They also showcase his love of many musical styles, such as his reggae remake of "Mama África" (RealAudio excerpt) or the bass-heavy Brazilian funk of "You, Yuri" (RealAudio excerpt).
César has returned to an acoustic sound for his most recent Brazilian disc, however.
"[Mama Mundi] is a quieter album," César said, "just me, bass and percussion plus a lot of strings. I was ready to do something different, to explore other sides of my music."
One thing he didn't do was write new songs for the record. Some of the album's tunes were more than 10 years old.
"I record old songs of mine. It's as if I have a vault inside, and I'll look in there to see what songs will work together." He still writes constantly, though, sometimes a song a day, with the melody first, followed by the lyrics.
"What can I say?" he said, laughing. "I love music, all music. It just runs through me."