Brazilian singer, songwriter, guitarist, drummer and percussionist Vinicius Cantuaria is mainly associated with Bossa nova and Brazilian jazz. Originally from the Amazonian city of Manaus, Cantuária grew up in Rio and relocated to New York City in the mid-1990s. His career spans several zones of Brazilian music: he founded the Brazilian rock group "O Terço" in the 1970s, released six solo albums in Brazil in the 1980s that include his hit songs "Só Você" and "Lua e Estrela" and pioneered the world of neo-Brazilian music with his first international release Sol Na Cara in 1996.
Since moving to the United States, Cantuária has been a leading figure in the downtown New York Jazz and contemporary music scenes. His albums, always critics' favorites, have featured collaborations with Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, Brad Mehldau, Arto Lindsay, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, David Byrne and Ryuichi Sakamoto.
In 1998, Cantuária contributed "Luz De Candeeiro" to the AIDS benefit compilation album Onda Sonora: Red Hot + Lisbon produced by the Red Hot Organization.
Cantuária also produces various other artists, such as the successful debut album of Aline de Lima in 2006, also from the French Naïve label, which released his Cymbals album.
Vinicius Cantuária was born in Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil, living there until he was seven, when his family moved to Rio. As singer, songwriter, guitarist and percussionist, his career connects several zones of Brazilian music. And though his music is known for its decidedly twenty-first century feel, Cantuária’s band might best be described as ‘post-electronica acoustic’ – a band that includes jazz bassist Paul Socolow, Michael Leonhart (the young Steely Dan trumpeter) and a rotating crew of Brazilian percussionists Nanny Assis, Mauro Refosco and legendary drummer Paulo Braga. Their repertoire typically includes songs by Jobim and Gilberto Gil, as well as Cantuária’s own fund of songs.
Cantuária’s albums, always critics’ favorites, have featured collaborations with some of the starrier names in left-field commercial music: Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Brian Eno, Bill Frisell, and Arto Lindsay. Though artists such as Anderson, Frisell and Lindsay have a common touch, there is always an awkwardness to their music: they don’t worry about ugly sounds. They are prepared to confront their sophisticated audiences as well as delight them. Cantuária, by contrast, rarely produces anything that is not beautiful. He might express enthusiastic interest in DJ Spooky and the scratchy rhythms of laptop blip-hop, trade vocals with David Byrne or duet with Marc Ribot, but the end-result is always tuneful, light, fleet and musical. Compare his version of ‘O Nome Dela’ (co-written with Arto Lindsay) with the version on Lindsay’s own album Prize. The song has a fabulous tune, a great hook and simple affecting words. Each version has its merits, and demonstrates a different aspect of Cantuária’s chord playing, but it’s the Brazilian’s earlier version (on Sol Na Cara) that haunts the mind and grips the heart.
To get an idea on Cantuária’s soundworld, it is worth going back to his superb 1996 album Sol Na Cara, an album that both predicated and helped influence a new, supercooled world of neo-Brazilian music. This is the field now filled so successfully by artists such as Bebel Gilberto, Moreno Veloso and Celso Fonseca. A significant collaborator on this album was Ryuichi Sakamoto, the Yellow Magic Orchestra founder whose combination of classical keyboard chops with synthesizer squiggles added some unexpected stylistic touches to a genre that had drifted out of joint with the times.
Since then, Sakamoto has become ever more absorbed by Brazilian music, frequently playing piano in an all-acoustic group with Paula and Jaques Morelenbaum. Cantuária, similarly, has reduced his dependence upon electronics, apart from a few effects on the guitar – perhaps influenced by Bill Frisell, with whom Cantuária plays in the Intercontinental Quartet. One of the outstanding tracks on Frisell’s latest album, The Intercontinentals (Nonesuch) is Gilberto Gil’s song, ‘Procissão’, sung by Cantuária over a busy mesh of stringed instruments and percussion. This song, with its infectious, Beatles-like chorus, is part of the repertoire of Cantuária’s own band, who performed it at Tonic, New York, last March. A rough recording from the tiny club reveals a more obviously Brazilian reading. Cantuária’s demeanor can appear to be as shy and retiring as Frisell’s, but there’s a assertive side, heard in songs such as ‘Sanfona’ (from the Verve album Tucumã) and ‘Normal’, on the most recent album Vinicius.
The lyrics of ‘Normal’ (in Lindsay’s English translation) provide a taste of Cantuária’s approach to songwriting: ‘The boys from Bahia play capoeira / And every morning a hot soccer match on the sand / And the concrete poetry boys from Sao Paulo / The immigrants from the northeast with their lunchpails of happiness. The carioca boys, the boys from Guanabara / Beat the bass drum making the tin can funk / And the Brazilian boys grew up and they’ll get there / Here’s to Carlinhos Brown, Bide, Luna e Marçal /Ivo Meireles / Chico Batera / Dom Um Romão / Nana Vasconcelos / Paulo Braga / Robertinho Silva…’
This litany of Brazilian percussionists is fun yet it makes for a strangely abstract piece, sung against drums and percussion played by Paulo Braga and Cantuária himself, with violin by Jenny Scheinman (also on The Intercontinentals album) and keyboards by Peter Scherer. I particularly like the way Cantuária sings ‘Airto Moreira’ - as a little cry of joy, a warm tribute to his fellow countryman.
And it is a reminder that Cantuária has spent much of his career doubling as a drummer / percussionist – in his original rock group O Terco in the 1970’s and in the backing band for Tropicalia legend Caetano Veloso, Cantuária’s main gig for ten years. He continues to play percussion with the multi-instrumentalists of The Intercontinentals, and he has great empathy with fellow drummers. There was a point at Arto Linday’s Jazz Café gig in 2000 when the leader used his guitar to produce sheets of freeform noise over a gentle bossa: amid the mayhem, Cantuária, on acoustic rhythm guitar, maintained direct eye contact with the drummer, continuing the groove that would eventually reassert itself at the song’s end.
Cantuária has a studio in New York that he treats as an ‘atelier’, somewhere to go everyday to develop his practice. He might write a song, or listen back to older tapes… ‘sometimes I play pandeiro for two days straight,’ he says, ‘always I work, for fun.’ Or he might spend ages playing with alternative chords for ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, perhaps the best-known song of his idol Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim: ‘I can feel the song in so many different ways,’ says Cantuária. He stresses the importance of the acoustic guitar as the element of his craft – every song is originally worked out and written on the acoustic guitar, though he might use the electric instrument in the final orchestration.
He’s more commercially successful than his modest demeanor might suggest. A few years ago, Fabio Jr’s version of Cantuária’s song ‘So Voce’ sold more than two million copies in Brazil. ‘Lua E Estrella’, the song Cantuária wrote for Caetano Veloso in 1981, was the latter’s biggest hit. Veloso makes a guest appearance on the 2001 album, Vinicius (Transparent) for the delicate song ‘Agua Rasa’. Cantuária made several solo albums throughout the 80s and 90s, prior to relocating from Rio to New York in 1995, and the international breakthrough of Sol Na Cara in the following year.
When you press Cantuária for his definition of contemporary music, his terms of reference remain thoroughly popular. He talks about the enduring freshness of British pop music: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. ‘Contemporary music for me is something like Jobim, Eno. If you listen to music from the 1980’s, like Duran Duran or Tears for Fears it now sounds old because of the synthesizers. But ‘Satisfaction’ still sounds good. It’s like buying a good pair of traditional black shoes, that will last you ten years,’ he says.
Is that the way we should talk about Cantuária’s own songs? Music like shoes made the traditional way, properly stitched together, weatherproof and comfortable, improving with age. ‘I wanna do beautiful music, to play in small jazz clubs,’ says Cantuária. There’s that word again: ‘beautiful’. He doesn’t talk like a million-selling pop veteran . ‘I try reminding people of Miles Davis and Chet Baker – the music and harmonies are so sweet. This is my Fab Four: Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Tom Jobim and Chet Baker.’ John L. Walters 2003