The latte-sipping contingency is probably already familiar with CéU. While waiting on a slow moving line for a decaf-skim-cappuccino-without foam, the melodies of CéU waft through the air like the aroma of freshly ground coffee beans. Wouldn’t you know that CéU (pronounced Say-You) is actually signed to a label owned by a quaint little coffee shop named Starbucks? In case the news escaped you, the coffee behemoth has its very own imprint now, Starbucks Entertainment. Appropriately enough, the fourth release in their Starbucks Hear Music CD Debut series is an artist who hails from the largest coffee producing country in the world, Brazil.
But coffee isn’t the point here, though Starbucks is waging bets that their caffeinated constituency will think CéU is the perfect accompaniment to that $4.00 mocha. The reliably stellar Six Degrees label, who have partnered with Starbucks for the U.S. release of CéU, really deserves the credit for bringing this artist stateside. CéU’s eponymous debut has already garnered a wave of attention around the world, particularly in France, Holland, Italy, and Canada where it was released in 2005 through the São Paulo-based Urban Jungle label. (She also earned a “Best New Artist” Latin Grammy nomination.)
Even though the U.S. release arrives two years later, CéU still sounds fresh. Hailing from São Paulo, CéU stylishly integrates samba, soul, and candomblé-derived instrumentation across 15 tracks on her debut. The mix of these ingredients reflects what Brazilians call malemolência. Loosely translated, malemolência means “flowing” or “relaxed”. Though there isn’t really a direct correlation to any one English word, listening to CéU provides a definition of sorts. By and large, the songs share a laid back groove, best exemplified by a song actually entitled “Malemolência”.
CéU immediately commands attention with “Vinheta Quebrante”, a feverish, one-minute introduction that churns on the strength of Maurício Alves’ congas. The opening track then deliciously slides into “Lenda”, a sizzler of a cut that symbolizes the overall appeal of CéU. DJ scratches and graceful piano improvisation are equally as prominent, creating an overall mood that is alternately funky and jazzy. CéU is comfortable fronting both kinds of sound environs and the slight rasp in her voice lends itself to a particular soul music-inspired phrasing: “Seu nome na boca do sapo/Sua boca…ah ah ahh”, she coos. (The Portuguese-to-English translation is something to the effect of: “Your name in the frog’s mouth/Your mouth”, which stems from an old Brazilian spell.) Pepe Cisneros steers the track towards jazz territory with his work on the keys. Similarly, “Véu da Noite”, which begins a cappella, slips into a smokey hybrid of blues and jazz. Here, CéU’s voice seamlessly blends in with the other instruments rather than overpowering them.
Save for three tracks, CéU wrote or co-wrote all of the songs. In CéU’s hands, Bob Marley’s “Concrete Jungle” sounds tailor-made for her understated approach to singing. Bassist Djengue gives solid bottom with a rhythm that confidently anchors the track. An instrument called the agogó, which makes a slightly warped chime sound, adds a brilliant touch to Marley’s pained story. Another cover, “O Ronco da Cuíca”, written by João Bosco and Aldir Blanc, ups the funk quotient with a touch of the exotic. The tune lionizes what happens to be my favorite kind of drum – the cuíca. The muted squeakiness of the cuíca produces a variety of sounds (a tropical bird, a monkey come to mind). Here, it’s looped in torrents of rhythm as CéU’s band closes out the track with a ferocity reminiscent of early ‘70s Santana.
Written by CéU and Alec Haiat (who co-wrote five of the songs with CéU), “Ave Cruz” serves up a more tranquil kind of funk. DJ Marco scratches over a rubbery groove as CéU sings, “Ave Cruz/Virge Crispim”. Another CéU/Haiat collaboration, the excellent “Samba Na Sola”, closes the album on a celebratory note with festive samba rhythms steeped in that smooth malemolência style.
With promotion well underway in the U.S., CéU is shaping up to be one of the most promising, if belated, debuts of 2007. Long after the collective caffeine rush of its more disposable competition passes, CéU leaves the listener in a subdued state of contagious grooves. If that’s not malemolência, I don’t know what is.
- "Ave Cruz" MP3