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[whitespace] Celia Malheiros Blame It On Malheiros: Celia hits all the right notes.

Samba in Her Step

Brazilian vocalist Celia Malheiros honors her past by moving forward

By Jesse Varela

WITH GROWTH as a theme, Brazilian singer/songwriter Celia Malheiros paints a fascinating musical portrait of herself on her debut CD, Sempre Crescendo (Always Growing). Original songs that speak to love, spirituality, saudade (Portuguese blues) and her native Rio de Janeiro are the brush strokes she uses to pay homage to the masters who have influenced and mentored her: Antonio Carlos Jobim, samba-song innovator Cartola and the grand wizard of Brazilian jazz, Hermeto Pascoal. Based in the Bay Area since 1982, she has been an important bridge to the musical culture of Brazil.

"Some people look at me and see that I'm blonde and blue-eyed and think Brazilians shouldn't look like that," says Malheiros from her home in Pacifica. "Not true. My family is from the northeast of Brazil, where the Dutch intermixed with the Indians. I've been here for 20 years now, but everything I do is Brazilian. All I have to do is open my mouth, and my accent is so heavy my roots definitely show."

Fusing organic samba beats with contemporary jazz, the album showcases the passionate delivery and supple elasticity of her voice as well as her provocative sambista energy. With help from nearby friends like pianist Jovino Santos-Neto and guitarist Jose Neto, the release is artistically rich. A good example is "Amazon," a wordless vocalese melody sung by Celia that floats over a lush string quartet and flute arrangement by Santos-Neto. The piece was part of a multimedia show she did two years ago about the beauty of and destruction going on in the Amazon rain forests.

As a child in Rio de Janeiro, her Afro-Brazilian nanny introduced her to the tradition of carnaval. She would take her to rehearsals and to the gigantic street parade in the heart of the city. Malheiros fell in love with rhythm and percussion. By age 12, she had picked up the folkloric cavaquinho guitar; by age 18, she was supporting herself with an array of musical activities that included performing in nightclubs and on radio and television. But the 1970s were hard for Brazilians, who endured a strict military dictatorship that censored artists. So she left with her husband-to-be Alex Popovics, who went to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music.

"We first went to Boston but moved to the Bay Area because I couldn't stand the cold," she says. "When I arrived, all I had was my cavaquinho and the music inside of me. Right away, I met José Lorenzo, who invited me to join his samba troupe, Batucaje. We did a lot of great gigs and traveled a lot. We performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival, at New Year's Eve with the Grateful Dead and in New York several times, and did big carnaval balls around the United States. Then I became the musical director for the San Francisco Carnaval Ball and did that for 13 years."

Malheiros shows her many sides on the 10 selections she features on Sempre Crescendo. Most intriguing are the two that showcase the legendary composer and multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal. Together, they make spirited music. The duet "Sempre Crescendo com o Mestre," with Hermeto on acoustic piano, explores the harmonic edges of the piece with soulful spontaneous improvisation.

"I fell in love with Hermeto's music when I was very young," she says. "I wrote a song for him called 'Fremeto (Frevo).' Frevo is a dance that is done in the northeast around Recife, where he is from. I got Jovino to arrange the song and invited him to do a solo on it. He came in and, in one take, did the piece on melodica. Then he looked at me and said, 'Let's make some music.' I sat near the piano with him and was totally taken by his music.

"Then he said, 'That's beautiful what you're singing.' I said 'I'm not singing, Hermeto.' He said, 'Yes, you are.' He could actually hear the music that I was thinking. The rest is history as we took this journey of eight minutes."

Celia Malheiros performs Saturday (March 30) at 7:30pm at Spiedo Restaurant, 151 W. Santa Clara St., San Jose (408.971.6096); also Friday (March 29) at Turmerik Restaurant, 141 S. Murphy Ave., Sunnyvale (408.617.9100). See www.celiamalheiros.com for details.

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From the March 28-April 3, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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