The hip ambiance of Brooklyn’s Tea Lounge made it a suitable spot to meet Vinicius Cantuária, a musician whose artistic prowess, sophistication, and reverence for tradition have enabled him to reinvent Brazil’s beloved bossa nova form. He enters wearing a baseball cap, T-shirt, and flip-flops, with a warm smile that exudes the sincerity so characteristic of his songs. It seems fitting that the music of the Guess Who is blasting in the background, because what is now called “classic rock” was more of an influence on Cantuária as a young musician than his Brazilian contemporaries were.
“I was in my teens in the late ‘60s and I was playing guitar, covering songs by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones,” he says. “At that time in Brazil it was very difficult to find LPs, so everyone listened to the radio. And it was democratic, too. One minute you heard the Beatles, and the next song would be something by Beethoven. A radio station played a little of everything. You didn’t have the [specialization] of today, with one station playing funk and another, jazz.”
Musical diversity is a defining characteristic of Cantuária’s unique body of work. Most of the songs on Silva, his latest release, contain the rhythmic chord progressions that one would associate with smoky-lounge bossa nova, and yet Cantuária stretches the form by blending in soothing string arrangements, looped percussion, and a surreal dialogue between Michael Leonhart’s cool-jazz trumpeting and the harmonic effects of Cantuária’s guitar. Silva captures a subtle balance between the traditional notion of melodic structure and the use of musical textures to achieve a more sculptured sound.
As Cantuária speaks about everything from his love for music to the crystalline elegance of Brazil’s azure coastline, I am reminded of João Gilberto’s fascination with nature’s aesthetics and how his unbridled confidence led him to revolutionize Brazilian music. In 1958, Gilberto spoke to lovers and disaffected youths—and inspired multitudes of young men and women to begin playing the guitar—with his sensual strumming and delicate, haunting voice on the classic “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”) by Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes. These three artists—singer-guitarist Gilberto, pianist Jobim, and renowned poet de Moraes—are credited with starting what would soon become known as bossa nova, a conversion of the African-influenced samba beat into seductive, swaying rhythms and a vocal accompaniment devoid of vibrato.
“But for me, it’s not about old or new bossa nova. As a musician, I don’t make a distinction between the old and the new.”
Cantuária has cited Jobim as one of his greatest musical influences and always includes at least one of “the master’s” songs on every album. Silva contains a stunning rendition of the Jobim-de Moraes classic “A Felicidade” (“Happiness”). I mention to Cantuária that here, in the United States, there seems to be a perception that Jobim is the sole inventor of bossa nova, while Gilberto and de Moraes are repeatedly left out of the picture.
Cantuária nods in agreement, his brows furrowed. “After the famous Carnegie Hall concert in 1962 with Jobim, Stan Getz, João Gilberto, and Marcos Valle, the Brazilian musicians all went home,” he says. “Except for Jobim—he stayed in New York and developed relationships with other artists, including Frank Sinatra, who covered many of his songs. Jobim’s willingness to remain in New York contributed to his popularity here.”
In 1963, Getz, Jobim, and Gilberto released their version of the Jobim-de Moraes song “The Girl from Ipanema,” and bossa nova became an international phenomenon. Now, more than 40 years later, artists like Bebel Gilberto, João’s daughter, are considered part of the new wave. Unlike their predecessors, who relied solely on acoustic instruments, the new-generation bossa nova musicians aren’t afraid to use studio tools to flesh out an arrangement. Programmed beats, samples, and electronic loops often enhance the texture of their compositions. Cantuária’s Silva contains a song entitled “The Bridge,” an ode to the unusual attributes of the Brazilian jazz form. Although the song is built on a bossa nova chord sequence, Cantuária also incorporates sampling techniques and displays his extraordinary improvisational range as a jazz guitarist. I have to ask what relationship, if any, does Cantuária have with the nouveau bossa nova movement?
A look of disappointment eclipses his genial features. “I don’t have any relationship with nouveau bossa nova,” Cantuária insists. “I have a nice relationship with Bebel and old bossa nova players like Marcos Valle and João Donato. And I had a very beautiful relationship with the master Tom Jobim. But for me, it’s not about old or new bossa nova. As a musician, I don’t make a distinction between the old and the new.”
Fair enough. To categorize Cantuária is to discredit an artist whose versatility puts him in his own camp. And yet even the biography on Cantuária’s website concedes that “post-electronica acoustic” might be used to describe his music. Unfortunately, that label doesn’t acknowledge the allure of his intimate crooning and the introspection his lyrics provoke in the listener. So how did all of these forces converge in one man?
Manaus, where Vinicius Cantuária was born in 1951, is an industrial city in the state of Amazonas, nestled in the center of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Although his family moved to Rio when he was seven, Cantuária has said that the auditory stimuli from his childhood in Manaus and its surroundings helped cultivate his concepts of rhythm. In fact, he started out as a drummer in his own band, O Terco, and in 1977, began playing percussion and guitar for Caetano Veloso, one of Brazil’s most popular singer-songwriters. Cantuária says his background as a percussionist is closely related to his style of guitar playing.
“When I play guitar, I feel like I’m part of a percussion section,” he says. “The beat, the grooves—I sync them in time. I always think about rhythm when I’m coming up with harmonies and melodies. And to me, the rhythm section is the most important component of a band.”
Cantuária wasn’t flourishing only as a musician while working with Veloso. He also established himself as a songwriter of the highest caliber. In 1981, he composed “Lua e Estrela” (“Moon and Star”), a multi-platinum single for Caetano Veloso. When I ask what significance the song has to him, Cantuária smiles broadly.
“I started thinking about a man’s motivations and I thought about pain, not personally, but about others’ experiences. And I directed those thoughts about pain to the subject of love.”
“I wrote that song for Caetano more than 20 years ago, and it’s still a big hit in Brazil,” he says. “And at the time that I wrote it, Caetano had a band called Os Doces Bárbaros with [María] Bethania, Gilberto Gil, and Gal Costa. A friend of mine played bass in the band, and one night, he told me that he had [a gig] and wanted his wife to accompany him. While he was gone, I took care of Rodrigo, his son. When my friend finally returned just before dawn, I put on my shorts, went out to the beach, and I saw this girl who I had never met before, but on one of her fingers was a ring with the moon and stars. So when I got back home, I grabbed my guitar and wrote the song. After the song was a success, I met the actual girl. And there were also many other girls who swore to me that they were the real one. The song created many, many opportunities for me to do more songs. It was my first one, and you never forget the first one.”
By the early ‘80s, Cantuária’s musical tastes had broadened to include such luminaries as Bill Evans, Miles Davis, and Chet Baker, whom Cantuária cites as one of his favorite singers and trumpet players. I see a correlation between Baker’s agonizing, yet beautiful renditions of jazz classics and the emotional honesty of Cantuária’s songs on Silva, especially “A Dor” (“Pain”), an intense meditation on lost love.
“When I began writing the songs for Silva, I started thinking about a man’s motivations and I thought about pain, not personally, but about others’ experiences,” he explains. “And I directed those thoughts about pain to the subject of love. I wrote several songs about love, broken relationships, and families that don’t live together anymore.”
Bossa nova’s sunny optimism encounters the somber beauty of a nimbus cloud.
A short walk brings us to Cantuária’s studio in the heart of Park Slope. He saunters over to a spot in the corner, grabs an acoustic guitar and fills the room with an improvised mix of intricate folk and jazz picking. As his fingers move effortlessly across the fretboard, the instrument seems like an extension of his body, speaking in some complex melodic language.
“When I’m composing, I start off with just an acoustic guitar and come up with the harmony and melody,” Cantuária says. “I never go straight to recording, and sometimes I lose the song. But if it’s good, it always comes back to me. Even if a melody is lost for a long time, it might [reemerge] later while I’m composing another song.”
These days, most of Cantuária’s time has been spent working on a new album that will include Leonhart, pianist Brad Mehldau, and saxophonist Dave Binney. Since his arrival in New York City, Cantuária has frequently collaborated with guitarists Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot. “Cubanos Postizos,” a brilliant composition off of Cantuária’s previous album, Horse and Fish, was inspired by Ribot’s group of the same name. I ask about plans for future projects.
“I’m working on Lagrimas Mexicanas—Mexican Tears—it’s a project with Bill Frisell,” Cantuária says. “Lagrimas Mexicanas is my interpretation of Mexican and South American music. Of course, someone from Argentina might not accept my interpretation of tango, but this is my vision and I will be developing these songs with Frisell, along with two or three percussionists. And I’m going to try to get Jenny Scheinman to play violin, too.”
We step outside. Late-afternoon sunlight bleeds through the trees onto Brooklyn’s Sixth Avenue. Cantuária leans against a hardwood and I ask what brought him to New York.
“I was a little disappointed by the Brazilian market,” he says. “In Brazil, if you want to belong to the establishment, you have to write for other people, release songs for the radio and make television appearances. I don’t have any interest in being a part of that. It’s not exciting to me. Here, I’m able to experiment with my music as part of the underground. I’m here to be more Brazilian. And it’s easier for me to be Brazilian in New York than it is in Brazil.”