Captivating CeU

Self-titled Debut

3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

Who is Ceu? A Brazilian newcomer with the voice, poise and material to sound like a seasoned pro. At times her smooth chops bring to mind a more centered Flora Purim backed by the airy jazz/adult pop influences of Zero Seven. Her playfulness poppyness matches that of Nikka Costa, and she can employ the sensual, breathy style of Brazil ‘66’s Lani Hall, or the bankable urban middle-finger swagger of Mary J. Blige without the butt-kicking coarseness. Her music is rooted in samba, but also employs elements of bossa nova, jazz, hip hop, reggae, Afro-pop and electronica. Her debut, now available in the U.S., was nominated for a Latin Grammy in 2006 for Best New Artist and one listen affirms it was a righteous candidate. Ceu has since become the first international artist picked to be part of Starbucks Hear Music Debut series, which should broaden her profile amongst the caffeinated adult listening circle.

Her heavy given moniker is Maria do Ceu Whitaker Popas. Depending on who’s doing the interpreting, her stage name means either “sky” or “heaven.” Either description fits her clean, exuberant pipes. Her father, Edgard Pocas, a revered maestro, introduced Ceu to a wide variety of music as a pre-teen. By 15, she was performing samba and dance music with her own band. She briefly relocated to New York City, where she serendipitously ran into Brazilian musician Antonio Pinto, (who she later learned was her distant cousin), the first of her performing confidants. She eventually formed a band of young Brazilian musicians, including percussionist multi-instrumentalist Beto Villares, guitarist and bassist Lucas Martins, and scratch artist DJMarco.

The CD begins with the short, percussion heavy instrumental “Vinhela Quelbrante” which peels off into reverbed piano leading into “Lenda” (soul). Sung in Portuguese with a modern pop approach, it shifts from samba to reggae to a crunching tropical beat. DJMarco adds the unlikely effect of turntable scratching, giving “Lenda” a languid, catchy groove. With its bitty-bop beat and airy backdrop, “Lenda” has the type of generous production found in the production wizardry of Zero Seven and Goldfrapp.

The samba/reggae piece “Malemolencia” (beauty meets malice), features pinpoint acoustic guitar work from Alec Halat, suppressed horns and a chorus that’s as soulful as anything you’ll find on “American Idol” or in the To 40. There’s one unnecessary and dampening effect – Ceu’s vocal at the end is muffled so much she sounds like someone’s suffocating her with a pillow.

“Roda” has a reggae-like bass beat mixed with a Motown lick on guitar provided by the busy Beto Villares. DJMarco is back at his turntable, summoning a sandpapery beat. Laid back with lyrical phrasing and a bass line thick as hardening rubber cement, “Roda” picks up a far eastern feel on the vocal fade.

The percussion assault in “Rainha” shakes and bakes like a sack full of rattlesnakes. Processed bass rolls follow the layered, pumping horns enveloping the jazzy Afro-beat. Pepe Cisneros lays out gymnastic percussion on congas, maraca and snare against the horns. Cisneros also provides the electronic bass, which explains why it’s so closely linked to the percussion.

“Contados” brings Ceu’s sound back to a Zero Seven/Nikka Costa feel with acoustic guitar blending with gurgling keyboards resting on a subdued shuffle beat. Ceu drops her voice to the floor, then sings with rapturous glee, jousting with the sonar-like keyboards.

“Viheta Dorival” has an acoustic conquistador intro with a touch of Superfly soul and barking, whooping percussion by Beto Villoes. “Mais Um Lamento” is jazzier with snappy conga playing and recessed horns. Ceu is hung out to dry to fill in as a sensual chanteuse, which she does passably, but being a torch singer is really not her style.

One of the more intriguing songs on the CD is Bob Marley’s “Concrete Jungle,” where Ceu takes on her only English language song. Propped up by Wes Montgomery-inspired guitar from Villares, there’s a heavy resemblance in Ceu’s delivery to Diana Krall’s mannish style, and she’s provocative without sounding slutty. Still, Ceu sounds stiff, out of her comfort zone, as if she’s singing the lyrics phonetically without knowledge of their meaning, leaving the minor Marley tune sounding more like concrete mumble.

“Veu da Noite” is the CD’s first outright sonic killing field. It has all the bas elements of jazz that makes folks disparage the genre; over active drums, directionless music and a vocal that’s more showy than enjoyable, plus it never seems to end.

“Ave Cruz” puts Ceu back on a funky trail. Lucas Martins embellishes the song at all the right times on bass, and Antonio Pinto dubbed a studio full of instruments into the leg-shaking score, including snatches of keyboards, percussion, and 7-string acoustic guitar. “Ave Cruz” is Ceu wearing her urban soul hat – and it fits comfortably.

More sonar effects work their way into a multi-tracked vocal on “A Ronco da Cuica.” With as a base of tropical bird percussion provided by Pupillo and Villares that carries Ceu’s warbling voice, “Aronio da Cuica” is loyal to her Brazilian roots.

“Bobogem” is purposely stark, caressed by native Brazilian instruments and acoustic guitar, but submerging Ceu’s voice in a wind tunnel effects defeats the purpose of giving her a mike in the first place.

Ceu goes out with a samba on “Samba Na Solas.” Its carnival time baby, as three percussionists work in tandem to provide a pleasantly danceable beat. The only complaint is that it ends when the jam really gets rolling. This would be a real treat to listen to live because you know the band would extend it.

Music is a language unto itself. And you don’t necessarily speak the same language as the singer to enjoy their art. Ceu is a case in point. Don’t let the fact that there’s only one song in half-baked English scare you away. Bob Dylan’s been singing in Esperanto for forty years and nobody’s called him out about it yet, and Carlos Santana’s Spanish language songs have only served to attract fans rather than alienate them. When she’s not hidden in the mix, Ceu’s voice captivates. Whether she’s reaching for the sky or getting down low in urban funk, Ceu’s voice is indeed heaven. Hope to Ceu buying this CD soon.



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