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For a variety of reasons, Latin American proponents of music from the native lands often pretend that race and class aren't relevant when it comes to music. But listen to the rhythms and the lyrics of samba — or cumbia or bachata or other styles of Latin American music — and it's easy to see that race and class are right up there in the forefront.
Brazilian singer Chico César has never shied away from either subject. He's developed a career out of addressing social issues in his songs and working as a voice for the voiceless all across his country.
As a product of the northeastern state of Paraiba, one of Brazil's poorest regions, César's parents sharecropped on land where the harsh realities of feudal farming still exist. Those experiences never left César, and you can hear them in the delicacy with which he approaches and appreciates being a celebrity today. He doesn't pigeonhole himself, though, by writing strictly about the poverty of his homeland in northern Brazil. He often writes party music as well and celebrates the joys of everything from love at first sight — as he did with his classic "A Primeira Vista" — to the fervor associated with Carnaval.
It's the constant sense of evolution in his music that makes him such a cherished act within Brazil, and it's why his arrival in the United States this weekend is such an anticipated event.
He's touring select cities around the globe in support of his latest album, Francisco, Forró y Frevo, a lush, 14-track album that's based mainly on the energetic genre forró. I had been listening to some of those songs recently before I even realized César was fielding interview requests from journalists here in the United States. Although we were forced to communicate via email because of language obstacles, César instantly demonstrated an intelligence and sensitivity rare for pop musicians. But that's César — highly educated, often outspoken, and pleasantly long-winded. Believe it or not, he's excited to celebrate Brazilian Independence Day right here in South Florida, where he's acutely aware that the expatriate community is strong. Because of circumstances, the Miami leg of his last U.S. tour, in 2000, was something of a bummer.
"If I remember [that tour] well, we played in 23 cities and traveled the whole country by bus, which was quite a remarkable experience," he says via email from his home in Sao Paolo. "Since then, I haven't come back to the U.S. at all."
He still tours South America extensively and Europe as well, but he has his own reasons for not spending too much time here in America.
"Europe is a continent of small countries, with multicultural influences in each one of them. The U.S. is a huge extension of territory with a monoculture as driving force. So the U.S., in a certain way, is self-sufficient as a music industry and a bit more resistant to receiving artists from other countries. Especially if these [artists] don´t sing in English."
César knows a lot about various aspects of music — and much of that stems from his time not just as a musician but as a rock critic for newspapers and magazines in Sao Paolo. He has a journalism degree and worked at Elle (Brazil) until 1992, when he decided to start focusing on his music full-time. His singing career was fully launched in 1995, when his song "A Primeira Vista" was used as the theme song of a popular Brazilian telenovela, O Rei do gado ("The King of the Cattle"). Although fellow Brazilian pop artist Daniela Mercury sang the song for the show, César wrote it, using it to help give him a larger audience. Was he surprised by the song's success?
"I was not only surprised with the success of 'A Primeira Vista,' which I wrote in the late '80s and which contains a Dadaist refrain with words that don´t make any sense, I thought my music was only for small audiences of students. I was surprised when the audience was growing bigger and my music was able to dialogue with the mainstream — via recordings of my songs by other artists or via my own recordings."
Through the 14 years that César has worked as a musician in the public sphere, he's certainly crossed genres. He's produced music in styles such as samba, pagoda, frevo, axé, and MPB. But he's perhaps most noted for crafting songs in his beloved forró, a style he describes like this: "Forró is the joy of the people of Northeastern Brazil. It is their time to party after a long week of hard work on other people's land for a poor salary. It does not mean a certain style of music or rhythm, but it's a general expression of Northeastern culture.
So as César prepares to come to South Florida, know that when he arrives, his performance is going to include a variety of styles, all performed with an authenticity that local audiences probably haven't seen in some time. The last time he was here, bad weather caused the show to be cut short.
"Last time our concert in Miami had to be interrupted due to a storm, and we ended up playing unplugged in the backstage area for the audience," César remembers. "I hope this time we will be able to at least plug in our instruments!"