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Carnival of sorts

A diverse survey of recent Brazilian releases

In just five years, Chico César has transformed himself from an unknown out of the sticks of northeastern Brazil, trying his luck in Sao Paulo clubs with his unique blend of poetry and sophisticated music, to a bona fide MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) star. A self-released live album in 1995, Aos Vivos, started the ball rolling, and before long his songs were in great demand and being taken to the top of charts by Daniela Mercury, Zizi Possi and Elba Ramalho. That album has just been released in the U.S. by Velas and tracks from his two follow-up studio albums finally are available in the States as Chico César on Putumayo.

The Putumayo album is the slicker of the two, and none the worse for that. The music is infectious, sassy and downright irresistible. If "Mama Africa" (present on both albums) and "Papo Cabeca" sound familiar, it's because covers of them have surfaced in the U.S. on other albums. Once heard or seen, this distinctive dresser, stage personality and Bahian native is not easily forgotten, judging by a recent free outdoor show in Los Angeles put on by the city (Atlanta, are you listening?).

César also appears on the Festa Brazil sampler on Putumayo, alongside Gal Costa, Agepé and some noteworthy newcomers such as Lazzo and DiD' Banda Feminina, who also hail from Bahia. Reggae turns up a few times, as does forro, the rootsy zydeco-like accordian-driven sound unique to forested regions of northeastern Brazil. Speaking of zydeco, artists from New Orleans show up on Putumayo's new Carnival, named after the national festival in Brazil, which makes Mardi Gras look like a genteel church picnic. Yes, there are Brazilians too, as well as folks from Venezuela, Columbia, Haiti and Barbados.

Kau is a new Brazlian group named after leader Daniel Kau, and they call their mix of ethnic, folk and pop "Etnopop." That's also the name of the label on which their debut Ka'-ooh appears. Inspired by many trips to his parents' ancestral home in the Amazon, Kau formed the group to explore a heady mix of tribal chant and rhythms with synthesizers and programming, saxophone and vocals which mix Portugese and English. At times, it hints at electronica, but then some hackneyed synth and screaming electric guitar weighs it down. The best tracks see the quartet stick to Brazilian chant, percussion and flute.

Jim Nolet is a jazz violinist and composer whose mainstream and bop backgrounds are nowhere to be heard on Arco Voz (Cathexis). On this album, recorded in Sao Paulo, he plays a mournful viola integrated with a Brazilian band backing a trio of singers including new sensation Monica Salmaso. The viola is out front most of the time, and sounds wonderful on both straight-ahead samba and original material. Co-producer Rodrigo Rodrigues sings, too, and adds some great soft harmonica and guitar touches throughout. Overall, the sound is very relaxed, confident and sensuous. Alas, the sleeve credits leave a lot to be desired, making it impossible even to determine who wrote many of the more interesting songs.

If it's classic Brazilian sounds you seek, The Story of Bossa Nova (Hemisphere) romps through 20 standards mostly from 1959-'65. Many of the songs are sung by their writers, such as Marcos Valle's "Samba de Verao," which made it to No. 2 on the U.S. pop charts in 1965 when organist and arranger Walter Wanderly covered it as "Summer Samba." Wanderly is here too, doing a lounge-like "One Note Samba" from 1960, and "The Girl from Ipanema" appears in her original, virginal, pre-Getz/Gilberto form, by the largely forgotten Brazilian Sinatra-wannabe Pery Ribeiro. Also weighing in are Marlene (yes, a Dietrich fan) from the same period, and currently popular Joyce.

The author of over half of the songs is the incomparable Tom Jobim. He first came to the public's attention in Brazil through the voice of Sylvia Telles, who debuted many of his early hits before dying young in a car accident. She too is present, as is Joao Donato, of whom the sleeve cryptically remarks there is an underdog theory that it was he — and not Jobim — who created the bossa nova form in the first place.

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