The postcard visions that Brazilian music conjures of swaying bodies and sybaritic beaches come from our visual iconography of Rio de Janeiro, one of the world’s most photogenic locales. But rising Brazilian chanteuse Luísa Maita, who performs Tuesday night at the Del Monte Speakeasy in Venice, hails from the city that today is Brazil’s true music capital: drizzly, noisy, congested São Paulo.
South America’s largest metropolis, with a population of more than 11 million, São Paulo has been affectionately described by one U.S. travel writer as the “ugliest, most dangerous city you’ll ever love.” Superlatives aside, Maita’s hometown in the last half-century has indeed become Brazil’s center of cultural production in art, fashion, design and filmmaking, as well as in the art form that remains the country’s best-known cultural export (after soccer and Gisele Bündchen, of course).
“São Paulo is a cultural city, but it never was the musical city of Brazil. Bahia and Minas Gerais brought the most important music,” says Maita, speaking by phone from a stop on her current U.S. tour.
However, she continues, “I think São Paulo now is the most important city that is bringing music to Brazil. We are having a beautiful moment right now in São Paulo. We have very nice artists working together now, of the same generation, and trying to understand what our link will be.”
By many accounts, São Paulo neighborhoods such as the Perdizes district in recent years have become meccas for Brazil’s young creative classes. In a number of these enclaves, groups of musicians, songwriters and producers have banded together in collectives to experiment with new fusions of traditional samba, Brazilian legacy artists like Antonio Carlos Jobim and Milton Nascimento, plus U.S. soul, R&B, West Coast cool jazz, electronica and whatever else is at hand.
For Maita, such musical DNA swapping is second nature. Recently named best new artist by the Brazilian Music Awards, she is at work on a follow-up to her stateside breakthrough album, “Lero-Lero,” and a disc of remixes, both on the Cumbancha label.
She was raised in the blue-collar (and now gentrifying) Bixiga neighborhood, where Italian, Jewish and Middle Eastern immigrants rubbed shoulders and customs, and the renowned Vai-Vai samba school holds sway. Maita grew up in a musical household listening to Chet Baker, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker records that her father, Amado Maita, played incessantly. Later, she gravitated toward Stevie Wonder, Prince and Michael Jackson.
Named after the Jobim standard “Ana Luísa,” Maita also was exposed to idiosyncratic Brazilian geniuses like João Gilberto, Vinicius de Moraes and guitarist Baden Powell, the Django Reinhardt of South America, one of whose favored capoeira rhythms turns up on the song “Aí Vem Ele” (There He Comes) on “Lero-Lero.”
Although she has been singing professionally since childhood, when she made commercial jingles, Maita has staked her growing reputation as much on her compositions. Popular singers including Virginia Rosa and Mariana Aydar have recorded tunes written or co-written by Maita and her frequent collaborator, Rodrigo Campos.
As with much Brazilian music, Maita’s songs tend to be described by non-Portuguese-speaking listeners with adjectives like “sultry” and “sensual.” That they are. But an undercurrent of saudade — nostalgic yearning — often tugs at the ear when Maita sings, a bluesy vulnerability that she shares not only with Holiday but with compatriots like Maria Rita and Bebel Gilberto.
For Maita, that tone of tender resilience connects to the daily joys and travails of her and her fellow paulistanos, going about their lives in the unlovely, beloved mega-city.
“There is no beach there, there is no nature, there is no birds. It’s a very crazy city,” she says. “And I tried to understand what it is to be a Brazilian in this context. You can’t express São Paulo in bossa nova. Bossa nova is not São Paulo.”