Singer Explores the Sad, Celebratory Heart of Samba

Sometimes you find a perfect pairing of singer and songwriter. Teresa Cristina, who has been singing in Brazil for years, now seems at a breakout moment with her international Nonesuch release surveying the legacy of the country's beloved samba songwriter Angenor de Oliveira, known as Cartola.

Teresa Cristina Canta Cartola (Teresa Cristina sings Cartola) is a CD/DVD set of a November 2015 live performance in Rio de Janeiro. On it, Cristina turns down the usual exuberance of samba, singing with only the superb seven-string-guitar player Carlinhos Sete Cordas on a bare stage.

The result is a quiet, beautiful distillation of samba, not unlike bossa nova, propelled by the always lovely and sometimes playful swing of Sete Cordas (which means "seven strings").

"When people ask me if I would just do a show with one person playing the guitar," Cristina said. "I answer to them that they shouldn't use the word 'just,' since it is Carlinhos we are referring to."

"The way that I sing samba, with many instruments, doesn't provide the same feeling as if I only sing it with one guitar. Sometimes, the instruments are so loud, that you don't pay attention to the lyrics and just dance to the music."

In stripping down samba, Cristina brings to the fore the sadness at its celebratory heart. Brazilians call it "saudade," a bittersweetness - as if feeling deep sadness is still a celebration of humanness, of how emotions add richness to life: If life gives you lemons, savor them.

"The samba is always referring to sad [stories]," she said. "If we don't have sadness, we don't have samba."

In "O Sol Nascera," Cartola wrote: "Smiling/I live my life/Because crying I've lost my youth...When the storm ends/The sun will rise/and I won't miss you anymore." Or in As Rosas Nao Falam (Roses Don't Talk)": I go back to the garden/Certain that I have to cry/Because I know well that you don't want to come back/I whine to the roses, but that's nonsense/Roses don't talk."

Cartola, born in 1908, was living in one of Rio's poor favelas when he helped found a street band in 1928 that would become the beloved "escola de samba" named Manguiera. The samba schools are the neighborhood organizations that compete each year in Rio's carnival celebration. Cartola wrote popular sambas, known for their emotional complexity, in the 1930s then left the public eye, resurfacing again in the 1960s as owner of a restaurant that became a hot musical scene. In the 1970s, he had renewed success when his songs were recorded by Brazilian stars and, in 1973, he even recorded his first album at the age of 65.

Cristina said the project began when she was asked to perform a new show; she admits that though she had been an admirer, selecting Cartola was a bit random. While she is a devotee of a competing venerable samba school, Portela, she still thought it would be an opportunity to explore his songbook. "I don't know why I chose Cartola, I think it was my guardian angel who gave me this advice."

"I already admired a lot these songs and always had a big wish to sing them," she said, "but never had the opportunity. I tried to not listen to other musicians singing these songs, I just listened to Cartola to check the melody and the lyrics. I tried to get away from other interpreters because I didn't want to be influenced by them. I just want show my perspective of Cartola's work."

In her show, Cristina wraps her rich, earthy voice around the complexities of the lyrics, pulling at and floating above the underlying rhythms as an expert sambista does.

"I give 300% of myself in all my work, always," she said. "The audience gives me back all the energy that I spend when I perform. The reaction of the audience is very good. People understand Cartola's music, and this makes me very happy."

Cristina is now on tour in the U.S. with her Cartola show, performing as the warm-up for Brazilian superstar and Nonesuch labelmate, Caetano Veloso.

"I always thought Cartola needed more attention than he actually gets," Cristina said. "Not from the samba lovers, because they know exactly his value, but from the general public. In radio, it's rare to listen to Cartola's songs. Even on TV, it's only possible on holidays or specific dates. He's very important and people need to talk more about him in Brazil. I hope my album helps [fosters] that, and I'll be very happy if it works. I think it is already happening."

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