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Swinging both way

Simply Kenia roams in two rich musical fields.

Daniella Thompson

9 September 2008

Kenia, Cesar Camargo Mariano & Romero Lubambo in the studio

The Brazilian singer Kenia Ashby has a caressing voice and an engaging ability to swing two ways, combining jazz chops with samba savvy to produce a cool-warm sound all her own. A U.S. resident since 1980, Kenia offers an unusual mix of MPB and MPA (to borrow a coin from south of the border) in her latest CD, Simply Kenia.

Released on Kenia’s own label, the album was arranged by the venerable Cesar Camargo Mariano, who also plays keyboards. Other top-tier musicians participating in this project include the ubiquitous guitarist Romero Lubambo, drummer Teo Lima, and percussionist Armando Marçal.

The wide-ranging repertoire extends from a choro by Pixinguinha to a country ballad by Willie Nelson, passing through sambas by composers young and old, MPB rendered into English, and a handful of American songs. Cesar Camargo Mariano’s peppy arrangements help unify this pot-pourri, marked by its avoidance of the obvious.

The young singer-songwriter Jair de Oliveira (son of Jair Rodrigues) contributes two tunes. “Par, Impar,” which Pedro Mariano recorded with his father as a soulful ballad, is rendered here as a samba. “Catupiry,” introduced by Lisa Ono in 1989 (Teo Lima drummed on that one, too), is given a bouncy treatment that accords well with the harried protagonist’s longing for a week’s vacation.

Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” a Patsy Cline hit in 1961, is relieved here of its country accent and gains sophistication as a late-night lounge song. (There are also two bonus tracks in which the song receives Portuguese and Spanish versions.) “Anjo da Velha Guarda” salutes all traditional sambistas. One can’t help but think of the recently departed Dorival Caymmi when listening to Aldir Blanc’s lyrics:

O terno branco parece prata
E a fita em meu peito diz que eu sou
Daqueles que vão pra Maracangalha
Rever Anália

Eu vou
No vento que leva o chapéu de palha
Também sou de fibra e pau-brasil
O samba é tudo que eu sei
E Momo é o único rei que amei
Sou a sétima corda e passo devagarinho
Com Rodouro no coração
Meu nome em letras de ouro
É parte do tesouro de qualquer agremiação
De cuíca eu manjo
Também vou de banjo
Fiz das avenidas meu salão...
Fidalguia esbanjo
E danço com meu anjo
Eu sou da velha guarda, meu irmão!

Djavan’s jazzy “Avião” (from the 1989 album Oceano) is a song perfectly suited to Kenia’s style and vocal abilities. She chose to sing it in Lorraine Feather’s English lyrics, and the result is more successful than most Portuguese-to-English transplants. “Your Face,” a pop bossa nova apparently born with insipid English lyrics, is the blandest selection on this otherwise mature album. Far more interesting is Jair de Oliveira’s “Olha Aí,” with its acerbic tone and use of alliterative street language (faço bico, bato pé e abro um berreiro).

Pixinguinha’s choro “Lamentos,” recorded by the master in 1941 and, separately, by Canhoto and Jacob do Bandolim in the early 1950s, later received lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes, who recorded it as “Lamento” in 1966. I’m not convinced that either Cesar’s piano embellishments or Kenia’s vocalizing give this tune its due, but being hampered as they are by Vinicius’ trite verse (will I be struck dead for maligning the deity?), perhaps no more can be expected.

Luckily, the samba that follows, Gonzaguinha’s “Deixa Dilson, Vamos Nelson” is a sheer delight. The spoken interventions are provided by percussionist Jorjão da Silva, who injects the proper streetwise flavor. Another sambista, the late Portela composer Alvaiade, would be rolling in his grave if he knew that one of his best-known creations, “O Que Vier Eu Traço,” is here attributed to the singer Blecaute (Black-Out). Misattribution aside, Kenia delivers this tongue-twisting samba with aplomb.

For a change of pace, there’s the lovely ballad “Angel Eyes,” followed by one of the glories of MPB—the samba “Nação,” immortalized by Clara Nunes. (Here, too, Aldir Blanc invokes Dorival Caymmi.)

The album concludes with the contemplative “Open Invitation,” authored by two members of New York Voices.

The CD insert is minimal. No lyrics are provided (a serious omission), and the treatment of author credits is sloppy, with several typographic and factual errors. The singer’s website would be the obvious place to remedy such omissions. Strangely, no one has thought of including lyrics or even a track list and composers’ credits there.

Listen to audio samples.

Simply Kenia
(Mooka Records MOO 1020; 2008) 60 min.

01. Par, Impar (Cesar Camargo Mariano/Jair de Oliveira)
02. Catupiry (Angela Suarez/Roger Belbenoit/arr. Gilson Peranzzetta)
03. Crazy (Willie Nelson)
04. Anjo da Velha Guarda (Moacyr Luz/Aldir Blanc)
05. Being Cool [Avião] (Djavan/English vers.: Lorraine Feather)
06. Your Face (Cesar Camargo Mariano/Luisa Camargo Mariano)
07. Olha Aí (Jair de Oliveira)
08. Lamentos (Pixinguinha/Vinicius de Moraes)
09. Deixa Dilson, Vamos Nelson (Luiz Gonzaga, Jr.)
10. O Que Vier Eu Traço (Alvaiade/Zé Maria)
11. Angel Eyes (Matt Dennis/Earl Brent)
12. Nação (João Bosco/Aldir Blanc/Paulo Emílio)
13. Open Invitation (Darmon Meader/Lauren Kinhan)
Bonus tracks
14. Louca (Willie Nelson/Portuguese vers.: Kenia)
15. Loca (Willie Nelson/Spanish vers.: Roberto Livi)

Kenia Ashby: vocals
Cesar Camargo Mariano: piano, keyboards, electronic percussion
Romero Lubambo: guitars, cavaquinho
Teo Lima: drums
Leo Traversa: bass
Armando Marçal, Lucas Ashby, Jorjao da Silva, Jay Ashby: percussion


Copyright © 2008–2010 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.