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Ever hungry for new challenges, the sultry-voiced Brazilian enchantress Kenia, who reemerged on the jazz scene two years ago with the critically-acclaimed album Simply Kenia, serves up one of the most demanding and satisfying projects of her three decade long career with Kenia Celebrates Dorival Caymmi on Mooka Records.
Renowned for her ability to translate the complex rhythms of her homeland into jazzy creations that made her a star of the smooth jazz movement two decades ago, the singer digs even deeper into Brazil’s cultural legacy on this compelling and artistically rich 15-track session. She tackles the supremely melodic and culturally telling legacy of the Brazilian composer and singer who spent over seven decades creating an aural portrait of Bahia, the stronghold of Brazil’s vibrant African culture. The author of such fabled standards as “Samba da Minha Terra,” “Doralice” and “Voce Ja Foi a Bahia,” Caymmi has long been recognized as a singular figure in Brazilian popular culture, truly an artist without peers in a country noted for a profusion of legendary musicians.
“Dorival’s music lies just between the two major movements in MPB (Música Popular Brasileira, or Brazilian Popular Music),” Kenia explains, “the Samba of the 1920’s and 30’s and the Bossa Nova of the late 1950’s and 60’s. Caymmi’s music served as a kind of a smooth transition between these two styles. And, although he had two very distinct lines of composition, the link between these two movements is characterized by his firm foundation and understanding of Rio’s Samba, sprinkled with some Bahian spices.”
To insure an impeccably authentic interpretation of this collection of Caymmi classics, Kenia employed a rhythm section of first-call Brazilian musicians. Fernando Merlino, who crafted the arrangements and plays piano, is joined by bassist Leo Traversa and percussionist Airto Moreira, perhaps the most recorded Brazilian instrumentalist of his generation. The band also features guitarists Eric Susoeff and Marty Ashby, trombonist Jay Ashby, who arranged the song “Requebre” and joins Airto in the percussion section, and the singer’s son Lucas, who contributes his growing skills as a percussionist. The involvement of sound engineer Jay Dudt, a three time Grammy-winner, assured the sonic brilliance of Kenia Celebrates Dorival Caymmi.
Although several of Caymmi’s songs, including “Rosa Morena” and Samba da Minha Terra,” were immortalized by singer João Gilberto, many of them are not overly familiar to contemporary audiences. “Digging into Caymmi’s work has been an absolute joy,” Kenia confides. “His songbook takes me back in time. For instance, I discovered that ‘Roda Piao,’ a tune that Carmen Miranda made famous, was written by Caymmi. I was delighted to learn that the song had a beautiful introduction and interlude. Growing up, we only knew and sang the bridge. And for years I sang ‘Acalanto’ to my children, again not having any idea of the composer’s name. As challenging as it is to revisit some of these childhood memories, it was also very liberating.”
The singer was born Kenia Acidly into a family of Italian origins in the city of Nova Iguaçu, a working class suburb of Rio de Janeiro. When she was six, Kenia’s family moved to Copacabana, Rio’s chic beach-fronting neighborhood. As with most Cariocas, as natives of Rio are known, growing up in the 1960s during the bossa nova era meant that she played guitar by ear for many years before realizing that singing was her true calling. It helped that at that time Brazilian television was loaded with programs that featured such trend-setting vocalists as Elis Regina, Gal Costa, Nara Leão and Caymmi’s daughter Nana. “By the late 70's and early 80's,” she recalls, “I was madly in love with the music of Djavan and Ivan Lins. At the same time, through my friend, the late Durval Ferreira, a great composer, I was introduced to the beautiful voices of Sarah Vaughn and Carmen McRea.”
Arriving in the U.S. in 1980, Kenia quickly established herself as the new Brazilian singer on the scene and recorded her debut in the States with trumpeter Claudio Roditi on his album Red on Red. Several years later, she launched her solo recording career, producing four popular and critically-acclaimed albums for the MCA and Denon labels between 1987 and 1991. She also established herself as one of the most popular and successful U.S. based Brazilian musicians since the heyday of Sergio Mendes and Brazil ‘66. In 1997, Kenia launched her own label, Mooka Records, with a particularly ambitious effort; Project Ivan Lins, a tribute to the one of Brazil’s most prolific and popular contemporary songwriters, featuring Lins himself as a special guest.
Kenia Celebrates Dorival Caymmi represents a continuation of the effort she began on Simply Kenia to rediscover and explore in her own distinctive way hidden gems of 20th Century popular Brazilian music. “Dorival’s compositions address two distinct themes,” she comments. “There are the songs about the sea, where he so eloquently and romantically sang of the hardships, passion and faith of the fishermen of his beloved Bahia. These are known to Brazilians as canções praianas (Beach Songs). These compositions are very sophisticated in harmony and melody, with somewhat of an ECM-style jazz sound and a very folkloric feel.”
The second thematic track is equally satisfying. “He also had a particular way of writing about love, passion, sex and women that is very special,” the singer continues. “These songs have a certain swing, groove and movement. His subtlety and care with words is so natural. Dorival has a way composing that even describing a woman’s simple stroll to the supermarket becomes an amazingly charming experience both for the stroller and observers.”
Kenia Celebrates Dorival Caymmi provides a unique and exhilarating way for international audiences to fall under the trance of the late composer’s incomparable artistry while enjoying the heartfelt vocals of the supremely talented Kenia and the joyous instrumental interpretations of her all-star band.
“Interpreting Dorival’s songs is a wonderful consequence of my quest to reconnect with the music of my country,” Kenia acknowledges. “It has also allowed me to discover some modalities that I either forgot or was never exposed to. His music is so rich, his repertoire so vast and intriguing that I‘m already thinking about what’s to follow: A sequel to Kenia Celebrates Dorival Caymmi.”