São Paulo singer Luísa Maita rises to become pride of Brazil
by Tom McClure
Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Ana Luiza” courses smoothly through my headphones on a warm spring day. Claus Ogerman’s bittersweet string arrangements back Jobim’s vocals, delivered in a thin mist of melancholy and Brazilian saudade, the concept loosely translated as “longing.” Yet another beautiful song by Jobim, this number comes from his self-titled 1973 album, which was released in Brazil as Tom Jobim, Matita Perê. It’s one of those songs that makes you like to feel a little sad on a nice day. While bossa maestro Jobim hailed from Rio, thirty-two-year-old singer-songwriter Luísa Maita hails from São Paulo, not exactly the heart of bossa nova. Born in the city’s vibrant Bela Vista neighborhood, she and her family later moved to a small ranch on the edge of town where she was surrounded by music, musicians, and a concert producer, her mother Myriam Taubkin. Her father, Amado Maita—a singer and musician who released a self-titled gem back in the early ’70s—decided to name his daughter after the aforementioned Jobim song. The “Ana” was dropped and the “Luiza” spelling was altered slightly. As Luísa informs me by phone, “My father named all my sisters after Tom Jobim songs.”
Around Luísa’s home, her parents planted the musical seeds when she was very young: she was able to soak in the tunes by her country’s legends such as João Gilberto, Vinicius de Moraes, and Baden Powell, among many others. Talent took root for Luísa as she began her singing career at age seven singing commercial jingles. According to her label Cumbancha’s site, her parents divorced when she was a teen, and she, her siblings, her mother, and stepfather moved to a bucolic property in the state of Minas Gerais where, “surrounded by nature, Luísa developed an appreciation for the natural world and was exposed to a completely different lifestyle from the sprawling urbanity of São Paulo. By the time she was seventeen, however, the city life was calling to her again, and Luísa moved back to São Paulo.”
Shortly after moving back to her birth city, where she worked at her uncle’s label, she sang in a group that “practiced four times a week for four years,” she says. Comprised of Luísa and other talented musicians, songwriters, composers, and producers, Urbanda “was the most important thing, the best coaching,” she says, for honing her craft. While acknowledging with gratitude that she “didn’t know how special [the band] was at the time,” she eventually found that she had to head out on her own.
After singing in a promotional video directed by City of God’s Fernando Meirelles in 2009 for the 2016 Olympics bid (which Brazil won) and penning some tunes for Virginia Rosa and Mariana Aydar, she began recording her solo material at Paulo Lepetit’s studio in the “off hours,” according to Cumbancha, “with limited resources and lots of volunteer hours by the musicians involved.” Perfection was the goal. Two years later, in 2010, Maita released her first solo album, Lero-Lero, which she tells me loosely means “an informal conversation,” on the Cumbancha imprint (think Bombino). It features her own songwriting along with arrangements by Paulo Lepetit and a couple tunes by guitarist and arranger Rodrigo Campos, who frequently works with the singer. Reviewing the album, NPR’s All Things Considered ran the headline online, “Luisa Maita: The New Voice of Brazil.”
During a recent concert on her 2014 U.S. tour on a cool April evening at the exposed-brick interior of Thunderbird Café in Pittsburgh, Maita, along with her skilled three-piece touring band, sang songs from her debut such as “Alento,” “Lero-Lero,” and “Fulaninha.” Much like the music on Lero-Lero, Luísa’s live show, while lacking the album’s touches of violin and viola, is a blend of the classic and the contemporary, a mix of bossa nova, samba, MBP, pop, jazz, soul, a bit of hip-hop, a dash of electronics, and the occasional cuica sample, all complemented during the performance with a little understated dancing onstage. Throughout the performance, the audience members appeared to have difficulty taking their eyes off the captivating singer in black.
Commanding the live performance, and on the album, is Luísa’s voice—a versatile, beautiful voice that can be smooth as river-stones one moment, a bit textured the next. Besides noticing the classic samba and bossa nova influences, some might say she’s somewhat similar to Céu and the daughter of a female singer with the last name of Gilberto; others might say she’s admitted to liking Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, and Michael Jackson.
Also demonstrated that night, and on the album, Maita’s a singer with a gift for tasteful dynamics (somewhat rare in the pop world today): the lyrics, whether whispered or rolled out like a wave, come across at the ideal volume and tone to suit each song. Like how she grew up in both urban and rustic environments, her songs reflect everything from life and love in a favela (“Maria e Moleque”) to the transcendent power of nature (“Alívio”). In addition to performing her own songs and Campos’s, she also performed a song by northern Brazilian composer Junio Barreto.
Three numbers she and the band played early in the show, however, came from more electronic, less traditional, new material than that which was lightly infused on Lero-Lero. All in all, Maita and her band put on a compelling show. In fact, she hopes to include two of the new songs on an upcoming collaborative electronic project. When asked about the more electronic direction of the new material, she says it’s “something I’ve always wanted to do.” Fittingly, in late 2010, Cumbancha released Maita Remixed, which contains a handful of Lero-Lero songs remixed by DJs and producers from Brazil and the United Kingdom as well as New York–based triple turntablist DJ/rupture, Malcolm Francis of the Popular Beat Combo, and globe-trotter Maga Bo. Along with her desire to “do something different, something in the [current] moment of music,” as she says about her upcoming project, perhaps Remixed also serves as a bridge for the new material. While she hopes to release the new electronic collaboration—called Tamoios—she also is cooking up a new, long-awaited solo album. While the upcoming album is, at the time of this writing, yet to be named, two things are certain: Luísa Maita has undoubtedly made her parents and fans proud—and would certainly have done the same for Jobim.
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