One of the saving graces in this new dark age is an eternal awareness that whatever happens there is still so much inspiration to discover in our world of music and books. Sometimes the fun is in the hunting. Sometimes we simply do not even realise what’s right under our noses. I need to plead guilty to the latter, with an old CD from 1991 called Chico Em Cy which is quite simply the brilliant Brazilian close harmony vocal group Quarteto Em Cy singing selections from the Chico Buarque songbook. And it is ridiculously beautiful. At times, yes, there is magic to be found in the pending pile, among all those records and books we haven’t quite got round to yet.
I know some people claim that they can remember where they bought every one of the records they own or that they know where they were when they first heard a particular song. Lucky them. I genuinely do not remember buying this Quarteto Em Cy CD, and I have no recollection of hearing it until recently, but my god I have been making up for lost time. It has been a lifeline.
Ever since my fascination with Brazilian music was piqued by the likes of Weekend, Pale Fountains, ACR, and so on, way back when, I have felt like I am putting together a giant jigsaw without even having a picture to follow. Even as recently as 20-odd years ago (which seems like yesterday to me) it was difficult to get information let alone records. The DJ Joe Sixpack and his Slipcue guide to Brazilian music was, back then, one of the few sources where you could readily obtain a sense of who released what, when, and where, though early on it was clear our tastes would be rather different. I seem to recall he was not a fan of Quarteto Em Cy at all, which I found hard to handle.
I also remember with fondness that the Brazilian record shop and label Bizarre Music had an online illustrated discography of the Elenco label, which coincided with a wave of CD reissues. Thankfully I printed off a copy at work, which I still have, as the website no longer seems to exist. Does the record shop? Anyway, I suspect that might be where I fell in love with Quarteto Em Cy, in the pages of that discography with the photos of César Villela’s beautiful (mainly) monochrome sleeve designs.
It was fortuitous that in the early years of the new millennium, via eBay and Amazon Marketplace dealers, it was easy to get cheap CDs from the States and Brazil, due to the very favourable exchange rates (nearly two US dollars to the pound back in 2004!) and lovely low postage costs. It was also easy to get carried away. I am guessing that’s how and when I got the Chico Em Cy CD, and somehow it just got filed away for future use. There was, after all, so much Brazilian music from the 1960s and 1970s to explore and try to make sense of before worrying about the 1990s.
Maybe the Chico Em Cy CD didn’t look very promising, and there were probably fears about 1980s/90s production values. It was released by CID Digital Laser, and doesn’t feel special in terms of presentation. Were they a budget label? I don’t know. On the cover the quartet pose with Chico Buarque wearing the strip of Politheama, which is a football club I think Chico owns. It’s funny, and this maybe another reason why the CD was overlooked, how I have not yet given as much time to Chico’s work as I have other Brazilian greats like Milton, Edu Lobo, Joyce, Marcos Valle, and so on. And yet Chico’s Construção LP from 1971 is one I rate particularly highly.
The Chico Em Cy set, it turns out, works wonderfully because the arrangements are so very low-key, leaving just the blend of beautiful voices with softly strummed acoustic guitars and, on occasions, a particularly pleasing rhythm section you hardly notice. This, I believe, is a lot to do with the vision of Célia Vaz who was musical director for Quarteto Em Cy at the time. For me the highlight of the set is the performance of the Chico Buarque and Milton Nascimento song ‘O Cio da Terra’ which closes the record. I think it is astonishing. Every time I listen to it, I am just left speechless and spellbound. And I have listened to it a lot recently.
It is probably fair to say that generally Quarteto Em Cy’s recordings were very pop, pretty perky, and extremely easy listening, which is fine. But just occasionally they could tap into something more spiritual. The version of Edu Lobo’s ‘Incelensa’ on their eponymous 1972 LP is a brilliant example. And this beautifully stark recording of ‘O Cio da Terra’ is an even better example, as its celestial harmonies become something sacred, something incredibly moving, belonging to a world where motets, masses, antiphons and anthems become part of MPB.
Oh my, ‘O Cia da Terra’ is such an incredible composition. It has a real hymn-like quality. There is an exceptionally beautiful Jaime & Nair version on their Milton Nascimento tribute LP, recorded in the late 1970s for the Talento Brasileiro series, an incredibly wonderful record. Somehow ‘O Cia’ is one of those songs where you have a sense of knowing it forever while, more prosaically, I probably first heard it, Milton and Chico together, as a bonus track on a CD reissue of Milton’s 1976 LP Geraes, which I tracked down after Georgia Anne Muldrow mentioned it was one of her mum’s favourites.
So, Célia Vaz: you may know more than me. She has had close links with Joe Davis’ Far Out label, which is just one reason why it seems so odd that her debut LP, 1981’s Mutação, is not available, unless you have a lot more money than I do. It’s such a great record, shooting off in several directions, with some elaborate and inventive arrangements. It would appeal to fans of Joyce’s contemporaneous recordings and to those who love ECM releases from that time. It even features Pat Metheny on the title track.
Apparently Pat and Célia were friends in Boston. She went to the Berklee College of Music, and he taught there. They got on, and would play shows together, and learn from one another, which is cool. And, yeah, this record by Célia needs to be more readily available, and not just as an expensive vinyl affair. Perhaps predictably my favourite track on the LP is her ridiculously gorgeous choral work ‘Ave Marina’ featuring the large-scale vocal ensemble Céu da Boca, who from the very little I know seem to have been quite something.
Quite probably I first came across Célia’s name via the 1994 Soul Jazz CD Brasil, one of those early releases on the label that has such a great cover. Rather than simply reissuing one of the classic Brazilian LPs, Stuart Baker & co. went out to record some of the greats for a new project. Joyce was among those taking part, and a couple of tracks feature Célia Vaz and Wanda Sá singing and playing together beautifully. I think this would have been one of the first times Wanda had recorded since she appeared on Paul Desmond’s From the Hot Afternoon and Edu Lobo’s Cantiga de Longe. Life got in the way, and from what I can gather she had no regrets about this extended sabbatical.
Being spectacularly slow on the uptake it wasn’t until this year that I realised Célia and Wanda’s wonderful rendition of Dori Caymmi’s ‘Amazon River’ for Soul Jazz acts as the perfect scene setter for a CD they made together in 1994 (now sadly not in general circulation, physically) called Brasileiras. It is a beautiful stark record, mostly just Célia and Wanda singing together and playing acoustic guitars, with just an occasional pinch of percussion for flavour. It is just gorgeous, and for once the presence of special guests and friends (Gal Costa, Nana Caymmi, Quarteto Em Cy, and best of all Joyce joining in on her own ‘Tardes Cariocas’, the title track of what is many days my favourite record of hers) does not seem intrusive and doesn’t break the spell.
So, yeah, if you get a chance, have a listen. Will it change your life? Possibly. Probably not. But it is a beautiful collection. I am reminded of this quote: “This is not heaven. This is not perfection. But it is a small moment of pleasure in a world more commonly disposed to pain, and is to be treasured.” That’s something the retired spy Solomon Dortmund says in Mick Herron’s novella The Drop. It’s a little passage I copied out and stuck up on the wall in the hall here where the telephone used to be. It is a little thing that helps. Like Mick Herron’s books help. His Slough House series has been such a vital and subversive source of enjoyment. And yet I can’t help recalling that, when the local library had the first couple of titles in the series, I thought they wouldn’t be for me.
Ah well. Feelings will change. We’re helpless. They must. Like once I would have been writing hundreds of words here about the incredible charm of a Quarteto Em Cy clip from 1967 where they perform Sidney Miller’s ‘O Circo’ with mod gamine crops, looking and sounding divine. Now I only have time for 1991 footage of the group performing ‘O Cia da Terra’ which, come to think of it, is the perfect thing to love you and leave you with.