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Step aside Girl from Ipanema, here comes CeU

Maybe it's time for The Girl from Ipanema to step aside and make way for the girl from Sao Paulo.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Maybe it's time for The Girl from Ipanema to step aside and make way for the girl from Sao Paulo.

She goes by the name of CeU, which means both sky and heaven in Portuguese, though lately American listeners have been tilting toward the latter translation, lapping up her heavenly new CD at Starbucks, where her sound goes down as smooth as Brazilian coffee.

Since April, CeU's self-titled debut CD, on the Six Degrees/Starbucks entertainment label, has sold more than 60,000 copies putting her at the No. 1 spot on Billboard's World Music charts and bringing her to 57 on the Billboard Hot 100.

That's the best showing for a female Brazilian artist since Astrud Gilberto hit it big with "The Girl From Ipanema," in 1963.

And while CeU's sound, with its shades of samba and Sade, seems perfect for sipping latte, her live show brings crowds to their feet. Even the stiffest audiences feel compelled to join her as she dances her barefoot samba, seemingly in a trance, with thudding rhythms inspired by the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomble.

The 27-year-old singer seemed more down to earth the next day during an interview at a beach hotel as she prepared for an upcoming five city American tour.

"The United States is becoming more open to listening to music in foreign languages. When we played Minneapolis there were hardly any Brazilians in the audience and the crowd went wild," she said.

The tour, which began June 26, was to take her to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Saratoga, Baltimore and New York, where she opens for Brazilian superstar Carlinhos Brown. She plans to return in October, visiting as many as 14 cities in the U.S. and Canada.

If the understated brunette with a mellow, throaty voice bears little resemblance to the tall and tan blonde from the famous song, that just shows how much things have changed in Brazil since Bossa Nova was the hottest sound around.

Over the years, Brazil's cultural capital has shifted from beachside Rio de Janeiro to the inland megalopolis of Sao Paulo, where Maria do CeU Whittaker Pocas grew up. The daughter of a music professor, she cut her teeth in local clubs.

Rio is still Brazil's traditional cultural center, but Sao Paulo has morphed during CeU's lifetime into a magnet for hip young hipster who soak up cross-cultural influences over the Internet and mix and match them with traditional Brazilian rhythms.

Like Brazil's cultural diversity, drawn from European immigrants and the descendants of African slaves, CeU's music is a melting pot — combining traditional rhythms like samba with jazz, afro-funk, reggae and even the kind of "backpack" rap made famous by groups like Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul.

Ceu spent a year living in the East Village and Brooklyn in 1996, working as a maid, waitress and coat-check girl, while singing occasionally at SOBs and other clubs.

"I went to New York because I loved jazz and instead I learned to love rap music," said CeU, who wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 15 tracks on her new CD. The tracks have enough of a hip-hop edge to make her sound modern, but the CD's leadoff number, "Vinheta Quebrante," blends Brazilian percussion with DJ scratching so subtly that people who hate rap might miss it.

The next number, "Lenda," offers a dark brooding melody dancing over an acoustic guitar that syncopates against the scratches.

CeU is often compared with Bebel Gilberto, the daughter of Bossa Nova great Joao Gilberto, who updated her father's signature sound by blending it with electronica. But CeU says she's aiming for something different.

"I don't make electronic music. Everything is organic, the textures are organic," said the singer, who more often than not performs barefoot.

In fact, CeU's music sounds like what it is, Brazilian popular music, a sound people have grown to think of as uniquely Brazilian but that one doesn't find too much any more in Brazil.