Brazil is a continent-sized nation blessed with abundant natural resources, including a seemingly endless supply of ravishing female singers.
While there are hundreds of accomplished vocalists who are rarely heard in North America, Brazilian artists have proven singularly successful at designing sultry sounds for export, starting with the hugely popular Carmen Miranda, a Rio samba star who conquered Hollywood in the 1940s.
The talent has flowed north ever since, from the jazz-tinged diva Elis Regina, bossa nova star Astrud Gilberto, and Tropicalista Gal Costa to more recent arrivals such as Marisa Monte, Virginia Rodrigues, Monica Salmaso and the brilliant jazz singer Luciana Souza (who’s currently artist in residence for San Francisco Performances).
One of the latest Brazilian women to find an audience in the U.S. and Europe is CéU (pronounced “Cell” with a light “L”), a single-monikered singer with a soft, insinuating voice and a penchant for reggae, jazz and R&B filtered through gauzy, Brazilian electronica textures. Her full name is Maria do Céu Whitaker Poças, but her shortened handle is particularly appropriate, as Céu translates from Portuguese as either “sky” or “heaven,” and there’s something distinctly ethereal about her voice.
Signed to San Francisco’s Six Degrees Records, CéU released an eponymous album in April, selling nearly 100,000 copies while quickly shooting to the top of Billboard’s World Music charts (thankfully ending the nearly two-year reign of Celtic women). Her third U.S. tour with her Sao Paulo-based band brings her to Palace of the Fine Arts Theatre on Saturday as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival.
CéU comes by her affection for U.S. musical styles directly. Several years ago she settled briefly in New York City, where she absorbed the sounds of hip hop, soul singers such as Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu and jazz divas Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald. She also forged a tight creative bond with fellow Brazilian musician Antonio Pinto, best known as a film composer for his work on two Oscar-nominated films, 1999’s “Central Station” and 2003’s “City of God.”
When she returned to Sao Paulo, CéU fronted a samba funk band and then an electro-dance group, setting off a bidding war between major labels. She decided to sign with the indie Urban Jungle, and ended up working with veteran producer Beto Villares and Pinto. Not surprisingly, the album has a lush, cinematic feel. In concert, CéU projects cosmic warmth, sliding around the stage with a beatific smile as she softly croons over her band’s insistent grooves.
IF YOU GO
Where: Palace of the Fine Arts Theatre, 3301 Lyon St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 3
Tickets: $20 to $58
Contact: (866) 920-5299 or www.sfjazz.org