Stride down the grittier blocks of Rua Augusta in São Paulo, Brazil, and you'll spy prostitutes, crack addicts, street fights and, it just so happens, one of the most vibrant live music scenes in the world.
Like some Southern Hemisphere corollary to New York's East Village of the '70s, São Paulo has, over the last few years, incubated a scene that has spawned exciting exports like Curumin, CSS, Telepathique, Sonantes — and a solo singer who also fronts that last band: Ceu (pronounced cell).
Not that these acts sound at all like vintage New York punk — or even each other.
"The scene here isn't a movement that has ideologies," Ceu says. "It's just that we have so many bands writing their own songs and so many beautiful singers down here."
Ceu's own sound provides an ideal bridge between expected Brazilian styles — the airy and sensual lilts common to bossa nova — and a vast palette of modern sounds that reflect one of the world's most madly creative cities.
Her latest CD, "Vagarosa" ("easygoing" in Portuguese), weaves whiffs of traditional samba with Miles Davis' muted brand of mid-'60s jazz, undulating Jamaican dub, New York-style art-rock and ambient, synthesized sounds suggesting a Latin American corollary to '90s trip-hop.
"When I go into the studio, I don't think, ‘I'm going to do trip-hop or bossa nova or jazz or Afro-beat,'" says Ceu. "It's all inside me. What comes out is between me and the musicians and the producer. It happens naturally."
Ceu, who grew up in Brazil's commercial and cultural center of São Paulo, lived in Brooklyn for a year and a half in '98. "I wanted to study jazz in New York, and, coming from São Paulo, Manhattan felt like a neighbor," she says. "It's a city of freedom, where people are really expressing themselves."
Ceu moved back to São Paulo "to make music in my country," but half a decade later, she earned a point of distinction in the States. In 2006, she became the first international artist to have an album distributed by Starbucks' label at the time, Hear Music.
"At first I thought, ‘Oh my God, am I going to sell my work in a coffee break?' " she laughs. "But it was a great opportunity to show my work."
In fact, the disk earned both Latin and general Grammy nominations.
In 2008, Ceu recorded a far more adventurous work with the band Sonantes, which brings together some of the city's best musicians, including guitarist Gui Amabis (Ceu's husband and father of her 2-year-old daughter). Sonantes' disk also features great local guest stars like Curumin and Rodrigo Campos.
One of its standout cuts, "Espaconave," featured a fuzz-toned psychedelic guitar that referenced São Paulo's greatest band from the '60s, Os Mutantes.
The CD's vibe, as well as that on "Vagarosa," nails an essential irony of São Paulo.
"This is a crazy city with lots of corruption and horrible traffic," says Ceu. "But people here are able to deal with those difficulties in a very sensual way. Somehow that sensuality goes to our music and to the way we speak and to how we live our lives. This, I think, is not a bad way to live."