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Over the past five years, Chico César has revitalized Brazil’s pop scene. A brilliant poet with a remarkable musical gift for creating infectious melodies, César is a unique talent. With a quirky nasal voice, he takes touches of reggae, Bahian and northeastern Brazilian rhythms and has created some of Brazil’s most memorable hits in years. Putumayo’s new offering features the best of two of César’s local Brazilian releases, Beleza Mano and Cuzcuz Cla. The label’s compiler in chief, Jacob Edgar, did a masterful job choosing the best of both dance tracks and ballads from one of the world’s greatest musical poets.

César grew up in the northeastern state of Paraiba, one of Brazil’s poorest regions. Musically, it is one of Brazil’s most fertile. Occasionally, the rhythms of the Northeast end up in César’s songs directly, such as the forro-inspired “Paraiba meu amor.” The accordion and triangle as well as the up-tempo forro beat are straight from César’s birthplace. However, for “Paraiba meu amor,” César slows the typically frenetic forro beat, transforming it into an uplifting nostalgic love song about the land he (and so many Brazilians) adore.

Other Northeastern folk forms which shaped César were the songs of the repentistas (troubadours). As part of a tradition of oral history, the repentistas compete through improvised poetic duels. The album’s opening track, “Papo Cabeca,” is an interesting variation on this theme, essentially a “solo duel.” The title of the song literally means “heady jive,” though in Brazil, the term also refers to the cool and smooth way movie stars and celebrities speak. A mix between a Brazilian rapper and a true repentista, César mixes humor and politics in this funky, reggae-driven song. He dances between dozens of ideas representing just about anything “head” related: Trotsky’s crushed brains, Baptists served on a tray, a nail head (hammer), the head of a group (tyrant), penis head (fellatio condom), stilted (socialite) and so on.

The album includes many of César’s classics, such as “Mama Africa,” a song that has now become almost a national Brazilian anthem, telling the story of the struggles of a Brazilian working mother. The song is trademark Chico César, mixing folklore, social commentary and poetic lyrics with infectious Brazilian pop music.

This collection also includes César’s moving love song, “A Primera Vista.” The melody is as touching as its heartfelt lyrics. Even a listener who doesn’t speak a word of Portuguese would immediately understand that this is one of the most intimate declarations of love ever composed.

With César’s first North American release, it seems only a matter of time until audiences here wake up and learn what Brazilians have known for years: Chico César is one of the world’s great songwriters.

Dan Rosenberg writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail [email protected].

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