Afro-Brazilian superstars launch Cape Town City Hall Sessions

Acclaimed Afro-Brazilian duo Ray Lema and Chico Cesar reunite for two concerts to launch Creative Cape Town’s ‘City Hall Sessions’.

First appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2011/ 09/23.

Afro-Brazilian superstars launch Cape Town City Hall Sessions

Ray Lema and Chico Cesar are in Sao Paulo for one day to rehearse their duo show for next month’s opening of the Cape Town City Hall Sessions. The schedule for the Paris-based Congolese pianist and the Brazilian guitarist is one part musical alchemy and one part gruelling slog. For a start, there’s the fact that Cesar speaks mainly Portuguese, while Lema converses in French and English, but that hasn’t stopped the decade-long cross-continental collaboration from reaching widespread critical and audience acclaim – and blossoming into a deep musical friendship.
“When Ray and I met in the ’90s, it seemed that we already knew each other’s songs from a long time before,” says Cesar, via a translator, Lema’s multi-lingual manager, Cati Benainous. “We don’t talk the same language, but our conversation is there with music. When Ray’s piano meets with my guitar, it is like a dialogue, like the instruments are talking together, and so we understand each other. It’s like Ray’s compositions and my compositions don’t belong only for me or for him, but it is something that can be common to everyone. Also, I don’t know if this has ever existed before – to have a meeting of music and minds between a Brazilian artist and an African artist that has lasted so many years.” The translation is accurate, but the English words lose the potency of Cesar’s Portuguese inflections as he talks about the unique synergy between “continent Africano do Brasil”.
Lema and Cesar play an almost impossibly good gig for Cape Town. Other than the brilliance of the annual Pan African Spacestation line-up, Cape Town often doesn’t get the continental African acts booked for up-country festivals like KwaZulu-Natal’s “Awesome Africa”, or  Johannesburg’s “Joy of Jazz” and “Arts Alive” – indeed, Lema collaborated with Manu Dibango in 2002 in a show that only played Gauteng.
Then there’s the rest of the bill. Creative Week and the City Hall Sessions have pulled out all the stops and the Afro-Brazilian duo share the stage with multiple KORA and SAMA award-winning songstress Thandiswa Mazwai, and with Kesivan and The Lights (the first time Cape Town gets to hear this project by Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner Kesivan Naidoo). Credit is due to the City Hall Sessions’ programme manager, Steve Gordon, Creative Cape Town director Zayd Minty and the Cape Town Partnership’s Creative Cape Town team for their bold vision here, and to the National Lottery Development Trust Fund for footing some of the bill.
So, what can Cape audiences expect? “That is a strange question for a musician,” says Lema. “We try to bring ourselves, our emotions and the best talent we can bring. If people are curious to listen to two musicians that love each other, then they should come, because that’s what they’re going to hear!”
Modesty seems to make Lema downplay the significance of the pair’s tour to South Africa. Lema was born in 1946 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, and raised playing classical piano. After working the Kinshasha nightclub circuit – including gigs with luminaries like Papa Wemba and Tabu Ley – he was commissioned by the then Zairean government to assemble a National Ballet. In 1979, he received a Rockefeller Foundation grant, then moved to Brussels and, later, to Paris. In the 1980s and ’90s, he composed, recorded and performed with Stuart Copeland (of The Police), German pianist Joachim Kuhn, and Bulgarian professor Kirim Stefanov, amongst others, as well as touring and producing the traditional Moroccan band Tyour Gnaoua. His solo albums “Medicine” in 1985 and “Nangadeef” in 1989 are stand outs, with the latter including collaborations with South Africa’s own Mahotella Queens. He performs solo and with a jazz-style trio and, more recently, returned to a big band electric sound with his outfit Saka Saka for the album “99” (a reference to the French ID numbers that denote a foreigner), which features musicians from Congo, France, Cuba, Brazil and America.
Cesar was born in 1964 in Brazil’s economically suppressed north-eastern region of Para íba, but has grown to become Secretary of Culture for his province and a household name across Brazil. After attending a mission school, he won a guitar in a regional music competition at age 12. Later, he moved to Sao Paulo and studied journalism before recording his first self-produced and self-financed album, “Aos Viva”, to critical acclaim. The songwriting skills it showcased saw many Brazilian vocalists approaching him for his songs and he has since penned hits for, and collaborated with many, including a much publicised spat where local divas Elba Ramalho and Daniela Mercury went to court over the rights to record Cesar’s “A Primeira Vista” (At First Sight). The song was recorded for Brazil’s most popular “telenovela” (soap opera), gaining Cesar further commercial success, but he is still best known, for the hit “Mama Africa” from his 1996 album “Cuscuz Cla” (the name takes a swipe at reviled Brazilian racist organisation). The song, cataloguing the dual workload of the modern woman in both the working world and as the fulcrum of the family, grew a huge audience across the Portuguese-Speaking diaspora, and in European “world music” circles. Cesar has won numerous gongs at Brazil’s APCA and MTV awards and toured Europe many times, including featured slots at the Montreaux Festival.
“I have been to South Africa before, so I keep telling Chico we must rehearse, rehearse strongly!” quips Lema. “Your country is very musical, so must be really prepared and I am sincere. South African music has a lot of interest to me, and I have been listening to it for ages. The culture and history is interesting for both of us too, because of the histories of Africa and Brazil, and how these places are now working together. We are excited to bring our music to your ears.”
Ray Lema and Chico Cesar play two concerts with the Thandiswa Mazwai Quartet and Kesivan and The Lights to launch the City Hall Sessions and as part of Cape Town Creative Week on Friday 9 and Saturday 10 September (tickets R150 from Computicket.com). Creative Week runs from 9 to 18 September (see CreativeWeekCT.co.za). More on RayLema.com and MySpace.com/ChicoCesar and Music.org.za.

First appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2011/ 09/23.

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