Ray Lema & Chico Cesar open Cape Town’s “City Hall Sessions”

Cape Town’s ‘City Hall Sessions’ opens with two performances by the unique cross-continental collaboration of Ray Lema, DRC-born and Paris-based pianist and Chico Cesar, the Brazilian singer, songwriter and guitarist who is also Secretary of Culture for his province. The concerts mark the start of Creative Week Cape Town, a programme billed as ‘highlighting the city’s significant creative and innovative culture’, and featuring visual art and photographic exhibitions; contemporary, electronic and jazz music; gallery outings and art walks; and a tie-in with both the Loeries and the ‘Meet The Makers’ series. Friday and Saturday’s ‘City Hall Sessions’ also feature returned Xhosa-songstress Thandiswa Mazwai and Standard Bank Young Artist Award Winner for jazz, Kesivan Naidoo, with his project, Kesivan and The Lights.

First appeared in the Mail & Guardian  of 2011/ 09/10.

Ray Lema & Chico Cesar open Cape Town's "City Hall Sessions"

Ray Lema and Chico Cesar met a decade ago and began a musical collaboration that skips across the barriers of language even as it celebrates the resonances between African and South American music of traditional origin. When they rehearse, conversations are translated from Ray Lema’s sonorous French into Cesar’s mischievously spirited Portuguese and vice-versa. That’s when words need to be spoken between the pair – they both say their music does all the talking. Our interview takes place over a half-hour Skype call to a Sao Paulo studio where they are planning their songs for the Cape Town concerts. It sees Lema pausing during the European tour of his new album, “99”, a reference to the two digits France uses to denote foreign nationals, and Cesar taking time off from his responsibilities as Secretary of Culture, and the musical demands as one of Brazil’s most acclaimed songwriters. It also see two very dear friends reunited around their shared passion – creating music for live audiences.
“It was like a spark, that first time we met, in 1998 in Brazil,” says Lema. “Chico knew my music from ‘The Rythmatist’ (Stewart “The Police” Copeland’s 1995 album), and I had been listening to his tunes. So, when we met, we were both already pretty excited. I felt that his music was very much African inspired so, even though he was from Brazil, I had no problem to jump into his universe.”
Cesar concurs. “Remember, my most famous piece is called ‘Mama Africa’,” he says, with no exaggeration – the song sold over a million copies in Brazil and propelled him to the attention of the global “world music” audience following its inclusion in the Putamayo catalogue. “It’s not called ‘Mama Austria’ or ‘Mama Australia’ and there’s a reason – Africa and Brazil are bonded together by ties of history, and also of culture and music. Also remember that ‘Pata Pata’, from Miriam Makeba, ‘Mama Africa’ the first, was arranged by Sivuca, a Brazilian from Bahia, the same area where I was born. We all belong to the same deep movement, the same spiritual group.”
Following a conversation about musical plurality and cross-genre pollination, and the attendant difficulties of categorising such output in the commercial sphere, Cesar suggests that it might be much simpler to understand their pan-Atlantic collaboration. “I am from the north-eastern part of Brazil and, in that part, the music is not the samba. So, already from the start, I was used to different kinds of music . I have influences from the whole world but, when I am playing with Ray, these influences from the north-east come out very strongly, even though we make our own universal music language from that.”
“As an African, there is one thing I feel really sad about,” adds Lema. “Today, in Africa, more and more there is confusion between showbiz and art and culture. I feel it is really important for us to know the difference. Living in Paris, there is no confusion between the great musicians – Beethoven, Mozart or Bach – and what people listen to for showbiz. No confusion at all. Today, in Africa, it is getting mixed up. We need to enjoy what is showbiz and entertainment, but to remember what is culture, and to preserve it and honour it.”
What, then, can South African audiences expect from the show? It’s a question I put to the politician in the pair. Cesar laughs, then says, “There are some questions that politics and geo-politics cannot solve, and I think art is useful for that. So, in Cape Town, people should expect to experience the sense of wonder, that only art can do. But people that come to listen to the concert are not only there to watch or to hear; we expect them to somehow participate. What they hear will bring something different to their lives, and how they receive that, and reflect it back, makes it active for them, and makes the music activated in us.”
Ray Lema and Chico Cesar launch “City Hall Sessions” with the Thandiswa Mazwai Quartet and Kesivan and The Lights on Friday 9 and Saturday 10 September (tickets R150 from Computicket.com).Creative Week Cape Town runs from 9 to 18 September (see CreativeWeekCT.co.za). More onRayLema.com and Music.org.zaFirst appeared in the Mail & Guardian  of 2011/ 09/10.