For his first seven years, Vinicius Cantuária grew up in Manaus, Brazil, a city which sits alongside the Amazon River. That boy could never have imagined a life of such breadth, length, and so many twists and turns, which would rival that fabled river. He would go on to travel in many directions, and with many collaborators, ranging from Caetano Veloso to Ryuichi Sakamoto to Angélique Kidjo. Cantuária’s journey would begin in his teens, then living in Rio, where he took his first musical step and formed a trio called O Terço [The Rosary or The Third].
“The idea was there were just three guys, guitars and vocals, maybe something a little more rock now and again,” he recalls over the phone, a few days after his performance at the Festival International de Jazz in Montreal in July. “We were under tremendous influence of Crosby, Stills and Nash. We were totally in love with this music.
“O Terço,” he continues, “means the third part of something, but also, in Portuguese, for Catholics it means the rosary which they use in their hands to pray. That came about because in this band there was this one guy who looked like Jesus. At that time though, Brazil was under military control, and the first idea for a name was Santíssima Trindade [the Holy Trinity], but the censor in Brazil said no because it was too strong against the church, so we just went with O Terço.”
Seven months in, they were asked to tour Europe with Marcus Valle, still considered today to be one of the greatest musical artists in Brazil. When the tour ended, the trio decided to spend some of the money they'd earned stopping in Paris, then London. But it was that first stop, where they caught a concert by Pink Floyd, which changed their musical direction sharply.
“I mean this is 1971! Can you even imagine?” he says. “They had this surround, quadraphonic sound. We just went crazy and said how we wanted to do this when we went back to Brazil. And then from there we traveled to London, where we saw many bands too. This changed our lives, man. At that time, there were no music stores in Brazil to find like Hendrix or The Doors. It was impossible. Somebody had to travel outside of Brazil and bring it to you.
“So we get back to Brazil and we start performing, pretending we're like the Brazilian Pink Floyd. Hey, we were still teenagers. But O Terço became very famous in Brazil because we were playing something very different, say from Os Mutantes, for younger audiences there.”
But eventually, Cantuária wasn't being fulfilled musically. “First of all,” he explains, “we didn't have a decent PA system, good amps, sound engineer, nothing. We just didn't have the power to be a prog rock band. I started to feel frustration for myself. Finally I said to them: 'I love you guys, but I want to do something else. I can't stay with this.'”
O Terço regrouped then in São Paolo and continued recording and performing into the 2000s, while Cantuária stayed on to find his new direction in Rio.
“I started to play with different kinds of musicians,” he says. “Not like a real job—because it's difficult for me as I was in a very important band and now I was by myself. It was hard to find something to make money. But little by little, I started to play with some very nice Brazilian singers, like Luiz Melodia. And then Jorge Mautner, who was very close to Gilberto Gil. One day, I played with Jorge Mautner, and Gilberto Gil was at the concert. Gil called me and said: 'Man, I love your music. Do you want to play with me?' So then I start guitar with Gil. I spent more than one year just playing with Gil. And Gil talked to Caetano [Veloso], Gal Costa, everybody and said how Vinicius is the best. And so one day, Caetano invited me to play with him, which I did for almost 10 years. We recorded many albums and toured all over the world. This was very nice for me because I felt like I'm finally inside the business.”
With Veloso, Cantuária played guitar, drums, produced and wrote songs. But then his life would take another turn after writing “Lua e Estrela” [Moon and Star] for Veloso in 1981.
“While Caetano was always one of the biggest Brazilian artists,” Cantuária says, “he never sold like 100,000 CDs. The first time he got a platinum award is because of this song. This had a tremendous effect and changed my life.”
The success of “Lua e Estrela” led to many offers from record companies for him to go solo. He signed with RCA, and in 1984 he had a hit single with the song “Só Você” (Only You). The song was again a huge hit in 1997, this time for Brazilian crooner Fábio Jr.
“It was a big Brazilian hit for me, totally pop,” Cantuária says, But, he complains, the record industry in Brazil wanted him to be a hit machine. “So that was last of that bullshit I did. It was a beautiful pop song. But at the same time, it kind of put me in the kind of world I didn't exactly wanted to be in—like a glamour world you get into with having a big hit like that for the establishment. Something then changed inside of me, I thought: 'Yes, this song was very important for me, but I want to do something different.'
“In Rio, whatever I wanted was not my choice. They wanted me to do one more hit, write a song for a new singer or do some commercials. They expected me to make a hit, but I want to explore something I have inside of me. It was difficult when you make hits to move in other directions.”
So by 1994, Cantuária decided to reinvent himself yet again, moving to New York City. Like when he first left O Terço, he needed to find a new direction and find the musicians to help him discover it.
“When I moved to the U.S., I had a career in Brazil. People knew me, I was a part of the game there. But when I moved, nobody knows me here,” he says. “I didn't know what it was I wanted then. And then, just imagine, I'm working with [Ryuichi] Sakamoto, Brian Eno, Mark Ribot, Laurie Anderson, David Byrne. This had a tremendous impact in my music and career. Bill Frissell was my partner. We made albums together and traveled.
“The musical relationships I had with all these people, it's like 'the double hands,’” he continues. “I give something and they give me something, exchanging ideas. When I play with Frisell, I give him something very unique. I give him my acoustic guitars, with grooves and harmonies, and then he plays around them. And it's good for me, because I'm not the solo guitar. It's fantastic. In Brazil, that would never happen. I could never have developed my career like that.”
“All these people I've gotten to play with,” he adds, “they make music like I do. We can be experimental. It's like a challenge. You can't imagine how wonderful it is for me, man. It's just unbelievable. My goal isn't to be in the top 10… not my object. My object is to play beautiful music, meet different people and share my music. When people ask me about what am I doing, I talk about the 'white wall.' It's a big white wall. I invite some friends to just put some colors on the white wall. Frisell comes with the blue—boom! Then [Brad] Mehldau plays with red—boom! And in the end, you don't have no more white wall. This is the idea for my career.”
He also collaborated with Beninese diva Angélique Kidjo on her 2002 release Black Ivory Soul.
“I wrote three songs with Angélique Kidjo,” he says. “She's fantastic. I loved to work with her. She's very nice, and groovy, and fun. I really enjoy her. It was like 10 years ago. First of all, she's very musical. For me, the situation is that she called me and said: 'Hi, I'm Angélique Kidjo. I like your music. Do you want to do something together?' So then I met her and we started to talk. I played guitar. And then she said: 'Let's do a song?' We did one, then two, then three songs. Then she recorded my song. She now always sends me emails and wants to do some more things together. She's still in my orbit. She gave me a great opportunity to write music with her. She's right there on the top. I'm happy to work with her.”
Cantuária has often said he had to leave Brazil to be more Brazilian. Asking him to explain what that meant to him, he says: “You see when I recorded my first album, Sol Na Cara, with Sakamoto producing, the press wanted to interview me about why I moved from Brazil to U.S. And in the beginning, I'm explaining many things, but I wasn't clear. But now, I know I moved from Brazil to be more Brazilian—because when you move, your vision about your country is different, the perspective. You can see something different. From the beginning, even though I wasn't talking to people about this, I felt this. I didn't know how to put it in words at first.”
And now, Cantuária has come full circle. He and his family split their time between New York and Rio. Because with their 5 year-old son, he explains, and being constantly on tour, he has many friends there who can help can help his wife look after their son. But maybe it's something more, like what drove him to record an album of the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim in 2015, about the time he made the move back to Rio. Maybe it's time to work his way back up that river. He has spoken for over a decade about an album he dreams of making about the Amazon River and the people who live there. We asked him what it's like to be back.
“Ah, the situation in Brazil is very, very bad,” he sighs. “This hasn't really affected my music, but it's affecting my life. It's a beautiful city, but you can't go some places. Like in Santa Theresa, you have to take care about it, protect yourself. You can't just go there after 10 or even nine at night. You can't walk and talk on the phone. It's difficult. You'll get it stolen. I'm a Brazilian, of course, so I know more about it. I know not to walk around the city. Sometimes we're in Rio, some friends want to meet up and go out, but we have to think about whether to do it. I don't want to make a risk to go some places. I believe, not for now, but I think one day Brazil will find more justice for the people there. The country is beautiful. The Brazilian people are beautiful. But it's very, very difficult. We have to see what's going on.”
Lastly, we asked what Cantuária thinks it is about Brazilian music that makes it so special, so beloved.
“First of all,” he says, “like I'll be just walking the streets in New York and when I talk Brazilian Portuguese with some friends, very normally people stop me and ask: 'What kind of language is that you are speaking?' Because the sound of the Brazilian Portuguese is so musical, so sweet, something with a melodic groove.
“For me, though, the number-one music in the world—if I had to put a label—it's, of course, American music. It's so hip. You know, if you go back a century ago you have the slaves and they have the blues, then you have the big bands, then the crooners, the jazz, then you have the fusion, Miles Davis, the singers, dancers, Frank Sinatra, rock 'n' roll, country music—this is rich, rich music, man.
“But in Brazil, the original music is the samba. And the samba can be a brother, sister, father, mother, son, or whatever from the jazz or the blues. In other words, the American musicians, all of them, in general, they love Brazilian music, because they can understand what's going on there. It's different. I think the secret is the beat of the samba. Like rock 'n' roll comes from the blues. Jazz, everything comes from the blues. It's like the cellular level. The same with the samba. Everything comes from the samba. Samba is the magic of Brazilian music.
“Of course, bossa nova helps a lot. What's bossa nova? When Antonio Carlos Jobim was a kid, he went to see American movies. He'd pay more attention to the music in the movie, than the movie. He'd sit in the theater and just close his eyes, he can hear whatever the great songwriters of the scores—Gershwin and Cole Porter—the strings, the horns. Then he'd go home and start playing the piano, like a Brazilian song, but how to make this combination good. That's how bossa nova happened.
“Now when you talk about soccer, everybody knows Brazilian soccer. But in the world, not a lot of people know about Brazilian music. But if they know Brazilian music, they love it. Jazz musicians, they love Brazilian music. Why? Because it's rich. And the young people, like in Europe today, they are into bossa nova, man. It's become famous again, because they pick some beats to play with. That's happening. It's very difficult to find someone to say they don't like Brazilian music,” he laughs. “I've never heard something like that.”
You can find Cantuária’s upcoming tour dates on his website.