In a 1999 interview in The Wire, the Brazilian singer and guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria said of moving to the United States back in 1994, “I move to New York. I work more, I wanna develop more my Brazilian style. I think more about Villa-Lobos, I think more about Jobim. In New York, no pressure. It’s more difficult but it’s possible. I moved to New York to be more Brazilian.” He’s hardly the first musician to truly discover, understand, and embrace their native culture only after moving abroad. The Manaus native grew up playing drums in the mildly successful rock band O Terco and later spent time in Portugal. But New York transformed him, leading him to finally connect with samba and bossa nova, pick up the guitar, and begin writing songs. For most of his time in the U.S. he’s worked as a sideman, including stints with Arto Lindsay, David Byrne, Brian Eno, and Laurie Anderson as well as a slew of jazz musicians like Bill Frisell, Brad Mehldau, and John Zorn.
Over time, Cantuaria perfected his range, moving easily between Brazilian and American traditions. You can hear that natural facility on his most recent recording, a 2021 collaboration with singer and guitarist Jesse Harris called Supresa. The pair alternate between songs they each wrote, moving from English to Portuguese and lilting singer-songwriter pop to samba, with various admixtures in between. When Harris sings, applying a kind of post-Bob Dorough softness that Lindsay has also embraced, the music transmits a kind of sunny demeanor, but something dark takes over when Cantuaria sings, a moody, introverted vibe where his delicate guitar excursions—seemingly influenced by Frisell’s aerated, twangy tone—masterfully underline and accent his fragile, almost conversational voice.
Of course, with Cantuaria it’s a fool’s errand to characterize his music in a single entry. Before collaborating with Harris on the last record, in 2015 he made a gorgeous collection of tunes by Antonio Carlos Jobim, a proving ground for any great bossa nova singer. As the Chicago Reader said of the album, “His take on the form has always been a bit experimental—he suffuses the genre’s chill grooves and lush harmonies with well-deployed dissonance and an especially laconic delivery. There’s no shortage of musicians still devoted to the bossa, but over the past two decades few have made more interesting, satisfying music than Cantuaria.”