Born to bossa nova

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 November, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 November, 2005, 12:00am

'FOR ME MUSIC is an entity that chooses its mediators,' writes bossa nova performer Rosa Passos. 'I'm privileged to be a musician and I want to bring love and peace to the people who listen to my music.'

It's a safe bet that the audience for the sold-out performance at the Cultural Centre will be feeling the love this weekend, as Passos brings the month-long Latin Passion Festival to a close.

The Brazilian singer-guitarist is one of the hottest names in bossa nova, and is touring the world promoting her debut international album, Amorosa. Along the way, she's been heralded as the female Joao Gilberto, one of the creators of bossa nova, which emerged in the late 1950s.

Gilberto was known for the fresh way he drew on the traditions of Brazilian music and offered a restrained, yet captivating, new singing style. Gilberto and the likes of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa were influenced by the so-called cool jazz records trickling down from the west coast of the US in the late 1950s. They incorporated this style with Brazilian samba rhythms and the result was the sexy and hypnotic pulses of bossa nova.

Passos effortlessly brings new life to the genre, but she says she doesn't want to be categorised. 'I don't consider myself a bossa nova singer,' she says. 'If you need to put a name on what I do, I'm an artist who tries to play first-class Brazilian music - for example, bossa nova, but also bolero, samba, samba-song and, lately, what can be called Brazilian jazz.'

Passos comes from a background submerged in music. Born to music-loving parents in Salvatore in the Brazilian state of Bahia, she learnt the piano as a young girl, then moved to guitar. 'In my teens I listened to Gilberto and discovered that my instrument was the guitar.'

She started to write songs and made her first record in 1979. After a break to raise her family, she returned to the scene in 1985 and has emerged as a star in Brazil. Passos made her US debut in 1986, when cellist Yo-Yo Ma asked her to sing on his Obrigado, Brazil album, which combined some of the country's most exceptional musical artists. She attracted even more attention when she then performed at the Jazz at the Bowl concert at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

'Yo-Yo Ma is the maximum,' Passos says. 'He's not only the greatest musician, but one of the more special people that I've met in my life. Since I collaborated with him on Obrigado, Brazil a lot of doors opened for me. We did a big tour and my work spread throughout the world. I have a good relationship with him and expect to work with him again in the future.'

It wasn't long before Passos had a deal with Sony and her first international album was released. As the album title suggests, Amorosa is a tribute to Gilberto's seminal 1977 album Amoroso and features versions of tracks such as Besame Mucho and S'Wonderful from that record. There are also originals.

'I work with different poets who write for me, she says. 'Their lyrics talk about the more important things in life, such as love. I work with the base of the lyrics, then I compose the melodies.'

Her main collaborator is Fernando de Oliveira, but there are also lyrics from Sergio Natureza (known for his work with Elis Regina and Nana Caymmi), Walter Palma, Cesar Pinheiro and Arnoldo Medeiros.

Beyond the new arrangements of old classics, it's the emotive power of her voice that has impressed critics. 'She has done what so many vocalists have attempted to do since the days of Astrud Gilberto, but failed to do,' All About Jazz says on its website. 'She's made bossa nova sexy again ... She takes these over-familiar songs and makes them sound brand new.'

Passos' voice and delivery have been compared to the likes of Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson and Ella Fitzgerald. 'Ella has taught me a lot about division and rhythmic articulation of songs,' she says. 'And I apply this to my more rhythmic and percussive songs. I find what I need in her recording Lady Time. Carmen is a guide to the hard side of music. I appreciate her ballads and boleros. I'm listening to her CD November Girl these days. Nancy is who I listen to the most. She is strong and sweet at the same time. She is my favourite singer. I recommend her Lush Life.'

When presented with the notion that she's reinventing bossa nova, Passos is modest. 'I do bossa nova in my own way, but I don't want to reinvent anything. My arrangements are the fruit of my intuition and there are some arrangers that have influenced me, such as Claus Ogerman and Claire Fischer.'

What does she think of the genre's future? 'Bossa nova started in Brazil in the 60s and influenced artists around the world to this day. It brings delicacy to the performance and a new way of dividing phrases and caring about the tempo. Bossa nova has no future, no time. It is timeless - a classic.'

Rosa Passos, Sat, 8pm, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, TST, sold out. Inquiries: 2370 1044