Guitarist, producer, composer, singer
Although he's not a household name—even among fans of Brazilian music—Celso Fonseca is nonetheless a direct heir of the bossa nova ("new beat") and MPB (música popular Brasileira) sounds that are synonymous with Brazil. Influenced and inspired by legendary Brazilian composers and instrumentalists Baden Powell (Roberto Baden Powell de Aquino) and Gilberto Gil, singer-songwriter Fonseca is a major force in contemporary Brazilian music. Known for his solo and ensemble work, he has played or recorded with the best musicians in modern MPB—Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Djavan, Elza Soares, Marisa Monte, João Bosco, Leila Pinheiro, and Jorge Benjor.
Despite his early appreciation for music, Celso José da Fonseca was born into a family with no musical roots an not a single musician in the immediate family tree (other than a grandmother who may or may not have sung in church choir). His father nonetheless instilled in him an interest in classical music. At the age of 10, he found an acoustic guitar at his cousin's house and immediately fell in love with the instrument. "Strangely, it seemed quite familiar to me," he would later recall in his official website biography. "On that day, I decided that it would be my instrument." When Fonseca was 12 his father gave him a guitar. He began studying the instrument, taking private lessons. His real interest at the time, however, was to learn songs by British rock group the Beatles, and these he ended up teaching himself.
As his musical ability progressed, he became interested in both jazz and electric guitar. He soaked up the vibrant bossa nova that characterized Rio in the early 1960s. "We lived in a beautiful area in the mountains overlooking the city, with a lot of birds, a lot of trees, a lot of sky," he told Britain's Telegraph newspaper. "It was a very rich, intense time when people were finding new ways of saying things, not only in music, but in architecture, literature and the visual arts. Jobim and João Gilberto's music was always on the radio—sophisticated music created by the middle class, but you'd hear people everywhere in the streets singing it. I'm still inspired by the atmosphere of that time. I carry it around inside me, and I try to bring it alive in my music."
Although he'd dreamed as a child of becoming a physician like his father, Fonseca briefly attended journalism school. At 19, however, he succumbed to his lifelong passion and became a musician. By 1981 he was playing guitar for Gilberto Gil's band and toured with him the following year. "My debut was with him at the Montreaux Festival, in Switzerland," he recalled on his personal website. "At first, I would not go to Europe; I would only play in Brazil. But, after all, I went and that's when my journey with Gil began, which also led me to work with other great artists of the Brazilian music, as a guitar player, producer and arranger." According to his official website biography, he quickly became known as "Gil's guitar player" and was soon touring abroad and playing festivals in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Europe.
In 1986 Fonseca began to work as a producer for artists such as Gil, Vinícius Cantuária, and Virginia Rodrigues. His work on the Daúde's 1996 debut album won the Sharp Music Prize for Best Pop/Rock Arranger. Fonseca also worked on Gil's album Quanta Live, which won a Grammy for Best World Music Album in 1998. He also produced Gil's O Eterno Deus Mu Dança, Rodrigues's first two solo albums, Gal Costa's Aquele Frevo Axé, six tracks on Leo Gandelman's Brazilian Soul, and albums by Rosana, Verônica Sabino, Zeca Baleiro, and Adriana Maciel. Fonseca also directed Gil, Veloso, Costa, Buarque, Soares, and Rodrigues in the 1999 show Since Samba Has Been Samba at the Royal Albert Hall in London. In 1997 Fonseca and Gil launchd the Geléia Geral record label.
In comparison to his work on others' albums, Fonseca's solo efforts may seem few and far between. He released his first solo album, Minha Cara in 1986, and nearly a decade passed before the second, O Som do Sim, was launched in 1995 and met with some European success. Fonseca also released a trilogy with Ronaldo Bastos: Slow Motion Samba, Paradiso, and Sorte. The latter two albums were released simultaneously in Brazil and Japan.
Fonseca always assumed that his comparatively late start as a musician made him unable to compose. "Later, I learned that composing is much more related to hard work than to the wait for that inspiration moment that may happen once in a while, but that is not essential to the composition work," Fonseca said on his website. He wrote his first compositions at age 23, and eventually began to write lyrics to accompany his music, sometimes with the help of his musical partner, Ronaldo Bastos. Other musicians began to take notice, and artists such Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Maria Bethânia, and Milton Nascimento recorded his songs. "Even now I work every day to enhance myself as a composer," he commented.
Fonseca has been credited with modernizing bossa nova, adapting the music of the 1960s for a twenty-first-century audience. "Bossa nova is a way of playing and singing," Fonseca told Telegraph. "It's a kind of slowed-down samba, that can be applied to anything. Stevie Wonder songs, Gershwin can all be bossa nova. I've taken the aspects of bossa nova that I love—the spaciousness, the melodic economy—and I've tried to push them towards the future."
For the Record . . .
Born Celso José da Fonseca on November 15, 1956, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; son of a physician.
Guitarist for Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil, 1981; starting producing for musicians such as Gil, Vinícius Can tuária, Virginia Rodrigues, and Daúde, 1986; recorded three albums with Ronaldo Bastos: Sorte, 1994, Parad iso, 1997, and Juventude/Slow Motion Bossa Nova, 2002. Recorded three solo albums: Minha Cara, 1986, O Som Do Sim, 1993, and Natural, 2003.
Awards: Sharp Music Prize, Best Pop/Rock Arranger, 1996.
Addresses: Record company— Six Degrees Records, 540 Hampshire St., San Francisco, CA 94110-1417, website: http://www.sixdegreesrecords.com. Website— Celso Fonseca Official Website: http://www2.uol.com.br/celsofonseca.
In 2003 Fonseca made his international solo debut as a singer-songwriter with Natural. "Like the classic recordings of bossa nova, a style in which his music is obviously rooted, [ Natural is] smooth, smart and casually sensual," said the Washington Post. "Backed by a small group, Fonseca's singing rarely needs to rise above the intimate whisper to make its points." Fonseca's acoustic guitar playing, wrote a BBC reviewer, "is understated but sublime throughout and although three tracks with English, rather than Portuguese, lyrics feels a little like one too many, his crooning vocals do suit the material down to the ground in either language." Fonseca's hushed voice and simplicity are reminiscent of the performances of Brazilian icon Caetano Veloso. "Others may go for brass, big bands and backing singers, but Fonseca prefers the minimalist approach," wrote the Guardian praising his "mood of gentle, exquisite melancholy."
Minha Cara, WEA, 1986.
O Som Do Sim, Natasha, 1993.
Sorte, Dubas Música, 1994.
Paradiso, Dubas Música, 1997.
Juventude/Slow Motion Bossa Nova, Universal, 2002.
Natural, Ziriguiboom/Crammed/Six Degrees, 2003.
Guardian, June 18, 2003.
Washington Post, April 20,2003.
"Celso Fonseca," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 4, 2004).
"Celso Fonseca Musica," All Brazilian Music, http://www.cliquemusic.com.br (February 4, 2004).
"Celso Fonseca, Natural," BBCi Music, http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/world/reviews/celsofonseca_natural.shtml (January 17, 2004).
Celso Fonseca Official Website, http://www2.uol.com.br/celsofonseca (February 4, 2004).
"If Niemeyer Made Music, It Would Sound Like This," Telegraph, http://health.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2003/03/15/bmbrazil15.xml (March 15, 2003).
—Brett Allan King
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