Singer/songwriter Djavan might be called the Paul Simon of Brazil. Not only does he write substantial, endearing melodies, but his lyrics are poetic and clever. Furthermore, like Simon, his music crosses cultural lines and includes Afro-Brazilian music and American jazz, pop, and rock. Already a major pop star in his own country for almost a decade, he's about to cross a new line and try for stardom in the United States. CBS Records recently released Djavan's latest album in the US, ``Bird of Paradise,'' which for the first time includes some songs in English.
I met with Djavan here to talk about his new venture. Having spent a couple of years in Brazil myself, I was able to get through an interview in Portuguese with him. A small man with a ready smile and an eagerness to talk about music, he spoke about reaching out to the American audience.
``I really just want to open a space,'' he said, gesturing with small, graceful hands. ``My principal objective over the past few years has been to internationalize my music. I don't mean that it won't be Brazilian anymore; it'll just have a more universal flavor.''
Until the release of ``Bird of Paradise,'' Djavan had sung only in his native Portuguese. Since his English isn't yet strong enough to write English lyrics, he must hand over the task to someone else. And in doing so, he splits up the marriage between melody and words, which he describes as ``an indivisible entity.'' He goes on to say, ``The words have their own sound, and a note has its own word. A person orients himself by the music, the rhythm, and the melody. But the lyrics are music, too, and they transport you.''
Nevertheless, he adds, ``singing in English is something that has always been part of my plans, since I want to spread my music around the world. There are people who have trouble listening to Portuguese, because they need to know what I am saying.''
Djavan, a native of Macei'o, on the coast of northeastern Brazil in Alag^oas State, had a happy childhood, surrounded by many different kinds of music - traditional Afro-Brazilian folk music, bossa nova, jazz, classical, and pop. He learned to play the guitar while still a boy, and started writing his own songs at age 19. By that time he'd formed a band that played only Beatles songs (``I was Paul McCartney,'' he recalls). But when he presented some of his own compositions to the band members, they balked. ``They thought they were too complicated and strange!'' he recalls. ``Nobody understood.''
So eventually Djavan made his way to the more sophisticated atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro, where, after a number of years of playing clubs and writing music for soap operas, his real career began. He took his songs to a recording company. They loved his music and promised they'd record him the very next day. ``The only problem was that the next day was three years later,'' says Djavan.
Finally, after he won a prize for one of his compositions at a festival in Sao Paulo, he was able to record his first album, ``Flor de Lis.'' After a few more albums and several sizable hits, Djavan became a genuine pop star in Brazil. Since then, he has toured the world, acquiring more fans.
Does he have any concern that success in America might spoil his music? ``I don't think I'll encounter that danger, because I get so much pleasure from music, from discovering its depths, its details. I'm always trying to find a new harmonic modulation, a new turn in the melody, a new rhythm.''
Djavan's music has changed considerably over the years. When he started out, it was more traditionally Brazilian, but today it is more sophisticated, full of wonderfully lyrical surprises and turns, fleshed out with deftly arranged background parts and instrumental jazz solos. ``It's natural,'' he says. ``Nothing is static in life. My music changes with me, with my vision of the world. I've come to know new people, new countries; to play with musicians who have other styles. But the essence is still Brazilian, without a doubt.''
Does Djavan think there's any danger of Brazilian music getting swallowed up in rock, pop, and other kinds of music? ``I don't think so. Brazilian music has a very defined, a very strong, essence that will never get lost.''
Djavan will perform in Los Angeles Sept. 19; San Francisco Sept. 20; New York Sept. 22; Chicago Sept. 23; Dallas Sept. 24; and Miami Sept. 25.
A selection of available albums:
Flor de Lis (1976), Som Livre 2405. This album, Djavan's first, has all the charm, but only some of the sophistication, of his later work.
14 Grandes Sucessos - Djavan (1978- 81), EMI/Odeon 31C052 422 942. A compilation of songs from his early albums, including ``Seduzir'' and ``Alumbramento.''
Luz (1982), Epic/Sony 32-8P-57. Here Djavan is firmly immersed in the jazz-oriented pop style that characterizes his best work. Contains the original version of ``Soul Food to Go,'' a Manhattan Transfer hit.
Lilas (1984), Epic/Sony 32-8P-56. Has the strongest pop sensibility of any of his albums.
Meu Lado (1986), Epic/Sony 32-8P-144. Djavan's most sophisticated and musically satisfying album perfectly blends his Brazilian roots with a deft touch of pop and jazz.