“São Paulo is a Sensation”: Luísa Maita is Setting Synths & Samba to the Sound of the City

Luísa Maita Skypes from her home in São Paulo. After a full conversation, she admits that this is one of the first interviews she’s done in English in a long time. She’s fluent, for sure, obviously bilingual, but you can hear some hesitation in her voice making sure words like “globalization” are, in fact, the correct concepts she wants to communicate.

Maita, born and raised in São Paulo, releases her second LP Fio da Memória (which translates to Thread of Memory) on September 30 in the United States. While her debut album Lero Lero (which was released in 2010 and led her to earn Best New Artist honors at the subsequent Brazilian Music Awards) reflected traditional Brazilian samba and bossa nova, the new record explores more contemporary ideas, weaving ominous synth stabs with Maita’s throaty vocals. And in terms of language, five of the 11 tracks on Fio da Memória are sung in English.

“I didn’t try to speak or write in English,” she says. But, “I did write some song in English…and I have no idea why,” she exclaims.

Pausing to consider the notion, she cites her uncle Daniel Taubkin, who was a composer and singer. “In 1992 [he made] an entire album in English talking about Brazil. This album was the best reference to music in English. Not a lot of people know about this album, but I love this album. He did this album totally in English [and talked] about the Indians and stuff of Brazil.”

Her uncle didn’t actually release A Picture of Your Life until 2002, years after he was already considered an established singer, songwriter, and composer in his home country. Music runs in Maita’s family, as another uncle, Benjamin Taubkin, serves as the director of Núcleo Contemporâneo, an independent record label and production company that releases popular Brazilian instrumental music. While Daniel invited his niece to sing with his group, Benjamin taught her the business side of the industry, encouraging Maita to sell CDs at shows.

Maita’s breathy vocals sound like a swarm of mosquitos buzzing in Brazil’s humid subtropical air.

Like her uncle, who used classical styles to convey Brazil’s culture and English to confront the nation’s history, Maita uses diverse written and musical languages to share her vision of home with the rest of the world. Most notably on Fio da Memória, she draws on electronic sounds, retrofitting those synthetic beeps and beats into Brazil’s natural rhythms — those rustling between palm fronds in the Amazon, crashing along the country’s endless coastline, and feet pounding the checkered wave boardwalk of Copacabana.

The electronic elements emerged through experimentation in the studio, but were intentionally designed to sound current and fresh. Maita muses on the explosion of electronic music in the context of globalization. “We live in urban cities and I think that electronic music totally makes sense in expressing our lives in this context. I always try to find what music makes sense nowadays, so I think electronic music totally expresses my life in São Paulo and what I live here and what I listen [to] here all the time.”

Luisa Maita. Photo by Júlia Braga
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Opening track “Na Asa” features swishing percussion and monotone synths mashing up in a style not unlike contemporaries Sylvan Esso or Låpsley. “Porão” remains grounded in its classic Latin triplet-thud — pounded out on low-pitched tom drums and shallower congas — while Maita’s breathy vocals sound like a swarm of mosquitos buzzing in Brazil’s humid subtropical air.

Yet Maita didn’t have a clear vision of Fio da Memória at first. Rather, the instrumental and stylistic production choices came to her as spontaneously and intuitively as the language did, purely based on the feelings and messages of the songs themselves.

“São Paulo is a sensation.”

“I didn’t have the entire album on my mind,” she says. “I just wanted to experiment with things different from my first album. I didn’t want to do a Lero Lero number two!”

Coming off the recent Olympic games held in Brazil, Maita’s music sounds even more globally relevant. Although she sang in the 2009 film that helped Brazil win the 2016 Olympics bid, performed during the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, and lent her voice to the promotional videos for this year’s games, Maita admits she didn’t watch much of the spectacle past the men’s football team’s historic gold medal win.

Still, her sense of Brazilian pride remains strong, both in conversation and the subtle musical homages to her country’s most famous traditional music. Fio da Memória attempts to honor those roots, showcasing Maita’s challenge to capture the spirit of São Paulo in 2016 and share it with the world.

Luisa Maita. Photo by Júlia Braga
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“It’s an interesting city with a lot of energy with many things going on. It’s a very energetic city,” Maita describes. “I have a friend who says, ‘you can’t know São Paulo by seeing pictures or listening [to] it, because São Paulo is a sensation.’”

Connecting that sentiment with her own music, she continues, “The first album was totally Brazilian. I live in São Paulo and this is a part of the world that is totally [globalized]. On the second album, I wanted to connect São Paulo to the world.”

Fio da Memória is out September 30 on Cumbancha.