“It’s something that [jazz legend] Chick Corea once said,” says Sergio Sayeg, the Brazilian artist known as Sessa. “When you’re young, you want to find your voice in music. You find an instrument, which explodes the depth of your existence, like a breath that makes things larger than that moment. I think this was a bit of the exercise with Estrela Acesa. It’s a metaphor. Music is the burning star, a guiding star. You follow it no matter how lost you might be.”
Sessa’s instrument is his nylon-stringed classical guitar, but in a wider sense, the musical voice of Estrela Acesa — in English, “Burning Star” — is defined by delicate tendrils of flute, floating bass and shifting hand percussion. These elements are backdropped by the subtlest orchestration and foregrounded by his breathy tenor and lyrics that blur the lines between the personal and metaphysical. It’s a sublime variation of Tropicália, the Brazilian sound that came of age in the late ’60s by flavoring traditional forms such as samba and bossa nova with Western styles of rock and jazz.
The album follows his 2019 debut Grandeza (“Greatness”), a starker blend that established the São Paulo singer-songwriter’s name and questing spirit. On the album, he’s dedicated to matters of love, intimacy and spirituality: important values in a time of global crisis, Sessa believes. “The title Grandeza suggests that when you drop the needle on it, you’ll hear Wagner!” he says, laughing. “In fact, the music is so far back that you have to take a couple of steps closer to the speaker. It’s not a super cohesive concept — that’s not my style — but I feel that my music invites you in.”
Not that Sessa is all about invitations and bliss: There’s doubt and darkness there, too. “I’m aware of the limits of relationships, and the downside of the world,” he says. “There are aspects of pain and blood, too, on Estrela Acesa, I wouldn’t want to avoid talking about that. I don’t think there would be any songs without that!”
Sessa found a silver lining in lockdown after he moved to the island of Ilhabela, just off the São Paulo coast, where his percussionist, Biel Basile, had a house by the beach. “I had [all female] backing singers on Grandeza, and when I was promoting it, I wanted a large choir for shows,” he recalls. “Which was the worst idea in a pandemic, having everyone spitting into the same microphone! So, I had time alone to meditate and sketch out more ideas and arrangements. Grandeza is just guitar, voices and hand percussion with some disruptive elements from Música de Selvagem, a free jazz group in São Paulo. I took that to Estrela Acesa, but the elements became more of a classic backing band. Still minimal drums but heavier bass and richer sounds.”
One key track, displaying the album’s realistic portrayal of love, is “Que Lado Você Dorme?” (Or, “On What Side Do You Sleep?”). “I’d isolated myself to finish the record whilst I was already isolated on Ilhabela,” he says. “I got this stupid generic email: ‘Five tips for songwriters,’ but fuck it, I’ll read it. One tip was, ‘Go back to the music you first loved.’ I thought of Leonard Cohen, who talked about love, [but] not in the obvious, cheerful way. So I started playing with this metaphor of ‘on what side do you sleep?’ It could be flirting, or it can be not fully knowing the other, or the surprise of the other. For long-term couples, are we on the same side? There were so many resonances.”
The music that Sessa (a nickname that Sayeg has had for so long that he cannot remember when it started) first loved was also connected, tangentially, to Leonard Cohen — and their shared religion. Raised in an isolated observant Sephardic Jewish community (his ancestors came to Brazil from Lebanon and Syria), Sessa was transfixed by the singing rituals in synagogue. “It was more prayer than music,” he recalls, “But I found the Arabic ornamentation really beautiful. But I became very torn. It was an extremely conservative community and, even now, large sectors support [far-right-wing President Jair] Bolsonaro.”
At age 13, Sessa took up classical guitar, “and I started to find my own path.” While still in high school, he joined Garotas Suecas (in English, “Swedish Girls”), a shifting line-up that swung at the psychedelic end of the Tropicália spectrum. When he was 16, his father’s work took the family to New York; now it was the turn of combustible garage rockers The Dirtbombs and The Detroit Cobras to transfix Sessa: “It was all crafted perfectly for the teenage heart, for teenage energy,” he says. But given he was working at the East Village record store Tropicalia In Furs, “I had access to every amazing rare or popular Brazilian record. I just soaked it in.”
Sessa’s interviews always pay tribute to his musical antecedents: not just Tropicália’s leading lights Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso but the likes of Jorge Mautner, Erasmo Carlos, the arrangers Rogério Duprat and Waltel Branco, Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges’ epochal album Clube Da Esquina. Besides Leonard Cohen, he also cites his love of Bill Callahan, another minimalist who channels maximum emotional depth. Tropicália, after all, was an open-ended experiment in fusion. As if Sessa was embodying the idea of musical fusion, he’d live between New York and São Paulo, while regularly playing bass for Israeli firebrand Yonatan Gat, a guitarist in the avant-rock mould of Gary Lucas. Yet when Sessa began to find his own voice, he turned to his Brazilian roots.
“It wasn’t a quest for purity, it was more a connection to a very strong tradition,” he explains. “I had this tiny rented room in Brooklyn, with the classic Brazilian songbooks, like Antônio Carlos Jobim and Gilberto Gil, to ground myself in this intense period. I was also living for weeks, months, in different places, on tour, and it was cheaper to get a ticket to São Paulo than keep a place in New York. I met Música De Selvagem there, and Pato Preto, this group of singers, and out of that came Grandeza.”
It’s a different era than the late ’60s, when Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were briefly imprisoned and then exiled by Brazil’s military dictatorship for “promoting” cultural aspects of the decadent West. Sessa views President Bolsonaro as “a revival of the military dictatorship… It’s impossible not to see Brazil as a profoundly violent, unequal, racist country,” but he chooses not to address Brazil’s broken system in his songs.
“Leonard Cohen said that, as a songwriter, it’s not a buffet where you get to choose: You’re more a rat in the bottom of a barrel, you grab something in the dark and respond. Not that I want to push the dust under the rug, but men making war so that 10 people can stay billionaires is widely shared information today. For me, music has this privilege of making expression bypass words, because the words in song are an explosion… a poem. This is where I find myself at home. I’ve accepted the life of expressing the heart. But the life of an artist is still political here. On an institutional level, the government doesn’t support artists, so making a record has a tone of resistance!”
London-based Martin Aston has written about music for over 30 years, in publications such as MOJO, Q, The Guardian, Details, BBC Online, Attitude and The Vinyl Factory. He’s also authored four books, including Facing The Other Way: The Story Of 4AD.
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