Angels of music. Holy Lights

Brazilian Christmas music

Miguel de Léon, a Mexican-American musician and City Colleges music educator, grew up in Chicago and, like so many others, was introduced to Brazilian music by Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66. He plays piano during mass at Comunidade Católica Brasileira em Chicago — the Catholic church that serves the local Brazilian community, which despite its name, is actually in Melrose Park. It was there that he met Luciano Antonio, the self-described “Brazilian Jazz Guy, ” who introduced him to Chi-Town’s other Brazilian musicians.

“I have always loved Christmas music and wanted to put together a collection of some of my favorite Christmas songs, ” says de Léon. So back in 2011, with Antonio acting as producer, he released not one but two X-mas albums, one in Portuguese (Natal) and one in Spanish (Navidad). “I chose the songs with Luciano. I wanted to do a wide variety of songs from the different countries in Latin America like Mexico, Puerto Rico, and of course Brazil.”

A multinacional cast of musicians participated in the recording sessions, and the list reads like a who’s who of the local Brazilian music scene, with names like, Marcos Oliveira, and of course Antonio, plus a slew of of first-rate percussionists (Felipe Fraga, Geraldo de Oliveira, Heitor Garcia). The performances are essentially the same, so the only difference between the albums is the language, and of course Chicagoano is more into the Portuguese version.

Brazil doesn’t have that many homegrown Christmas standards; some of the songs we’d hear year after year were Portuguese versions of tunes like “Silent Night” (“Noite Feliz”) and “Jingle Bells” (“Bate o Sino”). But it’s a pleasure to hear them again, specially in these classy, musically literate renditions, free from the tackiness that often ruins yuletide songs in any country. And it’s even more of a pleasure to hear some original Brazilian songs, including “Fim de Ano” (which is really more of a New Year’s song, come to think of it) and the irresistible marchinha “Boas Festas, ” which takes ironic potshots at Santa but still leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy inside.

Though it takes some detours through Mexico and the Caribbean, much of Natal sounds Brazilian, with shades of samba and bossa nova throughout, plus southern and northeastern rhythms. Additionally, Antonio, Paulinho Garcia, and Neusa Sauer contribute guest vocals and a healthy dose of the intricate, jazzy textures they’re known for.

And by the way, de León’s Portuguese is very good. “I first began to learn Portuguese through the music of Sergio Mendes, Elis Regina, Milton Nasciento, Caetano Veloso, Ivan Lins, Simone, Maria Bethânia, Gal Costa, Antônio Carlos Jobim, and so many other Brazilian artists whose music has filled my soul and inspired me to also make music, ” he says. “I then made some Brazilian friends in Chicago, and now I continue speaking Portuguese through my involvement with the catholic Brazilian community, friends and the Brazilian musicians I work with.”

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