Bit of Brazil comes to Pacifica, Redwood City
For Rio native Celia Malheiros, music is no one-note samba but a deep-rooted family affair

Jeff Kaliss, Special to The Chronicle
Friday, March 26, 2004

When Celia Malheiros drives south along Highway 1 to her Pacifica home, the ocean reminds her of the comfortable beachfront neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca in her native Rio de Janeiro. "When you're homesick," the singer/songwriter says, "you have to do that."

She's doing even more to deal with what she describes as her transnational "duality" and its resulting saudade, or longing. On Saturday, she's bringing the sounds of Brazil to the Sanchez Arts Center, a couple of blocks from her home in Pacifica's Linda Mar neighborhood. She'll be joined by husband Alex Popovics on bass, their daughter Camila, 9, on violin, and singing and percussion-playing students from Camila's fourth-grade class at the Cabrillo School, where Malheiros has been teaching them music basics.

Volunteering in a public school is a relatively new career offshoot for Malheiros, who also will perform Sunday in Redwood City. She has served as music director of San Francisco's Carnaval Ball, has performed as a vocalist and guitarist with groups that have opened for the Grateful Dead, and has recorded with several of Brazil's most respected and innovative instrumentalists. Her music-making has long roots, leading back to her mother.

"She had this guitar; she played one chord for all the songs," Malheiros remembers. "I started picking it up and figuring out something a little better. And I tried to transcribe other things I liked, like Beatles songs, and I was so happy."

After her parents divorced, a nanny named Iaia entered young Malheiros' life. Iaia celebrated the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomble and the percussion-driven samba from her native state of Bahia, in the country's tropical north.

Iaia took Malheiros to the schools where people of the slums rehearsed for the annual pre-Lenten Carnaval parade. The young Malheiros spent days and nights at Carnavals with her nanny, who initiated her into Candomble as a Daughter of Yemanjá, the goddess of the sea.

"Now I could never live far from the ocean; there's something healing almost," Malheiros says.

With her nanny's encouragement, Malheiros introduced folk percussion and the four-stringed cavaquinho to her private school, and wrote musical accompaniment for theatrical productions there.

Malheiros' adolescence coincided with Brazil's repression under a military dictatorship in the 1970s.

"You had to send songs to Brasilia (the capital) to be censored, and my songs came back with a bunch of red marks," she recalls. "My songs were about freedom. So I was expelled from school for being 'communist,' " but not before hooking up with Popovics, her schoolmate and future husband.

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