Cacao Bring Brazil to Belfast

Gnanam Samuel and Phil Smyth cut their teeth on the London jazz fusion scene, but Belfast's burgeoning live music circuit enticed them back home

The jazzy Latin rhythms of the bossa nova and the sultry, summery sounds of the samba, filled No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast mid-December, 2012, when multi-instrumentals, Gnanam Samuel and Phil Smyth, brought a touch of Brazil to Belfast.

The link is perhaps not so obtruse. It could, in fact, have been considered a crime (ahem) to miss the acoustic Brazilian jazz outfit, otherwise known as Cacao – a vibrant and energetic Northern Irish duo whose colourful, upbeat sound is just the tonic for these dark winter nights.

Samuel, who is originally from Fermanagh, and her partner and co-writer, Smyth, from Belfast, spent several years living and working in London. Both have returned to Northern Ireland excited by the blossoming of a formerly stagnant live music scene.

Smyth has been performing as a professional musician for 20 years, and plays a wide range of instruments including electric and fretless bass, guitar, Arabic oud, Indian tabla, harmonium and drums. He has worked freely across a number of musical genres, and can flit between contemporary jazz, classical, traditional, free improvised and commercial music with ease.

Samuel is a similiarly eclectic and confident performer. The multi-talented pair met a few years ago and, after working together on a number of projects – including Kwatsu, a five-piece band specialising in Middle Eastern, Eastern European and Asian music – they formed Cacoa as a result of their mutual love for the intoxicating sounds of Brazil.

Cacao play a sophisticated and cool fusion of old and modern Brazilian jazz, an original and dynamic mix of lilting vocal melodies and percussive Latin bass rhythms. For the last five years they have cut their teeth on the London jazz scene, with performances at prestigious venues like The Vortex, The Jazz Café and a regular residency at the Belgian Brasserie underscored on their collective CV.

Whilst Belfast promised a new start in a creative sense, Samuel and Smyth were also happy to get away from the hectic pace of London life. Gnanam, who is of Indian and Irish parentage, explained why the pair decided to replace the bright lights of London for the quieter charms of Donaghadee, County Down.

'We saved up to be able to leave London and have a break from the madness of gigging,' she says, 'and now we are going to give ourselves a few years to explore our writing and to look at multi-media projects with other artists.

'It would be nice to see more cultural diversity in Northern Ireland,' she says of the group's raison d'etre, 'more fusion and interaction between artists. We are looking at forming a collective and performing at alternative locations rather than the usual music venues.'

Hence the gig in the crime bookstore. Gnanam has performed in many diverse groups and ensembles over the years, playing all types of music in classical quartets and Brazilian ensembles. She specialises in guitar, fiddle and whistle.

'I have always been interested in folk and roots music too,' Samuel adds, 'including Arabic and Eastern European music. Through this I got into jazz and fusion and Brazilian music, which is something I really put my heart into. I like a lot of modern singers like Maria Joao and Bobby McFerrin, and I love the idea of using the human voice as a musical instrument.'

During the No Alibis gig, Cacao will perform a range of styles, including the famous bossa nova and Samba, but also the less familiar choro, a popular music that originated in Rio de Janeiro in the 19th century. They will also play a selection of modern jazz standards and some original songs.

Brazilian music is certainly extremely popular in London, but the following is perhaps less impressive in Belfast. But with the Olympic Games and the World Cup due to be staged in South America’s largest and richest country in the coming years, Gnanam believes that Northern Ireland will warmly embrace its music.

'London has Guanabara, Europe’s largest Brazilian nightclub, and there are all sorts of venues playing choro, samba, bossa nova and jazz fusion. I think people love the exotic sounds, which are a great antidote to winter and also perfect for long summer evenings.

'Northern Ireland has opened up a lot culturally in recent years and there is a large Portuguese population that will appreciate this music. I want to make contact with members of the Portuguese community and would love to get my teeth into their beautiful music, fado.'

With plenty of gigs scheduled for the months ahead, and spring and summer just around the corner, Cacao are sure to be a hit for lovers of live music in the city. Keep on eye on their Facebook page for more information.