Kees Schoof Chats with Josee Koning
When you listen to Brazilian Music, it isn’t hard to tell whether the singer is from Brazil or not. Sometimes, however, you can’t tell the difference. Josee Koning is from Holland, but sounds like she was born in Rio de Janeiro. She’s no doubt the most Brazilian singer from Holland. After going through conservatory in Amsterdam (where she teaches now), Josee lost herself in Brazilian music and culture. Which resulted in the popular (in Europe) band Batida. In the later 90’s Josee started a solo career, which didn’t stay unnoticed in Brazil either. Concert appearances in Rio were well received, as well as her two solo albums Tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim (Sony Music 481094, 1995) and Dois Mundos (Challenge Records, 1998; also the recent Brazilian Seven Music 241-054, 2002). In 2003 her third album will be released (Recorded in Rio). I had a chance for a little talk with this friendly Brazilian-hearted singer.
KS: Of course the most obvious question is how you developed your interest in Brazilian music.
JK: In the 70’s I worked for KLM (Dutch Airlines) and was stationed in Rio. As an amateur jazz singer I attended all kinds of parties and sessions. The Brazilian atmosphere and music appealed to me more than a lot, giving me an extra impulse to change my attitude towards jazz, while at the same time I developed a desire to sing the Brazilian music. I bought 2 João Gilberto records, which had the lyrics on the cover. Back home I started studying those with a dictionary in my hand. Musicians I worked with here in Holland encouraged me to sing in Portuguese. No one was doing that those days.
KS: With the band Batida you conquered Holland (1980-1990). The Latin-American music you heard was reduced to salsa. You emphasized Brazilian music. Songs by Edu Lobo and Milton Nascimento were alternated with your own compositions. Despite the huge success the band disappeared kind of suddenly. What happened?
JK: Specially during the first years Batida indeed enjoyed crazy times. It was a matter of being at the right place at the right time. From the first shy concert on things went crazy, the phone kept on ringing. Obviously we were pushed into the “salsa” corner, because no one really knew how to place our music, I guess.
The line-up was superb: Theo de Jong (bass and keys), Neppy Noya and Bart Fermie (percussion), Gerhard Jeltes (drums) and myself as vocalist. We formed a solid basis, but always faced a problem with pianists. They always ended up choosing for other bands, so we had to change our line up time after time. That’s why bassist Theo de Jong left the band. It was the nicest line up though, giving that wonderful “group” feeling. But also after 1987 we also had an outstanding line-up with Marcel Seriese (drums, percussion), Marcel Schimscheimer (bass) and Peter Schon (keyboards). Unfortunately all those changes in line-up were not healthy for a band like we had, bad for continuity. Eventually it became harder and harder to keep the band together, while at the same time I felt the urge to present myself as a soloist. And that opportunity occurred after I had met Jobim.
KS: How on earth does a singer from a tiny little cold country like Holland come in contact with Antonio Carlos Jobim? He even agreed to participate in your 1993 CD!
JK: In 1993 Dutch TV host Tineke de Nooij (RTL4) invited me to join her on a trip to Rio, to shoot a documentary about me. While there on spot, we got the luminous idea to interview Jobim. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful moments in my life and career.
KS: How were those encounters? It must have been kind of weird to exchange thoughts with a legend like Jobim.
JK: I was paralyzed, it left me speechless! There I was in that room with the two grand pianos and a dramatic view on Corcovado. Tineke wanted to do the interview (after all, it was her show), so she asked the majority of the questions. I did talk with him about his music, that I already knew and was even working on at that moment (“Boto”). He was very kind and charming to me and invited me to join him on his piano to sing. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to create much vocals, because I was too emotional. Back home we developed the idea to approach to him for a combined CD. Sony Music was very interested, and Jobim agreed. Unfortunately there was only this one meeting. All other contacts occurred via his daughter Elizabeth. Very friendly, sure; her father remembered me very well, etc etc. He must have been very ill already, right before his operation in New York. We’ll never know how the CD would have sounded, because he died on December 8th, 1994.
What struck me most during our meeting was his associative mind. From one word came the other, like he tasted every word. After a few months we asked Dori Caymmi to record a tribute to him with me.
KS: The Tom Jobim Tribute was there very soon (1995), and very well received, I might add! In the meantime there have been quite a few Jobim tributes; everyone with its own approach. How did you handle his repertoire?
JK: After Dori Caymmi agreed for the production and arrangements of the tribute CD, I visited him in Los Angeles. I had my wish list, both for repertoire and line-up. We went through that together, adding some things, dropping other thoughts.
KS: Speaking of the line-up, to say the least, you can call it impressive! Paulinho da Costa, Don Grusin, Nathan East, Claudio Slon and others. How free were you in choosing the musicians?
JK: Dori was the producer and also invited the musicians. The album was recorded in Hollywood. I was aware of his musical taste through his own albums; so I knew I could trust him blindly. How could I disagree with a line-up like that at all???
However, they were a bit surprised when I asked for a trombone, cello and accordion. Trombonist Bill Reichenbach couldn’t believe his ears when he was invited.
KS: In Rio you sang on the same evening and the same stage as Gal Costa. Your appearance that night was a big success. The Brazilian press even showered you with compliments. Recently Gal Costa complained via the press about the difficulties she has with choosing her repertoire. About the lack of worthy young songwriters.
O Globo, August 2001
Estaria secando a fonte da MPB? (Bernardo Araújo e João Pimentel)
Não há mais bons compositores na música brasileira, e um intérprete tem dificuldades quando quer lançar um CD de músicas inéditas. A idéia vem de uma declaração de Gal Costa, que a usou para justificar a ausência quase total de novidades em “De tantos amores” (BMG), disco repleto de regravações que lançou na semana passada.
You agree with that?
JK: Well, let’s say I can very well imagine her remark. What I’ve heard so far from the younger songwriters, their musical efforts fail to hold my attention. And in her case, she of course recorded so many albums, that for her it might even be more difficult to come up with new choices.
KS: Specially in Rio there were initiatives to prove Gal wrong. Do you have the opportunity to listen to those youngsters?
JK: Very often people hand me some CD’s, but like I already said, what I hear is not what I like. I do enjoy the songs from Lenine (most of them, though!), but can you still count him among the young lions?
KS: Your repertoire concentrates on established composers like Edu Lobo, Dori Caymmi, Ivan Lins… An intentional choice?
JK: Not intentional, no. While choosing, I go for my taste. I listen to music a lot, because I buy and receive lots of CD’s in Brazil. Instantly I hear whether or not I’d like to sing the songs myself. Or whether I can use it with my students or for my radio show.
(Josee has a radio show, “Sounds of Brazil, every first and third Fridays of the month; you can listen to it on the internet.)
KS: Brazilian music mixes very well with other styles, like reggae, rock, soul, jazz etc. It’s so typical for Brazilian music, that Brazil has its own category in the Latin Grammy Awards. Can you, as a purist, appreciate these “fusions”? I mean: would you classify BRock, BReggae still under Brazilian? Or do you prefer to file it under Rock, Reggae, Funk, among the others (from the USA, Europe)?
JK: For me it’s difficult to qualify it as BRock, etc. For my taste there’s too less BR in it. For instance, I wasn’t too crazy about the Bob Marley project from Gilberto Gil. Let him just do his own thing!
KS: Your accompanying band is made up of non-Brazilians (with the exception of percussionist Edson Gomes). Is that a choice to make clear you don’t have to be a Brazilian to play Brazilian music?
JK: No, it’s not a choice; it’s because there’s NO choice! There are just too few good Brazilian musicians living in Holland where I would like to work with. Leonardo Amuedo is a melodic, harmonic and rhythmic guitar wonder from Uruguay. Drummer Enrique Firpi is also from Uruguay, he worked with Marcia Maria and others. Pianist Hans Vroomans is also playing with the well known Metropole Orchestra. And bassist Boudewijn Lucas has an impressive history in the music scene in Holland.
KS: Ivan Lins appears to be a very special someone. For an outsider like myself, he’s a wonderful composer, but a mediocre performer. I prefer his songs to be performed by other musicians than himself. Can you refute that? As a performer he seems to be more like a musician’s musician. Fellow musicians unanimously rave about his concerts.
JK: Almost every concert from Ivan Lins I witnessed was marvelous. Specially the concerts in Brazil, where he plays with his own band. He has a big charisma on stage, and not only towards musicians! Maybe you caught him on a bad day. It happens to all artists; not every show can be the max… bad sound, sickness, etc. I can’t explain why you feel that way.
KS: How is it to work with a legend like Dori Caymmi?
JK: It’s a tremendous joy! Dori pampers you; protects you in the studio, is a listening ear, a joker and a grumbler! Besides, he has the biggest ears! Unforgettable moments, it gives me feelings of saudades.
KS: To what music do you enjoy listening, too?
JK: I’m a big fan of Rosa Passos, João Bosco and Ivan Lins, and recently Mônica Salmaso. At home I play a lot of instrumental music: Cesar Camargo Mariano, choro…
KS: You travel a lot between Holland and Rio for the recordings of your new CD. What can we expect, and when?
JK: Plans are to release the new CD at the end of February, beginning of March 2003. The album sounds different from the earlier ones. Leonardo Amuedo did the arrangements and produced the album. It’s recorded in a wonderful studio in Rio (Discover), with Brazilian musicians. I also included two compositions in Dutch. I tried them out before an audience in Holland, and they loved it. Actually, the CD is worth an interview on its own.
(It will be my pleasure, Josee!)
KS: Is there a growing interest for Brazilian music in Holland, or does your audience consist of jazz fans?
JK: Oh, there is an interest all right; although it still remains unknown. But I keep on working on that!!
KS: In the circles of Brazilian music lovers in the USA, your name is also known (through the CD Dois Mundos). Any plans to go there and perform?
JK: I’d love to!!!
KS: Thanks for taking time for us, sharing your thoughts about the music, Josee.
JK: It was a pleasure!