When my friend Alan Lake needed someone to do a Spanish/English translation, I told him about my multi-lingual Spanish teacher, Oak Parker Juan Cabral. When Cabral went over to Lake’s house to look over the materials, he couldn’t help but notice all the drums and musical instruments set up around his living room. Lake started randomly beating out a rhythm, Cabral joined in, and two years later, they’re finishing up the first CD for Casa de Soul.
Joined by songstress Nino Arobelidze, with Lake on percussion and Cabral on guitar and vocals, Casa de Soul does a wide range of Brazilian styles, including the well-known boss-nova as well as bolero, samba, baião, cirandos and xote.
“Nino provides a soft bel canto sound,” Lake explained, “while Juan’s voice is more soulful and dusky. We try to stay true to the spirit of the music while interpreting beautiful little-heard songs and staying away from the clichéd Brazilian tunes everyone plays.
Cabral sings many of the songs in his native Portuguese, but Eastern European Arobelidze speaks none of that language. Still, she does have a very good ear and can sing beautifully in the language she does not speak.
Like the sounds of Casa de Soul, the cooking of Brazil is a fascinating blend of different cultures. Sitting around the table there last week, we had kibe, a mixture of bulgur wheat and beef, a Middle Eastern dish that reflects Lebanese immigration to Brazil. We also enjoyed a bowl of feijoada, the Brazilian national dish that combines black beans in a stew with beef and pork, brought to Brazil by the Spanish, with toasted cassava sprinkled on top, reflecting the African influence.
Christiane Pereira owns Taste of Brazil with her husband, Andre Otero, and it was interesting to me that, based on customers who come into her restaurant, that native Brazilians actually prefer their feijoada less spicy than her Anglo customers. My theory is that with our huge Mexican population, we Chicagolanders tend to like our food with more chile heat than many of those in South America.
Many of the dishes at Taste of Brazil are very mildly flavored, with an emphasis upon foregrounding the quality of simple ingredients. The bobó de camarão is basically shrimp in a mixture of cassava, coconut milk and tomato sauce, which Cabral pronounced, “Divine. If my mother were alive, I’d write home to tell her about this dish.”
Like the food of Brazil, the music of Casa de Soul is elemental, not overdone, simple but sophisticated. Sometimes Cabral, who grew up with this music, must caution Lake, “You’re playing too much,” and Lake has learned that when performing this music, “You have to leave air in there,” allowing for negative space where maybe there are fewer sounds that you’d expect to hear in an American tune.
Similarly, the Brazilian palate is tickled by what many of us might think of as relatively simple food. Pereira told me that sometimes when Brazilians come in, she makes them for an off-menu item of steak with two eggs on top, a familiar dish of their homeland. Not overly complex, simple yet satisfying, it’s a composition that pleases with just a few key ingredients.
You can listen to Casa de Soul here: