Sessa Helena Wolfenson

So much Brazilian music from the 1960s and ’70s casts a seductive spell, elevating your spirits with a nonchalant sensuousness. Listening to it is like having your head caressed by feathers. A lot of the pleasure has to do with the innate musicality of the Portuguese language and the oft-soothing vocal timbres of Brazil’s musicians—a kind of world-weary yet romantic sigh. Some of the most dulcet, ebullient, and melancholy rock ever recorded has arisen from that large South American nation.

Most clued-in North Americans know about the brief but influential Tropicália movement that merged innovative music with rabble-rousing, leftist political views that sometimes drew the ire of Brazil’s military government. Artists such as Jorge Ben, Caetano Veloso, Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, and Gilberto Gil proved that this genre could not only translate to other people worldwide, but excite the hell out of them decades after its halcyon era passed.

Sessa, a bushy-haired singer/songwriter/guitarist from São Paulo, is poised to be the next biggest thing from Brazil since Seu Jorge. Sessa’s 2019 debut, Grandeza, doesn’t sound much like his recent activities in former Monotonix guitarist Yonatan Gat’s band or the groovy garage rock of Garotas Suecas. (By the way, you should check out both of those units.) Instead, Grandeza—which means “Greatness”—abounds with placidly strummed nylon-string guitar, gently rolling hand percussion, shakers, and tangy backing vocals by a five-woman choir.

The press release for Grandeza accurately cites Leonard Cohen, Devendra Banhart, Caetano Veloso, and spiritual jazz as major influences, but those steeped in Brazilian music may also detect the intricate yet calming songcraft of cult heroes such as Arthur Verocai and Satwa. There’s not a dud on the entire LP, but “Tesão Central” is the highlight—and not just because the title translates to “Horny Central.” The deeply resonant congas and bongos pitter-patter below vocalists passionately singing words I cannot understand, but that entrance is like a South American interpretation of “Willow’s Song” from The Wicker Man soundtrack. The percussion and voice effects launch the song into a psychedelic haze.

In an e-mail interview, I asked Sessa if he made Grandeza with any explicit purpose in mind—perhaps as a soundtrack to seduction or as a conduit to relaxation? He said he wrote the album over a three-year span as he was traveling and playing in other projects, so he’d cut songs between tours. Therefore, Grandeza “carries a lot of time and life in those 30 minutes of music,” Sessa explains. “It’s hard to say that I had an explicit purpose other than to put things I love in music together, shaping as it pleased me, although ‘a conduit for relaxation’ sounds very nice.”

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Sessa’s decision to sing in Portuguese seems risky if he wants to succeed in the Anglo-American music world, but that doesn’t really concern him; all of his songs have been in Portuguese. “I feel very pleased with how the language sounds,” he says, “and for me it’s the perfect matter for expression. I think it’s a good moment for music that is not in English in the US.”

Sessa’s band for this tour consists of vocalists Sabine Holler, Monique Maion, and Talita Cabral, as well as percussionist Cem Misirlioglu, and the man himself singing and playing his treasured nylon-string guitar. The Portland date occurs a few days before Valentine’s Day, but Sessa’s music will stoke those romantic urges long enough to last to the holiday—and then some.