When Gene de Souza began hosting Café Brasil on community radio station WDNA-FM (88.9), the thrill was much the same as the one he got from playing the beloved music of his home country for American college friends who had never heard of Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso, bossa nova and samba.
“Doing it on the radio felt like hanging with my buddies in my living room times a million — or a few thousand,” says de Souza. “I’d be in this room by myself, but the phone would ring and someone would say, ‘I love this song.’ I still get a kick out of doing the show live and that feeling of, ‘Cool, I made that person discover something new.’ ”
This month, de Souza celebrates 10 years of helping people discover Brazilian music. He can also celebrate his prescience as an early player in what has become one of the hottest segments of Miami’s pan-Latin culture.
The Brazilian presence in South Florida has expanded along with the country’s economy and place on the world stage. Half a million Brazilian tourists visited Miami-Dade in 2010 — spending a billion dollars on restaurants, hotels and massive shopping sprees — while the Brazilian population in Broward County is the largest in Florida. Brazilians are snapping up properties, investing in businesses and making themselves felt in a region whose climate, temperament and proximity to Latin America make them feel at home.
True to his music-loving form, de Souza is celebrating Café Brasil’s 10th anniversary with concerts from locally-based Brazilian musicians. The first takes place Sunday at WDNA’s jazz gallery with Antonio Adolfo, an influential Brazilian musician and educator who now runs a music school in Hollywood, and young singer Monica da Silva.
On Thursday, de Souza presents Batuke Samba Funk — which combines samba, riotous batucada percussion and James Brown-style funk — at The Stage in the Design District. An afternoon party on April 21 at Boteco, a bar and restaurant on 79th Street, features feijoada, Brazil’s famed bean and meat stew; and Clube de Choro de Miami, which plays choro, an early 20th-century style combining African percussion with European dance music (much like Cuban danzón) that was the first native Brazilian music.
The festival winds up on April 26 with South Florida singer Rose Max at the samba party Café Brasil hosts at PAX Miami the last Thursday of every month.
And each Sunday this month on his 6-8 p.m. radio show, de Souza will play selections from interviews with such heavyweights of Brazilian music as Jorge Ben Jor, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, Gal Costa, Maria Rita and Marisa Monte.
Rose Max, a frequent guest, says the show provides a significant boost. “Gene gives us the opportunity to show our music for a new audience,” she says. “When I go on Café Brasil, a lot of people email or call, ‘What song is that, what singer is that, where are they playing?’ ”
Batuque Samba Funk leader Diogo Oliveira says it’s an ideal way for non-natives to learn about his country’s music. “Cafe Brasil is one of the only places where you can hear quality Brazilian music in Miami,” he says. “It’s the best place to learn about Brazilian music and our country.”
Brazil’s Portuguese-language music doesn’t fit into either commercial Spanish radio or the college radio circuit that supports indie music. As South Florida’s only FM radio show in English devoted to Brazilian music (and one of just a handful in the United States), Café Brasil has become an important stop in a prime market for touring Brazilian acts.
De Souza includes multiple styles and eras, from innovative artists such as Bossacucanova and Seu Jorge to classic bossa nova and samba.
“For these artists to be on an American public jazz station is very appealing to them,” he says. “Now, when major artists release albums in the U.S., I get CDs and interviews. It’s good to know I’ve been able to create an outlet for the music for a general American audience.”
Beco Dranoff, who has produced albums by young acts such as Bebel Gilberto and Bossacucanova, says Café Brasil has been in the right place at the right time.
“South Florida and Miami are such a special area for Brazilians, they feel so at home there,” the São Paulo native says from New York, his home for 20 years. “There’s a new generation of artists coming to the States … younger people who are willing to travel and open new markets are coming more. Brazil is having massive exposure right now — it’s trendy, and it’s less of a mystery and more mainstream in the States.”
De Souza’s father, a Brazilian diplomat, raised his family in Washington, D.C., Russia and Costa Rica, but the children spent summers and holidays in Rio de Janeiro, and the sounds of Brazilian music filled their home.
“Part of my parents’ philosophy living away from Brazil was educating us about Brazilian culture,” de Souza says. “Music was the way I stayed connected.”
He played in a rock band in high school and got his start in radio with a world-music show at the campus station at the University of Richmond. He moved to Miami in 1996, discovered WDNA while on the road for his job at a commercial insurance firm, and volunteered to host a Latin jazz show.
When his roots asserted themselves and he began playing Caetano Veloso and bossa nova, the station’s general manager Maggie Pellaya took note.
“One day, Maggie came into the studio and said, ‘You’re playing too much Brazilian music,’ ” de Souza recalls. “And I said, ‘Maggie, the phones were lighting up, people want to hear Brazilian music.’ ”
Soon after launching Café Brasil in April 2002, de Souza became a fan of the Rhythm Foundation, the Miami Beach-based presenter of world music. By 2003, he had quit his insurance job to work full-time fundraising for the group and helping them to present more Brazilian artists — whom he interviews or features on the show.
His inspiration remains the same: to explore Brazil’s vast trove of music and seduce others to do the same.
“I still like to create that mix where people can listen to something they know but also find out something new,” de Souza says. “That was the basic concept of the show when I proposed it, and that’s what it’s been ever since.”
Illustration: Ana Larrauri