Though Zuco 103’s third album slips from examinations of modern-day slavery (NHa) to criticisms of heads of state (Love Is Queen Omega) Whaa! is a record that never makes any assumptions about the attitudes of its public.
Consciousness-raising and popular music are often uneasy bedfellows. Too often ‘issues’ and sloganeering are married to the most leaden of arrangements as if just uttering bold statements were enough to sway the listening public to radicalise and form fifth column groups right off the bat.
Thankfully, Zuco 103 neatly sidestep this pitfall by moving sideways into shoulder-shrugging insouciance. Ready-wrapped in an abundance of international flavours, the singular lack of presumption makes Whaa! one of the most peculiar records of this year or any other.
Rio born singer Lilian Vieira, together with German keyboardist Stefan Schmid and Dutch drummer Stefan Kruger are Zuco 103. And though Whaa! features guest appearances from dubmeister numero uno Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and bossa nova legend Roberto Menescal among others, rising high above any chummy contributions are the glossy sang-froid of the production and Vieira’s chameleon-like presence.
As part of an amorphous new world / electronic fusion movement, the trio use the multi-faceted sashay of Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music, a touch of Balearia, Jazz, and well, just about any other style and genre to have gained a toehold on the shores of Europe and South America. Sometimes this can mean that Whaa! lurches sleepily towards hotel-ambience cheese (Vou Levar and Mayfly), but oddly effective melanges are created on the far more numerate instances when it does come together.
Duele Le Le, a duet with Spanish Fusion artist Dani Macaco, and a song about growing pains, is skilful latino-inflected pop with a breezy sway that lodges in the mind as sneakily as the titular repetition of the chorus. Futebol, a paean to the joys of the Beautiful Game written for Euro 2004 coyly written from the point of view of the ball, shuffles as surely as Ronaldinho through the Chelsea defence.
For the bulk of Whaa!, Zuco 103 maintain a seductive whirlpool of changes and odd tempo shifts. But as prudent as Schmid and Kruger are with the intercontinental spread of styling, it is Vieira that is the star.
Whether samba-bewitched on the bizarre Na Mangueira, or bossing the beat like an electrified Marva Whitney on the tough Garganteiro, Vieira inhabits a masque’s worth of faces and images. Vieira’s shape shifting further enlivens the arid abstraction of Conscience, and accompanies the folky-click of closer Jave with an intimacy that belies the high-register hollering of the earlier floor-fillers.
Unusually for a lead singer, Vieira is adept too at playing the supporting role, whether backing Macaco on Duele Le Le, or providing wistful undertow to the Upsetter’s outr� exhortations on Love Is Queen Omega.
Ultimately though it is Whaa!’s wandering spirit that provides its essential otherness. Too restless to lie back on its Latin laurels, Whaa! is a quiet triumph of collaboration and boundary-shifting.