Project Melds Mississippi Blues, Brazilian Poetry

In a Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013 photo, Mississippi blues musician Jesse Robinson, right, poses with Brazilian producer Robertinho de Recife at Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Miss. Robinson collaborated with de Recife on an album that weaves Brazilian poems into songs. (AP Photo/The Clarion-Ledger,Joe Ellis)

In a Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013 photo, Mississippi blues musician Jesse Robinson, right, poses with Brazilian producer Robertinho de Recife at Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Miss. Robinson collaborated with de Recife on an album that weaves Brazilian poems into songs. (AP Photo/The Clarion-Ledger,Joe Ellis)

SHERRY LUCAS,Clarion-Ledger

JACKSON — A creative collaboration centered around the Mississippi blues guitar is infusing the career of a longtime Jackson favorite and opening the horizon for more cultural exchanges with Brazil.

That includes a key state export opportunity: native music and homegrown talent.

Blues musician Jesse Robinson’s CD “Stray Star,” recorded in Jackson and in Rio de Janeiro with Mississippi and Brazilian artists, is the first product in a project wedding Mississippi blues with Brazilian poetry.

Robinson, who last year performed for millions as a guest at São Paulo’s huge Virada Cultural festival, tapped talents additional to his acclaimed and expressive guitar work. Heretofore a singer? “Of course. But not in the public,” he adds, a chuckle muffled by his signature push-broom mustache. “I guess a lot of us could say that.”

Not so many could say they heard newly minted fans chanting their name in Brazilian streets.

The project is the passion of top Brazilian guitarist, producer and composer Robertinho de Recife, who sees connections and parallels between the two cultures, the plantation and rural roots of their music and expression and the rivers — the Mississippi River here and Rio São Francisco in Brazil — that’ve defined their respective regions.

Robertinho pulls out his cellphone to share a bit of historical precedent: a picture of a paddle-wheel steamboat on the river in Brazil; some of them had been Mississippi riverboats dating from the time of the Civil War. His Two Rivers Cultural Exchange promotes collaborations between musicians and writers in the two regions.

Song lyrics on Robinson’s CD were developed from writings by Brazilian poet Assunção de Maria, in a collection with the translated title, “In Search of Myself.” Ultimately, a package will include an English translation, Robinson’s CD, another CD titled “Women of Mississippi” — now in the works — and a DVD documentary.

“These poems come from this atmosphere, and when Jesse puts music and the blues to these poems, it fits well,” Robertinho said, with their themes of time, love and lost love.

Robinson doesn’t know Portuguese. Robertinho’s English falls shy of fluent. Carl Kolb of Jackson, a citizen of both the U.S. and Brazil, helps with translating. That included the poems, which had to find their way into English, then a song form with lyrics, hooks and music, all while maintaining the message.

The process might take one day, three days or three weeks per title, Robinson said. “You’ve got to find, what is the music that fits those songs?”

He sent one song to producer Robertinho to see if he was on the right track. “He said, ‘good,’ he said ‘great’ and he told Carl, ‘Leave him alone. Don’t tell him to do anything because I want it to come from his soul.’ ”

“I see this before. Now it’s a reality,” with the blues musician and the Brazilian poet making 10 songs together. “I think the marriage between both is perfect,” Robertinho said. The poet gave it a thumbs-up, too. “Now when he listens to Jesse, he says, ‘Man, I love that.'”

Mississippi singers Jewel Bass, The Williams Brothers, Rhonda Chambers and more, as well as Brazilian singers provided backup vocals.

Mississippi tourism director Malcolm White sees a great opportunity for a larger cultural exchange, particularly in the São Francisco region in Brazil. “There’s all of this great, rich potential tie-in for export and import. We export our music all over the world, and people who are intrigued by our music and culture are imported in as tourists.” Brazilians love travel, shopping and are huge aficionados of Delta blues, hill music and more, he said.

It’s a natural tie-in. “We share a lot of things, environmentally, culturally,” and Robertinho has opened channels for Mississippi musicians. “He’s totally passionate about it. … He gets it. I think it’s a wide-open world for us.”

Jackson author Jill Conner Browne, a longtime friend of Carl’s and fan of Robinson’s, says it’s no surprise Brazilians and Mississippians cotton to the same threads of music. “Our differences make us interesting, but it’s how we’re the same that really matters.”