Benji and Rita Transfix with Bright, Nuanced Portraits of a Hidden Brazil

New York-based composer Benji Kaplan and Brazilian singer and songwriter Rita Figueiredo have picked up the vibe of the vibrating, multicolored thread of
Brazilian music that has a keen ability to tie the magical and surreal with the grounded and historical and weave it into fantastical new portraits of Brazil and New York on their upcoming release ‘Benji & Rita’ (released on May 10, 2019), their album-length debut as a duo.

Image: Benji and Rita

Partners in the music world and also in real life, Benji Kaplan and Rita Figueiredo are two well-respected Brazilian jazz musicians, though their approach is quite different. Kaplan, who’s a New Yorker, is an intimate songwriter who gently strums the guitar, sings poetic lyrics, and harmonizes gorgeously. Rita Figueiredo, who hails from São Paulo, Brazil, has similar traditional Brazilian music-meets-jazz influences, but with a much more theatrical approach. Her talent as a composer with her fierce singing style gives her music unbridled passion. Rita’s intensity of spirit might seem to be an odd mix with Benji’s understated complexity but it’s quite a logical fit. You really can’t do better than these two when it comes to current players of this genre. With Benji’s outstanding compositions blending perfectly with Rita’s compelling and visually expressive lyrics. Likewise, Benji’s virtuosic guitar fuses seamlessly with Rita’s lovely and beguiling voice with intimacy and unity of essence that is simply mesmerizing.

Cinematic and refined, ‘Benji & Rita’ channels the scents and sounds, the flora and fauna of the couple’s homelands, drawing on everything from samba and baião, to waltzes and pop catchiness, much as Brazilian popular composers have over the last five decades. As Benji explains, “We were going forward and backward, back to the origin, so we could share those worlds, the raw version of ourselves and then some fantasy, paintings, and stories. The arrangements reflect that, and some are simple, while some are very complex. We crafted the album to merge those two worlds and give people the fuller picture.”

“Some lyrics I wrote after Benji created the arrangement,” Rita continues. “I could see images because when you have just a simple melody, you have more freedom to create things. With an arrangement, though, you see landscapes and stories in more detail. Both ways, I felt the narrative.” And that narrative, stated by Rita earlier, of Amazonian rivers and crazy megalopolises, of sparkling love and quiet grief, shines through the duo’s exquisite songs in ‘Benji & Rita’.

Rita’s vivid penchant for storytelling proved the perfect complement to Benji’s musical worlds. On Benji & Rita, they explore the tensions and possibilities of the duo, often extending dramatically beyond their two instruments of voice and guitar, into big, polychrome worlds. The album has arrangements meant to take you out of the voice and guitar realm, but also kept things simple with more traditional tracks, where you’ll just hear the guitar, voice, bass, and drums. “Piocerá” chronicles an epic journey through several Brazilian provinces, told from the perspective of someone boating down the Sao Francisco River, to the sway of the baião, the rhythm of Brazil’s northeast. “When I heard the melody for the first time, I wanted to create a story about a guy who lived in the Northeast and uses the boat to ride past the two states, Piauí and Ceará, that make up the name of the song. I use these wonderful expressions from Brazilian words that might not be clear to people who aren’t from that area, but that convey the character of the place.”

“Memorial Day” dives into the tensions of patriotism and pride, and war and betrayal, to the sound of a muted trumpet. “We wanted to evoke all those emotions: pride, joy, patriotism, betrayal, suffering, and for the music to reflect the lyrics,” recounts Benji. “When I wanted to arrange it, I started listening to those reveilles on trumpet. I knew I had to start the song out with that. Then it goes crazy and the arrangement gets all psychedelic and messed up. It takes listeners through the story.” “No one wins in war,” Rita adds, “but there was such beauty to this holiday, from my perspective. I wanted to capture both feelings.”

Though some of the settings are complex, conjuring a sense of place, capturing the curious details that make a song live and breathe come easily to the duo. It’s their way of sharing the beauties of a country and its music, the elements that defy the brazen cry of headlines and politics. “As a lyricist, I always find I’m telling very visual stories and creating these panoramic scenes,” Rita reflects. “This album is trying to share the hidden gems and observations about Brazil that aren’t in everyday conversation.”

Watch the making of the album ‘Benji & Rita’ here on YouTube.

Follow and listen to the album here .

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Written by Khushboo Malhotra

Autodidactic Ambivert!
Music gives wings to my mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.
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Twitter: @KhushMalhotra
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