A reliquary of intimacy with Zélia Duncan 



From the age of 30 to 40, Zélia Duncan went from an unknown singer with a low timbre to one of the most acclaimed, sweet and witty representatives of Brazilian culture. In 1997, about to turn 33, she was celebrating the Golden Disc for the first 100 thousand copies sold of the album Intimidade (Warner Music, 1996) when she went on stage at Sesc Pompeia, in São Paulo, for a show of the project Ouvindo Estrelas. In it, the singer-songwriter had the opportunity to show that her different voices were already consolidated and powerful: the one that sings (low), the one that composes (sweet) and the one that speaks (witty). This is clear in the record that, in 2023, the Sesc Label, through the Relicário project, transforms into another live work by the artist. Entitled Relicário: Zélia Duncan (Ao Vivo no Sesc 1997) (Sesc Label, 2023), the album gathers songs from two of the records Zélia Duncan had released until then.  

In 1997, I was just a 16- to 17-year-old rocker teenager who loved Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and The Byrds and had just discovered MPB. When I was 12, a Caetano Veloso record had introduced me to Tropicália, its exponents and the sound that had much of the rock I had heard at home through my father and brother. Rita Lee was soon elected the tropicalist with whom I most identified common characteristics. On the eve of my 14th birthday, a new record by Marisa Monte took me to other universes, like samba, and allowed me to recover references that came from my grandmother’s record player and piano.  

Zélia Duncan’s deep voice, which I already knew from a soap opera soundtrack, came into my house when I was about to turn 16, on a CD brought by my father and autographed by her for both of us. With its clear folk and rock influence, Intimidade swept the whole family off their feet with a sound that contained something of the Beatles and/or something of the Byrds. There, I already knew that we were fellow countrymen, both born in Niterói, and I started to follow “ZD” – nickname given by her fan clubs – and to buy her records from before and after, to go to her concerts and, when I became a journalist, to look for reasons to do good interviews with her.  

In 1997 I was still not free to go alone to a concert outside my city, and who knows why my father went to the one in Niterói without me. The São Paulo I frequent so much today was a distant destination back then. Times were different and there were no cell phones recording everything from the audience, much less video platforms offering excerpts or entire shows. Therefore, the July 15th concert at Sesc Pompeia was one of the many Zélia’s concerts that I missed, but that now – at least in audio form – I can hear.  

According to articles published by São Paulo newspapers that publicized Zélia Duncan’s show at Sesc Pompeia, the main attraction was Intimidade, but the setlist was well balanced between this and Zélia’s other authorial work, Zélia Duncan (Warner Music, 1994). Amusing and in a confessional tone, an intimate chat with the late Zuza Homem de Mello, curator of the project Ouvindo Estrelas, is the first track of the new record that comes out after 26 years and proves that the singer was already a great interviewee long before 2001, when she released Sortimento (Universal Music, 2001) and I, still an intern, could command the first of many interviews I did with her. 

At that time, I already loved Acesso (Warner Music, 1998) and I had been crossing the Rio-Niterói bridge in search of great shows, but I hadn’t started writing professionally yet and was deeply immersed in my fan phase. From that tour, I don’t have a photo with Zélia because, although it was taken in the dressing room of a venue in Rio, it was never delivered to me by the photographer. And the Acesso CD that I still have today has the autograph on the booklet only for my father because he ended up going to Zélia Duncan’s show in our city before me. I don’t know why. 

Certainty of Self 

During the conversation with Zuza that can be heard at the opening of Relicário: Zélia Duncan (Ao Vivo no Sesc 1997), Zélia made it clear that she had always had very well defined what was and would continue to be her journey in music: “My music has elements of folk, of blues, of funk, of soul… What I say is very important in my work!” she declared in this initial conversation that always opened the project’s editions. The mixture of sounds, rhythms, genres, and references already served as background for what, from her second album, the first with Zélia Duncan as signature, makes the biggest difference in her work: composition.  

If in her debut album, Outra Luz (Eldorado, 1990), Zélia Cristina – as she signed – included only one song of her own in the repertoire, from 1994 on, with Zélia Duncan, what she writes and “says” into the microphone became “very important”. Not by chance, it was from this second album, and with verses by Zélia and Christiaan Oyeens, the first hit of her career, “Catedral”, which was included in the soundtrack of the soap opera “A Próxima Vítima”, in 1995.  

The track swept Brazil all over, and I even learned the chords to play it in guitar circles with friends. But since I’ve never been guided by hits, it wasn’t the song that led me to find out more about Zélia Duncan. I really liked it when I got to know that sound that had something Byrds about it and ended up becoming a hit: “Enquanto Durmo” (Duncan and Oyens) was included in the soundtrack of “Salsa e Merengue” in 1997. In an interview I conducted in 2009 for a magazine that was not published, Zélia confessed that Intimidade was a challenge that served to keep her fans, including me. She said: 

“I think the Intimidade album has a huge importance for me. It was a crucial moment, maybe the first courage, because I didn’t repeat ‘Catedral’, which was from the previous album and was the most requested song even in dance music radios. Success is delicious, seductive, cunning, tempting! But I tried to move on. Naiver than today, I thought that because it had been heard before, it would be later, but it is not quite like that. People almost demand repetition! But it was a confirmation of the partnership with Christiaan and Lucina and an affirmation as an author. I lost the slice of the public that loves success more than the artist, but I gained the trust of those who listen to me to this day.” 

Although she was already a songwriter, Zélia Duncan broke through with a version. The natural path would be the hits, but something that has always guided Zélia’s career has been honesty with herself: “I said many ‘no’s’ after ‘Catedral,’ from doing a version of an Italian song with a certain place in an eight o’clock soap opera, to recording an entire album in Los Angeles, with ace American musicians. I preferred to try to find out who I was. And, yes, the choices have always been mine and I bear the consequences. The path is lonelier on one hand and more rewarding on the other, I think,” said Zélia in the same interview. 

Composing was not as simple a decision as singing. Zélia usually credits the security she conquered to “accomplices” such as Christiaan Oyens and Lucina. On stage, she has always been well accompanied by important musicians. In the same interview that I bring to light now, she also exposed, in a confessional tone: “As time went by, I was imposing myself courage? This was important, because I didn’t know exactly where I was stepping… I only knew I could lose my space. But my fear of blunting was always greater than my fear of taking risks.  

By taking risks and without fear of loneliness, in Intimidade, her third work, Zélia saw other successes being born – “Intimidade”, “Bom pra você”, among others – and the singer and composer established herself once and for all among the great voices of MPB, without being a spokesperson for only Brazilian rhythms. “When I started as Zélia Duncan, those who had known me longer said: ‘You have a voice like that, you should sing more MPB’. I am singing what I like, I want to say things through my mouth. That is how I got accomplices, speaking what I wanted to speak”, she declared to Zuza on stage at Sesc Pompeia in 1997. 


Zélia Cristina Gonçalves Moreira was born in Niterói, on October 28 1964, and went through several phases until she reached the point of filling a concert hall with so many fans repeating the verses of her songs. Raised in Brasília, as a child she heard her mother singing Elizeth Cardoso at home. The memory made her sing in shows for many years of her career “Doce de Coco,” a choro by Jacob do Bandolim that received lyrics by Hermínio Bello de Carvalho, as Zuza recalled in the chat with Zélia. Alone, she fell in love with Elis Regina. With her brothers, she went crazy about the weight of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Until she reached the timbres of Joni Mitchell, Ella Fitzgerald, and so many others who made her head.  

Zélia Cristina sang at night for many years. Then she moved to the stage as an actress, and even took part in a musical directed by Oswaldo Montenegro. At 22 she returned to Niterói, where she went to live with the real Zélia Duncan, the grandmother from whom she took – with permission – her stage name: she changed her name to have Duncan in her records. At a certain point, after the release of her debut album, she accepted an invitation to sing in Abu Dhabi, in the Arab Emirates, and spent eight months abroad, an experience that changed her way of singing: “I went there as just another Brazilian singer, but I managed to personalize that and came out as Zélia”, she told Zuza. 

And she personalized it for real. Suffice it to say that the Arabian desert inspired her during the writing of the lyric version of “Cathedral Song” (Tanita Tikaram). However, it was not at first that Zélia was able to show her talent as a composer. As Zélia Cristina, she recorded an album in which only the track “Outra Luz” was signed by her and Oyens: “I think the most important thing for me, until today, is to be a singer, to interpret, to say the words, whether they are mine or not”, she declared to Zuza right at the beginning of the conversation, before letting loose and assuming that her text is, yes, a differential in her music. 


Almost entirely of re-recordings, ZD’s first album was not part of the repertoire of the concert at Sesc Pompeia in 1997. On the other hand, the singer tried on stage the interpretation of two songs by Renato Russo that would be part of the repertoire of two future works: partnership with Dado Villa-Lobos and Renato “Negrete” Rocha, “Quase Sem Querer” was re-recorded in Acesso; and “Boomerang Blues” won the stage and a space in the CD Sortimento Vivo (Universal Music, 2002). Both opened the show and are in the digital album released now by Selo Sesc. 

The singer and composer saw the band Aborto Elétrico, Renato Russo’s first band, when she lived in Brasília, but never had the opportunity to meet him. Curiously, in the same year that he released “Catedral”, the founder of Legião Urbana had asked his bandmates to record his first solo album, The Stonewall Celebration Concert (EMI Music, 1994) and one of the highlights of the album was the re-recording, in English, of “Cathedral Song”, which Renato thought only he knew. In 2003, a posthumous record by Renato Russo entitled Presente (EMI Music, 2003) featured a duet by the singer with Zélia.  

“The duet was just a mix, but it solves the story of this song, which I find interesting. I recorded ‘Catedral’ without having the slightest idea that Renato would record it in English at Stonewall. Warner was waiting for the right moment to release my album when, on a TV show, he appeared singing ‘Cathedral Song’. I had a shock! When my record came out and ‘Cathedral’ was a hit, a mean journalist said I was an opportunist. I was really upset at the time, because it was a genuine coincidence. And later, when the song was released in Portuguese, almost nobody knew who the author, Tanita Tikaram, was, except Renato and me. That was our real encounter: liking the same song,” Zélia Duncan told me in an interview for the book “Discobiografia Legionária”, which I released in 2016. 

The first hit led to other songs of her authorship that, with each show, were becoming better known by the public. In addition to “Catedral” and reruns of “Lá Vou Eu” (Rita Lee and Luiz Carlini) and “Am I Blue For You” (Joan Armatrading), five compositions from her second album were included in Relicário: Zélia Duncan (Ao Vivo no Sesc 1997): “Não Vá Ainda”, “Sentidos”, “Nos Lençóis Desse Reggae” and “Tempestade”, all with Christiaan Oyens.  

Recording Rita Lee constantly, by the way, made me identify common characteristics with Zélia as well. In 2009, I asked if the recording of “Ambition” on the album Pelo Sabor do Gesto (Universal Music, 2009) was a kind of Rita-career-solo re-approach after Zélia’s stint with the Mutantes in 2006. “I recorded ‘Ambição’ because it is a beautiful ballad, which few people know, incredible as it may seem, and because I have always recorded Rita, since my debut record in 1990,” she answered, confirming her admiration for the work of the Queen of Rock. 

From Intimidade, she brought “Enquanto Durmo”, “Não Tem Volta”, “Bom Pra Você”, “A Diferença”, “Assim que Eu Gosto”, and “Intimidade”, all in partnership with Christiaan Oyens. Also on the album are “Experimenta”, by Zélia, Oyens and Fernando Vidal, and the compositions she co-wrote with Lucina, “Minha Fé” and “Coração na Boca”. The only song on the album that does not carry her signature, “Vou Tirar Você do Dicionário” (Itamar Assumpção and Alice Ruiz), is also on the Sesc Label record: the track inaugurated Zélia’s dive into the work of the most blessed of the São Paulo avant-garde throughout her following works, especially on the albums Pre-Pós-Tudo-Bossa-Band (Universal Music, 2005) and the Itamar tribute Tudo Esclarecido (Warner Music, 2012). 


In 2023, about to turn 59, Zélia Duncan is – or at least seems to be – much more fearless. With more than ten new albums released – her most recent is Pelespírito (Universal Music, 2021) – recently the singer and songwriter finally let go of Urca, the neighborhood in Rio where she lived for years, and assumed her corresponding love for São Paulo, the one she sang about in the re-recording of “Lá Vou Eu” (“In the city of São Paulo love is unpredictable like you”): “São Paulo is the coolest place for me and for my music,” she declared to the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo in 1997, without knowing that more than 20 years later she would be living in the city. Paulo newspaper in 1997, not knowing that more than 20 years later she would be living in the city.  

Self-assured, more athletic than ever, studious – having been seen wandering around university courses in Rio – Zélia Duncan started saying what she thinks, especially in lives during the pandemic caused by the coronavirus. Author of the book “Blessed Things I Don’t Know” (Editora Agir, 2022), she developed her speech even further, thickening her voice not so much in her singing – which is still sweet – but in the lessons she started giving about common sense, civility and humanity on stages and social networks.  

What ZD said in that same 2009 conversation when asked by me about the difference between Zélia Cristina and Zélia Duncan makes perfect sense: “One thought she was going to change the world, the other knows she can’t, and changes herself, every day, in both directions”. With all the simplicity in the world, this is star talk. And Zuza already knew this when he invited her to be one of them in the project he was curator of. There, he entered her intimacy with the intention of creating a reliquary of stories that in the future will serve as a memory of Brazilian music. 

Chris Fuscaldo is a writer, singer-songwriter, music researcher and journalist. And she is also a declared fan of Zélia Duncan.

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