And when she recorded Meet Tetel with some top Brazilian jazz musicians, including pianist and arranger Daniel Grajew, she was only starting out as a vocalist—barely a year removed from an orchestral concert at which she sang for the very first time. “If I had thought it out, I wouldn’t have done it,” she says of her rendition of “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” “I had never sung anything outside of my house before!”
Plus, to top off this list of amazements, she had never previously written anything but personal poetry when she wrote the words and music for all but one of the songs on Meet Tetel.
But here she is, poised to command an international following on the esteemed, digitally revitalized American label, Arkadia Records, which has been home to such greats as Benny Golson, David Liebman, Billy Taylor, and Joanne Brackeen—but only one other vocalist.
“When I first listened to her songs, I was really taken with a certain quality of sound she had,” says Arkadia founder Bob Karcy, who produced Meet Tetel. “And then when I got deeper into her original songs, I got really excited. I loved the unique, ironic twist of her lyrics, her sense of humor, her original musical accents.”
The artist’s performing name, which she created to mark her “rebirth” as a jazz artist, itself embodies those qualities. Born as Marcela Venditti, she took Tetel (teh-TELL) from the way she mispronounced her name as a little girl and Babuya (baa-boo-ya) from a scat phrase she used, adding the “Di” to pay tribute to her Italian heritage.
“I wanted an odd name that made people scratch their head trying to pin it down,” she says. “The fact that Babuya sounds a bit like baboon, as some people have said, is a plus! And Tetel makes me feel like everyone knows me since I was born, because only my family used to call me that. It’s very amusing to me hearing other people use it. It’s like a little personal joke.
“I also thought of Babuya as an alternate universe, an imaginary land of peace, love, and music.”
In her parallel world, beloved standards can undergo lively transformations. With a wink and a nod to “Lullaby of Birdland,” Tetel’s original “Lullaby of Loveland” glorifies the act of singing. While writing the tune, she says, she started thinking about being a bird and being free. “Once you came / Songs just burst / In my brain,” she sings. “Now I’m strong enough to free / The caged up bird in me / That always meant to sing.”
On her upbeat original, “Willow, Don’t You Weep,” Tetel trades in the rueful emotion of “Willow Weep for Me” for a knowing statement of going with the flow: “Willow, you’re so wise / So you must surely know / Trouble always comes / Trouble always goes.”
Even when she is down in the dumps on “Hello Hon,” a songwriter struggling with a “disheartening tune” and finding that “even singing isn’t fun,” she is only a phrase or two away from smiling: “I cannot improvise / The simplest song without you / But surely, by the time / This final verse is done / You’ll be on our doorstep / Waving ‘Hello, Hon.”
“I’m a hopeless romantic,” says Tetel, whose husband, classical violinist Igor Sarudiansky, shot all the photography and helped produce the album, featuring arranger and pianist Daniel Grajew, bassist and guitarist Nilton Leonarde, drummer Emilio Martins, and saxophonist, trumpeter, and trombonist Richard Fermino. But as she testifies on “Not About Love,” her desire to write more than love songs can be a losing battle: “I’ve come to terms / I’ll never find a new motif / He just pops up / He disrupts me / It’s all about love / It’s all about him / I just can’t win / Baby haunts me.”
Marcela Venditti [now Tetel Di Babuya] was born on March 14, 1986 in Araçatuba, São Paulo, Brazil, the youngest of three sisters. She caught the music bug early from her father, a psychopharmacologist who was a drummer, singer, and pianist in his youth. When she was seven years old, her family moved to California, where her father taught at Stanford University for two years. Her excellent English can be traced back to her time spent in America.
After her family returned to Brazil, her father enrolled Tetel in violin classes—at a school founded by and named after Antonio Carlos Jobim—and actively participated in her music education, taking her to classes, rehearsals, and concerts.
“Once I had music in my life, I never really felt alone,” Tetel writes on her blog on teteldibabuya.com. “Music developed my sense of self and paved the way for me to become the adult I am now.” It also gave her an outlet to express the emotional struggles she went through growing up.
She began playing violin in orchestras at the tender age of 13 and also played in various school bands. American and British pop music being an integral part of Brazilian culture, she listened to artists such as Elton John, the Bee Gees, and Carole King. But, she says, “I was never much into rock.” As for her father’s love of jazz, that wasn’t much of an influence on her since he listened to his music through earphones. Classical music played a dominant role in her life.
Tetel attended the University of São Paulo, where she acquired a Bachelor’s Degree in Violin, and then São Paulo State University, where she acquired a Master’s Degree in Music. Then it came time to pursue a career as a musician—a choice there was never any doubt about. “Music was always a part of my life,” she says. “It never occurred to me to do anything else. There is nothing else I would rather do.
“My parents were very supportive of me, but my father was a bit worried about me succeeding in such a difficult field,” she says. But she was quickly performing with various symphony orchestras including the Chamber Orchestra of University of São Paulo, the Heliopolis Symphony Orchestra, the University of São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra (with whom she toured Europe and Brazil).
She also has performed in a São Paulo production of The Phantom of the Opera and was a soloist with the Limiar String Orchestra, the Pocos de Caldas Festival Orchestra, and the Laetare String Orchestra.
Her infatuation with jazz didn’t come out of nowhere. “I loved the album Ella and Louis as a kid,” she says, referring to the classic by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. “I pressed play,” she writes on her blog, “and the world was suddenly made of rainbows and vanilla. I’ll never forget that feeling, what a combination of voices, players, style, compositions, arrangements, and production. They made my heart want to sing.”
“Years later, when I started listening to different jazz recordings in my early twenties,” she says, “I just got carried away by them. I loved improvisation, doing what you did in the moment, not doing the same thing twice. I loved all the ways jazz could take in samba and blues and swing.” Though she hadn’t listened to many jazz violinists—she only recently discovered Regina Carter—her natural sense of swing made up for her lack of such “schooling.”
Making the switch to jazz from classical music was not easy. As difficult as its demands were, classical music was her safety zone. She had been playing it most of her life. But the exciting possibilities offered by jazz were impossible to resist. So were new pop-leaning discoveries of hers like Amy Winehouse (an influence not only with her singing but also her writing), Norah Jones, and Melody Gardot.
When she made the decision to sing herself, Tetel says, her love of Ella (as well as Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Sarah Vaughan) helped her overcome her doubts. “That form of artistic expression spoke to the very core of me, and I just knew I had to try and sing the best I could. I didn’t care if I had a good voice or a bad voice, I simply had to sing.”
As she demonstrates on the album’s one nonoriginal, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” Tetel has more than a “good” voice. Her lustrous, affecting, utterly distinctive treatment of the Gershwin classic finds her in total command of her material—an emotional world away from her “Breezy, upbeat, merry / Happy, free, and easy” tunes, to steal a lyric from her “Upright Lad Blues.”
Her early efforts were boosted by pianist Daniel Grajew. “I called him and said I like to sing,” she says. “Will you come play with me?” They started recording songs, and when they had enough, put together an album.
Because most of the tunes are in English (her live performances are in both English and Portuguese), she was doubtful she would find an audience for the album in Brazil. “I didn’t think anyone would listen to it,” she says. “I didn’t know how to move forward.”
But with the help of a publicist who researched jazz labels with her, Tetel decided to send the recording to Arkadia, with which she was familiar from listening to some of its albums. “The style and sincerity of her inquiry piqued my attention, and I listened and heard something special and unique in the material she sent me,” says Bob Karcy, recipient of four Grammy Award nominations, who signed her to an exclusive deal. He and his new client worked for months through Zoom refining her vocal interpretations and recording her for state-of-the-art sound quality for the Arkadia release, and voilà!
“She’s a phenom, a gifted musician,” continues Karcy, “and I know she’s only going to get better and better.” World, meet Tetel! •