Paris café culture with a Latin groove grows in Minnesota

Members of Cafe' Societe' include from left to right Michael Chergosky, Amelia Rivera and Mark Chergosky.  photo courtesy Café Societé

It’s 4,203 miles from Minneapolis to Paris. So I need to rely on Café Societé for my sample of the Paris jazz scene. I profile the lead vocalist of the new band in a new episode of Minnesota Sounds and Voices today on All Things Considered.

Amelia Rivera, who is in her final year as a voice student at the University of Minnesota School of Music, has decided to follow her muse and become a jazz vocalist. A classically trained soprano, Rivera wants to give Minnesota music lovers a taste of the Paris jazz scene. She describes the band’s music as Latin-infused Paris café-style jazz, a fusion of Latin rhythms and French lyrics.

“Amazing French bossa novas or like ballads that sound like any bolero,” she said.

Born in Bogota, Colombia, Rivera was raised in Guatemala. She fell in love with Paris while living in France as a high school student.

She landed in Minnesota because her father lived here for a decade while studying to for his Ph.D. in anthropology. Both dad and mom are back in Guatemala.

At U of M, Rivera studies with music professor Wendy Zaro-Mullins, who attended the Juilliard School and the Conservatorio di Milano in Italy. Zaro-Mullins has performed on concert hall stages around the world and in the United States with the San Francisco Opera, American Opera Center, and Eugene Opera in Oregon.

Associate professor and voice teacher Wendy Zaro-Mullins helps student Amelia Rivera Barreto memorize her sheet music. (MPR Photo/Amanda Snyder)

In 2010 Zaro-Mullins entered the jazz realm with a CD titled “Fly Home Little Heart,” where she collaborated with Twin Cities jazz pianist and composer Laura Caviani. She’s taken her student’s change of direction in stride.

In any genre, Zaro-Mullins said, vocalists need to master the skill of storytelling.

“Whether you are telling it in jazz or a Fauré song, it’s the same idea,” she said, “conveying the text. And that’s what we emphasize here.”

One of Rivera’s musical idols is vocalist Edith Piaf, who rose to international stardom in the 1940s as a symbol of France’s survival during World War II. Piaf attracted fans from around the world who admired her passionate vocal technique.

Rivera, 24, began singing with Café Societé after seeing a Craig’s List ad by Mark Chergosky of St. Paul. Chergosky, who supplements his income as a professional musician with substitute teaching in the St. Paul public schools, was looking for a vocalist.

Rivera responded and the rest is history. She said Parisian café-style jazz songs are filled with all the universal themes: love won and lost, and a lot of humor.

Café Societé also is working on a piece sung from the point of view of a Parissiene upset with the banality of it all.

“Complaining about the pollution, about the millions of tourists taking the same pictures, the lovers always kissing on the bridges, and the accordions,” Rivera said. “And all these cheesy Paris things. But at the end of the day, ‘but we love you, Paris.'”

In the spirit of Paris café culture, the band frequently performs at Twin Cities coffee houses. This weekend they hit the road for a Saturday night gig in Alexandria.