It took Claudia Leitte two years to perfect one song, her latest single, “Carnaval,” featuring Pitbull. “‘Carnaval’ is a reflection of everything I come from,” which is why it took the Salvador, Bahia singer-songwriter so long to deliver her festive anthem. For Leitte, it was crucial to keep her native Brazilian axé elements on a record with all the sonic nuts and bolts of a pop track.
On the precipice of political turmoil, Leitte understands our global community hungers more than ever before to communicate something, and she feels music is the most effective way to go about it. “It’s a time to recognize that we need each other. It’s so necessary to listen to other kinds of rhythms and music. I think it’s what’s supposed to happen now, which is why it is happening. It will lead to other conversations.”
Under the Roc Nation flagship, Leitte is readying a new album, which promises to go beyond traditional Brazilian sounds and dip into the new Latin wave. Until then, Billboard catches up with the carnival queen on all things music and growing up in the Afrocentric municipality of Salvador, Bahia — her biggest influence yet.
What was it like growing up in your household?
It was equal parts love and work. I think I grew up watching my mother work all the time, which was inspiring. It was a very simple but amazing childhood. I’m reflecting now as you ask me that question and all I can feel is grateful.
Because it made me strong, it inspired me to write — to write the songs I sing about now. It was an amazing place, filled with amazing people.
Who are you biggest musical influences?
I have several, but the first name that comes to mind is Maria Bethania. She’s also from Bahia, where I’m from. She’s an amazing singer. She knows how to be on a stage as a star, but she’s simple. Her style is simple but so magical, and it resonates. She’s very intense on stage, she invites you to her world when she performs live, and you feel like you’re living in her world.
As one of today’s biggest performers of axé music — which is an Afro-Indigenous genre that takes its name from the Yoruba term áse — was it a conscious decision to work within that genre?
I feel I didn’t choose the music, the music chose me. I grew up in a place in Salvador, Bahia which is totally surround by axé music. It originated here. In fact, the biggest percussion band in Brazil rehearsed every Tuesday behind my house. The music was always there, literally in my backyard. There was no way to escape from it, and I love it because it’s the music from my roots. The area I grew up in was very African.
Is performing axé music a way for you to honor that?
Of course, Bahia is very African.
Talk about your new single, “Carnaval,” featuring Pitbull.
The song is a gift to me. Pitbull came into my life when I was in the middle of the negotiations for the last World Cup, for the opening ceremony. We became friends, and he introduced me to this song, which caught me right away. We worked very hard to get this Brazilian flavor in the background, because it had to also sound like pop music. It’s in English, in Spanish — it’s totally different.
I was very focused on keeping my roots, on keeping the drums, the sounds from Brazil and from Bahia specifically. It was very important for me to keep the elements of the axé music. I worked on this song for two years. The mastering, the mixing, all of it was very different. I learned so much in the two years that I worked on the song. “Carnaval” is a reflection of everything I come from.
Do you think that it’s a contender for this year’s World Cup?
I’m not sure. We never talk about it, actually. But I am very open to it. “Carnaval” is for the world. I think everyone deserves to be part of this party. It’s very much a part of my Brazilian culture, but I believe that the two million people in Brazil dancing and celebrating Carnaval is not enough. The whole word needs to be a part of this.
What are your plans with Roc Nation?
There’s a new album on the way. I’m not exactly working on it at the moment, I’m working song by song. But naturally, there will be an album.
With all the music that is happening now in Latino America, with all the fusions and evolutions of reggaeton and trap en Español for example, do you plan on doing more outside your genre?
We have a plan to work outside Brazil, yes. It’s more than evolution. It’s a time to recognize that we need each other. It’s so necessary to listen to other kinds of rhythms and music. I think it’s what’s supposed to happen now, which is why it is happening. It will lead to other conversations. People want to communicate something. This is how we do it, with music.