Week after week, Patrick de Santos and Richard Miller bring the expansive sounds of Brazil to a small alcove on U Street.

It’s 10 o’clock Wednesday night at U Street NW’s Chi-Cha Lounge. A voluble crowd of smartly turned-out 20-somethings packs the club’s sofas and upholstered chairs like early-bird shoppers on the opening day of a Pottery Barn furniture clearance. Peering inside, passers-by might conclude that they were witnessing a house party in full swing.

Patrick and Richard, who have been performing at Chi-Cha for the past 18 months, are stationed in a niche just inside and slightly to the right of the club’s open front door. Although one might assume from their names that they are Gaelic balladeers, the voice-and-guitar duo creates vibrant, virtuosic Brazilian music that might even startle audiences at Rio nightspots.

Working at Chi-Cha can hardly be considered a dream gig. There’s no spotlight to focus attention on the musicians. Patrons entering and exiting the club pass directly in front of the dim corner where Patrick and Richard perform. Intermittently, couples gyrate a few feet away from the duo, attempting, with varying degrees of success, to emulate samba dancing. Farther back, the conversation level rises and is pierced by peals of laughter. Nevertheless, the room pulsates with the music’s energy, inspiring even those whose attention is focused elsewhere to applaud when each song ends.

Patrick’s voice is an extraordinarily flexible instrument, ranging from velvety low tones to crystalline high notes and topped by a sparely used, astonishing sirenlike falsetto. He reinforces the galloping samba melodies with two kinds of percussion: vocal sounds that mimic everything from drum solos to jungle noises, and his manipulation of an assortment of chocalhos, handheld shakers. Richard supplements the bracing rhythmic chords of his amplified guitar with occasional backup vocals. Together, they create an orchestral sound that renders additional instrumentation superfluous.

Drawing on a 120-song repertoire that ranges from Antonio Carlos Jobim’s classic bossa novas to compositions by Djavan, Gilberto Gil, Joao Bosco, and other contemporary Brazilian songwriters, Patrick and Richard strike a remarkable balance between disciplined technique and emotional abandon. They provide no audience-wooing introductions or between-song patter, and they sing almost exclusively in Portuguese. Nevertheless, they communicate so fully that people leaving the club can’t resist rewarding them with hugs and kisses.

Patrick de Santos was born in the Cape Verde Islands, off the west coast of Senegal. His earliest musical influences were Motown records broadcast on African radio. At 6, he moved to France, where he was raised by aunts and uncles and educated at boarding schools. He spent two years studying voice at a classical music conservatory in Metz, France, and subsequently tutored privately with Charles Millaud, a disciple of Seth Riggs, whose method of singing, an extension of bel canto technique, has been adopted by opera singers and rock stars. From Millaud, he learned how to place each note physically for it to resonate properly, to shift seamlessly from chest to head tones, and to hit notes commonly thought to be impossible.

From 1989 to 1994, de Santos taught vocal technique at the Centre Musical Creatif in Nancy, France, then the biggest music school in Europe. “I was exposed to all sorts of student vocal problems,” he recalls, “and learned more about singing than I did in my formal training.” In 1994, he spent a year in Cincinnati, Nancy’s American sister city, as part of an exchange program. There he taught a master class at the prestigious University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and sang in jazz clubs, inspired by his long-held admiration for American singers (Bobby McFerrin, Al Jarreau, Eddie Jefferson, Ella Fitzgerald) and instrumentalists (Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, and, especially, Miles Davis).

Taking a break from music, de Santos traveled in Africa for four months, then ended up in Paris performing with a salsa band and recording radio jingles. After a professionally unproductive three-month sojourn in London, he came to Washington to appear in a Bastille Day celebration sponsored by the French Embassy. “I wasn’t supposed to stay here,” he recalls, “but I got an opportunity to study jazz at Howard University.”

He met Richard Miller at a party given by mutual friends in Georgetown and sang two songs with him. Miller was performing with a Brazilian quartet at the 18th Street Lounge. The lead singer was leaving to spend four months in Sao Paolo, and de Santos, although he had never sung Brazilian music, substituted for him. With Miller’s help, de Santos quickly learned the band’s repertoire—a task made easier because Portuguese, spoken in the Cape Verde Islands, was his first language and, as a teenager, he had studied guitar, the basic musical instrument of Brazil.

Miller was born and raised in Rio by a musical family. His mother, a language teacher, plays piano, and his Tennessee-bred father, a journalist, sings in choirs and amateur musical-theater productions. His uncle, Sidney Miller, was a composer and lyricist.

The family moved to Tennessee when he was 15. From there, Miller went on to New York, where he earned a master’s degree in classical guitar at the Manhattan School of Music—an experience that he found more frustrating than inspiring. “My teacher, Sharon Isbin, demanded that I change my technique but refused to show me how to make the transition. I practiced the new method eight hours a day but still couldn’t get through a single piece. In the long run, my playing benefited, but I disliked the school’s atmosphere of cutthroat competition. The emphasis was placed on how fast you could play, rather than a love of music. It was like attending a trade school or a technical school. I really hated it.” He speaks with more enthusiasm about his subsequent private studies with Brazilian guitarist Carlos Barbosa-Lima: “Carlos has a passion for music that infects and inspires you.”

In 1991, Miller blended his classical and Brazilian training in two successful solo concerts, one in Brazil and one in Washington at the Brazilian-American Cultural Institute. The same year, he enrolled in the music doctoral program at Catholic University, where he is presently working on a dissertation about the role of the guitar in choro, a turn-of-the-century Brazilian instrumental musical form that parallels American ragtime but continues to evolve. To support himself, Miller began playing solo gigs at area restaurants, performing music by Jobim and other bossa nova composers.

A month after de Santos joined the 18th Street Lounge quartet, Miller was approached by the management of Montego Bay to appear at the 18th Street NW restaurant and club with another musician of his choice. In February 1998, Patrick and Richard began working as a duo on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the club—an engagement that lasted for a year and a half. In January 1999, they added Wednesday nights at Chi-Cha. They now appear Thursdays at Bambule, on upper Wisconsin Avenue and, starting Sept. 12, will be doing Tuesday nights at Rocky’s Cafe, on Columbia Road NW.

Although de Santos responds guardedly to personal questions, he forcefully articulates his artistic convictions: “In music,” he says, “emotional content is all that matters to me. I don’t believe in showing off technique as an end in itself or in the will to prove how good you are. Anytime you put technique and technology in the front of your mind, you’ve already lost the battle. You have to pay equal attention to both lyrics and musical content. Richard and I incorporate improvisation into our music, not by taking long solos but by bending melodies, reshaping the forms of our songs, and resisting the impulse to repeat ourselves.”

Miller tends to be more spontaneous and rather self-effacing. “Because of my academic background, improvisation doesn’t come easy to me. Patrick has kicked my ass to start practicing again and play more freely, and I’ve been studying jazz guitar with Paul Wingo. When I play, I attempt to eliminate all other thoughts in order to breathe, feel, and listen to the music. You have to achieve absolute concentration and forget about who you are and how you are being perceived. I’ve never had a more inspiring musical experience than working with Patrick. Nothing else even comes close. He’s also given me some vocal lessons. I’ve always wanted to sing but was never really serious about it. Now I’m singing as part of the duo, though I can’t ever see myself as a solo vocalist.”

“Richard and I are good friends,” de Santos says. “We share a lot of ideas about what it means to live at the end of the 20th century. We’re both vegetarians. We’re concerned about corporation control of the workplace and about civil and women’s rights.” They also concur on the direction of their careers, refusing to compromise the integrity of their music. Two record labels have offered them contracts that they have turned down for artistic—and, they concede, financial—reasons. They have written and rehearsed some original compositions but have decided not to perform them publicly until they make their CD debut.

Asked about the duo’s goals, de Santos is quick to respond: “To be successful recording artists and never to be forced to eat at McDonald’s.” CP

More from WCP