by Julia Crowe
How does it feel to you to be performing in New York after the experiences you’ve had touring the world over?
It’s a dream. I grew up in Brazil, where it is everyone’s dream to play one day in New York. My brother and I listened to lots of New York jazz artists as kids — one of our heroes was George Benson. We used to listen to the album of his where he is standing in the crossroad of a New York Street [The Other Side of Abbey Road]. We stared at that cover picture every day, soaking in every detail of the cars and the shops. In fact, my brother tried to reconstruct the moment by having a similar photo of himself taken in a crosswalk in São Paolo. Because I have never played before in New York, it will be a historic moment for me. So many great musicians travel to New York City to perfect their music and get to know other wonderful musicians. It will be an amazing thing.
You are known to be an avid collector of musical instruments from all over the world. What is it that captures your imagination first when you make a new discovery — is it the tonal quality of the instrument or the indigenous, cultural rhythm associated with that particular instrument?
Whenever I pick up a new instrument, I try to link it to Brazilian music. Take for example the Gnawa sintir (a West African lute). Its rhythms are very similar to at least three Brazilian rhythms: the samba, afoxé and baião. This is not entirely surprising, as the Gnawan people share a similar history with Afro-Brazilians — both arrived in Morocco as slaves and brought with them their religious and musical traditions.
I’ve tried learning to sing some Gnawan chants, though I don’t know what the lyrics mean. I met some musicians from Morocco who revealed to me they didn’t know what the lyrics meant either. In Brazil, we sing a lot of African music though we don’t know the meaning of it. In truth, the lyrics are not as important as the trance-like state created by these rhythms in both African and Afro-Brazilian music, particularly the candomblé. This kind of music is for the healing moments.
I can trace rhythmical roots very easily when I hear them. The southern Italian tammuriata sounds close to the music and rhythms of northeastern Brazil. And the Egyptian maqsoum and Brazilian maxixe rhythms sound practically the same but played with different melodies.
It’s funny how we get caught up in our perspectives. I had run into some Egyptian musicians and played with them because the rhythm sounded so very Brazilian and when they found out I was not Egyptian, this musician said to me, “Oh, you know, there is a Brazilian rhythm that is just like ours.” [Laughter] So he confirmed what I had been thinking all along myself.
I prefer to speak in terms of ethnic music rather than “world music.” Every country has its distinctive musical form. In Ecuador, it’s the pasillo; in Argentina, it’s the milonga and tango, chacarera and zamba argentina; the cumbia in Colombia; the joropos of Venezuela, and the guarania and polka in Paraguay. I try to incorporate all these into my own style.
What connection and experience have you personally drawn between percussion, rhythm and the guitar? I’ve heard rhythm described in simple terms as the backbone or clothesline for a melody — how would you define it?
For me, rhythm is inside your heart, even if you don’t play an instrument. It’s your pulse and every country seems to have its own pulse, whether it be Italian, Moroccan or French. In Italy, I noticed the landscape of rhythms, tastes and sounds change every 100 kilometers. Indian classical music is amazing — they have a pulse called a tala that can run up to 56 beats with long solos. For Brazilian music, if you can count, 1-2-1-2, you can pretty much play anything.
I’ve found some confusion with rhythm out there in publication of Brazilian music where they try to notate it in terms of a 4/4 beat. That’s not going to work. The Brazilian pulse is in 2/4 time. I’ve discussed this with Argentinian musicians, who have told me the correct time signature for the tango is 4/4. You can’t really change this pulse.
As far as percussion and the guitar goes — take any Brazilian musician — whether they play a piano or a cello, they are going to find a way to turn their instrument into a percussion instrument as well. Perhaps it saves us from dragging a drum around. The great Brazilian musician Hermeto Pascoal will play anything. He gives me a lot of inspiration.
You should see my guitar — it is really beat up! When I touch its strings, I can hear all the instruments I once played as a child, including the frying pan I used to play on in samba school and for Carnaval, the pandiero (tambourine), the surdo (bass drum), the agogo bells, shaker, tamborim (small tambourine without the jingles), cuica (friction instrument), reco-reco (scrapper), and caixa (snare.) Samba school is an informal neighborhood gathering that aspires toward the annual samba competition for Carnaval, covering all aspects from dance to costumes and music.
I love to imitate the sounds of all these instruments on the guitar and also I imitate percussion with my mouth. You know how most musicians become excited when they play, they start making strange noises? One time, I was in a recording studio and did not realize I was making all sorts of funny little noises with my mouth until the recording engineer stopped and said, “I wonder what that strange sound is I’m hearing?”
You’d have to put a towel in my mouth to make me stop. As my body can’t help itself, I’ve adopted the idea of creating percussion with my mouth. If you’ve ever listened to the pianist Keith Jarrett, he also makes a lot of noise but it’s an interesting noise.
One of your first teachers, Oscar M. Guerra, studied with Atillio Bernardini, who studied with the Argentinian guitarist Josefina Robledo, who studied with the legendary Francisco Tárrega. What particular technique did you learn through this impressive lineage?
My teacher Guerra was very traditional with regard to the position of the hands. Now I have discovered other right hand techniques. Watching Julian Bream and John William gave me a lot to discover. I had a good beginning but I had to look in other places as well. I’ve seen so many teachers and everyone has different hands. For this reason, I think it is important to find someone with an open mind. Some teachers are very rigid, telling you that right hand and left hand technique must be done in a certain way, this way, the only way. I think this attitude was probably most true forty years or so ago.
Today is different. There are so many great young players out there who are so good. I think the guitar is picking up some good energy.