Marc Askew writes about his two visits to Brazil during 2012-2014.
There is a lot of simplistic rubbish written about Brazil and Rio de Janeiro in particular. Rio is hot, congested and noisy, and definitely not a paradise: that is, if you are living there and not just passing through on a five-day cosmetic package tour. But the same goes for any big city in the world. What is important for me is that its musical culture is vibrant. In particular, its guitar world is rich, varied and exciting. Which explains why I put up with it (without air conditioning) for six months on my second visit to Rio. Soon after my returning to Australia (armed with music transcriptions from my Brazilian teachers and a new luthier-built 7-string guitar), my long-suffering guitar dealer Pierre Herrero suggested that I write something for his newsletter about my encounters in Brazil. So here it is, and apologies to those readers who have a deeper familiarity and experience with Brazilian guitarists and guitar makers.
Today’s Brazilian guitarists have brilliant musical heritage to uphold and develop. This heritage begins with the innovative compositions of the untutored guitarist and composer João Pernambuco in the early twentieth century (João Teixeira Guimarães,1883-1947), who mixed with and influenced two great musical luminaries of Brazil, Pixinguinha, and Heitor Villa Lobos.
The guitaristic tradition followed with Dilermando Reis, Annibal Augusto Sardinha (“Garoto”), Luiz Bonfa, Aquino “Baden Powell”, Dino 7 cordas, the extraordinarily gifted virtuoso Raphael Rabello, and today’s Yamandu Costa (these last two being doyens of the now popular nylon-string 7-string guitar), to name just a few. Although most of the players and composers just mentioned might be lumped into the category “popular musicians” playing popular “Brazilian” music, this category embraces a vast diversity of styles, technique and repertoire, including Choro, Samba, Bossa Nova, Jazz, you name it. Brazilian guitar music has always been open to external influences and styles from neighbouring countries as well as Europe (especially European romanticism), fusing them with particular rhythms and styles from various regions of the country. Prominent Latin American guitarists/composers have had a major impact. For example: Augustin Barrios had a long stay in Brazil (1915-1919). The Uruguayan classical guitarist and composer Isaías Sávio made his home in Brazil and was professor in São Paulo’s Conservatorium of Music and Drama. Among other important Brazilian guitarists, he taught Carlos Barbosa-Lima, but more interestingly Luiz Bonfa and “Toquinho”, who both became famous for their more popular, samba-inspired guitar music. Turibio Santos studied with the Uruguayan virtuoso Oscar Cacérès, himself a prominent interpreter of the work of Villa Lobos. The regional and stylistic cross-overs are fascinating. The diversity and richness of Brazilian guitaristic talent, past and present, is well illustrated in essays in the book Violões Do Brasil (with accompanying DVD), which also lists over 400 professional guitarists and seventy major guitar luthiers. If your Portuguese is up to it, then it is well worth a read. The distinction between “classical guitar” and “popular guitar” is an artificial one for Brazil. The best classical guitarists have never been snobs. There has always been a cross-over in repertoire among “classical” and “popular” guitarists in Brazil – so Turibio Santos and Carlos Barbosa-Lima have profiled well-known Choro pieces in their performances and recordings, including those by Pixinguinha, Ernesto Nazareth and Pernambuco. On the other hand, virtuosos of the seven-string guitar such as Raphael Rabello and Yamandu Costa have performed their own versions of pieces by Villa-Lobos, Barrios, Tarrega and other icons of the so-called classical repertoire. These days there are scores of great young Brazilian guitarists touring the world presenting concerts drawing on their rich repertoire – and of course, Brazilian music styles have influenced many musicians elsewhere, including Australia, Doug de Vries being an outstanding example.
My own entry into the so-called “Brazilian” guitar was through a love of the work of Baden Powell, who for me epitomizes the many strands influencing Brazilian guitar music. Having cut his teeth as a young student on Tarrega and Choro, he was equally at home performing lyrical solo pieces with subtle arpeggiated melodies (such as Retrato Braziliero) as he was jamming on sambas with a band. Thanks to the help of the Melbourne-based Brazilian guitarist Luiz Sasson, I was well on my way to a lifelong obsession.
I recently left a career in the stifling world of academia and returned to guitar music after an absence of nearly thirty years (via a ten year detour into Indian sitar music). I have found that building a repertoire in the demanding world of Brazilian guitar music is just as intimidating as writing a book, but much more fun. My first trip to Rio was an interesting one, not only for the good fortune of meeting some great guitarists (in particular Nelson Faria, a very nice guy, brilliant guitarist, and author of The Brazilian Guitar Book), but for dispelling my illusions about theonce famous Brazilian guitars made by Giannini and Di Giorgio.
To the world outside Brazil, the firm of Di Giorgio still exploits the images of the glory days of Bossa Nova, when Baden Powell, João Gilberto and Tom Jobim performed on guitars such as the “Author 3”. Though a model is still produced under this name, it is a very disappointing product, over-lacquered with massive bracing that muffles the volume and chunky, uncomfortable necks. This is not just an issue for self-deluded Gringos like me – the internet forums of Brazilian guitar enthusiasts are full of complaints about them.
There are some models and brands that are worth their prices, such as Rozini. Though some higher end models of Giannini (now mostly made in China) and some models of Di Giorgio nylon six string guitars are reasonable, but in my viewthey are not comparable even to student models of Spanish made nylon string. The same applies to seven-string models. I had some more focussed aims for my second trip, which lasted six months – after all, I had to occupy myself somehow while my Brazilian partner was at work during the day. I wanted to seek out a luthier-made seven string guitar, to find a guitar teacher, and to listen to as much music as possible. Predictably, I bought a 7-string guitar, this one made by a very good luthier, Carlos Barros, of Volta Redonda, a few hour’s drive out of Rio de Janeiro. A lot of top players of the “Violão sete cordas” prefer Leneu Bravo, of Sao Paulo, but he was way beyond my budget. Anyway, as with everything, you get what you pay for.
On both visits to Rio I missed the study term for the famous Choro school (Escola Portátil de Música) and the renowned 7-string guitarist Mauricio Carrilho was too busy – BUT there are many other great guitarists, and I was fortunate to encounter guitarists Patrick Angelo in Rio, and Daniel Miranda in Petropolis, who gave me valuable guidance on negotiating the demands of playing Choro pieces on the 7-string guitar. Both of them are great performers, and there are many others I could mention. So I had the inspiration, the rest has been simply hard work, which goes on and on and on.
It’s both a blessing and curse to be interested in playing many styles of music, but such is my lot. The great Spanish repertoire for classical guitar is another of my obsessions, but I’ll talk about my encounters in Spain in another article.
Marc Askew is a guitar performer and teacher based in Woodend, Victoria. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.