Kaki King on Four Gallons of Red Bull

So here’s the question I was asking myself on Saturday evening, January 26, 2008, especially around the time I hit Albany and it began snowing: What is it about Brazilian guitar music that would make me want to drive six hours down from northern Vermont to Manhattan to watch a marathon of Brazilian guitarists?

No disrespect to Argentina and Uruguay and Paraguay and all those other South American countries. They’ve all produced some excellent guitarists and some fine music. But I wouldn’t have made that drive down, and then a six-hour drive back up the following evening, if the traditional Guitar Marathon of the New York Guitar Festival had been eight hours of Argentine guitarists, or Uruguayan guitarists, or for that matter guitarists from almost any other country in the world. So what is it about Brazil, and Brazilian music, and especially Brazilian guitar music? 

During the sound check next morning, while the 92nd Street Y echoed with Portuguese (which sounds like Italian being spoken by Russians), I asked the Brazilians themselves. 

“Anthropophagy,” said Arthur Kampela—a man worth listening to, as he (a) was born and brought up in Brazil, (b) he has a Ph. D. in composition from Columbia, and (c) he’s a wild man. Anthropophagy means cannibalism. 

Well, not literally. Brazil’s history was unique in South America for at least a couple of reasons. 

First, when Pope Alexander VI and the Treaty of Tordesillas divided the world in half, giving one hemisphere to the Spanish and the other to the Portuguese, the dividing line, instead of passing cleanly through the Atlantic from north to south, chopped Brazil off the eastern bulge of South America. Thus Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese, who were in general rather more liassez-faire than the Spanish, and also had a particular fondness for small stringed instruments. 

Second, many of those early Portuguese settlers in Brazil went in search of diamonds, rubies and emeralds—unlike the Spaniards in other nearby countries, who had orders to convert everyone to Christianity and burn all those who refused. Different kettle of fish altogether. 

As a result, Kampela explained, repeatedly tucking his shoulder-length hair back behind his ears, from the earliest days Brazil had an unusually egalitarian mixing of cultures—European, African, Indian. Some of the country’s first major composers, artists and musicians were black. It’s hard to think of another country that has a figure like that of Xica da Silva, an eighteenth-century black slave. She was married by Joao Fernandes de Oliveira, a Portuguese diamond-merchant and one of the richest men in the world. He treated her as an equal, showered her with riches and made her the unofficial empress of Brazil. 

“The country was born mixing,” he said, and that mixture meant that Brazilians have a long history of taking European cultural influence but giving it a very Braziian flavor—or, as he put it, a kind of cultural cannibalism: “We have to swallow the European and—excuse me—vomit it back.” 

In guitar terms, that means that even though the guitar was a folk instrument, that didn’t mean it was looked down upon—as it was in, say, the United States, where until 1956 it was largely the instrument of hillbillies, singing cowboys and poor blacks. Nor was folk music in Brazil a second – or even third-class music. It was the music of all the people; Brazilian music was music without class distinctions. 

“The guitar,” Kampela said, “participated in the evolution of the Brazilian consciousness.” 

Hmmm. That sounds all very grand, but what did it mean in practical terms? What of the afternoon’s performers—Badi Assad; Sergio and Odair Assad, co-curators of the event and widely seen as the best classical guitar duo in the world; Kampela himself; Romero Lubambo with his wife, the singer Pamela Driggs; Celso Machado; Fabio Zanon; and Yamandu Costa, rumored to be the best young guitarist in Brazil? Would they be as amazing as I’d assumed they would be, simply by being Brazilian? And if so, what did that say about Brazil, and the guitar? 

The key to Brazilian guitar, it seems to me, was touched on by Liberty Ellman and Jamie Fox, two American guitarists who played in the evening show in Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio. 

“Brazilian music is one of the biggest challenges,” Ellman said. “It’s the guitar gymnastics, yes, but it works at such a high level on so many levels—melodically, harmonically, rhythmically. The soul of it is so huge.” 

“Yet no matter how sophisticated it gets,” Fox agreed, “it’s still folk music.” 

That’s the thing: in Brazilian music, the guitarist is invested in all aspects of the music. He or she plays not only the melody but also those glorious unresolved Brazilian chords, caught between melancholy and ecstasy. The chords alone are worth the price of admission. While Romero Lubambo was playing, I think that, for a fraction of a second, I saw an E major chord, but then it was gone—and in any case it was sandwiched between other chords not found in any simple alphabet, alphanumeric chords, each one a whole sentence in itself. 

It struck me that I could hire one music school grad student to watch a bluegrass concert in one hall and another one to watch a Brazilian concert next door, and I could have the students make a list of all the chords played in the entire show at both events, and the two shows wouldn’t have a single chord in common. 

Yet even while playing melody and rhythm the guitarist also provides that unmistakable rhythmic drive, that soul spark. The left hand is often not just playing the notes and chords but bouncing them, so the right and left hands can create different rhythms at the same time. 

Celso Machado took rhythm so far it eventually moved off the guitar altogether. He started out by doing mouth percussion while he was playing—everyone was looking all around for the invisible percussionist with the soft shaker—and ended up doing a kind of Roland Kirk virtuoso performance, simultanously playing two different tropical birds and a thunderstorm. 

To do all these things at once demands, as Ellman said, amazing skills—skills that combine elements that in the U.S. are rarely found in the same band, let alone the same musician. 

Even though the U.S. is in some respects a guitar nation (more guitars are bought each year than all other instruments combined), it’s a very different kind of guitar nation. 

Brazil has less division between classical and jazz, jazz and folk. As a result, almost every guitarist plays fingerstyle, even electric guitarists; almost everyone plays a classical-style guitar with nylon strings; and since Garoto (1915-1955) almost everyone of any substance has learned at least a little classical playing technique. Okay, let’s add that up and imagine a classified ad in your local paper: Wanted: solo guitarist with strong classical technique capable of playing enchanting folk-music melodies over complex chords in a rhythm so infectious it’ll get everyone dancing. In the United Sates, all too often the solo guitarist is the one just starting out, making at best a borderline living. In Brazil, the solo guitarist is the finished product. 

Then there’s the voice. There’s a strong sense in the U.S. that the guitar and the voice should not compete: a great singer may in fact be a mere strummer, and the fancy guitar break is usually arranged to fall between verses as an instrumental. In Brazilian music, the voice is simply another added dimension to the guitar: Badi Assad sings astoundingly, but all the while she’s playing chords, runs, counter-melodies—enough to be a handful for most instrumentalists. 

And one last thing: most of these people are playing standard classical guitars with the most straightforward of amplification and not elecntronic effects. The whole implicit message is: respect the guitar. 

What’s more, as in Brazilian soccer, there’s tremendous respect for spontaneity, freedom, joie de vivre. Even the classical players (the Assads, Fabio Zanon) were entirely free of that Segovian pompousness. And then there’s Yamandu Costa. Backstage gossip reported that he sat in the green room playing along with everything that the other guitarists were playing on stage, note for note, or even spontaneously improvising harmonies, playing strictly by memory and by ear. I can believe it: during the first piece he played onstage (which ranged from deliciously lyrical to ferociously fast) someone’s cell phone rang. He immediately played along with the cell phone ringtone, and then began playing another completely different piece, without a pause and without music. 

But the last word should go to Arthur Kampela. I was curious to see the results of his own anthropophagy. What traditions had he devoured, coming from Brazil to do a Ph.D. in composition from Columbia, and what would he—excuse me—vomit back up? 

What he played was the most avant-garde music of the show. He played his Percussion Studies, Numbers 1, 2 and 4 (a hopelessly inadequate title, they should be renamed “The Flight of the Platypus,” or perhaps “Kaki King On Four Gallons of Red Bull”) using tapping effects, using a spoon, playing with the strings bent off the side of the fingerboard, one of the pieces ending with a noise like a Geiger counter—yet unlike most avant-garde music, he never lost a sense of joy, of surprise, of that infectious rhythm. 

It was clearly the work of a madman, but, equally clearly, of a Brazilian madman. 


Tim Brookes is the author of Guitar: An American Life and is director of the Professional Writing Program at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont.

Tim tries to figure out how Odair Assad manages to play so many notes at the same time.


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