Biography Guitarist - Composer - Educator
Some of my Life in Music
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Back to Brazil

William, Billy, Lilia
1992 marked my return to Brazil for 3 months and was perhaps the trip that transformed me the most. I met my partner Lilia. I became friends with Rodrigo Lessa and he taught me quite dramatically the fundamentals of Brazilian guitar. I rediscovered violão (nylon-stringed guitar) and embarked on developing classical technique and the basics of Brazilian guitar. There were shows of Rafael Rabello, Marco Pereira and Toninho Horta, plus experiencing roda do choro for the first time. Traveling around 5 cities in the 3 months led to many friends and experiences.

I had some great musical encounters in Recife with guitarists who played frevo and showed me the style by demonstrating a few of the melodies. It was exhilarating to hear electric guitar as the melodic voice shaping these fast bright melodies. As rock guitarists, there were a number of recifenses who I thought were totally amazing. There seems to be a very organic fusion of rock and Brazilian music the cities of Recife and Salvador breed. I was located for a time in the city of "Janga" in Recife's metro area staying with my friend William who was running a bar and playing in the band at the bar. This city was devastated by many forms of pollution and there was much evidence of polio. The energy to dance by all and sensuality exhibited in a baião danced by 70 year olds made a deep impression. Carnaval in Salvador followed the weeks spent in or near Recife.

Rodrigo Lessa
With a pro mini-recorder, I made tapes of many shows and jams during this time. Later I transcribed some of the recordings. Hours were spent at the Biblioteca Nacional in Rio researching guitar music of various composers. I began seeking out recordings and going to people's homes in search of music thinking that I would play and perform a Brazilian repertoire of my choosing. There were a multitude of styles and composers given practically no exposure in NYC such as Radames Gnatalli, Jacob do Bandolim and huge oeuvres of artists like Edu Lobo and Gil that contain many gems. There are tons of compositions to sift through in Brazilian popular music. The quantity of musical production is quite astounding though most material can appear very formulaic. My ears search for roads not taken, melodies that have great internal bounce. The parallels with jazz were obvious to me: the great variety of music personalities; the will towards flight; harmonic twists that prevent a fate of the same old cliche. Good jazz and Brazilian instrumental music can be seen as subversions of popular music. The directions of the sounds might not evoke the usual dichotomy of major-minor. Subtle harmonic combinations might be disturbing to the listener, encouraging thought, creating emotions that are uncomfortable. Many sequences of notes and instruments in a moving counterpoint require an educated ear or at least an open ear to start of the listener.

Back in New York, I started to study nylon-string mostly on my own and started to try repertoire out but mainly my activities were around playing jazz and developing as an improviser. Guitarist Tom Chang proved to be a huge support during this time. His style and approach to guitar really opened my ears and hands to new ways of doing things. We had many trio sessions consisting of two electric guitars and drums. Bassist John Benitez and drummer John Jenkins introduced me to the ways of afro-cuban jazz and gave great encouragement in my Brazilian music pursuits. They were constant jam session buddies during this time. The importance of understanding/playing percussion and fitting the harmonic changes neatly into the rhythmic cells of different genres of music was being explored.

Every subsequent visit to Brazil, I did research in the same manner - recording encounters and shows, going to libraries and the houses of musicians to collect music and trancriptions. I was returning for lengthy stays in Brazil to spend time with Lilia and continue my path in music. Herself a carioca, Lilia lived in Brasilia where she worked as a speech pathologist. Hearing the recordings of her efforts to affect speech from brain-damaged or hearing impaired patients, I got a certain glimpse of human sound uncontrolled by the moldings of words. The nakedness of the human utterances seemed close to intentions Albert Ayler and others have in their art. It would seem a composer and improviser often attempts to enact transformation and at the same time the preservation of a certain "raw cry." The best musicians seem to be amplifiers of those "human essences" that make us all feel more for each other, improve our capacity to empathize.

Brasilia gave me opportunities to perform a number of shows with a trio, be on the radio and learn a good deal more about choro hanging out regularly with the generous Reco do Bandolim. I also learned of police entering a bar to take a musician's instruments. If a place had no license for music, the musician was the first punished not the owner. I was used to police at times impounding an amplifier in NYC because of playing in the streets but the idea of it not being legitimate indoors was quite astounding.

On this gig where it was discovered the owner didn't have a legit license, I performed some choro on the electric guitar with pick. It was while playing Pixinguinha's "Um a Zero," backed by the incredible drumming of Erivelton Silva, that I heard 100 voices singing. It became clear how instrumental music can be a multiplier of the gestures of the human voice, can reach designs that are mergings of voices in counterpoint. A choro can be an imprint of the counterpoints of multiple personalities or moods. The musical line is an edifice of the many directions of expression, the gradations of colour, the swirls of ascents and descents that is the imprint of an active mind. It was also in Brasilia that I really started to practice a lot of pandeiro.
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©2005 Billy Newman | Brooklyn, USA |