Fuse Music Preview: Guinga Comes to Berklee

“He’s someone who appears only once in a hundred years.”—Hermeto Pascoal

By J. R. Carroll

Guinga Meets Berklee
Thursday, December 12, 8:15 p.m.
Berklee Performance Center
Boston, MA

Like fellow Brazilian Toninho Horta, Guinga is a virtuoso guitarist and composer with a harmonic voiceprint that is instantly recognizable. Notwithstanding Hermeto’s metaphorical celebration of his uniqueness, Guinga does make more frequent live appearances, but he hasn’t been in town since he performed at Scullers in 2005.

Given his prolonged absence, Guinga’s return to Boston constitutes a major musical event—and Berklee is going all out to ensure that it will be exactly that.

Flutist Fernando Brandão, guitarist John Stein, and bassist Oscar Stagnaro have organized a concert of a dozen of Guinga’s original compositions, under the musical direction of composer/arranger Matthew Nicholl. Brandão, Stein, and Stagnaro, along with trumpeter Greg Hopkins, saxophonist Daniel Ian Smith, and cellist Eugene Friesen, will join Guinga as faculty soloists, accompanied by the 30-piece Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Francisco Noya. (Several intrepid student vocalists and percussionists will also be featured with the orchestra.)

Guinga’s own arranger, Paulo Aragão, who was a founding member of the acclaimed guitar quartet Maogani, has created five new charts especially for the occasion. Musical director Matthew Nicholl has contributed one new arrangement, with the remainder written by talented Berklee students of composition.

This rare visit to Boston by one of Brazil’s most esteemed composers will be a performance you won’t want to miss. For tickets, see the Berklee Performance Center link above.


Guinga. Photo courtesy of Sesc em São Paulo.

Carlos Althier de Souza Lemos Escobar acquired his nickname very early in life. Although today he’s a well-tanned amateur soccer player, as a toddler his pale complexion prompted family and friends to call him “Gringo”; filtered through the ears and mouth of a young child it came out as “Guinga”—and the nickname stuck.

Guinga was born into a musical environment in 1950, in a working-class suburb of Rio de Janeiro, Madureira, which is the home base of the legendary samba school Portela. Even before they moved to the more sophisticated suburb of Jacarepaguá in 1962, the Escobar household was filled with music of all kinds, including jazz (he was particularly fond of Monk, Mingus, and Bill Evans), bossa nova, classical music, opera, and the recordings of the romantic Brazilian vocalist Orlando Silva.

Although he’d already begun playing the guitar and composing, at his father’s insistence—and well aware of the precarious existence of a professional musician—Guinga entered dental school in 1970. Upon receiving his degree in 1975, Guinga opened a joint dental practice with his wife, Fátima (a fellow student), and commenced another five years of study, this time devoted to a subject closer to his heart: classical guitar, with Jodacil Damasceno. His songwriting in the 1980s—mostly in collaboration with poet Paulo Cesar Pinheiro—was necessarily sporadic while he worked full time in his dental practice and with Fátima raised their two daughters, Constance and Branca.

With the winding down of his collaboration with Pinheiro, in the early 1990s he found himself in search of a new lyricist—and thus began a hugely productive partnership with the formidable and intensely cerebral writer (and former psychiatrist) Aldir Blanc, who had already established himself through his work with vocalist and guitarist João Bosco in the 1970s. The internationally reknowned vocalist and songwriter Ivan Lins was so impressed with the Guinga-Blanc team that in 1991 he founded a record label, Velas, expressly for the purpose of releasing Guinga’s first album, Simples e Absurdo, which brought him sufficient recognition that he was able to reduce his dental appointment schedule to two days a week and devote the rest of his time to music. Five more albums for Velas followed—Delírio Carioca, Cheio de Dedos, Suíte Leopoldina, Cine Baronesa, and Noturno Copacabana—before the label shut down in 2003 (?).

The Italian record label Egea, based in Perugia, came to the rescue, releasing two of his albums, Graffiando Vento (2004), a duo recording with clarinetist Gabriele Mirabassi, and an ensemble recording, Dialetto Carioca (2007).

In 2005 Guinga toured the United States (including a stop at Scullers) with a quartet including guitarist Lula Galvão, clarinetist Paulo Sergio Santos—both long-time collaborators—and the young trumpeter Jessé Sadoc. David Byrne caught his New York appearance and wrote about it on his blog:

The music turned out to be a cross between chamber jazz and intricate beautiful compositions that echoed—to me—Gershwin, Villa-Lobos, Charlie Parker, Stravinsky, Nino Rota and of course forró, choro and other Brazilian roots and folk styles….Like a lot of Brazilian music it admits to loving beauty, without shame, and then proceeds to make a world based on that point of view that can discuss anything—racism, politics, sadness, love and even landscape.

Some of the music from this tour fed into his next album of new material, the 2007 Casa de Villa, released on Brazilian composer/producer Francis Hime’s Biscoito Fino, as were his duo recordings with clarinetist Paulo Sérgio Santos, Saudade do Cordão (2009), and just this year with Hime himself at the piano on Francis e Guinga. He also collaborated with the woodwinds of the Quinteto Villa-Lobos on Rasgando Seda, which was nominated for a Latin Grammy award in 2012.

Although challenging at times—his harmonies are strikingly sophisticated and his melodies can range from long, lyrical, aria-like lines to jagged phrases that wouldn’t be out of place in an Eric Dolphy solo—Guinga’s compositions have attracted performers across a range of genres, from classical guitarists to choro groups to jazz ensembles. (Mark Murphy, Art Farmer, Brian Lynch, and Lee Konitz have all recorded songs by Guinga.)

It will come as no surprise if musicians and engaged listeners alike leave Thursday’s concert with a strong impetus to dig more deeply into the rich musical universe that Guinga has created and continues to create. (I will be reviewing the concert for the Arts Fuse—watch for an extensive article early next week.)

1 Comment

  1. Paolo Granata on April 16, 2022 at 10:45 am

    Sono felice del fatto che tanta buona musica brasiliana venga suonata e pubblicizzata in tutto il mondo grazie a musicisti e giornalisti che si impegnano quotidianamente a tale diffusione.

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