Guinga. Photo: Manfred Pollert
Guinga, considered Brazil’s greatest living composer, performs Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley. Photo: Manfred Pollert
Guinga, considered Brazil’s greatest living composer, performs Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley. Photo: Manfred Pollert

Nestled in the redwoods of Cazadero, California Brazil Camp brings a remarkable collection of master Brazilian musicians and dancers to Northern California every summer. But even with a faculty featuring some of Brazil’s most esteemed artists, landing Guinga was a major coup.

Widely considered Brazil’s greatest living composer, the guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter performs 8 p.m. Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory. He’s spending his night off between Brazil Camp’s first and second sessions on stage with several fellow faculty members, including guitarist Marcus Tardelli, who Guinga has hailed as a genius akin to “Rubinstein at the piano. There are certain musicians who are beyond mere technical judgment, who have a relationship with the unfathomable.”

A guitar virtuoso with a soft, melancholy voice, Guinga (pronounced Geen-ga) is a dauntingly prolific composer who inhabits an intermediate zone between popular song and serious music. To say that his tunes have been embraced by his musical peers would be an understatement. According to a tally by Daniella Thompson, whose passion for Berkeley architecture is matched by her love of Brazilian music, there have been more than 155 recordings made of Guinga’s music on at least 100 albums (aside from his own).

Though revered by fellow musicians for his sophisticated melodies and broad stylistic palette Guinga was for decades more of a cult figure than a star. While argely supporting himself with his Rio de Janeiro dental practice, he created a vast, luxuriant body of music, combining his deep knowledge of jazz with Brazilian genres such as samba, choro, frevo, coco, baião and modinha.

“In any country that has a strong tradition, there’s one or two musicians in a generation who distill the essence of the national spirit,” Oakland reed expert and unreconstructed Brazilophile Harvey Wainapel, who also happens to be performing Saturday night at Piedmont Piano with Rio-born pianist Vitor Gonçalves, a fellow Brazil Camp faculty member. “We had Gershwin, Duke Ellington and later Thelonious Monk. In Brazil, they had Villa-Lobos, Jobim, and I would put Guinga at that stature. I don’t know if he’s as popular as Jobim, but he’s got time.”

Still largely unknown in the United States, Guinga made his North American debut in 2004 as part of Brian Gore’s International Guitar Night tour with Pierre Bensusan and Andrew York. He’s headlined several gigs in the Bay Area over the years, including Yoshi’s, Berkeley’s Casa de Cultura, and last week at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, but Saturday’s performance features a particularly intimate setting.

Christened with the imposing name Carlos Althier de Souza Lemos Escobar, Guinga goes by a single moniker, like many Brazilian musicians and soccer players. He first made a splash as a 17-year-old upstart at TV Globo’s Second International Song Festival in 1967, the event that launched Milton Nascimento’s career with the hit song “Travessia.”

Working as an accompanist for singers Beth Carvalho and João Nogueira, he formed a successful songwriting partnership with lyricist Paulo Cesar Pinheiro, producing tunes recorded by beloved Brazilian singers such as Elis Regina, Nelson Gonçalves, and Miúcha. But rather than subjecting himself to the vicissitudes of a sideman’s life, Guinga adhered to his father’s insistence that he graduate from dental school and in 1975 opened a practice with his wife Fatima, who is also a dentist. It was the same year that he scored his first major hit, when samba queen Clara Nunes recorded “Valsa de Realejo.”

“I knew there wasn’t going to be a lot of money in it and I didn’t want to find myself playing music I didn’t believe in to make a living,” Guinga told me in a phone interview several years ago, speaking in Portuguese from his home in Rio. “I actually don’t like dentistry very much, but I thought it would afford me the economic resources so I could concentrate on writing music I really cared about.”

It was only in the early 1990s that Guinga started recording under his own name, when the Brazilian star Ivan Lins created the record label Velas to document his music. While he had accumulated a huge treasure trove of compositions, Guinga decided to only record new music. His first album, 1991’s Simples e Absurdo, attracted tremendous attention and the participation of a glittering cast, including Lins, Chico Buarque, Leny Andrade, and Leila Pinheiro.

The album marked the start of his collaboration with the brilliant lyricist Aldir Blanc, who wrote more than a dozen standards in the 1970s during his storied partnership with João Bosco. “It’s a very solitary process for both of us,” Guinga says. “Aldir lives in another part of Rio, so I record the music on a cassette and I send it over to his house. We have a little discussion about a theme I might prefer, and usually Aldir takes a theme completely contrary to the one that I suggested.”

With each subsequent release, Guinga’s stature has grown, as songs such as “Baião de Lacan,” “Di Menor” and “Nítido e Obscuro” have quickly become standards, recorded by a who’s who of Brazilian music. To American ears, his tunes can feel uncannily familiar, as if Gershwin, Arlen or Porter had been born in Rio. He doesn’t usually compose with a specific artist in mind, but he acknowledges that Billie Holiday inspired his songs “Yes, Ze Manes” on 2001’s Cine Baronesa and “Abluesado” from 2003’s Noturno Copacabana (both on Velas).

One of his first champions in the U.S. was the Northern California-based Brazilian vocalist Claudia Villela, who met Guinga in the early ‘90s on a trip to visit her family in Rio. She started including his songs in her repertoire, amusing audiences by introducing his piece “Canibaile” as a tune written by a dentist and a psychotherapist (Aldir Blanc’s other profession). She notes that Guinga’s personality is much like his music, earthy, emotionally complex and intellectually rigorous. He’s an avid soccer player who’s at home swapping stories at the corner bar, while he’s also a driven artist who long devoted several hours a day composing at his clinic.

“There’s always a piece of all these Brazilian entities in his music, the intellectual and the malandro,” Vilella says, using the Brazilian term for a streetwise tough guy. “He’s developed a language that can get to the core of the Brazilian soul. He combines lyricism, poetry and humor. His music is very expressive and moving, and melancholic too.”

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....