10 Questions with Sergio Assad

by Brazil Club - Let The Music Take You There on 02/11/2017 - 04:13 pm

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10 Questions with Sérgio Assad

Sergio and Odair Assad bring their mastery of the Brazilian guitar to City Winery Chicago on Thursday, February 23rd. Reserve your tickets here for the 8 pm show.

But a few years ago, Yo-Yo Ma presented The Assad Brothers as part of his award-winning concert tour, “Viva Brasil” with a stop here in Chicago.

That night, the program included compositions by Villa-Lobos, Guerra-Peixe, Jobim, Piazzolla, and Sérgio and Clarice Assad. The juxtaposition of the Argentine style of Piazzolla with the Brazilian composers highlighted the contrast – which Yo-Yo Ma described during the show – between the style of these two countries.

The difference between the two styles was so clear that it was easy to notice a change to the program just by recognizing the “Brazilian style.” However, Assad’s composition – both Sérgio’s and Clarice’s – stood out between the program, with a distinctively Arabic sound – a tribute to the Assad’s Lebanese roots.

The story of the Assad Brothers began in their native town, Mococa, located in the country side of the state of São Paulo, and with their father’s interest for music. Their father, an autodidact musician, taught them his choro repertoire. Later they moved to Rio, where they received classical training, aiming to follow a career in music.

Nowadays, Odair lives and teaches in Brussels, and Sérgio is a guitar teacher at the San Francisco Conservatory. The Assad family has produced several musicians other than the two Assad brothers. Badi Assad, their sister is a famous musician in Brazil, and Clarice, Sérgio’s daughter is a composer.

The Assad Brothers’ album ‘Alma Brasileira’ was an early staple of our radio playlist back in 1992 and it’s a pleasure to welcome them back to Chicago as The Sounds of Brazil celebrates its 25th Anniversary in 2107.

I hope you’ll enjoy our interview.


Scott Adams

The Sounds of Brazil at Brazil Club


1.    How did the Assad Brother’s begin their career?

Sérgio: Our father, who was an amateur musician, did everything in his power so that we could study music. In the countryside we didn’t have access to any classical guitar. We left the country side in 1969, when our dad took us to Rio de Janeiro, to study with Monina Tavora. When we arrived in Rio we had a revelation about [classical] music. And fortunately we were in very good hands, the best teachers there were at the time. We hoped to follow a career in music, but there wasn’t a chance to do that in Brazil. Now there are way more opportunities than there used to be at that time. We left Brazil for the first time in 1979, when we went to a competition for young musicians in Bratislava. Things started to happen slowly, we went to the US that following year, and we finally left Brazil in 1985.

2.    Would you say that going abroad helped your career to flourish?

Sérgio: If you want to be a musician in general, and [especially] an instrumental musician, you must be ready to travel. You only get prestige, and a career, if you are able to go abroad. That goes both for both [Brazilian] pop music as for any other style, but there are more opportunities for pop music in Brazil if you play together with a singer. If you are only playing instrumental music it’s tougher.

3.    You live in San Francisco, Odair lives in Brussels, and the two of you travel around Europe and the US giving seminar lessons. What is the connection between the Assad Brother’s and Brazil nowadays?

Sérgio: We never really left Brazil. We moved abroad in 85, but we kept visiting in a regular basis. We go at least twice a year to Brazil. There was a time in which Odair and I had decided not to work over there for a while in order to enjoy our vacation with family and friends. But since last year we started to work more in Brazil. We have more opportunities to work in Brazil today than when we left. That’s for sure!

This year will be the first year of the Assad Week, in São João da Boa Vista, in the country side of São Paulo. São João da Boa Vista is where Guiomar Novaes, a great Brazilian pianist, was born. As a tribute to Guiomar the city of São João da Boa Vista started the Guiomar Novaes Week, which has been going on for over 25 years. This year they decided to start this tribute to the Assad family, which is not just Odair and I. There are other Assad musicians, such as our sister Badir, my daughter Clarice, and some other great amateur musicians.

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4.    Your dad taught himself how to play by ear, and that’s how he taught you and you brother. Do you think that this method of learning is better than learning to play from sheet music?

Sérgio: I believe that in the first stage of learning music we should teach exercises that help develop a tact for music. Just like learning a language, where you first listen, then you speak, and only then do you start learning how to read and write

5.    How was the relationship between the Assad Brother’s and Àstor Piazzolla, and how did this partnership begun?

Sérgio: These things occur in inexplicable ways. Our partnership begun in 83. In the 70s I was already doing arrangements of Piazzolla’s compositions. To me his music was sensational, because it was so close to what Odair and I were doing, but at that time his music wasn’t as popular as it became later on. When we arrived in Europe in the 80s e played many arrangements of his compositions, and we were very successful doing it. Then some friends of ours, who also knew Piazzolla, heard us playing his songs, and decided that we had to play for him. They threw a party in Paris, in November of 83 for us to play for Àstor, and he was exhilarated, and said to us that he would write something for us to play. I believe, that the meeting with Piazzolla in Paris was the most important event that happened in our live, because it determined much of what would happen later in our career.

Several months later, in January 1984, when we were in Rio de Janeiro, we received this sheet music for Tango Suite. We learned it very quickly and we were able to debut the song in 84 in Belgium. From that point on our lives changed. Many new possibilities opened up for us.

6.    And how did the partnership with Yo-Yo Ma begin?

Sérgio: Oscar Castro-Neves, a great musician and one of the archetypal Bossa Nova player, was producing Yo-Yo Ma’s first disc on Piazzolla’s music, and he remembered us because of our connection to Piazzolla, so we ended up in that recording. That’s just one example of how these things work out.

7.    You were born in São Paulo, grew up in Rio, and lived in Europe. Now you live in San Francisco and commute to Chicago, and other parts of the US and the world. Where would you say your roots are?

Sérgio: My brother and I were born in Mococa, but we adopted São João da Boa Vista as our city, because that’s our mom, and our relatives are, it’s where our dad’s siblings are, and many of our cousins as well. Now, the immigrants that arrived in that area were from all over the world. My grandpa came from Lebanon, my grandma from Italy, and on my mom’s side of the family we aren’t sure where they came from because they’ve been there for so long.

We went to Lebanon two months ago. I tried to find me roots over there, and I found someone who works on helping people investigate their background, but the information I was apply to provide wasn’t sufficient to find a relative. On the Italian side it was even worse, I only knew that my grandma came from Calabria, that’s all.

8.    During the Viva Brasil show you were playing a hybrid instrument, a cross between the Turkish saz and the Greek bouzouki, the “sazouki,” and you played Tahhiyya Li Ossoulina, the song for which you received the Latin Grammy for best composer. Could you tell us about this composition and about the influence of your Arab roots in your career? And what is the translation for this title?

Sérgio: Tahhiyya Li Ossoulina means “tribute to our roots.” This composition was very successful. After that we decided to start a tour called “Back to Our Roots,” which we did several years ago. In this tour we had the Lebanese singer, Christiane Karam, and the Lebanese percussionist, Jamey Haddad, Odair, Clarice, and I. We did two tours here in the US. Later I met Yo-Yo Ma in the radio show, “Prairie Home Companion,” and we talked backstage about that composition. He liked it, and so I wrote in a part for the cello.

9.    Do you have any tips for Brazilian composers? Is it necessary to try for a career outside of Brazil?

Sérgio: If you write songs with lyrics, then you must try a career in Brazil. However, you should also try to leave. If you are able to make a career in Brazil, all the better, but it’s tougher. Few musicians can make only playing in Brazil.

10.How do you envision the future of music in Brazil?

Sérgio: I am an optimist. We have a really strong musical culture in Brazil, and it would be great to export that, and to make Brazil’s music it’s postcard to the world, not just carnival, women and samba. There are many Brazilian artists who are successful without receiving much support in Brazil. The country lacks basic incentives to develop artistic talent. Now Dilma is giving incentives, not for art, but for science, giving many scholarships for Brazilians to study abroad. [The government] is stimulating growth in education, which is what Brazil needs. We need people that will help Brazil develop. However, there should also be an incentive for the arts, for people who want to do something more elaborate, more sophisticated, otherwise the culture is impoverished. 

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