:: This vignette was published in the travel article
:: Rio When It Drizzles
in Brazzil magazine.


My dinner with Guinga

A punctual carioca.

Daniella Thompson

June 1999

The composer Guinga is a rarity: a punctual carioca. We had agreed to meet at the buffet restaurant Couve-Flor in Jardim Botânico at 6:30 pm. When I arrive at 6:33, he’s already there, filling his plate. He greets me with a joyous “Pontualidade americana!” (“American punctuality!”), which instantly makes me feel very guilty for being three minutes late.

Guinga is considered by music critics and many fellow musicians to be the most important composer currently working in Brazil. He released four much-lauded solo albums and (with lyricist Aldir Blanc) composed all the songs on Leila Pinheiro’s prestigious disc Catavento e Girassol. He’s also one of the top guitarists in Brazil. Yet this idol of many can’t make a living from music. What pays the bills is his dental practice. Guinga is on the verge of fifty (although he looks considerably younger; fit and trim, he’s also a crack soccer player), is happily married and the father of two daughters, and says he can’t afford to buy an apartment in Rio.

The first time I met him, I didn’t expect to have a conversation. Guinga is famously shy and speaks no English. I’m shy as well. I had been invited to a club where he regularly plays soccer and would have been perfectly happy simply to sit on the sidelines and watch him kick the ball. When he showed up (punctual to the minute), it wasn’t to play but to talk. And when he talks about music, the words flow of their own accord (in Portuguese, naturally). Guinga’s knowledge of music, Brazilian and other, is vast. He talks about his admiration for the great American popular composers: Duke Ellington, Gershwin, Cole Porter, about how so much of American music was created by Jewish composers (he is not Jewish, and I don’t think he knows that I am).

Like many Brazilian composers, he admires Ravel, but also Puccini and Wagner. He loves the music of Charles Mingus, Michel Legrand, and Kurt Weill (we hum “Speak Low” together). I tell him that I compared him to Weill in an interview, and that the interviewing journalist called his music “almost classical.” We muse on the musical tastes of the young, and he tells me that the writer Nelson Rodrigues, when asked what advice he would give the young, said, “Get older.”

Guinga is a modern composer who adores older music. He asks what old Brazilian music I listen to and is extremely pleased when I name Ary Barroso. Guinga’s father owned a complete collection of Orlando Silva’s records, and now Guinga sings bits from Orlando’s 1930s hits: “Página de Dor” by Pixinguinha and Cândido das Neves “Índio” and “Última Estrofe,” which Índio wrote alone. Guinga compares Orlando Silva to Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, suggesting that Orlando was as good as Sinatra. I perceive that he’s trying to spare my “American” feelings and assure him that I consider Orlando Silva a better singer than Sinatra. Relieved, he agrees.

About American songs he says that they flow easily, whereas Brazilian songs do it the hard way, their melodies meandering all over the place. He illustrates his remarks by singing melodic snatches. He points out that American popular music is piano-based and Brazilian music guitar-based, circumstances he attributes to economics. Among jazz pianists he singles out Bill Evans. I mention Thelonius Monk, and Guinga concurs that the man was a genius, saying, “Monk played Monk, everybody else plays jazz.”


Copyright © 1999–2011 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.