Brasil Guitar Duo Push the Boundaries of World Music

f you ever watched Wayne’s World as a kid, you’ll remember the line, “Hi, I’m in Delaware”— a deadpan remark on the seeming dearth of interesting things to see and do in the space between Baltimore and Philly. Until this weekend, that was pretty much all I could associate with our tiny First State (along with the rest stop on I-95). But on Sunday I got the chance to hear the Delaware Symphony Orchestra present “Fantastic Guitars,” an afternoon of cutting-edge classical music performed in collaboration with Douglas Lora and João Luiz, who together comprise Brasil Guitar Duo.

Lora and Luiz have been playing together for more than fifteen years, after meeting as teenage guitar students in São Paulo. In that time they have achieved worldwide acclaim for their technical mastery and unique, seamless blend of classical and Brazilian repertoires. Lora is currently based in the Duo’s hometown, while Luiz—head of the guitar department at SUNY Purchase—resides in Brooklyn.

Brasil Guitar Duo presents an indomitable challenge to stereotypes of both classical and Latin musicians. Their first concert of 2016 saw them perform Brazilian composer Paulo Bellinati’s “Concerto Caboclo for Two Guitars and Orchestra” at SphinxCon 2016, an annual event organized by the Sphinx Organization to encourage, develop and recognize classical music talent in the Black and Latino communities. After the concert this weekend, Lora explained to me that Brazil’s most fundamental musical traditions, starting with the choro and the samba, are based on a rich alchemy of complex African polyrhythms on one hand, and European classical styles on the other, which immigrated to Brazil when the King and Queen of Portugal, along with their entire court, fled to their colony in order to escape the advancing army of Napoleon in the early 1800s. Throughout their body of work, the Duo acknowledge and experiment with the various international traditions they are steeped in. “Fantastic Guitars,” which was recorded live, to be soon released as an LP by the label Naxos, was no exception.

The program started off with the Duo taking center stage in front of the orchestra, playing a dreamy duet called “Sete Anéis (Seven Rings).” Here’s a video of them playing the piece eight years ago. Their virtuosity and teamwork have only improved since:

The second piece, “El Libro de los Signos (The Book of Signs),” featured the Duo along with the orchestra’s string section. “El Libro” is a concerto for two guitars composed by Leo Brouwer, Cuba’s most famous guitar composer. Brouwer only just allowed his music to be played on U.S. soil—shout out to Barry O for finally ending the embargo—and this right here was the concerto’s Stateside premiere. No hyperbole, this was a moment for the world music history books.

Following that, Lora and Luiz were joined by the entire orchestra for the three-movement “Concerto Caboclo for Two Guitars and Orchestra,” a symphonically rendered ode to the folk music of São Paulo that features an intricate dialogue between the guitars and classical instruments. Bellinati, considered one of Brazil’s most legendary living composers, was in the audience and received a standing ovation as the piece concluded.

As a bunch of hip-hop heads just trying to stay current, it’s pretty easy to lose ourselves in the shuffle of new rappers and producers coming out of the usual urban hubs. We get caught up in sounds that we’re sure we’re going to like. But the world of music is of course so much larger than just that. This weekend I was reminded that there is some pretty dope stuff out there that might sound like what my parents listen to, but is cut from the same cloth of experimentation to which I’ve always been partial. My musical consciousness expanded. And in Delaware of all places—trust, I’ll be going back soon. Catch me cruising in my whip or cracking books in the library these next few weeks, and chances are the Brasil Guitar Duo’s sweet melodies—or perhaps some branch of their super varied musical heritage—will be flowing through my eardrums.

To get you started off on the new discoveries waiting for you to make them, here’s the Duo playing another Brouwer composition in Havana, with cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Carlos Prieto:

Alex Oka