Discussing Brazilian Music with Jorge Continentino

By 19 January, 2012

Jorge Continentino describes himself as a saxophonist and flutist, but he regularly draws on his piano and guitar-playing skills when he’s writing original music. Jorge got an early start, leaving his hometown of Rio de Janeiro at just eighteen years of age to tour and record with some of the biggest names in Brazilian popular music, like Marisa Monte and Milton Nascimento. His nearly fifteen-years as a musician in Brazil laid the groundwork for a successful career now based in New York City, where Jorge blends traditional forró music from Northeastern Brazil with jazz, rock and folk in one-of-a-kind compositions. One of his groups, Forró in the Dark, has toured North America and Europe but is most at home presiding over the late night Brazilian parties every Wednesday at Nublu in New York’s East Village. The group also appears on the Red Hot + Rio 2 album. In addition to Forró in the Dark, Jorge is involved with numerous cutting-edge projects and collaborations that he described in our interview below.

How did you first become interested in music?

My parents are musicians, and since I was little, I always was connected to music. I had the privilege of listening to a lot of jazz and American music. My mom taught me to play piano when I was eight. Then I moved to trumpet for a little bit, because my dad used to play trumpet. When I was twelve, my mom gave me a clarinet she had in the house, but it was stolen, and I moved to the saxophone. The flute came when I was eighteen years old. I joined Sandra de Sá’s band. She needed the saxophone player to play flute also, so I bought a flute and I started to play.

Which Brazilian artists influenced you most?

Tom Jobim is the most influential musician for me. He’s my essence. Also, João Donato, Gilberto Gil, João Gilberto, and jazz players like Victor Brasil, Edson Machado, and Ion Muniz. For me, Ion Muniz is the Wayne Shorter of Brazil. I was lucky to be able to hang out with him a lot.

Can you talk about your playing with other famous Brazilian artists? I saw you play in Bebel Gilberto’s band at City Winery in August.

I toured with Sandra de Sá’s band until I was twenty-two. Then I played with Marisa Monte on the Barulinho Bom tour. It’s funny. My trio with my dad and my brother when I was a little kid was called Barulinho Gostoso. Way before there was Barulinho Bom, there was Barulinho Gostoso!

I also played with Milton Nascimento. I recorded an album with him, Pietá, and played in side stuff that he had going on but never joined his band. I also played with Ed Motta here and there. He had a jazz project once, Fantóma. We played at Leblon every Monday, but I never joined his band either.

I met Bebel here in New York. I didn’t know her in Brazil. I played with Bebel for three years, and traveled the world with her band for the Momento tour. I quit to focus on Forró in the Dark, but I’ve started to play some gigs with her again here in New York, playing flute and baritone saxophone.

Here’s Jorge Continentino playing sax, flute and guitar during Bebel’s Gilberto’s performance of “Close Your Eyes” with Marcelo D2 at City Winery in New York.

How did you get involved with Forró in the Dark?

Forró in the Dark started with Mauro Refosco, Smokey Hormel, and Rob Curto playing forró every Wednesday at Nublu. It was more like a hang then. People would travel a lot, and they’d bring in subs.

By the time I got to New York, Forró in the Dark had spilt up. Rob had Forró for All, and Mauro had Forró in the Dark. One Wednesday, Mauro invited Guilherme Monteiro, to play in the band. I went to watch, because Guilherme is a life long friend of mine, and we play together in a jazz quartet. I ended up playing with them, too.

Mauro left for a tour with Dave Byrne and let me lead the band for three months. He was like, “Take care of the band. Do whatever you want.” I had us do a repertoire of stuff: my own songs and stuff from bandas de pífano, the traditional bands from the Northeast of Brazil.

The chemistry happened when we got Guilherme and Mauro back from their tours, and Davi Viera and Gilmar Gomes. Smokey was still in the band, too. We did this record called Bonfires of São João with Dave Byrne, Bebel Gilberto and Miho Ratori as guests.

The band found this way of playing forró without accordion that is rock and roll with guitar and pífano. We play forró rhythms, xote, arrasta-pé and baião, but we play them our own way. It is unique. I’ve never seen another band like it.

Here’s Forró in the Dark’s video of “Nonsensical” off Light a Candle.

Can you explain to readers what the pífano is? How did you start to play this instrument and how does it influence your music today?

The pífano is a flute, but it has a more rustic side. It’s like a bansuri, an Indian flute. It has six holes and is limited to a diatonic scale, but it’s played very differently. It’s very airy, kind of a rock approach.

I also play pífano like I do other instruments. I use half step. I play chromatic. I play everything on the same flute. I can play Coltrane tunes, chorinho and Be-Bop. I explore and try to do on the pífano everything I can do on a regular flute or saxophone. I developed this way of playing the pífano.

Ramiro Musotto, is the one who pushed me to play the pífano. He was a producer and very important guy in electronic and world, but sadly he died a few years ago. We toured together with Skank.

One day, I wrote a song for the sound check, and we played it. Ramiro played zabumba, and I played the pífano. It was so good, we were like, “We have to record a record.” And then we started to write and put some songs together. Moraes Moreira from Novos Baianos plays guitar in one track, “Asa Branca.” But we never released the record. So I have this mission to release it, but I want to find the right people to do it.

Listen for Jorge’s pífano in Forró in the Dark’s version of “Asa Branca”  with David Byrne.

When did you begin to incorporate English lyrics into your music? Does Forró in the Dark target an English-speaking audience? 

English is natural, because everyone in Forró in the Dark lives in New York. Every musician should respect music as an art and not change the music to fit some market. We aren’t trying to get to some place, like playing on the radios, but we’ve just been writing more songs in English. We also write in Portuguese and have a song in Spanish, too.

I’ve noticed lots of Brazilian musicians in New York, especially jazz musicians. How is this community connected with the larger music scene?

You connect with things that have to do with you. That’s natural. I play around a lot. I play with Jason Lidner, the jazz pianist. I also played with the Red Hot Chile Peppers at Rock in Rio in September. You connect with people not just from being Brazilian. In New York, there are people from everywhere who bring their own flavor. I’m Brazilian, but I’m a jazz player, too, so I connect with the jazz cats here. I have my own projects now, too, like Green Lotus Project.

Check out Jorge’s awesome sax solos in “Did I Let You Know” with the Red Hot Chili Pepers at Rock in Rio 2011. Michael Balzary even gives a shout out to Forró in the Dark at the end of the song!

On Red Hot + Rio 2, Forró in the Dark, Brazilian Girls, and Angelique Kidjo cover a song by Gilberto Gil (“Aqule Abraço”). How did you all decide to collaborate and cover this particular song?

One of the producers, Beco, he knows us and Brazilian Girls. The name Brazilian Girls comes from the girls who used to come watch Forró in the Dark at Nublu. There actually is no Brazilian woman in the band. The only female, Sabina Sciubba, is German-French.

Beco put us together and chose the song. The idea for Angelique Kidjo, came later. We recorded in one place, Sabina recorded in Paris, and Angelique recorded somewhere else, and the pieces came together in the end.

The Red Hot + Rio 2 version is quite distinct from the original. Is that banjo I’m hearing?

It’s Didi Goodman. It sounds like a banjo, but he’s playing the keyboard. It was like a jam. We went to the studio. We didn’t have an arrangement. We started playing.

Gilberto Gil playing “Auqele Abraço”

What are you working on at the moment?

Forró in the Dark is my main thing, but I also started something called Pifanology, the science that studies the pífano. The group explores the pífano, but not necessarily forró. I can use accordion, a guy spinning things, a jazz quartet. It can be anything. Right now I’m mixing things, but I want to record some songs.

Green Lotus Project started from Guilherme Monteiro’s and my quartet. We were playing with Anthony Pinciotti, an amazing drummer, and decided to play a set with no songs, just improvise. We call it Paisagem Número Um, Landscape number one. We mostly do live shows, but we also want to do a record.

There’s also the album with Ramiro Musotto. I just need to find the right people and the right label, because it’s very special to me. It has to feel right.

Listen to more music from Forró in the Dark and from Jorge Continentino’s other projects:

Forró in the Dark: myspace.com/forrointhedark

Green Lotus Project: greenlotusproject.com/

Pifanology: facebook.com/pages/Pifanology/258498714179698

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