The Guitarist Guinga Combines The Music Of America And Brazil As a composer, Guinga's written hits for Brazilian superstars like Elis Regina. As a musician he's set the bar for classical guitarists far beyond his native country.
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The Brazilian Guitarist Beloved By Musicians Around The World

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The Brazilian Guitarist Beloved By Musicians Around The World

The Brazilian Guitarist Beloved By Musicians Around The World

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The late film composer Michel Legrand was a fan. So is the very much alive Brazilian pop star Sergio Mendes. The object of their admiration? A Brazilian guitarist and songwriter who goes by the single name of Guinga. He's less well-known in the U.S. and rarely comes here to perform. That's why Betto Arcos made a point of catching up with him at a show in Los Angeles.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: Considering his successful, five-decade career, Guinga is an unusually modest musician.

GUINGA: (Through interpreter) I wanted to be guitarist. But I met so many virtuoso players in Brazil, including one called Helio Delmiro. Everything that I tried to do in life was to play like him. And since I could never achieve it, I end up playing like Guinga. It was better for me.

ARCOS: He picks up his guitar in the studio and demonstrates.

GUINGA: (Playing guitar).

ARCOS: Guinga's full name is Carlos Althier de Souza Lemos Escobar. He got the name Guinga after his aunt took to calling him gringo as a toddler because he had pale skin. The youngster pronounced it guinga. And the nickname stuck.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUINGA'S "ELLINGTONIANA")

ARCOS: He grew up in a working-class suburb of Rio de Janeiro. And his uncle taught him how to play the guitar when he was 11. At home, he heard Italian bel canto, Brazilian and American music on his parents' Victrola.

GUINGA: (Through interpreter) I listened to everything I could. I knew who Leonard Bernstein was. I knew "Somewhere" when I was 11 years old. I didn't know how to play it. But when I listened to "Somewhere," I cried. American music is inside of me as much as Brazilian music.

ARCOS: And he combined them both when he started composing as a teenager.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUINGA'S "ELLINGTONIANA")

ARCOS: In the 1970s when he was in his 20s, Guinga accompanied some of Brazil's biggest samba stars and wrote the music for a hit by Elis Regina.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOLERO DE SATA")

ELIS REGINA: (Singing in non-English language).

ARCOS: Guinga started studying classical guitar when he was 26 and got really good, says JohnPaul Trotter, a Los Angeles classical guitarist. He first heard about Guinga's music 10 years ago, when he traveled to Rio.

JOHNPAUL TROTTER: And I started taking guitar lessons with a teacher down there. And one of the first things he did was he put a Guinga piece in front of me and said, this is what you really need to look at. There's a lot of meat on this. So learn this well. Come back to me next week. And we go from there.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUINGA'S "CHEIO DE DEDOS"

ARCOS: In addition to mastering his instrument and composing popular songs, Guinga also got a college degree - in dentistry. He says he did it for his dad and because he knew he couldn't make a living as a musician.

GUINGA: (Through interpreter) Because I did not want to struggle financially. I didn't want to live the misery I lived as an adolescent in the first part of my adult life. I did quite well as a dentist. At age 27, I earned $8,000 a month. In Brazil, that's a lot of money.

ARCOS: Reflecting on the hardships his parents experienced when he was growing up, Guinga couldn't help but get emotional.

GUINGA: (Through interpreter) Everything that I tried to be in life was to try to redeem what my father and mother could not be. That's why I think I make music.

GUINGA: So at the age of 56, Guinga stepped out of the dentist's office and into his music studio full time.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUINGA'S "PICOTADO")

SERGIO MENDES: The melodies, incredible melodies - they're unique. They're different.

ARCOS: Sergio Mendes met Guinga in the early 1980s in Rio when he was recording a new album. Mendes included two of Guinga's co-compositions and invited the guitarist to record with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SERGIO MENDES SONG, "CHORADO")

MENDES: I sent the album to Henry Mancini, one of the greatest melodies writers of the century.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHORADO")

MENDES: (Singing in non-English language).

And he heard the Guinga song and said, who wrote that? He told me, we don't write music like that anymore in the United States.

ARCOS: Guinga says that in the end, his instrument is not only the guitar but also the songs it sings. That's something he learned from the great Brazilian songwriters.

GUINGA: (Through interpreter) I saw the way in which the synchronicity of the hand of those composers. Their thoughts of the guitar is impressive. They are the creators, the true creators. Someone like Joao Gilberto with that minimalist guitar, he transformed the world.

ARCOS: Guinga may not be transforming the world with his guitar. But he definitely makes it a better place to live. For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUINGA'S "PICOTADO")

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