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Exclusive interview: Guitarist Benji Kaplan talks about new album of Brazilian music 'Uai Sô'

Thanks in part to the recent Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the popularity of Brazilian music has soared. And while new fans are just now being exposed to the country’s wide variety of musical stylings, the sounds of Brazil are nothing new to American guitarist and composer Benji Kaplan. Kaplan’s love affair with Brazilian music began when he was a youngster and heightened through an immersion that included study with masterful Brazilian guitarist Guinga and a sojourn to Brazil.

Now Kaplan’s fascination with Brazilian music is on full display with his new release Uai Sô, a selection of jazz tunes flavored with hints of samba, forro and Brazilian classical music, some instrumental and some with vocals sung in the language of Brazil, Portuguese. We had a chance to speak with Kaplan by email and we asked him about the new album, about being mentored by Guinga and about his fluency in Portuguese. His commentary below is given exclusively to

AXS: You first heard Brazilian music as a youth when it was among the styles you were exposed to because of your parents’ musical tastes. Back then, before your deep immersion into the genre, what was it that drew you to the music over everything else you heard?

Benji Kaplan: I would have to say it was the vastness of harmonic colors and melodies that I heard in the Brazilian composers; the melodies are so beautiful and the forms of the songs are longer but they tell these amazing stories. For example I always loved show tunes and jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins, and Dexter Gordon. Great solos always moved me, the improvisation etc., creativity in the spontaneity that occurs and the interplay of musicians and the bands, rhythm section and so on. But it wasn’t until I took a deeper look in to the history and traditions of many Brazilian musicians and composers that I began to appreciate the songs and the melodies themselves and see an endless amount of possibility in the landscapes you could paint when writing the songs. For Americans it is the Gershwins or Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and the like. I think nowadays at this moment for me, I want to take a deeper look at the songs Cole Porter wrote in the times that he wrote them, rather than the solos that the greatest jazz players took over those songs. That is not to say that I value any less the musicians who interpret these songs in instrumental music; it is just where my heart is focused now. For me, the greatest composers are ones that you can’t place into a specific genre, you can simply say, “Wow, this is great music.” Duke Ellington is for me exactly that, or Guinga, Pixinguinha, Chico Buarque, Nelson Cavaquinho, Cartola, Villa Lobos, Frank Zappa and Hermeto Pascoal.

AXS: When you went to explore Brazil, how would you typically spend a day, and what was the most surprising thing that happened to you there?

BK: It really depends. Sometimes I would go for long walks or visit friends in a café. If I was in Rio, I would go to visit Guinga sometimes and he would play some of his latest songs for me and then I would play some of mine. In the evening I might check out a concert or show. Here, people and musicians like to get together sometimes for informal gatherings at a friend’s house, and they might bring food and drinks and instruments and just play. It is called a “sarau.” I think in French it would be “soiree;” maybe in the States we call it a jam session! Anyway, people gather around each other to check out some of their friends’ latest songs and get new ideas from one another. The bossa nova period had this a lot too with singers like Nara Leao, Edu Lobo, Jobim, Chico Buarque, Roberto Menescal and Joao Gilberto.

AXS: You sing in Portuguese on Uai Sô. At what point did you learn the language, and would you have considered it to be to some extent inauthentic to sing any of the compositions in English?

BK: I began learning Portuguese when I was about 18-years-old, most of which I learned from the albums I began collecting and learning to sing and play songs off of. People like Chico Buarque, Guinga, Noel Rosa, Toquinho e Vinicius, Dorival Caymmi and Jobim. After I learned a decent repertoire of some of my favorite songs I set out to play in New York City where I sang and played exclusively these songs in clubs, restaurants and bars about two or three times a week for about seven or eight years. Only recently am I singing more American standards, in English ironically. I am always learning new things especially now that my wife is Brazilian and I can bug her with many questions, and we speak in Portuguese most of the time. About singing and authenticity, well it’s a great question! I feel it would have been unauthentic if any of Uai Sô were to have been sung in English, yes, the reason being is that I built up partnerships with other songwriters and lyricists from Brazil completely naturally over the past six years and had been itching to do an album with these songs and present them in a full-body way with arrangements that would also try to speak to the story and atmosphere that the lyrics and music were dictating to me. Now my dream has come true! Ironically, only now am I writing some new songs that are calling upon English lyrics, and my friend and songwriting partner Aaron David Gleason is working with me on some of them. I have plans to record them in the not too distant future. So I’d say this was the natural process/trajectory for me. I should also mention, that when I first met my wife, I played some of my new unrecorded songs for her and she got very inspired and immediately started writing lyrics to some of them. So I said, “Wow, this is great, I want to put these on Uai Sô!” I sat right down and got to work with two of them that are on the disc. I also wrote two of the lyrics on the album; they had both come very naturally to me in Portuguese. I would like to do a translated English version of “Oculos cor de Rosa” though! Maybe soon! So many cool things to do!

AXS: You met Brazilian composer and guitarist Guinga at a Brazilian music camp in California, and you honor him on Uai Sô with “Rabiscondo.” What would you say is the single most important thing you learned from him?

BK: Wow, it’s hard to say, as there are so many important things you learn from someone like Guinga! Well, I must say that he has a deep, childlike intuitive approach to learning, he is naturally humble and always listening carefully for new things, always working, always studying his music or taking songs that he loves by other composers he admires and reworking them to see where he fits in with those things that he loves. He shows you his whole process with that, right out in the open plain and simply. From this, I think I and many artists included just get so inspired and feel like welcoming the discovery, or exploration of these unknown territories. Similarly, I think what Woody Allen said about work, that you just gotta show up and eventually things will start coming out, or something to that effect. Guinga is a very inspired composer, and he certainly shows up to work on time and every day.

AXS: How was your recent experience at Brasil Summerfest in New York? Did you make some new like-minded friends?

BK: Brasil Summerfest was a great experience for me! Sharing the stage with the group of musicians with the level and experience that they hold as musicians and artists was very invigorating and inspiring for me. The atmosphere at the venue was very cool too; I did see a lot of friends and familiar faces as well as new and future friends and like-minded people. I hope to do it again and play at (Brasil Summerfest venue) Nublu 151 soon.

AXS: Your creativity extended to painting in your teen years. Certainly you are painting aurally with your music now, but do you ever have the urge to pick up a brush?

BK: You know, I do actually. I get the urge a fair amount. Periodically I will pick up a pen or crayons, or pastels and do something. I think at times all artists feel stifled or suffocated from focusing so much on their one thing that they do as a means of their self-expression and it is very healthy to find other creative outlets to balance the ones that we work in most often. Then we can come back with fresh ears and perspectives. Also sports, exercise, movies, relationships and friends are essential for maintaining sanity!

Follow Benji Kaplan here.