Give Me Some Deep American Blues — From Brazil’s Own Tulio Augusto

Self-taught guitarist and harmonica player Tulio Augusto has a houseful of instruments, is defending his second master’s and working on a Ph.D., and has composed something stunning, bluesy, Gershwin-like – indescribable, really – that shows he can climb right inside the essence of homegrown American jazz.

What was your early training like?

I started learning music by myself at age 16. My brother and I had a single guitar to practice. We practiced by reading magazines, watching other players, reading books, etc. We had almost no reference, we only wanted to play.

There were no musicians in my family and the only story regarding playing an instrument involved my father; once he was almost kicked out of seminary (he was studying to be a priest) for playing very famous music about vagabondage at the organ church. 

What grabbed you about jazz?

I remember the first time I heard jazz I didn’t like it. But somehow, the blues always called me and drove me to study unusual things.

I didn’t know anyone who liked and listened to jazz or even blues in my town, so I had just a few references. Step by step, I got in touch with jazz and discovered it was my truth.

I always had a lot of affinity for music theory and harmony. I spent hours playing scales, arpeggios and techniques and that was very pleasant to me. I loved to find a new chord or a new scale.

The more I discovered jazz, the more I discovered myself. Before jazz I played mostly traditional blues. I think it was very important to my musical development and understanding about the jazz I play now. 

What are your favorite guitars?

Once I was sure about the direction of my musical style, I fell in love with traditional-looking guitars like those with arched tops, semi-hollows, and even solid bodies like Les Paul and SG. It’s difficult to say what my favorite is.

If I had to choose only one, I think it would be a full hollow-body jazz guitar, although among the “guitars of my dreams” has always been a Gibson SG; maybe because I also like rock ‘n ‘roll and played it a lot some years ago. 

How many guitars do you own?

I own a Gibson SG, a Fender Stratocaster, an Ibanez full hollow-body, a Recording King resonator guitar, and a Rozini 7-string guitar (we call it “violão de 7 cordas” in Brazil).

In Brazil, I have a steel string acoustic guitar and my first guitar (a Giannini SG). I also have a fretless bass guitar which I use mostly for recordings; a ukulele; and a charango, which my wife brought me from Peru. 

How many harmonicas do you own?

I never know. I always have to count. Every professional harmonica player (especially diatonic harmonica players) own a lot of harmonicas because they are not so expensive (if you compare to guitars or horns, for example), and there are only two or three main positions (first position, second position and third position) to play the instrument in a specific key.

So, I have about 25 harmonicas (tuned and in good condition), including three chromatic harmonicas, and one or two octave-tuned harmonicas. 

What is most memorable about your recent Blue Spell concert?

That you can do a lot of things if you believe you can. I talked to some people I didn’t know very well to ask for support and they were very kind. They supported me with video, photos, posters and even money to pay the musicians.

Some people were surprised about how successful this concert could be. Wherever you are, you will find negative people. So, I run away from these people and get close people who believe in what I’m doing and truly like my work.

When did you learn harmonica?

Everybody plays guitar in Brazil. When I started playing guitar, I also wanted to play another instrument. Harmonica is an underestimated instrument. In my town, I knew no one who played harmonica. Like guitar, I learned it by myself.

Also I found out how to do harmonica maintenance by myself. I like to read about everything regarding my instruments.

I knew I had to play harmonica since the first time I heard Sonny Boy Williamson playing “23 Hours Too Long.” That sound was perfect! 

You are a beast with Muddy Waters’ covers and so much more- truly, how do you play the blues with such depth?

Thank you! That’s what I’ve tried to do. More than any other kind of music, the way you play blues is much more important than notes or patterns. You can’t lie when you play the blues.

To me, somehow, jazz and blues complete and balance one another. Also, sometimes I play guitar as if playing harmonica. Harmonica is naturally a very expressive instrument and difficult to play a “wrong note” when you play in second position, so you can focus on feeling. Like when I play harmonica, when I play guitar I always try to free my mind of notes. 

Talk about your jazz quartet – how do you blend your individual styles together?

For my concert “Blue Spell” (where I officially released my album) I had to do arrangements for some tunes because there is no saxophone or drums in the album. I also wanted one more guitar, to let me be freer to play harmonica.

The quartet and the trio are variations of this group. Saxophonist José Luís Bond (yes, he is almost a secret agent) is Brazilian and plays tambourine as well. This makes it easier to blend jazz and Brazilian music. Drummer Diogo Guedes and bassist Rui Monteiro are Portuguese, and are used to playing jazz and being part of bigger ensembles.

These guys have played together before but not everybody at once. I have a very strong personality. So, to blend our individual music is also to blend cultural differences.

How long has this band been together?

Since April 2017. As the group is a variation of the Blue Spell concert, everything is always changing and adapting. Sometimes we play in trio format and sometimes the group is different, depending on what kind of music will be featured.

What is the Brazilian jazz scene like? Are the blues popular there?

The Brazilian jazz scene is very diverse and rich. Brazilian jazz is a mix. Actually, it’s difficult to find traditional jazz in Brazil.

In Bahia, the state where I was born, percussion instruments are very appreciated, such as in Afro-Brazilian religions, and genres like samba and its variations. I think the blues is more popular in the southern states, although you can find some artists and bands that play the blues linked to rock ‘n ‘roll.

Which artists have inspired you the most?

My favorite jazz artist used to be Charlie Parker. I think it’s because of the presence of blues in his music and his style of playing, full of very fast and long phrases.

I also love the way some artists link their music to philosophical principles, like John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.

As for guitar players, I like Grant Green, Larry Coryell and Barney Kessel. I love that Joe Pass could play in finger-style, using a pick, or both. I started listening to B.B. King and Albert King. The current list is very long. Junior Wells, Little Walter, Yamandu Costa, Raphael Rabello, John Popper, Mark Knopfler, all the Bahian Composers Group, Béla Bartok, Debussy, Garoto, Sonny Terry, Richard Hunter and many others. 

What was the most interesting venue to play?

It is very difficult to know. Each venue has its own flavor. This year, for example, I played in a place that used to be uranium mines. There was a very big metallic structure, like a machine, above us.

I like to play in theaters because I can talk to the audience, tell stories, etc. But I also like to play in small places and be near people. Small places have an atmosphere that’s more jazzy, maybe.

I think the situation matters more than the place itself. I’ve been in Qatar two years ago with a Brazilian traditional samba group and I had to play the viola machete because we had problems regarding visas. We played songs with words about alcohol in a country where you practically cannot drink alcohol! Some years ago, a band member of this same group missed the flight and another one got ill, so I had to play percussion at one of the most important theaters in France.

Where have you toured this year?

I haven’t too often because of the responsibilities regarding my job as a professor at conservatory and because of the master’s in Music Education I’m finishing and my Ph.D.

I used to have different formats available such as solo, trio, quartet or a group which fits to each occasion. Besides the concert in Galiza, this year I’ve played only in Portugal in isolated acts and as part of some festivals. 

Where would you most like to perform?

There are a lot of venues I’d like to play at.

I used to think in terms of context and countries. I’d like to play in jazz festivals in countries like the U.S., Germany, France and Switzerland; but also in Brazil and other countries.

I’d like to play in good conditions. Many musicians play only for fun or beer. The system doesn’t pay musicians well enough. The ones who accept low or no pay complain, but they keep feeding this kind of situation. 

How does your educational background in psychoanalysis help you to be a better musician?

Composition is a path of self-knowledge.

I think everybody should have analysis sessions regularly. The majority of our problems and suffering have origin in ourselves. Psychoanalysis helped (and still helps) me to understand myself and keeps me looking for my own path.

All my work as a composer in contemporary classical music and as a musician is about the interpretation of myself, my will, what I want to say, why I’m saying this or that. And it helps to handle other musicians and people in general (laughs).

What does it mean to be a “Resident Composer” at the Musical College of Seia in Portugal?

A resident composer has a work to be composed for, or in, the institution where he is working. Sometimes you have to develop activities such as workshops, conferences, etc.

When I came to Portugal, I was awarded with an artistic residence prize from South America, which gave me money to travel, to compose new pieces and develop workshops. I’ve collaborated with a festival that features electro-acoustic music, and worked with several performers. Sometimes I work as a link between the festival and others projects as well. 

Did you compose the piece you call “Lugarnenhumregionalfolkmusic”?

Yes. When I was finishing my degree in Composition at Federal University of Bahia, I had to compose a concert for solo instrument and orchestra.

First, I thought I would compose a piece for electric guitar and orchestra. However, there are just a few pieces that truly use harmonica in contemporary classical music. I composed, played and recorded it some years ago thanks to support from an association I’m a member of in Brazil. 

That song is a strange and fascinating blend of classical, blues, and something Gershwin-like. How did you come to write that piece?

“Lugar nenhum” means “nowhere.” I knew if I composed something which had some elements from several music kinds, each person would recognize what they want to see.

For example, a professor found elements of Brazilian northeastern music, while some people think it is blues. In fact, I put my own style into this music which is a lot bluesy, and tried to translate the harmonica idiom to orchestral instruments. It’s been something like Rorschach figures. 

You wrote, “The inside of the tune is what makes the outside sound good.” Explain?

Actually, I’m constantly inspired by musicians who put philosophy into their music. There’s very famous advice on how to play a gig by Thelonious Monk, where he says this phrase. It’s important for contemporary classical music as well.

Most of my colleague composers are writing music nobody but themselves can listen to. They used to be too mathematical and almost nothing musical. I think most of them forgot what drove them to learn music and an instrument many years ago.

It’s the same for jazz musicians. It’s very difficult to find someone who is not copying someone else or too worried about sounding new.

Now, I can say I’m free of these worries. I try to learn from everything and trust myself. In the composition course at university, we learn contrast is very important. People start to search for too complex things and forget the simplest ones say much more. 

I follow all the tips Monk said in 1960. He also said, “What should we wear tonight? Sharp as possible!” and “Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along and do it. A genius is the one most like himself.”

He was a genius who contrasted to everything else. 

What were you trying to convey with the original piece “I Remember Joe”?

Guitarist Joe Pass is one of my favorite jazz musicians. Like him, I like to play guitar unaccompanied by other instruments and also play using finger-style, pick-style and hybrid picking.

Nowadays, just a few guitarists do full concerts in this format. But I love it! Even when I play in a trio, quartet or a group, I play at least one or two pieces for solo instrument.

In classical music, it’s very common to find pieces for solo instrument, even for melodic or percussive instruments like flute, clarinet, horns, timpani or marimba.

“I Remember Joe” is at the same time a tribute to Joe Pass where I incorporate some of his style into mine, and a continuous reminder about what drove me to play jazz. 

Talk about your new CD “Blue Spell.”

“Blue Spell” is a concept album inspired by magic and self-knowledge. It is also a psychological analysis about myself. Inspired by writer Allan Moore, I call myself a magician and use music as a tool of transcendence of consciousness. The blues is part of the magic that transforms everything wherever it goes. The blues is in everything I play.

“That’s what the blues is all about.” (Albert King)

What are you studying to get your Ph.D. in?

I’ve been working on the field of idiomaticism and intertextuality. Sometime ago I found out that all my music (maybe all music made for anyone) is based on that. As I told you, “Lugarnenhumregionalfolkmusic” combines a lot of elements linked to this subject. Also, it translates some compositional attitudes from one instrument or context to another.

Future plans for the rest of 2017?

I’ll keep working on concert proposals in different formats and cultural projects as well.

It isn’t easy to do so many things at the same time. But I can’t resist (laughs).

And I have to. I’ve been working on at least two new albums which I intend to release soon. Also, I have to keep working on my Ph.D., and defend my second master (Music Education) this year.

I’ve been thinking about writing something that can be truly useful, not only one more book about nonsense or a new musical method that no one will use. I don’t know yet.

Other comments?

It’s amazing to find people as passionate about jazz as I am. Debbie is a very dedicated person and it was wonderful getting in touch. I’m very glad to give this interview and maybe inspire others musicians to trust themselves and never give up their dreams. I’ve got just a few certainties in my life such as I will never quit playing music and I have a lot more to thank than to ask.

Photo courtesy of and with permission of Tulio Augusto.

(c) Debbie Burke 2017

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