The Strum That Sets You On A Journey

Rafael Lopes 2

Rafael Lopes experiments with sound and rhythms (say, running water), but not in an unforgivable or atonal way. The guitar maestro – even in these youthful years of his, a listener can tell that greatness is coming – lets the music wind its beautiful way into the air and mean something different to each person. With gentle and swift finger-dancing, the Latin-inspired melodies cause the mind to meander to different places.

“Silver City” has an ease and richness, each strum pulling you towards the light. Stops and starts on the strings give it punch, later in the song bringing a storm of chords; resolving with the main theme. So pretty. With more drama and some dark tones, “Preludio 1” has a reverse-arpeggio feel, the overriding melody unpredictable and compelling. Rafael offers up a platter of music where every space is occupied with sweetness and a little pepper.

How long did it take to perfect a confident yet smooth sound? 

Thanks! I’m glad that you find it so, because for me the quality of sound is something very important in music. I believe that the study of classical guitar and the practice of chamber music since graduating from the university has contributed to my attention with the sonority of each finger and nail.

Working with acoustic music requires great care with sound, both solo and in groups, as we do not have the aid of electronic resources to improve the quality. This is a detail that I have been working on since I was a teenager. My guitar teachers always demanded this and I’m still looking to improve on it. 

What inspires you when you compose? 

I try to express and communicate an idea, a feeling or emotion about some general aspect of life or a fact that has occurred. Normally my process of composition starts from improvisation. I try to keep my mind free to find the sounds that can express what I want in a more natural and spontaneous way. In some cases, the ideas arise during studies of improvisation or instrument technique, without a prior intention.

Sometimes I start improvising on the piano or bass, synths and different instruments to generate new ideas, to leave my “comfort zone” which is playing guitar. Also, I use my voice while I compose, searching for ways to follow in the music. I also pay attention to the sounds that happen in the street, around me, because everything is there; we have to try to capture these colors and sound atmospheres. All this I try to use as a source of inspiration.

I maintain a routine of composition, as an exercise in developing ideas. I do not use half of what I write, but this ends up generating a bank of themes and ideas that I can use in my work. Many times, I like to mix themes that I composed to create new material; I believe that music is infinite, it is not something static and closed.

What elements of your music are from your cultural heritage?

I was born in a state in the south in Brazil that has strong connection with music of Latin origin, especially from Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay; and obviously with Brazilian music. This region has an important influence on my music in rhythmic terms, sometimes by my trying to find a percussive sound on the guitar for example, which is common in the local musical culture.

As I was studying I tried to incorporate some procedures and techniques of concert music, because it was necessary to enroll at the university in Porto Alegre. At the same time, I have known jazz, and more precisely artists like Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and others who motivated me, to have composed and used some thematic and harmony concepts. In general I think local music, classical music and jazz are important parts of my training and work. 

Why did you name your CD “O Viajante Imaginario”? 

The idea for this album came from the book Invisible Cities, by the Cuban/Italian writer Ítalo Calvino. In this book a traveler describes to the emperor details of the 55 cities that are part of the immensity of his empire.

So, I was in a period when I was traveling a lot; and based on his history I thought to describe to someone, through music, the places I’ve been.

It was this association that generated the name of the album. I decided to write about places that are a mix of reality (as in “Saint Charles”, which is the central station in Marseille) and fiction (as in “Silver City”, which symbolizes to me a sort of contemporary city). With this concept of “sound description” I tried to present atmospheres that can be common to different places and that can refer to different emotions depending on who listens. I view this work as a story in an album, like the track of an imaginary journey.

What was it like to put this album together?

The choice of themes and arrangements, where we often use ambient sounds, happened naturally. The second step was the recording of the instrumental parts of the songs, which was also ready quickly.

The most laborious process was, first, to express what I imagined through electronic effects and external recordings; and then how to mix these electronic sounds with the instrumental recordings so that it sounded organic.

In this part we spent many hours of work in the studio, where we tested many possibilities and I learned a lot from those who helped me. I already had worked with electronic music before but not on an entire album like that.

What is your favorite song? 

This is complicated to say because it always depends on the moment. Now I can say that it is “Saint Charles.” It was interesting that I initially planned this track completely differently from how it is recorded on the album.

When I was recording, I thought my idea of using electronic effects and percussion settings was not working very well. I decided to stop, to breathe and to follow my intuition that told me to do otherwise.

So, we recorded again without prior arrangement planning, with a more acoustic sound, making some improvised overdubs during the recording session. I believe that every recording and album is a portrait of a time, and “Saint Charles” expresses spontaneously what that moment was to me.

Where do you live now and what venues do you like the most?

I’m living in Porto Alegre [Brazil] at the moment, the city where I was born. From about 10 years to now I think that my city is growing in terms of places for cultural manifestations.

It is not enough, but lately some places have appeared through the initiative of musicians, artists and art admirers. Here we have some clubs as Centro MEME, London Pub, Cafe Fon Fon and Casa da Música. In addition to the traditionals, there’s also Casa de Cultura Mario Quintana and Theatro São Pedro. 

What did you get from your education in Italy? And also in Berklee (in the US)?

In fact, I did not go to the U.S. I took courses with Berklee professors in São Paulo and Italy, which were very important to me.

I especially received a lot of encouragement to play and make my music, to get my sound; in addition to working with more technical concepts of the jazz language, group practices, professional organizations, improvisation techniques etc.

Fundamentally the approach is applying the technique to the service of music, its inspiration and emotion, not the opposite. I was lucky to have contact with teachers and colleagues who value and respect each other’s music. This caught my attention and makes a lot of difference in terms of trust and motivation to follow my way.

How do you want people to feel when they hear you play?

Maybe I want people to feel that I feel something. I try to communicate with music something that is meaningful to me. I do not want people to feel something specific, but sometimes they can connect their energy or emotion with the music I make, and from that to have meaning for them.

I think music when done in a sincere way will always connect with at least one other person in the world, but never with all because we are very different and complex personalities, and I think this is the fun.

What do you envision when you perform?

When I play the goal is to express the central idea that I have of each song. I try to concentrate on the moment and use the paths that I consider appropriate for this.

For me the same piece can be played in different ways and I use improvisation as a tool to develop the ideas. At the exact moment of a performance, thoughts come and go, and in my case when that occurs it means that I am comfortable and everything is flowing musically.

What I always try to do is also sing what I play, while I play, even if I do it mentally, because it helps me in concentration and especially in terms of musical expression.

Where do you get new ideas when you improvise?

First, I am always paying attention to the great musicians and improvisers.

Besides that I look for ideas within the themes that I am playing, as a kind of development and thematic variation. This is something constantly in my daily practice, so when I start a performance I have a series of ideas and scripts that can be performed during an improvisation.

Who is in your band and what do they play? 

It depends. In each performance I try to invite the musicians that I think necessary to develop the music as I imagine.

I usually play in a duo, trio or quartet. In the shows and in my records, I have been working with musicians such as Bruno Vargas (bass), Bianca D’Ávila (cello), Mariano Telles (guitar) and Mariane Kerber (piano).

How do you all mesh and create such a beautiful sound together? 

Thank you so much, I’m glad!

The idea is to be as focused as possible on the details.

The musicians here in my city often do several jobs simultaneously and many times have fewer hours than would be ideal for rehearsing, so we need to have objectives.

What I really like is the exchange that happens; every musician who participates give me many ideas that enrich my music. I always try to leave everyone free to suggest and add new elements.     

Have you had a singer accompany the band? Or other instruments? 

I have not used singers in my formations but I try to use my own voice when necessary and possible; as well as inviting anyone who is playing with me to sing if they want. I think the voice is the best instrument that exists because of its expressiveness and depth.

Usually I play with another guitar, bass, percussion and/or piano, but it depends of the musical concept.

Why did you use the sound of water and wind chimes in one of your songs? 

The idea of using effects was to create ambience and textures that could represent at some level the city or scene that I imagined for certain moments of the album. In my view these sounds help guide the story I want to tell, using sounds that are easily recognizable and familiar to the human ear. I try to use these sounds also with accompaniment function and often like percussion.

What is your favorite club or concert hall where you live?

Theatro São Pedro! It has beautiful architecture and acoustics and is located in the historic center of Porto Alegre, a place that I really like. 

Where would you most like to play in the world?

I think I’d like to play in New York someday. I am very curious to know the cultural environment of the city, that I imagine is very diversified, intense and to have an exchange with other artists. But every place is good to play, each of them with their own aspects. 

What are your plans for 2018?

A few weeks ago, I participated in the recording of the album of a young and talented Brazilian pianist named Mariane Kerber. We recorded in duo (piano and electric guitar), a composition of each one. This work is scheduled to release in February 2018.

In addition, I am in the per-production stage and arrangement of my new album, with solo pieces, duos and trios. This work will be recorded at the beginning of next year and released in the middle of 2018.

After release of this album we will have some gigs here, and there is also the possibility of presenting the concert in clubs and festivals in other countries.

What advice would you give young guitarists looking to play Brazilian jazz? 

I think that those who want to play this music must be constantly listening a lot, studying a lot and playing a lot!

More than a specific technique I think it is necessary to have open ears to a great number of genres and styles, like samba, bossa nova, baião, choro, jazz etc.

This combination of jazz elements with the Brazilian repertoire often has a very interesting result. I believe that’s due to the richness of rhythmic possibilities in our music. It needs to be experienced and to mature over time.            

How would you say music itself has been changing?

At the moment I think the most important thing is that paths are intersecting. Harmonies, melodies, textures and rhythms of different realities dialog much more, and this is great!

The reason is fundamentally the access to information; sounds made almost anywhere in the world are available on the internet. This exchange and possibility of communication between musicians, composers and listeners is something never seen before in history. All this, at the very least, makes things evolve and change so fast, with no barriers to the information, generating a huge number of different musical genres and styles every day.

It seems to me that this all leads to another reality of a music without limited styles, with many possibilities to experiment and more freedom to express.

Why do you feel the guitar helps you express yourself the best?

The guitar has many different possibilities of expressing things, in terms of timbre, textures and articulations. We can simply play a melody, we can perform more aggressive and/or percussive accompaniments, we can perform three or four simultaneous voices in counterpoint; as well as play with some electronic effects we can combine.

This range of expressive resources has always fascinated me. But I believe that any instrument has its beauty. I like to play and try things on the piano, bass, and I already play the violin too; each leads me to different ideas in terms of composition.

Other comments? 

I just want to thank you so much for the opportunity to speak with you and your readers about my music and some of my ideas. I hope we keep in touch!

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Rafael Lopes.

© Debbie Burke

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