If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Will the Drummer Hear It? Jazz Ponderings with Paulo Silva

Paulo Silva small photo

When he sits down at the drum kit, Paulo Silva is ready to pour out his signature funky expressionism. Riffing off the vocalist in “Cancao do Mar” he delivers a raw beat and keeps the song throbbing forward. Covering Wayne Shorter’s “Juju,” his trio immerses the listener in a jumpy melody. The guitar expertly noodles up and down the neck, with the bass providing the smoothicity and Paulo doing cool snare rolls and coaxing subtlety from the cymbals.

In his drum solos, he displays patience and care as he builds upon the human heartbeat. This is most evident in his select recordings done in the middle of the woods, perhaps due to the natural surroundings and the unique acoustics of his tree companions.

Grateful and gracious, Paulo shows a boatload of respect to his colleagues. For example, rather than pounding home his own links in this interview, he insisted on providing info on other musicians for the delight of jazz lovers.

What was the highlight of your early music education?

I’m pretty sure that my education is a cocktail of many experiences, not just academic studies but the “on the road” experiences.

Anyway, if I have to point out a very special one that surely made me a better musician and opened up my ears and consciousness for the music, it would be the 11 years studying classical percussion (also traditional Brazilian percussion) at Escola de Música da UFBA (Bahia’s University School of Music). 

Why did you become interested in percussion?

As you may know, Salvador de Bahia is considered the Brazilian Africa. My city is an important center of music and especially percussion, not just in Brazil but all over the world. In Bahia, as also occurs in Cuba and New Orleans (just to give a couple of examples), there’s a strong and direct presence of the African culture, not just the musical tradition, but also in the food, the way people dance, the way people move and talk and the rhythm in our daily lives since we were little kids. 

To choose being a percussionist in Salvador is common. But of course you should be connected with that because for most of us the percussion is like a sacred thing, it’s like breathing, it’s in our blood. Every true Bahian has a piece of Africa inside of him or her.

What was your experience like playing in the UFBA?

I was lucky to start at nine years of age learning Orixás´ percussion, also called Candomblé (like Santeria in Cuba). I began to study percussion seriously at the age of 17 at UFBA.

One of the most important things I’ve learned in all my years at UFBA besides the music was the discipline.

And of course, all those fancy techniques for tympani, snare drum, contemporary percussion group, chamber music groups, brass band, symphony orchestra, a bunch of non-stop wonderful workshops of some of the greatest drummer and percussionists all over the world, the percussion festivals and many other fantastic experiences surely made my UFBA years impactful and played a big and important role in my musical training.

Why did you move to Spain?

I decided to move from Salvador to Spain because I needed some new and refreshing experiences in the old world. In 2004 I got a scholarship from Mannheim in Germany to study jazz drums for the first time. I was there for 11 months and I decided to come back to Europe. Well, I choose Spain because it’s more like Brazil in many ways. Besides, they also have a rich musical culture, not just flamenco. 

What did the scholarship in Germany allow you to do?

The scholarship was an important step in my career. In Bahia I had an education in classical music as well as in Afro-Brazilian traditional rhythms, an important piece in the puzzle to strengthen my musical approach that had been missing: jazz.

The Musikhoschule Mannheim provided me all my experience, gave me some sweet flavor of jazz and a strong basis to keep on searching, like Stevie Wonder says: finding my highest ground. 

What is the jazz scene like in Galicia, Spain?

It’s taken big steps in the past 15 years when Abe Rabade (piano) and Paco Charlín (double bass) both came from Berklee College of Music with a Magna Cum Laude degree and founded the prestigious Seminario de Música de Pontevedra which I’m also proud of being one of its former students.

Of course there were nice jazz musicians before, but since they’ve been teaching, the interest in this wonderful American music has been growing a lot both by the public and by young people who want a career as a musician.

It’s well reflected in the number of jazz festivals that book both local and international big artists such as Imaxinasons, Festival de jazz de Nigrán and Festival de Jazz e Blues de Pontevedra where the audience had the privilege to see greats like Richard Bona, Antonio Sánchez, Esperanza Spalding, Peter Bernstein, Ambrose Akinmusire, Johnny Wynter, Cory Henry, Great Potter and many others.

What is your favorite thing about percussion?

That it’s everywhere. The rhythm is everywhere, but also because it connects both the audience and musicians. It’s a tribal feeling that is directly related to the ground, the soil, nature, the earth…

It connects us with our primal instincts as well as with some holy dimension that keeps us in a trance when you let it in.

What is in your kit now and what would you like to add?

I actually have different kits for every kind of musical situation or artist that I’m working with. As I’m both drummer and percussionist and because I have a bunch of percussion instruments, I don’t have a problem adding more tools when necessary. I let the situation dictate what to do. 

What is the biggest challenge in your country to make a living as a musician?

Well it depends if you mean Brazil or Spain. As I’m already a Spanish citizen and living here for 11 years now, I consider myself one of them. In Brazil every musician is fighting to survive for “every day’s bread.” Everybody has to be able to play any kind of music to make a living.

In Brazil there’s huge competition and because of that the musician is usually not well paid, and life is extremely expensive compared with what you earn.

When you perform with a vocalist, what techniques do you use to give him or her the room to sing?

I always try to keep it simple when it comes to accompanying a soloist, no matter if it’s with a singer or a saxophone player. Actually for me it’s the same. I memorize the main melody first, learn the structure of the song and always improvise a bit, respecting what I was asked to.

If you’re talking about jazz or some free style where the soloist requires me to add something else, I feel more comfortable to put some spicy strokes to give it more color and “sabor.”

As a teacher, what techniques do students have trouble with?

Keeping the tempo and groove flowing is always an issue. It takes time even if it’s a simple rock ‘n’ roll groove. Every small thing has its flow to achieve, its taste. Also, most students (and it also happened to me) don’t know how to study, how to manage to learn a bunch of techniques, scores, songs to learn by heart, and to apply all of this in a musical way.

What was it like to play with Selma Uamusse?

Selma invited me to share the stage with her last summer behind the Santiago de Compostela’s Cathedral on a wonderful evening, playing this wonderful song “Nana de Zemambiquo.” This song is very special for me because it was written by one of the greatest artists I ever met: the incomparable Galician musician and poet Narf (Fran Pérez). He was a good friend of mine, and I had the privilege of playing with him many times. (Unfortunately, he died about a year ago.)

The song talks in a very poetic way about the beauties of Mozambique (where Selma is from). Narf traveled many times over the past 20 years to Mozambique, made a bunch of friends and played with local musicians. I met Selma, sharing the stage in a packed big club with Narf and me in Portugal on April 25th, the most special date in that country because they celebrate the end of Salazar’s dictatorship.

Who is in your band?

In my jazz trio I have the honor to count great friends and wonderful musicians from Santiago de Compostela: Valentin Caamaño (guitar) and Alberte Rodríguez (double bass). We’ve been playing for six years, and we respect and love a lot each other as brothers.

Valentin is pure jazz, pure tradition, pure bebop. He has this Jim Hall/Grant Green style of playing, very rhythmic, powerful and at the same time subtle, sweet. He’s a gentleman and our Star Wars Yoda.

Alberte is more like me. He plays many styles and all of them with such a mastery. He´s our rock, our cornerstone. He can swing like hell and his solos are always melodic and delightful.

How do you think your trio is evolving?

As a band we are evolving in the sense of knowing each other’s styles so we can find our place and dialog in the same language, but always contributing our own statements that will make everything flow in a higher dimension of vibrating sounds.

I actually would love to add a more a contemporary repertoire like in the Esbjorn Svenson concept. 

Do you prefer soft brushwork and setting a mellow mood, or wailing away?

I definitely prefer soft brushes in a mellow mood if it´s a traditional style we´re talking about. But if it´s contemporary jazz like Esbjorn Svensson’s style for example. Sticks will also be a good option or even bare hands.

Talk about “Nica’s Dream.”

“Nica’s Dream” in the Jazz Messenger style is a true pearl in my opinion. I love this Latin-to-swing transition, it fits like a perfect glove.

My role as a drummer in this particular theme was nothing more than trying to capture the original groove and feel while adding some more Latin grooves such as Songo and some samba phrases during our trading eights. Alberte was basically playing tight with me all the time. Valentin as always was providing a wonderful frame of harmony and killing bebop phrases.

Ton Risco, the vibraphone player, is one of my heroes, besides also one of my best friends. Ton is the kind of musician that no matter what he plays it will sound like it’s from outer space. Awesome technique, awesome musicality and a high level of good taste for phrases and rhythmic movements. So in this tune he just nailed it, period.

What instrumentation have you not used yet?

I would love to play with the harp in the Colombian style, like the astonishing Edmar Castañeda who has a duo with Hiromi Uehara. His drummer is a very good friend of mine from Colombia and we studied together with the same teacher in Germany back in 2004.

Also, it would be great to play with steel drums.

Favorite clubs in Spain?

Cafe Central (Madrid), El Plaza (Madrid), Jamboree (Barcelona), Club Clavicembalo (Lugo – Galicia), Cafe Latino (Ourense – Galicia), Jimmy Glass Jazz Bar (Valencia).

Place you have always wanted to perform?

There were some places I would love to perform and I made my dream come true: Olympia (Paris), Teatro La Fenice (Venice – Italy), Palau de la Música (Barcelona).

I would love to play in Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Brixton Academy (London) and Slane Castle (Ireland), just to name a few.

Most memorable collaborations and why?

Three memorable collaborations: First of all, Dulce Pontes (Portugal), one of the greatest singers in the world and I still play with her for almost five years now. Every night that I play with her is memorable, she’s unique.

Alceu Valença (Brazil), because he’s one of my idols since I was a little kid and he’s one of the most cultural iconic artists in Brazil.

Jorge Pardo, the great flute and saxophone flamenco jazz player (played many years with the great Paco de Lucia). I was playing with a great bagpipe player from Galicia, Xose Manuel Budiño, and he came to play as a guest in one of our concerts. We did a six-song set. It was like being in heaven, such a wonderful master, and a sweet and humble person.

You’ve played drums and congas in the forest, alone, and filmed it. What are the acoustics like surrounded by trees?

“Forest Drummer” was one of the most beautiful experiences I had playing alone. I didn’t prepare solos or rehearse anything. We just set up the camera and shot it. Needless to say, nature is the most beautiful thing…I was in a peace trance, breathing pure and fresh air and letting it flow.

Playing the song “The Blessing” on the African djembé in the forest was inspiring. I was thinking about Bahia, Brazil, all my journeys as a musician; who I am, to play what I play, to share it with so many other wonderful people and musicians and learn so many beautiful things from them. I felt blessed.

Where will you perform this year?

This year I have already done some local concerts around Galicia. I’m going to play with Dulce Pontes in Belgrade – Serbia, and I’m being booked for several Afro-Brazilian percussion workshops. I’m also available for new propositions that may come my way.

Are you touring?

I’m currently touring with Dulce Pontes.

Newest CD?

I started to work on my new CD but it will be world music this time. I’m going to focus on percussion. It surely will have some very special guests.

Other comments?

I would love to share with you some of my colleagues’ works (from Galicia):

Valentin Caamaño: http://www.valentincaamano.com/

Ton Risco: http://www.tonrisco.com/

Telmo Fernández: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaj6qHnjakE and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFztQm3rKns

Alfonso Calvo: http://alfonsocalvomendez.wixsite.com/alfonsocalvo

Juyma Estévez: http://juymaestevez.wixsite.com/bass 

For more information, visit www.paulolimadasilva.wordpress.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Paulo Silva.
(c) Debbie Burke 2018

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