The Brazilian guitar duo Sergio and Odair Assad are well-known for their mastery of the classical repertoire. But it is the native genres of Brazil — choro, samba, and bossa nova — that gave the brothers their start, and it is these genres that the two men feel most passionately when they play.
It is to the Assads’ credit that they can competently play many other forms of music, including jazz, the blues, Argentine tango, and Middle Eastern music. For Sergio Assad, the older of the two by four years, this distinction means simply one thing: their music knows no categories. “We never have made distinctions between different types of music,” he says in a phone interview from his home in Chicago. “Music is either good or bad.”
The brothers will perform Saturday, April 1, at the Peddie School’s Mount-Burke Theater in Hightstown. At this concert the brothers will play music from Spanish composers Rodrigo and Albeniz, the Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla and, of course, some originals by Sergio Assad himself, as well as his daughter, Clarice.
The connections between American and Brazilian music are well-known; bossa nova and samba have greatly influenced jazz. And rock, funk, soul, and rap continue to be produced by Brazilian musicians.
While the United States was colonized by Britain and Brazil by the Portuguese, the two countries have similar heritages; both Brazil and the United States’ musical cultures evolved as distinctive because of their combination of African culture with European. These combinations happened predominantly where slavery was concentrated, nearer to the equator; in the U.S. it was in the South, in Brazil it was in the north.
“Just as there were huge contributions to culture in America from blacks in the South,” says Assad, 53, “there were the same types of contributions from the North in Brazil, places like Bahia, Pernambuco, Alagoas. The strongest ingredient in our music is the black popular music, and it remains very culturally influential today.”
One of the major forms of music that reflects this African-Brazilian influence is the choro, the genteel but rhythmic music originally from Rio de Janeiro that has captivated Brazilian string players for more than a century. Assad would love to see a book on Brazilian choro that catalogues its history. But he won’t be writing it, he says. “No, we Brazilians need more musicology. Many of the good books we have are written by musicians. But we need someone who will really dig into this and study it well. We need people who are prepared academically to do that sort of thing.”
Even so, Assad is an academic — he is professor of music at Roosevelt University in Chicago. He lives on the city’s tony Loop, where he shares a home with his wife, Angela Olinto, who heads the department of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago. He and his brother, Odair, also maintain residences in Belgium.
Sergio Assad began playing guitar at 12. His father, Jorge, was a watchmaker and repairman who raised his family in a small town in Sao Paulo state called Sao Joao da Boa Vista. Jorge Assad was a mandolinist and guitarist, and an avid player of choros. He was always organizing local groups of guitarists, and he taught children to play as well.
‘Music was all around the house all the time, musicians coming and going,” says Assad. “To me it was a natural thing to get a guitar and sit down and try to play. It was very different for my father, who thought guitar was for older people. But when I was 12, he accepted it and let me try. He was very surprised that I could play the chords, and when my brother saw me, he wanted to play too. The chords came easily for him too. So my dad went out and bought another guitar.”
His father was an active musician, Assad says, but he often had problems finding partners. “He was very happy, because this solved his problem. ‘I don’t need to find musicians any more, because I have them in the house,’ he said.”
Neither brother had to think very long about what they wanted to do with their lives. Sergio wanted to be an orchestral conductor, so he went to Rio de Janeiro to study conducting at the Escola Nacional de Musica, and he was also a private student of Brazilian composer Esther Scliar. “I thought about going into medicine — briefly — and I think my mother and father would have liked that,” he says. “I thought I would maybe conduct a choir, or be a teacher, but I didn’t think I would make a living playing.”
But he didn’t stay in school long enough to get his degree. “The career took off, so I couldn’t finish,” he says. The brothers won the Brazilian Symphonic Orchestra competition for young soloists in 1973 and recorded their first album four years later.
And when Sergio was 27 and Odair was 23 the Assads won a major prize at a 1979 young artists competition in Bratislava, in what was then Czechoslovakia. Since then, they have recorded more than 20 albums, including three Grammy-winning records, including the most recent, “Obrigado Brazil,” a collaboration with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The record that caused the first big impression in America came out in 1991, but was recorded in Brazil in 1988. It was titled “Alma Brasileira,” and it contained some of the duo’s most interesting music.
“We made a statement with that record,” Assad says. “The view of most people was that classical music was more complex than popular music. But composers such as Hermeto Pascoal write music that is much more complex than the actual classical composers. We put everyone together, we’re much more democratic. Nowadays this type of thing is more common, but in the ’80s it was more fresh.”
Assad’s interest in Middle Eastern modes, which he has yet to explore in a recording, comes naturally. His grandfather came from Lebanon to Sao Paulo state in the early part of the 20th century. Eventually, Assad’s grandfather married a local woman of Italian descent, and the family, like most in Brazil, evolved into one of multiethnic origins.
“We carry a Middle Eastern name, but we never really had much to do with that background,” Assad says. “We are just one more example of Brazil’s multiculturalism. In Brazil, the different immigrants never established separate communities — well, maybe the Japanese did. But you would never see in Brazil what you see in Chicago — all of this segregation and separate communities.”
The family, including father Jorge, now 82, mother Angelina, sister Badi (who has recorded several CDs herself), as well as Sergio’s daughter, Clarice, and son, Rodrigo, and Odair’s daughter, Carolina, have performed together before. “I wanted to show our parents what our lives were like,” Assad says. “They had never been outside of Brazil. Two years ago, we took our mom on the road, but my dad refused to go. So the next time, we asked him, ‘What if you play?’ So he agreed.” So the Assads created a family show, “The Assad Family; A Brazilian Songbook,” which was recorded live in late 2004. It has been released as a Brazilian DVD.
“My brother and I have been playing together for more than 40 years. Music keeps us together, and it keeps us young,” Sergio Assad says.
Sergio and Odair Assad, Saturday, April 1, 8 p.m., CAPPS, Mount-Burke Theater, Peddie School, Hightstown. Guitar duo features Part of the Community Arts Partnership (CAPPS) Signature Saturdays Series. $20. 609-490-7550.