Saudade means longing, melancholy. Like, I have saudade for those old days on Frenchmen Street, back when it was this mixed, easy scene with this bohemian vibe. Or, I have saudade for an old girlfriend. Which I think fits New Orleans, too. New Orleans is a kind of happy-sad feeling. I’m very much that way with what I like in music—a lot of the Brazilian stuff, a lot of the bossa nova, it’s very pensive, very emotional.
Firstly, I was drawn to Brazil by the music. And then a magazine article really hooked me. It was in Geo, which was like National Geographic. On the cover was this girl with dreadlocks with colonial architecture behind her. I just read that and was like, ‘This is a lot like New Orleans.’
I was studying anthropology [at the University of New Orleans] at the time and I was like, ‘Yeah, I can go down there and blend into the culture and really get to know what’s happening with Brazil.’
I was 20, so I was still in formation, you might say. I stayed for a year that first time [in 1986], learned the language and got into the music—the guitar and the percussion. I was working for a guy that made percussion instruments, traveled with him a bit, worked in his shop selling to tourists because I could speak English. I met a lot of people that played guitar and worked on my own stuff.
I learned an entirely different vocabulary of rhythms. Just learning the samba in itself is a huge thing. The selection of chords was really impressive to me. I learned a lot from their approach to the guitar, playing the nylon-string guitar. That’s the common instrument there, whereas here, it’s a trumpet, saxophone, piano kind of town. And the guitar we play is more of the electric-blues stuff.
I was in New York from 2002 to 2013. In New York, what I missed was New Orleans crowds. Here, people are free and ready to react and if it feels good, then yeah, we’re gonna dance right now. In New York, people are assessing where to rank you and thinking a lot more about how they appear to other people. Unless it’s a huge person, where you know how you’re supposed to react—like, ‘Yeah, it’s a hip-hop show—I’m gonna put my hands up.’
It’s very competitive in New York; that competitive edge gives you a polish, a better understanding of how to best present yourself. What I also found was a work ethic; I got a lot done and was able make a record there. I spent some time playing on the subway train. That was cool—me and Ted Hefko [former New Orleans-based saxophonist in New York City since 2003]. We were like a dynamic duo, playing in the actual car, the moving car. You come in and BOOM—you look at the faces and decide what to play for those people. Do we play Bob Marley? Do we play Burt Bacharach? What’s going to work? People’s faces would scowl like, ‘I don’t want to listen to this shit right now,’ so when you cut though to those people, you know you’re really doing something.