Celso Machado

Celso Machado is Vancouver’s local treasure. Originally from Brazil, Celso has performed and taught worldwide for over thirty years. He has shared the stage with such guitar legends as the Assad brothers, Yamandu Costa, and Al Di Meola. Celso’s passion and thorough knowledge of traditional music of Brazil and classical guitar are reflected in his unique composition and performance style. His solo and ensemble pieces are well known and loved all over the globe. In addition, Celso is a great communicator and easily connects with audiences of any age and size. Celso performed for VCGS for the first time in 2011, and we are excited and to have him back on February 6th, 2016.

Natasha Pashchenko, VCGS representative: Celso, you play a multitude of instruments. When I last saw you perform, I believe you played a frying pan. What are some of your favourites?

Celso Machado: Was the frying pan full or empty when I was playing it? (laughs). Classical guitar is my main instrument. I also play the kora, an African string instrument. I play lots of traditional string instruments, a few kinds of flutes including the Middle Eastern bamboo flute called the ney. Some of these flutes require a technique called circular breathing where one has to breathe in through the nose while breathing out through the mouth to keep the sound going.

I play a variety of percussion instruments: drums, tambourines, etc. In particular, I enjoy the big Italian tambourine called the tamburello. It is used for such Italian dances as the tarantella and the tammurriata.  I also play the pandeiro (Brazilian tambourine), which is used for samba and other traditional Brazilian rhythms. For samba I also use surdo, agogô, and various shakers.

Recently I started playing the n’goni, a string instrument from West Africa. Actually, I make sound from anything that finds its way into my hands: a whistle, a rock, a stick...

NP: What household items would make a decent orchestra? Something the whole family can play?

CM: No doubt! Say, you are in the kitchen cooking something, and the side of your stove has such a lovely bass sound. If a Brazilian hears a sound like that, he will search the kitchen for a different, higher sound that would complement it nicely. That’s how you orchestrate. It’s just like cooking a dish – you have to balance the ingredients. You experiment to choose which ones go well together.

NP: Do you think everyone has an intuition for this kind of balance?

CM: Good question. You may not have it naturally, but you can definitely develop it by being in the right environment day by day. In Canada, it may be not so easy. Compare everyday life in Canada to everyday life in Brazil or Cuba, or Spain where you hear flamenco every day. There you will inevitably develop your musical intuition and any relevant skills, because you become part of the musical culture.

NP: What is Canada’s day to day musical culture? What is Canada’s “rhythm” like?

CM: A bit boring sometimes! (laughs) Too much attention is paid to what’s popular, what’s at the top of the charts. I always have a sense of who’s going to appear at the top, and I know it’s unlikely to be me, because that’s not the kind of music I am putting out there. The everyday music culture in Canada are the radio and the TV.  However, the world music category does offer some recognition to artists who don’t play pop music.

One day I went to Penticton and met an amazing acoustic guitarist, amazing. We could easily play and improvise Brazilian music together. Where did he come from, and how is he in Penticton and no one knows him? He discovered his own style and he is a gem, but you are not going to see someone like him in the media or in the charts. That is because people like this don’t try to get attention of the media. And you can discover people like that everywhere you go.

I have a Canadian friend, Liam MacDonald, another outstanding musician who plays Brazilian percussion (pandeiro). He is so dedicated and loves what he does so much that he sounds completely Brazilian.

NP: What was your childhood like? What kind of music did you make?

CM: My childhood was quite nice, I played outside lots. My friends and I pretended that we were in a marching band. We would come out with pot covers and march around practicing the samba rhythm.

We have a samba school in Brazil, which basically means percussion groups on the streets during the carnival playing samba. Every town in Brazil has three or four samba groups that compete during the carnival. This is how I discovered samba. My cousin was the director of a big samba school, so as a seven year old child, I played with them. Even though it’s called a “school”, they don’t really teach you to play. The samba starts, and you just play. No one shows you anything, you have to feel it. And if you don’t, they kick you out. I played the frying pan the whole time while others played shakers. During the rehearsals, I always had to keep my eye on the leader. One must start and end at the same time. If everyone stops and you continue, you are risking your life. You get a strict look at best, or you get kicked out. I had a lot of fun going to the carnival and playing with my samba band. That’s all a child needs, to enjoy and have fun!

I remember also liking to play on my face as a kid. That’s called body percussion.

NP: Did you have traditional guitar education? What teachers did you learn from?

CM: Everyone in my family plays guitar. My father was a musician and my eldest brother is a guitarist. My eldest brother Benedito taught the others. The next eldest brother didn’t become a musician but a soccer coach. The third brother is a percussionist. The one closest to me by age is Filo Machado. He currently plays with his grandson Felipe Machado, and they do some amazing things together! I recommend you to look them up online. Filo taught me some chords on the guitar, and I taught my youngest brother Carlinhos Machado.  Six brothers, and five are musicians! My mother could play percussion too, by the way.

NP: Did you ever have a teacher that was a non-family member who taught you technique, harmony etc.?

CM: Yes, and more than one teacher. When I was starting to play classical guitar, I played everything with the right hand thumb and didn’t use any fingers. And all of a sudden I was told I could use all my fingers! I played the famous Spanish Romance, it was my big hit. I used to listen to records and learn music by ear, because I didn’t know how to read music. That was when I lived in the interior of Brazil. When I moved to São Paulo, I started to read little by little. My teacher there was Oscar Magalhães Guerra. He made me begin from level zero and was very rigid about technique. I always had to play the melody apoyando (rest stroke) for clarity. And he never let me change my hand position. Also I remember that he had a student of the same age as me, an amazing classical guitarist. That student became a pilot in the end, but for me he was the best classical guitarist.

By the way, my teacher Oscar was a great fan of Barrios. He left me some of his manuscripts in a book that no one had seen before.  He was truly an expert on Barrios, and he knew someone in São Paulo who had quite a few manuscripts and eventually gave them to a publisher in São Paulo. Those were artist approved manuscripts on special paper.

My other teachers were Luis Brandini and Watson Brito.

NP: Did you practice every day?

CM: Yes, about eight hours a day! All day long, really. Everything was new and exciting to me, and I liked discovering things. At some point I remember playing everything very fast. And this is the trend I am noticing nowadays as well, and it is happening globally. Important things are missing from many guitarists’ playing. A lot of them have amazing technique but I am missing so much the heart and the beautiful sound that are characteristic of Brazilian pieces, for example. That’s the sound of the guitar for me, and I rarely hear it nowadays. I hear a lot of rushing and technique.

NP: And how do we address this issue?

CM: Good question. I guess it’s up to you once you graduate, to choose what kind of guitarist and musician you want to be when you put yourself out in the big world.

The young generation goes to concerts to specifically see how fast you can play a piece, because they saw this kind of thing on Youtube and now want to compare. A lot of performers nowadays trade grace and beauty for speed.

It’s important to pick your repertoire carefully and responsibly. You can choose any style, folk or classical, etc., but it’s important that you don’t play too much of the same thing. Villa-Lobos is a wonderful composer, but playing a whole concert of only Villa-Lobos won’t do your audience any good. Build your program in a balanced way, so there are pieces of contrasting characters and tempos.

You come on the stage and look at the audience. Who do you see? A variety of people: kids, the elderly, your grandmother, your neighbour. You don’t need to worry about pleasing them with speed. Your grandma doesn’t care how fast you are, she has come to enjoy the music. My neighbour is an electrician and I invite him to come to the concert. What does he want to hear? Some beautiful music! Are you going to show off by being a virtuoso? You want to go out there and share your heart and music with every single person in the audience.

Coming back to the issue of speed – such composers as Barrios, Albeniz, Granados, are now being played much faster than it is intended. That’s why when I write music, I put in metronome markings in addition to the term denoting the tempo. If I simply put Allegro, for example, some players will take it at Prestissimo (fastest possible), because it is their perceived Allegro. Otherwise, I never put too much information on my music in order to leave space for the player’s interpretation and creativity.

To play someone’s composition is like driving a car. All the road signs are there: stop here, slow down here, school zone there. If you don’t follow the signs, you get a ticket!

NP: In your opinion, what is Canadian guitar education like? What do you think about its academic standards in the field of music?

CM: It is true that the Canadian music education system is very strongly developed academically. Examinations, diplomas, degrees. I think that in the first place, students must consider the audience they intend to play for. Not the examiner, surely! For the great Leo Brouwer, perhaps? At the exam, one must play everything technically appropriately in order to pass, and often this kind of attitude dominates over musical emotion and phrasing. But a student’s attitude and learning style depend largely on the teacher. Some teachers are incredibly strict in their demands and expectations and are unbelievably subjective. Once I was showing a piece of mine, Parazula, to someone of that mentality. Instead of tuning down the 6th string from E to D, I tuned down the 1st string to D, because the music required it. He asked me who I thought was going to play that, and advised to return to the traditional tuning in order not to confuse the performer. I wonder what he would say to Domeniconi’s pieces where all six strings are tuned differently from normal!

So I always encourage students and teachers to be open to new techniques and methods, especially if you know what you want to achieve in a piece. It is great to do research about different instruments and styles, and develop your own individual style.

NP: How can we help musicians open their minds? Do you think improvisation is important?

CM: Improvisation - not necessarily. Not everyone is good at improvising, and we don’t have to be! All you need to do is come up with beautiful repertoire that the public will understand and appreciate. There are so many lovely South American pieces from Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Peru:  Cardoso, Barrios, Lauro – huge repertoire for classical guitar. No show off there, just play from your heart.

To add regarding guitar education, I think there is currently far too much pressure on music students due to increasingly high requirements for technique and volume of musical material, in order to get into a school or earn a diploma or a degree. For example, to enter the Paris Conservatoire is incredibly difficult, because there are not many spots available. Trying to get to study with their pedagogue of choice, the students work insanely hard, and often the musicality suffers because of that. They forget what it was that made them want to learn guitar in the first place. Do they want to teach at a certain school? Do they want a certain job? I didn’t go to a formal guitar school, and I believe that playing the guitar must bring joy, excitement, and inspiration. This is something so personal and emotional when you have an instrument under your fingers. This connection is delicate and cannot be developed by force. If you neglect this connection, various physical and emotional issues may occur, such as muscle injuries or depression.

NP: What are you working on right now? Are you planning a new CD in the near future?

Yes, I am constantly recording new pieces in my studio. I have a software that allows me to make multi-track recordingss. I take my time and do things slowly, learning to master my own music. I use lots of percussion, and I love to write for guitar, guitar with voice, and other instruments. There is also a piece that I composed where I try to imitate the kora on the guitar. For that I use a right hand position that looks like a bit like the lute hand position. If you use the standard classical position you can’t achieve the proper kora sound.

When I compose for flute or violin, I like it when the musician is beside me. You need to know the articulation of the instrument you are using and you need to be able to explain to the musician what articulation and phrasing you need in your piece. I don’t play violin or silver flute, trumpet or piano, but I know how they articulate in order to phrase my music.

NP: What inspires you to compose? How do ideas come to you?

CM: Ideas come to me all the time and everywhere. Normally, I need an instrument with me to start composing, but not necessarily. Sometimes I will hum a tune while walking, but what’s really important is to write down or record at least the beginning as soon as I can. Often I record a phrase and later change and modify it, and develop new ideas out of it.

Nature inspires me a lot, and I love it here in Canada where nature is so beautiful.

NP: What is your teaching style like?

CM: I normally teach groups of approximately the same level and never mix levels. It is important to me that all the participants are comfortable and can enjoy making the music together. I don’t like the idea of a master class where you are alone in front of everyone – it is very intimidating! Besides, the audience can’t take part in the process.

I teach adults and kids the same way, adults are just a little faster learning the notes. But rhythms are what’s really important.  I don’t use music notation in my workshops. I have my own system of symbols for bass notes, top notes of the chords, and rests. It’s very simple and works very well for everyone. I teach the participants a couple of chord shapes, and then they easily read the rhythms I put on the board.

Teaching children is tricky, especially when their everyday culture is full of distractions and leaves little room for learning an instrument. In Brazil or Spain it is barely an issue. Learning melodies and songs and playing for everyone out there is a normal thing, a lifestyle. As you are sitting on the veranda playing and singing, anyone from the street can come up and ask you to play a song, or even half a song. Something like this is unlikely to happen in Canada.

Being a guitarist nowadays is a lonely path. You are normally alone on stage and alone when you are learning. It is true that you can discover so many things when you are lonely, it brings up a lot of your problems but at the same time, solitude is great for inspiration and composing. Being lonely a lot is hard, that’s why learning guitar in a group with other people is more exciting.

NP: Are your own kids pursuing musical studies? Is it natural for them to sing and play at home?

CM: My fourteen year old daughter loves to dance among other things, and my sixteen year old son plays a bit of bass guitar and also likes soccer and making videos.

NP: What are your favourite music styles prior to 20th century?

CM: I love the Renaissance style as well as Baroque. Most of all, I like John Dowland, because I feel connected with his music. I also much respect and enjoy Narvaez, Luiz Milan, and the Italian and French Baroque composers. This music takes you away and gives you exactly what you need at the moment. If you are broken-hearted or lonely, it gives you consolation. Your partner would be jealous of this music, because it is able to give you so much and help you understand yourself. It truly is with you like a kind companion, and it really puts you in touch with your feelings. So, if you are ever feeling down, Dowland is the recipe.

JS Bach, for example, is much more complex and contrapuntal, and requires much more skill. To execute a certain piece can be hard due to its length. But Bach stays with you for life once you understand his music. However, I feel more connected with the Renaissance. There is more freedom of interpretation.

NP: What culture or cultures of the world do you feel most connected to, besides your own?

CM: Definitely France and Italy, Morocco and many parts of the African continent. In Europe in general the architecture, the art style, the history, are the things that speak to me. You can discover so much when you are travelling, especially in small places, the countryside.  I love the landscapes of the countryside and its people, they are so inspiring. No one is rushing anywhere, and changes happen very slowly. It’s a trend now to destroy things to make room for new things. I like it when I can see the history.  I speak French and Italian and spend most of my time there; for me France is the centre of Europe. There I find so many things I can relate to; it’s my home as well, part of my life.

The Canadian culture is a delicate topic, because it’s hard to pinpoint what the culture is here, with the native people and all those people who come to Canada from all over the world. It’s an impressive mixture. I suspect that even the Canadians themselves are not sure what their culture is. I love Canada and the beautiful Gibsons where I live. I love the people here, and I love to share a part of me with them. When I am in Canada, I am definitely Canadian.

NP: What are the most important skills for a musician to have? What different audiences have you encountered as a performing artist? And what is the purpose of music in general, in your view?

CM: To understand that performance is about the people and know how to communicate it. For me it is definitely about the people and not even so much about Brazilian music. Do you know the word saudade? It is thought of as sadness, but it isn’t sadness. It’s a longing, like when you are missing someone. I try to bring my saudade to the people I play for. The music is about them, about my neighbour, anyone in the world. I always encourage my audience to make music with me, to sing along. They don’t need to sit and do nothing.

I have a friend who is a French artist, a comedian. He says that on some nights, the audience has no talent! Some nights you do everything you possibly can, and they still don’t respond. You can even dance in front of them, but if they don’t want to do it, they don’t want to do it. The audience can be a bit lazy at first: someone will sit in the front row, legs crossed, taking a nap. Many are very shy in the beginning, but by the end they usually warm up and even want an encore.

It is also very important to understand the venue and the atmosphere you are playing in and choose the style and the program accordingly. In a club full of people drinking I wouldn’t risk playing a prelude by Villa-Lobos.

The purpose of music is in the emotion you bring to the people, in how you make them feel. It is being connected to your body, to your instrument. It is the joy of being yourself and sharing the music you love with people around you. Every time I play for an audience, I have huge fun!