"The guitar was my very first connection to music and up to now remains my greatest link to the musical creation," says singer/guitarist, composer, and arranger Sérgio Santos. "The initial attraction was the sound. Since I was very little, when I still did not play nor have an instrument, I was fascinated whenever I heard anyone play the guitar. After I had already learned how to play, I started to notice that sound was material through which I would be able to express my feelings towards the world, towards people, and towards life."
A native of Minas Gerais, Brazil, Santos began studying and playing at a very young age. In 1982, he shared the stage with legendary Brazilian musician Milton Nascimento in the live show Missa dos Quilombos, which launched his career. His guitar work embraces the various musical elements of his homeland and expresses deeply-felt love and admiration for the sounds of his region of Brazil.
"Above all, I am a Brazilian composer," he says. "Music, to me, has always been mainly a way of expressing myself. All that I seek to express is intimately related to the land where I live. For me, it would be impossible to abandon the universe of the Brazilian music, since it is this very universe that defines me as a composer."
As one of South America's rising musical stars, Santos and his longtime writing partner, poet Paulo Cesar Pinheiro, have written over 200 pieces — many of which are based in samba, baião, maracatu, choro, bossa nova rhythms, and lilting harmonies.
With his current combo, Santos will surely blend more than a few sounds in grand fashion. Performing with Santos in Charleston this week are bassist Rodolfo Stroeter, sax player Teco Cardoso, percussionist Tutty Moreno, and — perhaps most notably — pianist and composer André Mehmari, one of Brazil's foremost instrumentalists and a Spoleto vet himself.
Mehmari, winner of the prestigious Prêmio Visa da MPB prize in 1998 as Brazil's best instrumental performer of Musica Popular Brasiliera, made his U.S. premiere at last year's Wachovia Jazz Series. He has an active performing schedule with his two trios, as a solo pianist, and in duet with singers Monica Salmaso (another Spoleto vet) and Ná Ozzetti and mandolin player Hamilton de Holanda.
"My band is formed by great musicians, of which I am not only an admirer, but also a friend," says Santos. "Stroeter has a very particular and inventive way of conducting his double bass. The sax player, Cardoso, builds a constant dialogue between jazz and Brazilian roots. Moreno is innovative at his instrument. In his hands, the drum is almost a harmonic instrument. And the pianist Mehmari, who has already performed in Charleston, is a phenomenon, as you already know. Being on stage with all of them is a pleasure at every performance."
Santos and his band value the experience of playing different styles of jazz, folk, dance, classical, and other music with different bands and artists — as demonstrated on his self-titled album, recently released on Biscoito Fino Records.
"Music is the most universal of the languages," Santos says. "What is most fascinating is that every artist and every musical style with which I feel identified are part of what helped me build my own identity. It is this fact that allows the most important thing in art to happen: real exchanges."
SÉRGIO SANTOS • Spoleto Festival USA's Wachovia Jazz Series • $25-$40 • June 3 at 9 p.m. • The Cistern, 66 George St. • 579-3100