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  • Writer's pictureCesar Benzoni

Bluegrass Pioneers in Brazil

Note: this article was published by Erio Meili in March 2009, on the São Paulo Bluegrass Music Association's old website

Bluegrass in Brazil started most probably in the late 1970s and early 1980s with some pioneering bands. I actually met an American banjo picker in Sao Paulo, Steve Yolen, in 1973 for dinner at some friend's house. I had just come back then from my first visit to USA (touring the whole country by Greyhound with a ticket promotion I remember to be 99 dollars for 99 days) when the Dueling Banjo tune was the big fashion (at every jukebox in the stations) and when at the end of the trip I finally bought my first banjo in New York (model "Alex" made in Japan) but it took me 12 years before to start picking it and also to become aware that bluegrass was a music genre and finally to discover tablatures to learn from.

Steve Yolen recalls that by 1978 he was performing with a country band, called "Another Country Band," founded by American School physical education teacher Jay Knight from the Midwest plains (an excellent overall performer-singer, mandolinist-fiddler-guitarist), which was gaining a nice following in São Paulo. Also in this all-American band was fiddler Sonny (last name lost in the fog of the decades), a talented violinist who played with the São Paulo Philharmonic Orchestra), long-time Brazil resident John Thrall (guitar) and recently-arrived Louisiana banker Grady Thurmon (acoustic bass). Steve's day job was running his own newspaper in Sao Paulo, The Latin American Daily Post - Brazil Herald, an English daily for the English-speaking communities of Brazil. He then moved to Rio de Janeiro, where he still lives today in a small city up in the hills called Nova Friburgo and he recently founded the "River Country Trio," a traditional bluegrass band made up of three Americans (Peter Warner-guitar, Tony Lupidi-mandolin, Steve- banjo).

In April 1979 the band Nashville Express was created by the two brothers Marcos and Mauricio de Cunto (Marcos had purchased Steve Yolen´s archtop banjo when Steve brought in his new flat-top Mastertone) and the band included also an English fiddler, Paul Woodhead, recently arrived from the UK to work in Brazil in the environmental sector. Nashville Express was basically a country band with a drummer but their repertory had a lot of good bluegrass and cajun additions, such as The Ballad Of Jed Clampett, Bayou Jubilee, Blue Moon Of Kentucky, Diggy Liggy Lo, Dixieland Delight, Dueling Banjos, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Fox On The Run, Jambalaya, Mountain Dew, Oh Susanna, Old McDonald, Orange Blossom Special, Ride The Train, Rocky Top, and a square dance number with "Ragtime Annie"

So in the early eighties, other country bands entered the scenario with bluegrass flavor, essentially in Sao Paulo:

  • Banda Hillbilly

  • Santa Fe Country (ou Bluegrass)Band

  • Sao Paulo Country

  • Windsong

  • Tennessee Pickers

  • Banda Buffalo

  • Jimmy Allen (was the nickname for the Brazilian singer and picker Lelio Augusto de Graça Neto)

In the early nineties, there was a big country fever in Brazil with a lot of big dancing bars called "caipiródromo" popping up with big audience. I remember also two big festivals in Sao Paulo's best show theatres, with US bands coming to Brazil, such as The Nashville Bluegrass Band, The Tennessee River Boys (today called Diamond Rio) and Pam Gadd with her band Wild Rose.

When I was living in the city of Curitiba (Parana State) 1991/92 we had our "Capim Azul" band which is a legitimate Brazilian translation for Blue Grass.

On April 21, 1996 we finally founded the São Paulo Bluegrass Music Association and had the pleasure to promote in 1997 a tent show with The Nashville Bluegrass Band on their second Brazil visit where they also performed in other Brazilian cities, such as Porto Alegre, Curitiba, Campinas, Belem, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, coordinated by the American Thomas Jefferson Institute and the American Embassy in Brasilia.

In August 2001, during the annual International Expomusic Fair (the biggest music fair in South America) we launched the Sao Paulo Bluegrass Band with 6 studio-recorded bluegrass CDs with 72 songs. We set up a booth with the Pier Trade Company with over 30 Deering banjos and invited the American fiddler and clawhammer banjo artist Dan Levenson to fly in with another 10 Goodtime banjos (checked-in with two tailor-made nice boxes for exhibition too) for workshops. Unfortunately, this event was followed by the tragedies of September 11 which has, of course, started to impact future bluegrass visits from US.

Nevertheless in the meantime domestic bluegrass bands have started to pop up in other Brazilian cities, such as "Trem27" in Porto Alegre (Rio Grande do Sul State) or "Os Encaipirados" in Florianopolis (Santa Catarina State) or a progressive Bela Fleck and Flecktones style trio in Campinas "Cybertones" with Marcelo Modesto on the five-string. A couple of other bluegrass CDs came to the market, including a DVD production from the Sao Paulo Country Band with songs from the sixties played in bluegrass style.

Our website had its dominion registered on April 9, 2002, coincidentally on the 6th anniversary day of Bill Monroe's passing and our site is enjoying now a statistics figure with over 15.000 page views per month. (...)

By: Erio Meili, March 2009


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