Last night’s Dynamite Guitars recital at Herbst Theatre, presented by the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts, consisted of a solo performance by the Brazilian Yamandu Costa. Costa is best known for playing an instrument with seven nylon strings, although last night he seemed to alternate between a seven-string and an eight-string instrument. In both cases the additional string(s) extend(s) the instrument’s lower register, which is particularly suitable for the bass line in choro compositions.
Stylistically, however, Costa’s preference is for indigenous music from the region shared by southern Brazil and northern Argentina. He refers to the “gaucho” rhythms of this region; and the result is that he plays with a wide diversity of ingenious rhythms that seize the attention of the serious listener while often defying his/her efforts to figure out just where the beat is. Costa said relatively little about what he was playing (and much of that was in Portuguese); but this was music that spoke for itself, even for those hearing the tunes for the first time. As an improviser one of his primary skills involves taking a tune that he knows and running it through a series of repetitions, each with its own set of variations.
Those who do not recognize the tunes are somewhat in the same boat as many listening to the composers from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries anthologized in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Those composers could go on at great length making up variations to the familiar tunes of their day, but those tunes tend to be new to many contemporary listeners. Just as today’s listeners can enjoy the inventive skills of composers like John Bull, William Byrd, and Orlando Gibbons taking on those tunes, so can we enjoy Costa’s inventiveness with songs previously unheard from an unfamiliar region in South America.
Nevertheless, towards the end of his uninterrupted 90-minute set, Costa pulled one rabbit out of his hat that was familiar to this particular listener. That was Ernesto Nazareth, whose music so appealed to Darius Milhaud that the latter incorporated several of the former’s songs in the score he composed for Jean Cocteau’s scenario for the ballet “Le Bœuf sur le toit” (literally translated as “the ox on the roof” but frequently known in English as “the nothing-doing bar”). Indeed, one could almost see Costa as the house guitarist in Cocteau’s fictional bar, fully absorbed in his off-beat rhythms and elaborate variations on familiar tunes while all the insanity of Cocteau’s scenario plays out around him. For those of us for whom Costa’s performance was an engagingly unique experience, his passing reference to music Milhaud had appropriated was a welcome breeze of familiarity.