A barely believable talent

By Paul Rigg

If you have ever had the sensation that you cannot believe what you are seeing or hearing is really happening, then you are in some small way prepared for the experience of the Brazilian virtuoso guitarist Badi Assad.  

It is true that Assad is one of only three women on Rolling Stone’s list of 70 Brazilian guitar masters, whose extraordinary guitar playing cuts across classical, eastern, jazz, flamenco,
pop and world ethnic music; but that is just the start. Because she also sings and is an expert in ‘mouth percussion’, which often leaves new listeners wondering if what they are hearing is humanly possible.

Born on 23 December 1966 into a musical family, with two professional guitarists for older brothers, Assad seemed born to excel and perform.     

Guitars Exchange
catches up with her by Skype as she crosses São Paolo in her car, just before she embarks on her current European tour.  

GE: Thanks a lot for finding time for Guitars Exchange in your hectic schedule, Badi; what are you up to in the near future?

BA: I fly to Munich on the 6th October and then I will perform in Sweden, Italy and then again in Germany; I think I have 10 concerts in 12 days. I am also busy with other projects in Brazil. But I released an album a year ago [‘Hatched’] and I wanted to perform it, as I haven’t had a chance to tour it there yet. 

GE: You once said that you write in a ‘confessional way’ and that your inspiration comes from the moment of your life you are in, good or bad. What ‘moment’ are you in now?

BA: Well, I separated from the father of my daughter recently so it is a new chapter in my life. On the other hand, I do feel Brazil is open for me at this time so I am doing more concerts here. I am also working on a concert for kids; I have previously performed it with my band but soon I will be doing it on my own, so that requires a lot of rehearsal. I am very excited about that.  

I have a new album out next year in the US with a trio, Roy Rogers (slide guitar) and Carlos Reyes (violin). I am also going to record a new album with my family for next year, with my brothers Sergio and Odair and with Sergio’s daughters. You should check out Clarice, she is phenomenal.

GE: And your 10 year old daughter, Sophia, is she involved?

BA: No, she is interested in other things at the moment. In my case I started playing guitar when I was 14; I played some piano before that because my mum wanted me to play, but we couldn’t afford a piano so I just played for six months and that was it.       

: You had a strong start to your career, studying classical guitar at the University Of Rio de Janeiro and then winning the Young Instrumentalists Contest in Rio in 1984. You won Guitar Player magazine's readers' poll for Best Classical Album of the Year in 1995 but you have also diversified into flamenco, jazz and ethnic music as well. If you had to describe your music in a word what would you choose?  

BA: “Badi music…is that a possibility?!" (laughs)… Seriously, if I had to choose one category I would choose world music. When you think about world music you see that it has a lot of rhythm, but I think it also has an element that is quite profound. Perhaps you could describe my style as 'universal Brazilian music'.  

GE: Did the Rolling Stone award change your life in any way?

BA: It didn’t change my life but there were only three women on that list so that does mean something to me, because I would like to be a model for other women. Another prize I valued, as it gave me prestige and confidence, was the Best Composer of the Year award. 

What is the guitar that you can't live without?

BA: For the last ten years I have been travelling the world with the German Frame guitar, and I love it.  

GE: I read that you once attended master classes to learn how to do mouth percussion; how did that come about

BA: That appeared in my life when I released my ‘89 album [Danca do Tons - Dance of Sounds]. My brother Sergio did production and we called a lot of good musicians. They all came to the release party but five months later I gave a concert without them, so I started to imitate the sounds and the percussion on the album using my throat and mouth, and I saw I could reproduce the whole album by just using my voice - so that was the starting point.

It took me down another avenue that was very different to what my brothers were doing. When I first started to travel out of Brazil, my brothers’ public came to see the 'younger sister' but I came with my own type of music and that was very good.  

One critic described you as a “one woman wall of sound”. Where are you now with your mouth percussion?

BA: I wouldn't say I was still developing it, for now I just enjoy what I created and I know what I can do. Now I am interested in creating music for children and for sure with children I use a lot of mouth percussion, even more. I sing, play guitar, dance, jump - I am having a lot of fun with this project; it is so fresh I don't think I'll ever stop doing it. 

GE: You
also love finding new sounds from your instruments. You have used copper and PVC pipes, plastic soda bottles and have been known to hit your guitar strings with a wet cloth! Are you still inspired to create new sounds this way?

BA: I did go through a lot of experimentation. I am a very free person and I never quite fit into one box; I don't like that in any aspect of my life. A guitar is not just a guitar - it can be so much more. Music is not just music, and lyrics not just lyrics - they can be so much more open. I am always reaching for what a song wants. 

I am going to take a risk with my next question. If I had to guess at three key moments in your life that I think most influenced your music I would choose when: (1) you realized you had to chart a different path to your brothers;(2) in 1998 you developed Focal dystonia [a neurological disease that can affect hand control] and; (3) your daughter Sophia was born. Would you add any more to that list? 

BA: Wow, you picked the highlights there. But yes, I would add one more moment. In my first international competition outside of Brazil when I began my career, I felt I was at my sharpest and that I had the potential to win. But I hurt my hand and couldn’t even get to the finals. That was a very important moment for me because - I was not even 20 – and it could have defined a lot of what was going to happen next. Anyway, I did something else! (laughs)  

GE: When you developed Focal dystonia your doctors told you that you may never play guitar again, and in fact you were not able to play for several years. How did you deal with that?

BA: I had to reinvent myself. That is also the reason why my voice became strong.  

You seem to frame difficult life events in a positive way – where do you get that ability from?

BA: My mum. She taught me not with words, but with her life, to always see things in a positive way. We are responsible for our lives and everything that happens with it; so I take charge and always look for the positive.  

I am now in my 50s but I don't feel like I am in the middle of my life; part of me feels like I am just starting. It keeps me with a young heart and a young soul.  

: You have covered The Eurythmics’ Sweet dreams; U2’s One and Björks Bachelorette, as well as more contemporary artists like Lorde, Skrillex, Alt-J, and Mumford and Sons. Any more cover versions on the way?

BA: No, not right now because my project with Roy and Carlos is all our own music, and the new album with my brothers will also be ours. Additionally, I am working with some young Brazilian composers; my plan is to do a ‘half and half album’ with them. For now I am focused on other stuff but the right time will come, it always does.  

Your songs ‘Spicy moments’, ‘Mulheres e Cunhatãs’ and ‘To reach my heart’ especially connect with your audiences; are there any others?

BA: Well yes, it always depends on the kind of repertoire, but I have noticed that ‘Stranger’ by Skrillex goes to another dimension in my live performances. That is something unusual about albums - afterwards you start touring, you mature the songs and then you take them to another level. One day I will tour, tour, tour, and then record! (laughs). On stage I feel so much power; I don't have it in daily life, but I get energized and recharge myself on stage.

In 2013 you said that you were most popular in Brazil, Germany, France and Holland – and of course your single, “Waves,” landed in Spain’s Top 10 - is there anywhere new to add to that list now?

BA: No. The world has been in crisis since 2008, the record industry collapsed and that has been a challenge for a lot of musicians to spread their wings. The world is in a limbo, people don't leave their houses like they used to do - unless they go to a rave! (laughs). With a click of a button they have the world in their hands, so musicians are having to find new ways to connect with our public again; it hasn't been an easy ride for a lot of people.  

You have shared a stage with Joe Cocker, Maria Joao and fellow Brazilians Chico Cesar and Gilberto Gil, among many others. Do you have any particular memories that now make you smile?

BA: Yes, you have made me think about a moment with Larry Coryell - who I travelled with in a trio with John Abercrombie, - he would really make me laugh. It is a story related to joy. We always had a solo moment each in our concerts and one night Larry had to reach a certain harmonic and the first time he missed it - and then he missed it again. But on his third try he got it right, so he stopped playing, he opened his arms to the sky, he looked up to the heavens and said: 'Thank God!', and kept playing. That moment for me was like a revelation - it allowed me to understand the freedom of music in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. Previously, I wouldn't allow myself to make one mistake but when I saw that man doing that so naturally, and I saw the public laugh so much with him - that liberated me. 

I love that memory.  

GE: It is a lovely memory; thank you very much.

Badi Assad Official Website
(Images: ©
Sasho N. Alushevski / ©Carol Quintanilha)