Carlos Zíngaro Interview

From Unearthing The Music

Carlos Zíngaro - Photo by Nuno Martins

The following is an e-mail interview conducted by the UNEARTHING THE MUSIC Team with Carlos "Zíngaro" in April 2020.

You studied at the Lisbon Conservatory between 1953 and 1965, where you were taught in the classical style. Besides that, you studied the church organ and were a part of the University of Lisbon Chamber Orchestra. What were those learning experiences in the heyday of the dictatorship like? How open to recent developments in the musical world were the curriculums and teachers you encountered, especially regarding innovations coming from abroad?

I actually started at the Conservatory later on, as they didn’t have classes for children at the time. First I was at the Friends of Children Musical Foundation, and then at the Music Amateurs Academy. Only later did I join the Conservatory. Regardless, independently of the technical/mechanical practice of the instruments, which depending on the teachers wasn’t always taught in the best way, the experience was particularly traumatic, sclerotic, closed off...I found no “masters” there. I did find however an extreme blockade in regards to other forms and aesthetics. A denial of the pleasure of making music. Another (?) dictatorship of would-be artistic beginnings and ends… Hence my difficult, almost love/hate relationship with the violin. Hence my painful frustration when I see great performers, with irreprensible technique and fluidity in interpretation...

Later you transitioned into a freer musical approach, with a big focus on improvisation, founding the PLEXUS group in 1967. How did you discover your interest in this and other new ways of seeing and making music?

For reasons I assume are understood based on my previous answer, running away quickly became the only option - besides simply quitting… Between the ages of 16 and 17 I was already experimenting with jazz, and playing pop / rock music with many different groups which would eventually become PLEXUS. The violin was, of course, not well regarded in these first formations, so I learned the organ and the guitar. But I kept stubbornly trying to include the violin whenever possible… I was extremely curious about other forms, other musical languages, essentially. I “discovered” John Cage when I was 14...I was fascinated by ethnic music, and with jazz and blues as well. In these aesthetics I finally found the creative freedom I had never found here at the time, with all the classicisms of the era. Rigid, musty and reactionary...

How were PLEXUS received by the general public at the time?

Towards the end of 1969 I was coercively enrolled into the military, which forced me to stop my activity with PLEXUS until the beginning of 1973. Before we were an experimental rock group, highly influenced by the Grateful Dead and King Crimson. Which occasionally allowed us to have three guitarists or two drummers...Performances were rare at the time, besides some rare appearances at high school parties, because we weren’t a ‘songs’ band or a cover group. Just as soon as we’d play a 20 minute version of “Paint it Black”, or a raga adaptation of “Somebody to Love”, we’d also do long versions of “Yesterday”, “My Sweet Lady Jane” or “You’re Lost Little Girl”, along with endless improvisations… Hardly danceable music. We were seen as somewhat “weird”, not part of any scene, hard to get. Our EP for RCA (thanks to José Cid championing our music) was released soon before I left for the military, and surprisingly it was well covered by the press… After I came back from my own colonial war in 1973, I wanted to make free jazz, an aesthetic of shouting, of revolt. Maybe that’s why PLEXUS was seen as a “revolutionary”, fighting band after April 25th, and we were called to play between the militant protest singer/songwriters or in similarly representative events. Generally speaking we were well received, since we were more or less integrated with the scene at the time in terms of aesthetics and principles. We even ended our concerts with “The Internationale”... Of course, the times changed rapidly and we soon became seen as a little too weird, too random or vanguardist, not militant or partisan enough (which we never were…).

You were stationed in Angola during the colonial war. What was that experience like? Were you able to maintain your connection to music even with the obvious constraints the situation posed? Do you feel as if that experience influenced your music in any way?

I refused to take my violin to Angola - so I spent over two years without playing it. I took a guitar instead, and I participated in some local parties in the north and northeast. I was fascinated by the rhythms, the visceral vibrations. But I was obviously an outsider...Towards the end of my service, in Luanda, I went back to experimenting with a musical and verbal performance group - Jubanzi Iznabuj y sus Muchachos… with whom I had already started some magnetic tape experiments in S. Salvador do Congo, where I had been posted. I’m not sure what my time there was worth - a lot, or nothing. It was traumatic, revolting, idiotic, and yet profoundly human. The references to revolt stem from there, even though they were there in embryonic form prior to my experiences in Angola.

How did the Portuguese musical scene change after the revolution? Did you sense any changes in the way your music (solo, with PLEXUS or with other projects) was perceived before and after April 25th?

As I’ve mentioned before, there were many differences, despite my eventual distrust towards some of the ongoing revolutionary processes, which seemed somewhat baseless and / or opportunistic. The 25th of April represented hope, in which many believed in and fought for. Others lost...PLEXUS stopped being considered revolutionary and became simply “weird”...It ended in 1977 after some internal conflict and had a very short rebirth in 1980, this time as an electroacoustic group. As a performer / musician, I felt in a limbo / index...I wasn’t classical, nor rock, nor jazz or folk… I started leaving the country in 1974 and began to encounter musicians who felt and thought the same. And it was there I found my musical “family”, who didn’t ask who I was a son or stepson of, which team or party I belonged to, or how I was I kept going.

When and how did your interest in electronics and their use in music come to being?

From early on, depending on my meagre economic means, of course. Since I began amplifying the violin with a mediocre contact pick up microphone in 1967, followed by the use of pedals due to my enthusiasm with Hendrix’s sound, to ordering a Fender electric Violin in 1971 (which I was only able to play in 1973), the use of cassette tape as a background / base for my solos, purchasing a Revox in 1975, an ARP 2600 + Sequencer in 1978, my first computer in 1981… At the beginning this was almost always motivated by my need to play with someone in Portugal, at least with my own echo… Or by a need to manipulate sound, to change the instrument’s timbral characteristics - see the love / hate relationship…

After the 25th of April your career expanded in several directions, having developed collaborations with many of the most recognizable names in improvised music, and having played in major festivals throughout the world, as well as maintaining a parallel activity as a composer for theatre and cinema. Which are, to you, some of the most memorable and striking moments of this long career?

Having invited the saxophonist Daunik Lazro - a great musician, improviser and influencer - to participate in concerts with PLEXUS in 1974. Being at the 1st Jazz festival in Willisau, Switzerland, where I met the pianist Irène Schweizer. Having participated in Steve Lacy’s seminar / concert at the Chateauvallon festival in France, where I met contrabassist Kent Carter, who would invite me to record his 1st album, “La Contrebasse / Chant du Monder” in 1978 and with whom I collaborated until 1984. Having been in an artistic residency at the University of Wroclaw in Poland, on composer Richard Misieck’s invitation, in 1978. Having been a part of London Musician’s Collective concerts during that same year, where I met Roger Turner, Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. Steve Lacy introducing me to Richard Teitelbaum in 1978, a composer and musician with whom I kept collaborating until his passing in 2020. Having received a Fulbright scholarship in 1978 for a residency at the Creative Music Foundation in Woodstock / New York, where I collaborated with Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, Leo Smith, Karl Berger, Tom Cora and so many others...Starting my collaboration with contrabassist Joëlle Lèandre in 1980, a collaboration that continues to this day. There are too many memorable moments to list, made up of once in a lifetime experiences.