A&E Goes Abroad: Portuguese jazz violinist Carlos Zingaro’s quest for musical freedom

Sam Lewin

Portuguese violinist Carlos Zingaro epitomizes experimentation and open-mindedness. As a prolific performer, composer, and improviser, he aims to surprise audiences — and even himself — with his music.

Zingaro won a Fullbright in 1979 to study at the Creative Music Studio and composed and performed with Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, George Lewis and others. His career blossomed afterwards, as he has recorded and performed internationally.

However, Zingaro’s musical upbringing was largely shaped by the constraints imposed by Portugal’s dictatorship, in power from 1932 until 1974. Playing music under the confines of the dictatorship was frustrating; Zingaro was turned off by “blocked and closed” teaching, which focused on Portuguese nationalism. He jokingly laments that Bela Bartok was considered extreme and that schools excluded contemporary classical music from curriculums.

The regime was also suspicious of jazz, as the music’s black origins implicitly questioned the established racial justifications for African colonialism. Jazz wasn’t popular, and Zingaro had to rely on friends to bring records into the country. He also sought refuge at the American Library, where he would read about and listen to jazz.

Although Zingaro’s passion for the avant-garde may seem at odds with Portugal’s “squared mentality,” the closed society actually sparked his interest in improvisation. “It was freedom!,” Zingaro laughingly remembered when I interviewed him on a research trip to Portugal. “It was such a closed system, so we were looking desperately for something different, something new.”

He began playing with different bands, combining free-form song structures with more familiar melodies. But according to Zingaro, “There were no venues, there were no clubs — there were not that many chances to play anywhere.”

Furthermore, the police would occasionally crack down on his rehearsals. “We were looking suspicious, we had long hair and beards.” While he was never arrested, Zingaro claims that this kind of intimidation helped create a pervasive culture of self-censorship. He explained: “Censorship was inside everybody. Sometimes you didn’t even need police around.”

The government further inhibited Zingaro’s musical endeavors when it drafted him into the army in 1969. He served in Angola for two and a half years, forced to fight for a regime he despised, in a war he didn’t believe in. Since faulty vision prevented him from serving in the air force, Zingaro became “one of the guys in front, giving the coordinates for the guns to fire,” a precarious task typically fulfilled by airplanes.

While Zingaro refused to bring a violin to Angola, he did bring a piccolo — which he never succeeded in learning — and also bought an electric guitar. Whenever he had free time, he’d “listen to music, try to make sounds with the piccolo or guitar, play with African bands in small villages and do some recording with a tape recorder.”

Serving in the army represented a significant step towards Zingaro’s “political and social consciousness,” and as a result, the music he made after his discharge was even more experimental. Zingaro frequently gigged with his band Plexus, the first Portuguese free-jazz group, with musicians who eschewed conventionality — some had never received formal instruction.

Zingaro mocked how the revolution drastically changed the audience’s perception of Plexus: “From one day to the next, some of the same people that before were saying ‘this is terrible, this is horrible, where’s the melody, where’s the song,'” later viewed the music as “revolutionary.”

By contrast, Zingaro’s personal attitudes towards music have remained remarkably consistent. He has always viewed art and politics as inseparable, though he has never been one to intentionally include political messages in his music. He is also refreshingly open-minded: “I always wanted — and I still want — to be surprised,” he explained. “I like accidents.”

If you’re interested in checking out some of Zingaro’s fantastically surprising music, you can buy his records online or visit his Myspace page at myspace.com/carloszingaro. The Myspace also features a number of Zingaro’s awesome comics.