Bola Sete’s career in music was artistic and spiritual journey that began in dire physical poverty, moved through success as a popular musician in his homeland Brazil and the United States, until the discovery of yoga and meditation put him in touch with the deep personal and traditional wellsprings from which he fashioned guitar music uniquely his own. Bola Sete has been called a jazz musician. But the music he created in the last decade and a half of his life had little in common with the harmonic or improvisational structures of jazz. He has been called a father of New Age Music. But while he certainly provided an inspiration for artists such as George Winston, Sete’s music has a raw, virile power missing in nearly all New Age compositions. As with all performers who create ineffable music out of the personal vocabulary of their lives and experiences, it is better simply to hear Bola Sete’s than to try to force it into meaningless categories.
Bola Sete was born Djalma de Andrade, the one son in a family of seven children. The family was black and poor, and they didn’t always have enough food. But there was an abundance of music. Nearly every family member played an instrument, and on Sundays they would get together and play. While one such family jam session was in progress, six-year-old Djalma was told to go to bed. When he climbed in he found a cavaquinho, a Brazilian stringed instrument very similar to a ukulele, that someone had laid there. It was the right size for a child’s hands. Djalma was able to work out a couple chords himself, his uncle showed him some others. Before long, he had his own cavaquinho. When he was nine, he was given a guitar for Christmas.
When Djalma was ten, he was taken in by foster parents, a well-to-do married couple. They taught Djalma and their other foster children proper manners, sent him to high school, and introduced him to classical music. He was performing with a semi-professional group that played Brazilian folk music and sambas when World War Two broke out. His foster parents sent him into hiding in the Brazilian interior so he would not be conscripted into the military. All the time he continued to play guitar, adding folk songs and classical pieces to his growing repertoire. When he returned to Rio at the end of the war, his foster parents wanted him to pursue a career in law. He had his sights set on becoming a musician, however, and attended first the National School of Music in Rio, then the conservatory in Sao Paolo where the guitar teachers were better. While he was in school, he performed regularly with the Brazilian national radio, playing whatever music was set in front of him, and in the process learning to sight read as easily as others read newspapers or magazines.
Life in South America was booming—for the upper classes, at least—after the war, and Djalma had no trouble finding work playing in the scores of night clubs and hotels opening in Brazil and Uruguay. He was playing with a swing-style dance band and with a smaller group within the band, performances that were often arduous. He described the work in Down Beat “The band would play a tune, then the quartet, then the band, then the quartet—for an hour without stopping. Then finally we’d get a 20-minute break. I play the amplified guitar with the quartet, then turn off the volume and play rhythm guitar with the big band. No stopping. Hard work.” The experience with the radio and the big band paid off. Individuals in the music business took notice and set him up with his own sextet. The coal black Djalma fronted a combo of white musicians, and led to his new name. In Brazilian billiards the seven ball—or bola sete—is the black ball. He didn’t care for name Bola Sete because it called attention to his blackness.
Sete toured Europe with the sextet, and when he returned to Brazil he formed a new one which was soon playing at hotels throughout Latin America, Harley Watson attended one show, and by 1959, he would be manager of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Bola Sete was hired to play the Tudor Room, the Palace’s new cocktail lounge. He played weekends, Thursday through Saturday, five until nine in the evening, fighting the noise from the bar and the kitchen. Occasionally he would just practice
Born Djalma de Andrade, July 16, 1923, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; (died February 14, 1987, Green-brae, CA); married Anne Hurd, 1969. Education : Attended National School of Music, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Conservatory of Music, Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Received first guitar for Christmas, 1932; played in semi-professional bands around Rio, 1940-41; toured Europe and Latin America with two sextets, middle to late 1940s; played regularly at Tudor Room, Palace Hotel in San Francisco; met and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, 1962; first appeared at Monterey Jazz Festival, 1962; signed with Fantasy Records, 1963; joined Vince Guaral-di, 1964; formed own Brazilian trio, 1967; Ocean sessions at Fantasy studios, 1972; released Ocean, Takoma Records, 1975; released Jungle Suite, Jungle Cat Records, 1985.
scales for the indifferent crowd. One night in 1962, however, Dizzy Gillespie came to dinner at the Palace and heard Sete play. When his sets had ended for the night, Sete would head over to the Black Hawk where Gillespie’s group was performing. After his San Francisco show was over Gillespie sent word to Sete inviting the guitarist to play on his forthcoming album, New Wave. The following September, Gillespie arranged for Sete to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Sete’s popularity was growing. He returned to San Francisco and played for audiences who were interested in listening to his music. Fantasy Records signed him to a recording contract and Fantasy’s Max Weiss hatched the idea of joining Sete with the Vince Guaraldi Trio, whom Weiss managed. It was an inspired combination. They made their first public appearance on March 6, 1964 and for the three years played to enthusiastic crowds throughout the country. Down Beat described a typical concert in the mid-1960s: “First comes the Vince Guaraldi trio [playing ballads].…With no fanfare at all, Sete appears on stand, ensconces himself on a stool out front… and makes the group a bossa nova quartet for a while.…The other musicians then leave the stand to Sete, and he launches into a solo set.…[bassist Monty] Budwig and [drummer Colin] Bailey rejoin the guitarist.…Guaraldi returns to piano bench almost unnoticed. Then in a leap of rushing excitement, he is back in the ball game and into a solo of much freshness and imagination.”
In 1967, Sete left Guaraldi and put together his own Brazilian trio with Sebastiao Neto and drummer Paulhi-no. When the group broke up later in the 1960s, Sete was middle-aged, overweight, and at a crossroads. He stopped performing and started meditating and doing hathayoga regularly. He gave up his meat and potatoes diet and became a vegetarian. The regimen not only enabled him to drop fifty pounds, he was also able to better control his asthma which had been aggravated by years of night club smoke. In 1969 he proposed marriage to his friend of seven years, Anne. She had turned down his proposal earlier in the year. But he explained to her thatthe rigid physical discipline he had undertaken broke through the armor around his heart. It would soon help him produce the most amazing music of his career as well.
He returned to music in 1970, touring Mexico—where he was extremely popular—with Stan Getz and other jazz artists. ln1972, he put together a quintet and cut another album, Shebaba, for Fantasy. With rock topping the charts and fusion taking over jazz, Sete’s soft Brazilian sound was predestined to flop. Financial problems finally led him to break the group up and for a couple years he toured California colleges as a solo act.
Troubled increasingly by his asthma, Sete experimented with different positions. He noticed that the traditional classical guitar position—sitting on a stool, hunched over the guitar, right foot propped up on wooden block—impaired his breathing after a while. He taught himself to play sitting in the full lotus position used in yoga, with legs crossed and spine perfectly straight, and believed that the position enabled him to act better as a channel for the music he was creating. He played a series of concerts with John Handy, sitar player Ali Akbar Khan, percussionist Zhakir Hussein, and others, entirely in the lotus position. And like his entire life, Sete practiced four to six hours a day, six days a week.
Around 1974, guitarist John Fahey saw Sete performing his solo act in a club in San Francisco. Greatly impressed, Fahey contacted Sete and asked if he would be interested in recording for Fahey’s Takoma label. Sete offered a set of tapes he had recorded for Fantasy in 1972. The music was a mixture of Brazilian folk music, classical guitar, and jazz standards. Fantasy hadn’t known what to make of it and Sete had ended up buying the session tapes back from the label. Fahey released part of them in 1975 as Ocean. While not a popular success, the album was immensely influential among musicians. Fahey began performing his own versions of the Ocean pieces on his records and in concert. Pianist George Winston, the Windham Hill label’s first star artist, was also taken by Sete’s album and played the pieces on his records. His influence on Windham Hill artists— the label eventually re-released Ocean as well—have led some to call Sete the father of New Age music. But the different strains running through the performance’s on the album add up to music far richer and more complex than any simple label can do justice to.
By the early 1980s, public performing had become such of a strain on Sete’s health that he gave it up completely. He continued to practice, however, and to compose. Around 1984 he went into the studio one last time and cut Jungle Suite for George Winston’s Dancing Cat label. Sete got all the music onto tape in a single take, a remarkable achievement until one considers that he had been rehearsing it daily for years and probably knew that his fragile health would give only one opportunity to do it. Interestingly, for Jungle Suite Sete replaced the gut strings on his classical guitar with steel strings to get a crisper sound. It was the last album he released. Thanks to the beta recorder George Winston gave him, which Sete used to set up a home studio, a good deal of unreleased solo music exists which his widow Anne Sete hopes one day to release on CD. She already plans to re-release Sete’s last two albums in the fall of 1999: the complete Ocean sessions, including eight never-before-released tracks, under the title Ocean Memories, and Jungle Suite, with one bonus track, under the title Guitar Moon Suite. Both albums were produced by George Winston.
Bola Sete suffered from lung cancer most of the last decade of his life. He fought it with yoga and meditation, controlling his labored breathing with pranayama techniques. He continued to practice and play guitar in his home until his death on February 14, 1987.
Bossa Nova, Original Jazz Classics, 1962.
Bola Sete Bossa Nova, Fantasy, 1963.
Tour De Force Fantasy, 1964.
(/w Vince Guaraldi), L/Ve at El Matador, Fantasy, 1966.
The Imcomparable Bola Sete, Fantasy, 1965.
Autentico, Fantasy, 1966.
Bola Sete at the Monterey Jazz Festival, Verve, 1967.
The Solo Guitar of Bola Sete, Fantasy, 1966.
Autentico Original Jazz Classics, 1966.
Shebaba, Fantasy 1969.
Workin’ on a Groovy Thing, Paramount, 1970.
Ocean Vol. 1 Takoma, 1975 (re-released by Windham Hill 1980).
Jungle Suite, Dancing Cat Records, 1985.
(with Vince Guaraldi) From All Sides, reissued by Original Jazz Classics, 1998
Ocean Memories, Samba Moon Records, 1999.
Guitar Moon Suite, Samba Moon Records, 1999.
Carlos Santana Influences: Wes Montgomery, Gabor Szabo, Boia Sete, DCI Music Video, 1998.
Billboard March 14, 1987
Down Beat February 25, 1965; July 14, 1967; May 1987.
Additional information kindly supplied by Anne Sete.
—Gerald E. Brennan
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