Angolan-born Brazilian bluesman Nuno Mindelis talks about the magic, DNA and addiction of Blues

"The blues is like a poem, some poems don’t accept translations or regionalisms. Just use your motive power, your signature, without thinking about blues or non blues. It will be a blues."

Nuno Mindelis: mRNA Blues Code

Nuno Mindelis was born in Cabinda, Angola, nicknamed "The Beast from Brazil", is an Angolan-born Brazilian blues guitarist and singer-songwriter. Mindelis counts Otis Redding and Johnny Winter among his musical influences. Mindelis became a guitar enthusiast at the age of 5. By the age of 9 he began building and playing self-made guitars. A primary influence at that time was Otis Redding and his rhythm section, Booker T. & the MG's.

In 1990, an independent recording he had made began to receive airplay on local radio stations. In 1991, he recorded his debut solo album, Blues & Derivados, which received positive reviews in Brazilian media. In 1992, he recorded his second solo album, Long Distance Blues for Movieplay Records. In this album Mindelis was joined by Larry McCray, and the French harmonica player, J.J. Milteau. As part of his promotional tour for the album, Mindelis played at a blues festival in São Paulo, featuring Robert Cray, Otis Clay, Ronnie Earl, Lonnie Brooks and Bo Diddley. In 1995, Mindelis played at Antone's 20th Anniversary in Austin, Texas, opening for Guy Forsite and Junior Wells others. Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Storyville also performed at the event. Later that year, Mindelis recorded his album Texas Bound, featuring Double Trouble. In 1999 released the album Blues On The Outside and in 2004 Twelve Hours, at Montremblant Blues Festival, sharing the stages with Keb' Mo' and Jimmie Vaughan. In 2005, Mindelis recorded the album, Outros Nunos, dedicated to Brazil, with all of the songs sung in Portuguese and including versions of Brazilian music standards. His new album Angels & Clowns (2013) is his first release for a U.S. label (Shining Stone), produced by Duke Robillard.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

The blues is my musical DNA, my fingerprint. It works as the motive power behind every action I take, even if I don’t want it to be like that. And I don’t always want that, actually. I have a love-hate relation with the blues. Everything I do is blues (even out of the music) but I don’t always want to have the blues as the final format. This is the reason Angels & Clowns (new album) is what it is, It is like the result of my attempt to escape “one more blues album”. And also the reason my last two albums (Free Blues /2010 and Outros Nunos / 2005) aren’t traditional electric blues albums either .With no arrogance, I may say that a blues album is a comfort zone to me; I want to get out of the comfort zone.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

I think that listening to the blues in a very early age (that was my case) is one reason. The first time I heard a blues was an impacting experience, it changed my life. As to either being a good bluesman and/or songwriter, I think three things are very important: innate talent, responsible apprenticeship and time. Time is important. Proficiency, specialization, deeper levels, all that takes time and aging, like wine. Hear Eric Clapton in the eighties and hear him today, he seems to be much better now.

"I miss the originality, the big magic. Even though I repute the US blues as probably the only 'real thing', the fact is I don’t listen too much to the new generations of bluesmen, with a few exceptions." 

How do you describe Mindelis sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I would describe it as unquiet, agitated, artistically speaking.  Mostly blues / rock influenced although I heard everything in terms of music. I may say that I am never happy, always want to challenge, to dare, to change direction. A while ago I was thinking that all the music in the planet was sounding so damn old, every song or piece would sound like something I had already listened to, either it was blues or rock or the (supposedly) “modern” music, created by the young generations today. It seemed to me that I was hearing the same thing as forty years ago. That’s when I decided to mix electronics with the blues, plus hip-hop, rap, house and other contemporary elements. I even used shoe-dance (real one, recorded in a shoe-dance school) in one of the albums, doing a hip-hop beat over which I recorded an acoustic Delta blues guitar.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Incredibly, the most interesting period of my life was in Africa, in the sixties, when I found the magic of the blues, then the rock and roll, psychedelic era, Woodstock etc. I was learning from my heroes, from my 12 to 17 years old. Then there was a war and my life changed a lot, a long and tortuous exile, separation from loved ones, unknown new places, survival etc. Everything changed and I never recovered that magic. Guess it happens once in your life and I was abruptly    interrupted. Despite being a child back then, I came to record professionally (at fourteen) for a major label, the producer wanted to mix a Hendrix-type-guitar with a native African Music group – very popular band at the time - I never got that record, if I’d knew the country was “closing doors” would have saved one.

Strictly within the career limits, being awarded by Guitar Player Magazine as “The world’s independent best blues guitarist” (in their 30th Anniversary Competition) was a very interesting moment. It brought a lot of recognition; it was like if an American musician would win a Samba competition in the modality of Brazilian Acoustic guitar, or percussion, something like that. That lead  to reaching  the level of being profiled in all the main magazines, most important newspapers, national radio and TV shows (equivalent to Letterman’s or Jay Leno’s) etc.

I remember calling up Guitar Player Magazine Headquarters on the phone in New York and they would laugh "Hey, so you’re the guy who won in the blues category, like if the story made a fuss around there. A non-American winning the blues guitar competition. It’s like some Dutch wins a Tango contest."  

Worst moments… well, a musical career is generally made of ups and downs, plus your own head conspires against you sometimes and often in my case. There have been some downs, some reclusions, lack of inspiration etc.. But nothing I could point out specifically.

"In a macro view I see that everything was born in Africa and taken to the Americas by the slaves, who mixed their tribal canticles with the local colonizer’s music and habits."

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

There is, irrefutably, some kind of magic. People literally get the blues and when that happens it is forever, it’s addictive. Like a “pink drug”, say. Like love addiction. There is something about the magic of the “blue note”, the bend. Probably unique.

What's been their experience from Antone’s 20th Anniversary in Austin, TX? Do you remember anything funny?

Not exactly funny but kind of remarkable, I remember Doyle Bramhall Jr.  hanging out  among us, 15 years old, still wearing short pants, I child. He is Clapton’s right arm now. A funny thing was Keith Ferguson (a legend) abandoning the stage because the gig delayed and he got pissed with the Festival’s organization. Knowing Keith, that was funny. Just put his bass in the bag and walked out the door.  Another bassist got up the stage and played with me. Keith died a bit after this. He was a giant, he was self-sufficient, he was with the big ones, Stevie and Jimmy Vaughan, everyone. Too bad he died a very wise and incredibly high human being. It was great to play the 20th Anniversary and I was surprised by the Austin Blues newspaper’s headline: The South American beast is coming to your town. I was the cover, along with Mance Lipscomp and Freddy King.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

As to jam, I would say in Memphis, during the Memphis Blues Awards side jams, about ten years ago. I mean from the artistic point of view, (not the exposure). I really felt I put the house on fire that time. (people kept saying it actually, for several days after that). A lot of great people were there, Guitar Shorty, Duke Robillard, Pinetop Perkins, Kim Wilson. Jimmy Reed’s son and daughter were there, I was touched by that! Reed (and Eddie Taylor) is probably my favorite bluesman.

In another occasion and venue, I also remember having had a special fun jamming with Bobby Keys, known as something like the “king of the rock and roll saxophone”, a legend who played with every rock star, long time (and so far) with the Rolling Stones. An idol I would listen to since I was about 10 years old, Cocker’s Maddogs & Englishman etc..

As to best gigs, I would say the Montreal International Jazz Festival (first time I went there in 2001), it was really magical, musically  and in terms of audience (amazing interaction, the crowd went crazy literally in every gig we did there) and more recently in a big Festival where I played (announced alongside with Buddy Guy, Taj Mahall, John Mayall, Shemekia Copeland, Dr. John and others). I was the only non American in fact, and we smoked that day. You know, sometimes the music seems to flow in a magical way, a conjunction of good factors that create that unique moment, a happy night musically. Shemekia’s manager and songwriter asked me to write her a song, after he watched the show. He was really impressed.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

I learned a lot from Uncle John Turner (former Johnny Winter’s drummer) who I had the privilege and honor to have as my drummer in several tours in Europe, Brazil and USA, and who became a very good friend. He passed away a while ago, I miss him A LOT. I learned more from him in minutes more than from others in a whole life. One of the best advices I heard was his as well: “Let’s play for ourselves rather than for the audience. Because trying to please the audience may keep you away from having fun yourself, while if we have fun on stage, then the audience will have fun too”. I use this every gig so far. Uncle was an old soul, he played Woodstock, and he jammed with Jimi and others. A brother and an advisor, I really miss him a lot. He also taught me that it takes at least 20 years to be able to sing a blues song properly. When he told me that it didn’t make much sense but It completely makes now, I made prof of that 20 years later.

Are there any memories from recording and showtime which you’d like to share with us?

Recordings with Double Trouble in two different occasions were remarkable. Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon are two great persons and special musicians; we had a lot of fun. One funny story was that the owner of the studio had a huge trunk with a lot of porn videos, I remember Tommy saying “c’mon, don’t open that thing, we will ruin the sessions today”.  And yes, we actually did half-ruin the sessions that day. The producer would shout "I am mixing this thing myself alone, you will miss it and I won’t change later". I also toured with Tommy and Chris; I remember we lost planes in airports and things like that. I opened for B.B. King once that was a remarkable showtime moment. Playing the Montreal International Jazz Festival several times, announced alongside Oscar Peterson, Diana Krall, Prince, George Benson, Jimmy Vaughan, those were great showtime moments, great gigs. Also in England, alongside my biggest heroes, Steve Cropper, Yardbirds, Taste, etc.

"The first time I heard a blues was an impacting experience, it changed my life."

Make an account of the case of the blues in Brazil. How difficult is to make a blues album in local language?

I wonder it is as difficult to do a blues in Portuguese, (or Greek) as it is doing any other good song. A good song is a good song no matter in what language. Here we may go back to that DNA thing I mentioned above: think of a song in any language without thinking specifically about a blues because at the end it will be a blues anyway, it is your DNA remember? Now, if you think about literally mimicking a blues, it will probably be stereotyped. The blues is like a poem, some poems don’t accept translations or regionalisms. Just use your motive power, your signature, without thinking about blues or non blues. It will be a blues. In Brazil, you have the advantage of being much more evaluated if you sing in Portuguese. Besides not being a bilingual country, nationalism is severe here, like in the US. (and in France, I’d say).

From the musical point of view what are the differences between Brazilian and USA blues scene and industry?

Although the essence is always the same, either the blues scene or industry is each other different in Brazil and USA. Brazil is not actually a blues country although a lot of people like it a lot. The US is the absolute Mecca of the blues from immemorial times. (followed by Europe and even Japan). The blues started to be known here only in the late eighties, (almost in the nineties) mainly after SRV’s era. Every kid decided to wear a cowboy hat and mimic SRV. I started in the 60s, I got the original blues boom like a clout when I was a kid, in another country, heard all those guys like Mayall, Clapton, Stones etc. they were pointing out to the Chicago guys, Howling Wolf, Muddy, Little  Walter, John Lee etc. etc. The industry is the US is bigger and although the blues is a poor genre anywhere in the planet , there is much more structure in the US , more agenda, more promoters, Festivals etc. More work. Musically and technically speaking the US blues smokes (and smashes!)  the Brazilian one, especially in regards to the musical language, the context. The blues is like their Samba. Think of the Americans trying to do Samba and you will have an idea.  Still, there are some good blues players and those are the ones who were very young in the late eighties. I remember seeing 9 years old fans in my gigs back then. Those kids got the blues “in the nest” and that’s when things workout.

"People literally get the blues and when that happens it is forever, it’s addictive. Like a “pink drug”, say. Like love addiction. There is something about the magic of the “blue note”, the bend. Probably unique."

What do you miss most nowadays from the old blues? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

I miss the originality, the big magic. Even though I repute the US blues as probably the only “real thing”, the fact is I don’t listen too much to the new generations of bluesmen, with a few exceptions.  Technically they are amazing, just great, but they only repeat the same old formulas to the point exhaustion. Nothing new, fresh, original. Maybe because they didn’t learn from the cotton fields like their grandpas, they learn from their heroes from the records and shows, like everyone else in the planet. The Chicago guys in the sixties were different from each other; Wolf was completely different from anything else, Muddy too. Even risking sounding nostalgic, I’d say that today everything sounds pretty much the same. Again, with a few exceptions and, again, although technically some contemporary blues players are amazing.

As to fears, (first something more related to audio quality rather than music itself, but which affects music directly and very harmfully I’d say) I fear that the real, deep, full, tridimensional, sound doesn’t come back anymore, lost forever. (new generations prefer MP3s files sounding, according to blind tests as part of  a scientific research done in UK). I also fear that the blues, rock, jazz, soul etc. may become museum pieces. Precious, valuable, but confined like Renaissance paintings, never popular again.  

As to hopes, I think that maybe the advent of the internet, the piracy and therefore the big downs suffered by the major record companies might bring a new era where people will have a wider choice of real good music, more options. (200 good artists selling 5.000 records each, instead of one Big Star selling 1.000.000 alone of crappy superficial music). In other words, the end of the massive show business era, which is actually just an entertainment thing (not music) using something they wrongly call music as the vehicle to make money.

Which memory from BB King, Double Trouble, Larry McCray, and Bo Diddley makes you smile?

Bo Diddley was a moaner in fact, I think he never recovered for being stolen the title of inventor of the Rock and Roll. But since I got along very well with his band we had fun doing some jams. I remember Magic Slim and John Primer were there as well, (John was Magic Slim’s rhythm guitar player by then) and many others. Funniest (though sad as well) thing about B.B. King I remember now, was watching big lines of guitar players waiting for long to get his autograph in their guitars and going back without it because BB doesn’t sign Fenders, only Gibsons.  

I didn’t play with BB but I could have played (knew it later) and I want to kill myself every time I remember that. I later knew I had been recommended to him from a industry bigshot in the US, so he was aware I could show up. And I didn’t. Maybe in the US next time, who knows what the future may bring.

I hanged out with Double Trouble a lot; there were a lot of funny situations, especially because the three of us are always in good humor. I was able to quit smoking (after a life!) because of them (they were in the middle of the quitting process, and would supply me a lot of nicotine pills). We delayed and lost planes in the airports, and every kind of incredible situations. Same with Larry, I remember once he changed the tire of my car, we didn’t know each other so well yet, first meeting. I couldn’t handle the weight and he is very strong. So I just told him to do that.  And there he was, my guest star, by then on national TV and newspapers announcing our tour, and suddenly in the middle of a dark street putting a spare tire in my car, like if he was my driver.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to samba and Bossa Nova?

In a macro view I see that everything was born in Africa and taken to the Americas by the slaves, who mixed their tribal canticles with the local colonizer’s music and habits. In the US such fusions became Gospel, country Blues, then city blues, later rockabilly, rock and roll,  Jazz; in Central Americas it became Rumba, Salsa, Merengue, bolero etc. and in Brazil it became Samba, Forró, Baião, Maxixe, Xaxado, maracatu and later Bossa Nova. (which was born in the higher class environment, very refined and strongly influenced by the Jazz). Sociologically, say, in my opinion the Samba is the Brazilian equivalent to the blues, very roots, poorer people, mostly black etc.. So I guess those are the lines. It’s interesting to notice that the shuffle (to me the biggest expression of the blues roots) comes from those French brass-street- military drums, mainly during the French colonization in New Orleans. So the black people would mix their tribal musical elements with the new ones that they would find along the way, be it in north, south or central Americas.

"I wonder it is as difficult to do a blues in Portuguese, (or Greek) as it is doing any other good song. A good song is a good song no matter in what language. Here we may go back to that DNA thing I mentioned above: think of a song in any language without thinking specifically about a blues because at the end it will be a blues anyway, it is your DNA remember?"

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I think you will find my answer very unlikely (as I won’t say I want to spend a whole day in the Mississippi Delta with Robert Johnson or in Chess Studios in Chicago with the giants!!) but I would love to have spent along  those days when Pink Floyd recorded the Dark Side of the Moon in Abbey Road (B Studio, Jun 72 to Jan 73) . Alan Parsons was the engineer; the Beatles were working on something in Abbey Road’s A Studio in the same period and would join Gilmour and all the others often for a coffee and suggestions. Ouch! Those were the days, my friend! 

Nuno Mindelis - official website

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