Let’s Have A Word #8: O Gajo

"This is as punk as it gets," O Gajo says of picking up the traditional Alentejo guitar, viola campaniça, after years in rock bands.

When one first encounters João Morais, aka O Gajo, guitar case in hand, with the distinctive tattoos and hairdo, possibly wearing black, one will probably unwittingly assume that he’s carrying an electric guitar. But that assumption will be undone as soon as he opens his case and takes out a curvy wooden stringed instrument with hand-made decorations, that came straight out of Southern Alentejo.

The viola campaniça, rustic by name and origin, was brought into an urban setting in the hands of O Gajo, after almost three decades as a punk rock guitarist in various bands. He has been building a solid, mostly instrumental repertoire since Longe Do Chão (2017).

In 2019, O Gajo, released the four EPs Quatro Estações (translatable as both Four Stations and Four Seasons), whereby each EP took its name from Lisbon railway stations (Rossio, Cais Do Sodré, Alcântara-Terra, Santa Apolónia) that were also the venue of the launch gig of the respective EP… during different seasons.

His latest output, Subterrâneos, emerged in 2020, with the help of two seasoned and respected musicians from different backgrounds, Carlos Barreto on double-bass and José Salgueiro on percussions, who took the record down new roads. Pandemic-permitting, it starts hitting the road this Spring.

Photo by Paulo Trindade

(conversation translated from Portuguese)

How did you discover and end up dedicating your career to viola campaniça? I heard there was an Anoushka Shankar concert involved.

It has been gradual. I have edged toward so-called “world music” as a genre over the past few years. It mostly roused my curiosity, because all acts I would hear were all very different from one another and they don’t have that mainstream industry behind, like rock, for example, which is more universal, but where bands end up sounding the same.

[In world music], bands bring a little bit of culture from their own geography, often with traditional instruments and a characteristic sound: a band from Bangladesh will sound different from a band from Mali which in turn will sound different from a band from Mexico. And maybe people’s interest is more in their geography than their name. This had always been in the back of my mind — I started mulling over how I could create this identity as well.
So Anoushka Shankar’s concert, where she takes us to her ancestral India — although she grew up in London — by means of her sitar, accompanied by tablas, was an eye-opener. That journey was basically made possible by the instruments on stage.

From there, I kept my feelers out for a Portuguese traditional instrument. I first took up the Portuguese guitar because I had one at home. I spent a year learning, first some elementary fados and corridinhos (laughs). But this exercise revealed one thing: I had to start from scratch. And with its traditional tuning and all those scales, to learn to play it properly would probably take years and I would still be a bad Portuguese guitar player, compared to all its masters out there. So, this problem of adaptation to its tuning and neck, which is quite short (especially in the Lisbon guitar) made me discard the idea. It was just around that time that I came across a viola campaniça player in Beja, Paulo Colaço, who was kind enough to explain to me all about this instrument: its origins, how to procure one and how a luthier can customize it. So, it’s a very personalized instrument, with a very characteristic sound that transports anyone to that region (Alentejo) and Portugal in a way. The country has a big family of traditional stringed instruments, but now that I know them all, I actually think that encounter with the viola campaniça was very fortunate, as it’s very complete.

Do you use the traditional tuning on viola campaniça?

I still had to adapt it because with the traditional tuning, I wouldn’t be able to play the things I had already started to write in my own technique. I often compare it to a pianist who is presented with a piano where all the keys are shuffled, he or she is well-trained in the scales they’ve been playing but they would still have to go through the work of recognizing notes. So, it only made sense to start this project with the tuning I knew.
I sought to have at least the same intervals I have on a conventional guitar, tuned in E, then A. In the viola campaniça’s case, it’s tuned in C, but the intervals from there match the conventional guitar, except for the higher notes, as the campaniça has five [pairs of] strings instead of six.

Your right-hand technique is also different from the traditional one (mostly picking with the thumb).

Yes, that thumb technique didn’t quite interest me, as it would mean sticking to playing chords. My idea was never to reproduce the traditional viola campaniça technique because I never aspired to emulate those players. I’ve always wanted to do my own music and it’s a confluence of a whole range of references from the most traditional to more contemporary stuff and even free jazz. I can take it wherever I want, and for that I try to use as many techniques as possible.

For example, with the right-hand technique, I don’t have a rule, I can strum with the pick or fingerpick — but the traditional playbook ends up being too restrictive for what I intend to develop.

I know that in Portugal we have many players. Pedro Mestre, for example — who is probably the biggest reference of viola campaniça — has a totally different approach: he acknowledges how it has been played through time,  in terms of tuning and technique, and it’s tremendously important work that I respect very much,  but it’s almost like an ethnographic study. I didn’t want to go down that path creatively. First, because I’m not Alentejano, I’d feel like an outsider meddling with tradition. Also, because I just wanted to take up an instrument whose soul was palpable but to which I could give a body or an expression. That’s what this project, O Gajo, is about. Right now, I’m working on viola campaniça, but the idea for the future is to include other traditional stringed instruments that carry this Portuguese identity, if we can call it that. That’s the raw material I’d like to work on — viola campaniça is just one of the tools.

Did you ever get any feedback from traditional players?

Funny you should ask that, because the last interview I gave was to Diário do Alentejo and along with it came exactly that: what Alentejo personalities, linked to viola campaniça, think of my work (laughs). It was curious, because I had no idea — I just bump into one or the other, every now and then.
With Paulo Colaço, I’m completely at ease, because when I saw him play, he already took the viola campaniça to a more contemporary language bordering on rock and other genres, but he also masters the traditional language, for he’s a reference in that field.

I only met Pedro Mestre once, but that same article mentioned that he sees no problem — I think he sees the potential of the instrument for other things, regardless of what he does himself.
Marco Vieira, who runs a trad school in Odemira, although he’s from Lisbon — we’ve been friends for a while, he’s helped me a lot in procuring the guitars, for example, doing their setup and finding contacts, so he’s fine with the path I’ve taken.

Then, there’s also José Emídio, who found the work interesting, because it’s a new, more contemporary approach, but he challenged me to play at least one Alentejo tune, and I’m willing to accept and show it as some sort of point of departure to my own journey.

What are your references? They probably don’t abound in this genre.

I have none within the realm of traditional Alentejo music, I can’t say I usually listen to music containing viola campaniça , but I’ve been influenced by all those “world music” acts that have made an impression on me over the years.  For example, there’s this amazing Palestinian trio, Trio Joubran, three brothers, whose father was a luthier, and so were their grandfather and great-grandfather, so all their history revolves around the oud, and when I hear them, it just takes me to their native Middle East. 

Again, Anoushka Shankar, I’ve loved to see her cross the sitar with more recent stuff. For example, the late Ali Farka Touré, a reference of Malian and African music in general, who sometimes blended his guitar-playing with blues and rock. These are all people that have always drawn my interest, for they’ve managed to bring their own language into a new era, and I love those fusions. This in a way ends up being the motto of my own project, trying to make it sound like something out of its place of origin but with a more far-reaching, contemporary language, and the crossovers I’ve done here and there show that the viola [campaniça] has a huge potential worth exploring. If we stuck to that traditional technique, it would be very under-utilized.

I didn’t mention it but, of course, one of my main references is Carlos Paredes, among local ones, and knowing that his father [Artur Paredes] was already a “revolutionary” of the Portuguese guitar — the Coimbra one, in his case — by turning it into a soloist instrument. His grandfather, Gonçalo Paredes, was also an acclaimed player in his day in the late 19th century.

Funny you mention him, because when I see you perform live, it seems like a very physical experience and the comparison to Carlos Paredes springs to mind, the way he used to involve himself physically up to the point of exhaustion.

When comparing the rock music I used to play, however sped-up it was, to what I do now, this is really no match in terms of intensity — if anything, because I’m alone on stage with no support, although playing with the trio now should free me up a little. This was never the case up to now, it’s almost as if I would hold my breath for a whole tune and exhale at the end, so it gets very intense and, yes, very physical indeed. Therefore, I understand it very well when I see Carlos Paredes stooped on his guitar, in order to sound the way it does, with that expression of his, it really requires the whole body to be drawn in, because each note there, is not just a flick of the finger. It takes a great deal of intention for a note to reach the right level of intensity and this only happens through the whole body and as well as breathing.

Sometimes when seeing some of my photos, I ask the photographer right away if there’s any of them where I don’t grimace — it’s almost impossible (laughs). I can’t help pulling a face, it’s one of those little things that give away the effort spent to sound a particular way or get a particular expression.
Recently, I saw a documentary on Ravi Shankar, and it’s one of the advices he passed on to his daughter [Anoushka Shankar]: how one must give oneself completely into the instrument to convey a feeling to the audience, so that it takes in all the emotion and intensity and gets involved with the music. It senses how much we give ourselves, or don’t.

Ironically, you once mentioned this is the most punk project you’ve had.

This has to do with the fact that this solo project allows me freedom of movement and expression like I’ve never had before. For many people, punk is a fashion or a style. But to me, it’s an ideology , something in your inner self and above all a way to position yourself in society so that you’re as little constrained as possible, by being yourself with the fewest filters, because life in society naturally formats us. If you can manage that, this to me is a punk attitude.

So, this project is by far the expression closest to what I am, especially as I’m on my own — although I love having guests. It represents so much more of what I have inside than rock used to. Rock music, being more universal, would always be “copied” from what I would listen to. This project ends up being a lot more original, connected to my region of the world and with more personality. I do it my way completely and don’t follow any formula at all. The label published the record because it liked the sound, not because it gets a lot of airplay — it doesn’t — or because it sells a lot. It’s not mainstream enough. 

So yes, it’s in my image, obviously with all the references I may have, but it’s freer than anything I’ve done, both in terms of industry and approach; I don’t have to worry about song structures or fitting any category. This is as punk as it gets. Even at concerts, people might get surprised and won’t always know what to expect. In my “punk days,” if you didn’t play punk, the audience would probably leave or head to the venue’s bar. I’ve always found it a bit too narrow.

That takes us back to the genesis of your project we mentioned earlier. I see it as a reaction to an “Anglo-American monoculture” to some extent.

Sure, you’ve hit the nail on the head there as well. Because after 30 years, it’s one of the things that frustrated me in a way: we’re so influenced and surrounded by that culture that in reality, we don’t see we have a country with such a deep culture and long history, with good and bad things, obviously, but more than enough material to explore. I see Portuguese rock bands trying to have success in those markets with their Fender and Gibson when, all things considered, they would have a better chance and stand out more if maybe their instruments or sound would evoke a bit where they come from, with traces of their culture and identity.

I can’t quite explain it, but I once read this is what maestro Fernando Lopes-Graça did: he mixed classical music with traditional music in his orchestra. That’s the idea, take something ours abroad. Why would anyone in, say, New York want to listen to us play like the Ramones.

But Anglo-American monoculture is a good description. It has influenced me very much, I think we should embrace it — but also mould and transform it. In fact, there are two rock bands that I used as reference for O Gajo: New Model Army and Wovenhand. The latter is an American band that I’ve seen four times and plays this ancient acoustic instrument [a 19th-century mandolin-banjo hybrid] and still delivers such massive intensity. 

Photo by Nuno Feliz

Looking back on the last couple of years, you had a hectic 2019, followed by a very quiet 2020, for obvious reasons...

Four EPs within a year, released every three months, meant having no time to take a breather, because as soon as one is out, your mind has to be on the next.

Did you have all four EPs lined up from the onset?

I found a method: I worked on the first EP with a sound crew sponsored by the Soundtronics microphones, and on the second EP, I wanted to continue the collaboration, so we agreed to let me have eight microphones set up in my rehearsal room at the ready to record. We made the initial test together, but I spent almost a year with the microphones in my room, recording as I went along, then I would send the tracks for mixing and later mastering the five that would make the EP. Some of the tracks were written in the process, I didn’t even have them yet at the beginning of that year.

You also had the chance to play abroad in important festivals such as Eurosonic (Groningen)  and Reeperbahn (Hamburg) this year — what was the reaction of the audience? Did your instrument draw attention?

Yes, they’re two industry festivals to be fair, I didn’t play to a “normal” audience, so to speak, most of them were agents and labels and we’re just showcasing our music. They’re more indie rock festivals, and I felt maybe a bit out of place there, there was no act like mine. But it was an amazing experience and the feedback was very good. For example, I got invited to do a concert in Transylvania in 2020, but it fell through, of course. However, I still managed to give a dozen concerts in 2020, which isn’t too bad considering.

How did you come up with the moniker [gajo translates as guy, dude, bloke]? Was it laziness?

(laughs) No, quite the opposite. You know, sometimes simplicity takes a lot more work. There’s this quote by José Mário Branco, about one of the records he produced for Zeca AfonsoCantigas do Maio, I think —  when someone from the label questioned him why he was asking the same rate for songs with orchestra and grand production as for a song with just Zeca on the guitar. He said: “Yes, I did, and I should have asked for more because of all the hassle it gave me to keep it simple and strip all the instruments.”

Sometimes deconstructing to get to something simple at the end isn’t easy and even harder. The same happens when I’m composing, I need to go back to the tune a week later and start sweeping out notes, because I tend to complicate too much at first, then I keep decluttering for weeks after stepping back several times. So, for the moniker, I started with a shortlist of 50 names or so, then I removed them one by one, as they sounded too formal.  “O Gajo” sounded just perfect — you can’t be formal with a name like “o gajo.” Imagine being introduced in a fancy venue or occasion as such: any protocol goes down the drain on the spot. I didn’t want this act to be taken too seriously, should it grow, with João Morais, it would feel as though people would call me sir next and be overly reverential. I don’t like this kind of solemnity, and the name “O Gajo” just ruled that out.

It’s also good for the more forgetful public…

Yes, it ends up on everyone’s tip of the tongue (laughs).

In Subterrâneos, you probably went further into that deconstruction work while working with two other musicians. Was composing this album more difficult?

The difficulty was that knowing I had managed to get the musicians I wanted, who are two top-notch musicians of our scene. I was friends with Carlos Barreto already — he featured in 4 Estações — when he accepted my invitation, and was bringing José Salgueiro on board… Well, it wasn’t a problem but a huge motivation above all, as it raised the bar pretty high and made me work harder. I wanted to come up with interesting tunes that would challenge them as well. So the process was always with both the double-bass and percussion in mind. I didn’t quite know what would happen with these two instruments, but the viola campaniça was definitely approached in a more spaced-out manner. I could stop worrying about hitting those lower notes to underpin the whole thing, about the higher notes in the melody and about filling spaces to create a more immersive sound. This means I’m more relaxed and don’t grimace as much (laughs).

But playing live will be the real test. I’m looking forward to the first gigs to understand if we gel and have enough groove, because this rhythm section doesn’t fool around. So composing those tunes was the different approach I needed — after about 35 tracks solo, I had to renew my methods.

Subterrâneos takes loads of inspiration from poets Bocage [“A Negra Fúria Ciúme”], Pessoa [“Chuva Oblíqua”], Camões [“Trinca Fortes”], Artur Rockzane [“Electro Santa”] and the Catalan Jesús Lizano [“O Capitão É O Mar”]

Ever since the first record, I’ve always carried a notebook with me where I write down anything I find curious, because I saw it on T.V. or the street or saw some character or said something without thinking or heard it somewhere. I end up taking many notes, and based on them, I do some research to build a story around. The first record [Longe Do Chão] contained a lot of that, but it’s particularly strong in the second one [Quatro Estações]. Stories like Diogo Alves’s [19th-century serial killer] for example, there are so many in our popular culture that I wanted to bring them forward and focus on local references, unlike what I used to do.  

Then, on Quatro Estações, the collaboration with José Anjos put me strongly in touch with poetry, for his poetry is very intense and inspiring. But it’s not just his work, it’s his posture towards poetry, the respect he has for words, if you ask him to read something, he’ll do it with full emotion and intention. Working with him for two years has given me a new appreciation for poetry and made me read every sentence with more attentiveness, because I understood that, in his case, there is not one comma that hasn’t been thought out (laughs). Poetry can be an abstract world sometimes, but it does require a different kind of immersion.

Of course, I knew many things by Fernando Pessoa, but I wanted to know more. Maybe I was more curious about Camões beyond what I had to read at school. That interest comes and goes, I’m not reading them constantly, but when I started making this record, as I seek inspiring narratives, in Pessoa’s case for example, it had to do with the encounter of three violas campaniças, with different personalities, heteronyms of campaniças, if you like, so I thought giving the track the name of one of Pessoas’ poems (“Chuva Oblíqua”) because of this characteristic.

In Artur Rockzane’s case, his texts are super-intense. I once heard them rendered in a performance that moved me in such a way that I went to buy an anthology of his work. I dived into those narratives while I composed the music, because I also need an inspiration, a starting point to make music that doesn’t have a chorus, a repeated line. So, this starting point is anything I can pick up and see where it might take me, whether I can transform it into the viola sound. It’s like a navigation. For example, on “O Capitão É O Mar” [the captain is the sea], the mood makes you feel like you’re navigating, and it also had a bit to do with this pandemic: as humans, we thought we were very strong and in control of this planet, and it took a pandemic for nature to send this signal and suddenly put us back into our insignificance. The sea is in charge, not the captain.

I didn’t use to be a voracious reader, this project intensified that, although it started with my former band, Gazua, where I wanted lyrics to go beyond the overplayed “rage against the system!” Reads made way to inspire the music. The two are hard to separate now, the music is never entirely abstract.  

Tell me about the choice of the amazing cover to Subterrâneos , “Em Marcha De Escarlate” by the artist Mutes.

It all happened because Mutes reached out to let me know he was painting to the sound of my music, he loved the outcome and resolved on sending me a photo. I decided to look up his work and found it very interesting on first impact, it really suited what I was planning to have. So, I couldn’t commission him a work in the end due to budget restraints last year, but we decided that I browsed through his existing work to see if anything was available. This one (“Em Marcha De Escarlate”) made sense right away. I still saw a few more, but I didn’t need to. If Subterrâneos is the inner picture of ourselves that we keep concealed, the outside to show others is more embellished. Inside, as subterranean, we can be dark, shapeless beings, so this row of distorted figures was the perfect fit. The outcome is visually strong, it was a very fortunate encounter. I’m quite happy about it. Also, because it came out of our little corner of Portugal, to me it was very important. I don’t mean to be fanatic about it, but considering I spent many years importing outside references, now I make a point of dressing up this project, with things connected to our geography.

It was true in 4 Estações, and that idea seems reinforced with Subterrâneos: the titles and atmosphere of the tracks suggest the underground world of Lisbon, the city that lies behind the gentrified and postcard-y Lisbon of the past few years. A Lisbon that tends to disappear or cast aside, but more authentic, nonetheless. Do you agree with that? Was that intentional?

Lisbon has been the epicentre of my inspiration in music because this is where I’m from, that’s why I said this project is the closest to what I represent. I was born and raised in Lisbon and I spent my formative years here, all my haunts were always a more alternative circuit at night in terms of bars and neighborhoods. That is, the Cais do Sodrés and Bairro Altos of the time…. not like today (smiles). I think there definitely is an interest on my part, and it has always guided me and been a source of inspiration, simply because I know this city inside out. When I go out, I’ll go to small clubs or venues where the music and programs are more alternative, this is what I’ve experienced, and this ends up being where I’ll source stories. Not necessarily the ones that give the best image of the city or postcard material, but it’s not a rule, it just comes naturally.

O Gajo is also supposed to be that — some random guy. I wanted to bring to the limelight people and things that are in the shadows and always will be. I think I’ll always be obscure myself and part of the underground circuit. Subterrâneos [subterraneans] has to do with this growth out of the limelight, where my music also lives. Stories are found in less conventional places.

Uma Ginja Com Elas,” for example, came from the days, especially in winter, when I worked near Restauradores and I would regularly go to the ginjinha there. It was part of my routine.

O Navio Dos Loucos” also harks back to a time where we felt like just a handful of mad people enjoying a particular sound, as if on a ship navigating the seas of other people. Those circles were niches, really.

Titles are never random, that would be shallow, they always relate to something real. I want to offer layers for people to peel off, even a few years later.

I am all music. I didn’t grow up in a musical environment — culture and politics were not talked about either — but when I got into high school and started my first punk band at 15, it changed my view of the world. Music, its lyrics, its people, and everything that surrounded it, were my educators. If it was important to me, the music I make can be important to others. That’s why I want to provide good references, good texts, and even the visual design is important. Nothing is random. I don’t want to offer a handful of nothing.

Where outside of Lisbon would you live?

You know, this is something I hope will happen soon (laughs), it’s part of the plans if financially viable anytime. Probably to northern Alentejo, because I don’t want to get too far from Lisbon. But south, anywhere from Palmela down. Still close enough to Lisbon, because there are many things happening here that I’d like to keep in touch with.

Who’s your favourite Portuguese artist?

I think I have it right off the tongue, as I mentioned him earlier, José Mário Branco and for a simple reason: I could in musical terms maybe name Carlos Paredes, but he didn’t have the way with words like José Mário Branco did. Even his compositions, although he was self-taught, are very interesting, very singular and full of personality. And his lyrics were always very interventionist, mindful, and human. He has many characteristics that I simply find genius. I just feel it’s a shame my project didn’t grow in time for me to be able to request working with him on anything [José Mário Branco passed away in November 2019]. Well, I didn’t make it on time.

Let’s Have A Word: what’s your favourite Portuguese word ?

(laughs) I’m trying to translate a thought into one word …I don’t know… I think Tolerance, it must be the thing that binds people. Tolerance is what makes it possible to be with my partner for 20 years and to have the relationship I have with my kid. The relationships we all have with one another should be based on tolerance, maybe if it were so, a whole lot of evils in this world would be wiped out. It’s difficult. I’d never really thought about it that way.

Photo by Jorge Buco

Upcoming dates:

June 17: Águeda – Centro de Artes de Águeda (solo)

June 20: Santarém – Teatro Sá da Bandeira

June 22: Lisbon – Teatro da Trindade
Subterrâneos CD Release Concert

July 28: Viana do Castelo – Jazz na Praça

July 29: Silves – Castle

July 30: Olhão

August 7: Castelo de Vide ( solo)

September 16: Torres Novas

October 1:  Lagoa – Festival Inter. de Guitarra de Lagoa (solo)

Official Website: https://www.ogajo.net/
Label https://www.rastilhorecords.com/pt/artistas/-/o-gajo-93/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ogajodacampanica/
Bandcamp: https://rastilho.bandcamp.com/album/subterr-neos
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/_ogajo_/?hl=en

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