Andre Dal talks about his new album Beyond The Tagus River
On the eve of the release of his new album, Portuguese banjoist Andre Dal gave us the privilege of a very special interview, talking about his career, the bluegrass scene in Portugal, the creative process of his new album, and much more!
"...to record this album was the realization of one of my biggest dreams in life."
BRBMA: How long have you been playing bluegrass?
Andre Dal: I started learning to play the 5-string banjo, bluegrass style, in 1997, when I was doing a university student exchange program in London, England.
Despite having started to learn to play the banjo more than 20 years ago, learning was very gradual and only from 2007, the year I went to a Bluegrass festival for the first time, I started to have a more significant evolution.
BRBMA: How did you meet and what led you to play the banjo?
Andre Dal: When I first saw the film Deliverance, in 1992 and I saw that duel of guitar and banjo, Duelling Banjos, I was in love with the dexterity of the musicians and the rhythm of the music.
Shortly thereafter, I bought the movie soundtrack, which is a banjo album, with Eric Weisseberg and that's when I thought I would love to buy a banjo to learn.
BRBMA: With the band Stonebones & Bad Spaghetti you managed to create a space for bluegrass in Portugal that was practically non-existent. What was it like to find this space, create this interest and present something so little known to the Portuguese audience?
Andre Dal: In Portugal, there was a band that went deeper into bluegrass in 1980 but the band lasted less than a year. Other bands have approached bluegrass but in a very superficial way. Thus, there were never enough bands and musicians to make bluegrass grow in Portugal. It takes decades to create a musical culture, but first and foremost, it takes musicians.
Until 2010, there was practically nothing. Stonebones & Bad Spaghetti appeared and took some time for it to stabilize. And, although we are still unknown in Portugal, we are starting to see the fruits of 10 years of work. In 2020, the pandemic took a lot of work from many musicians, including Stonebones & Bad Spaghetti, unfortunately, as 2020 would be the year we would do more concerts in our entire activity, a result of this growing recognition that there is a bluegrass band in Portugal.
Gradually, people start to get to know the style and, of course, after seeing a bluegrass band live, it's impossible to remain indifferent.
BRBMA: Before YouTube and other platforms, in Brazil it was very difficult to find study material for bluegrass. What was it like in Portugal and how was your access to study materials, repertoire, etc?
Andre Dal: In Portugal, it was also very difficult to find material to study. As I have no musical training, I had to learn to read tablature and for years I only had Tony Trischka's book, Melodic Banjo, which I bought in London in 1997. But with no experience in reading tablature, it took me many years to play the songs from the book. I could learn some songs by ear when I could get the tracks on cassettes. But in the early days and until the internet appeared and, mainly, Youtube, Banjo Hangout, Ebay, and until I started going to bluegrass festivals, which is where you learn more, it was a very slow learning process. And the lack of knowledge was so huge that, when I met Bill Keith in the Netherlands, in 2007, I told him that I thought he had already died. Because I thought that all the first bluegrass musicians, of the first generation, had already died.
BRBMA: On the 17th you will release your solo album Beyond The Tagus River, which features a great team of All-Stars with musicians from all over the world. We would first like to congratulate you on the wonderful work you are bringing to the world of bluegrass and music. How was the beginning of the creative process for this record?
Andre Dal: Thank you very much. This work is very personal and has two specific goals.
In 2010, I started to develop a disease known as Focal Dystonia. For a year, I didn't know what was going on and I tried to overcome the problem by trying to practice more and more. After a year, I learned that focal dystonia is a neurological disease that has no cure and causes the fingers of the right hand, in the case of banjoists, to stop obeying orders given by the brain. In my case, my right index finger started to shrink a lot and I couldn't play well anymore. As I was never a professional and I only played for taste and passion, I never thought about giving up and tried to find alternatives. I switched fingers and started playing with the thumb, middle, and ring. But I knew the disease would evolve and I thought I had to record an album before it was too late.
So, in 2013, I started recording originals of mine with some friends I met at bluegrass festivals. But that was all, an unfinished 4-song EP and I only recorded it again in 2017, precisely because I realized that the disease was evolving. However, as there was no availability of other musicians to record, with the exception of one guitarist, the project was left in the drawer again. But I'm done with the banjo part and I'm glad, because nowadays, with the progression of dystonia, I feel like I couldn't record with the same quality anymore.
In 2020, I thought that, in addition to recording an album to record my journey as a banjoist, I needed to have a good quality instrumental bluegrass album, with original songs and covers, to show the Portuguese audience and musicians what Bluegrass is. So, to achieve the second goal, I invited musician friends I've jammed with at bluegrass festivals to participate in the album. As I couldn't pay them, I assumed that the recordings would have to be homemade, with the equipment that each one had. And they soon agreed to participate.
Basically, the process involved recording first the banjo with a drum set or click, then the double bass, which is also Portuguese, and then sending it to all the other musicians. In the end, the musicians sent the songs back and I proceeded to edit and edit the tracks. It was a complicated and time-consuming process.
I never thought the result would look so good. So that when it came to mixing and mastering, I thought I had to be someone who had experience mixing and mastering bluegrass bands.
BRBMA: We know that making a record is a lot of work, let alone a solo record. After all this recording process, what is it like to see the entire bluegrass community in the world talking about and supporting your work so much?
Andre Dal: Very very good. I knew the album had a quality close to US made instrumental bluegrass albums, because the musicians are all very good and knowledgeable about the style and the mixing and mastering was very well achieved, but the reception of bluegrass radios, magazines bluegrass and the community in general was awesome. I think that because the album is linked to Portugal, but with musicians from so many countries, the reaction is even more positive.
In Portugal, despite being more difficult to reach the media, people are also starting to talk more about the album and about bluegrass, more slowly, of course.
For me personally, throughout my life as a musician I always had dreams that I found difficult to achieve, especially after focal dystonia appeared, but with perseverance and dedication I managed to make those dreams come true. At this moment, I know that I will hardly ever play again as before, despite never having reached a professional level, but I can say that recording this album was the realization of one of my biggest dreams in life. And I can only thank my family, friends and, in particular, my bluegrass family, a community where friendship is above all else. Thanks.
The album "Beyond the Tagus River" will be released tomorrow, June 17th and you can pre-book it right now by clicking here. Our sincere thanks to Andre for the interview and we wish the new album a lot of success!