After indulging her passion for Brazilian music in Salvador da Bahia, percussionist Ami Molinelli reached an important crossroads in her life. Heading back to the United States, Molinelli needed to decide just how deeply her involvement in music would be a part of her life. Molinelli followed her passion at this point, deciding that music would become a full time career and the focus of her life. She moved to Southern California and attended CalArts, focusing her studies in the world music program. While she was there, Molinelli came into contact with a wide variety of music, such as West African and Afro-Cuban drumming, but it soon became clear that Brazilian music held her heart. On a summer trip back to the Bay Area, Molinelli met saxophone player Zach Pitt-Smith. The two musicians discovered a shared interest in Brazilian music, and they soon found themselves playing together. Pitt-Smith introduced Molinelli to 7-string guitarist Brian Moran, who also shared his deep bond to Brazil. Despite a growing musical network in the Bay Area, Molinelli got two steady teaching positions in Los Angeles, inspiring her to make that her main base. Molinelli realized that her work with Pitt-Smith and Moran held strong potential though, so as she moved forward in her career, Molinelli regularly traveled up to the Bay Area for performances.
As Molinelli traveled down her chosen path, her focus upon Brazilian music became clear, defining her future work. Together with Pitt-Smith and Moran, as well as mandolin player Jesse Appelman, Molinelli would form Grupo Falso Baiano, a leading force in Bay Area Brazilian music. In Part One of our interview with Molinelli, we discussed her evolution as a percussionist, her musical experiences at U.C. Berkeley, and her initial trip to Brazil. Today, we look into Molinelli’s move back to the States, her studies at CalArts, and her encounter with her future bandmates.
LATIN JAZZ CORNER: What brought you back to the States and eventually to CalArts?
AMI MOLINELLI: I was in Brazil and I was at a crossroads – I was either going to let my visa expire and be illegal or come back. I didn’t want to come back, so it was a real painful decision to leave Brazil. I did leave though, and once I came back, I figured that if I was going to do music, then I should do it for real. So I took some supplementary music courses at Laney College in Oakland and was playing as well as teaching around the area. Then I applied for an MSA at the California Institute of the Arts and I got in. I went to CalArts and that really was another great stepping stone for me. I was able to study with some good people while I was there. There were a few really talented Brazilian musicians while I was there too. Of course I did other stuff besides Brazilian music while I was there, but that’s really where I got into choro because of another musician that was there at the time.
LJC: Was that a teacher or fellow student?
AM: It was a fellow student. There were two people actually. There was this great guitar player who became a friend of mine; he introduced me to choro. Then there was a teacher there who was actually in the world percussion program – this guy’s name was Randy Gloss, a great percussionist and a great pandiero player. He brought this percussionist named Gello to the school, who played with some great musicians in Sao Paulo. Gello came for about a month. At the time, he needed a translator and a driver in order to do all these workshops that were set up for him – I got to be that person. He was so grateful and humble that he ended up just giving me tons of lessons. That was a good experience. I was really lucky to be able to study with both of them.
LJC: You studied dance while you were at CalArts too – how did that effect you?
AM: I used to dance samba with troops in san Francisco in the carnival parade. Then at Cal Arts, I did West African dance. With Ghanaian culture, there’s no separation between the drumming and the dance. I think that in Ewe, the word is the same for dance and music. I ended up dancing a lot with them because not as many people wanted to dance as could drum. Since I had that background, they wanted me to dance. My first year, it was a struggle because they kept making me dance and I wanted to drum! It was great though – I did a lot of dance there. You’re able to do that at CalArts, it’s a neat place.
LJC: What other styles of music were you getting into at the time?
AM: I started to be into Afro-Cuban music. At CalArts, they have a Latin Jazz component and a salsa band; I did a lot of that. I was also studying some frame drumming. If nothing else, when you look at the world not needing another conga player and me looking at what I could offer the instrument . . . I ended up falling in love with the Pandiero and Brazilian music a bit more. That ended up being my route – it’s definitely what I do more than anything else.
LJC: After CalArts, was that when you came back up to the Bay Area?
AM: After my first year at CalArts, I went to this camp – it’s a place that now I’ve taught at, but at the time I was a student – it was called Jazz Camp West. I met Jovino (Santos Neto) there. I met a guy that had a Brazilian ensemble, and while I was playing in that group, I met Zach (Pitt-Smith). We started playing together, and even while I was at CalArts, I would come up for some gigs. Zach introduced me to Brian (Moran). After CalArts, I spent almost a year back up in the Bay Area and then I actually got a job down in L.A. teaching both for the L.A. Philharmonic and the L.A. Music Center. Since then, I have been in L.A. primarily. I would come up for gigs and trying to keep the band going, but I’ve been moving between L.A. and San Francisco until this last summer.
Make sure that you read Part One of our interview with percussionist Ami Molinelli where we discuss her early development as a percussionist, her diverse exposure to music at U.C. Berkeley, and her initial trip to Brazil. You can check it out HERE.
Come back next week for Part Three of our interview with percussionist Ami Molinelli where we’ll get into the creation of Grupo Falso Baiano, their early days of performing, and the recording of their first album. Don’t miss it!
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