Imagine an album bursting with mouth and body percussion, heart-rending vocals, a bossa nova version of U2’s “One,” a folkish reading of Bjork’s “Bachelorette,” and oodles of slinky, sexy nylon-string parts—including a song performed on a “grounded” guitar with drumsticks jammed between the strings and fretboard. This is what unfolds on Badi Assad’s first solo album in six years, Verde [Edge/Deutsche Grammophon]. The stylistic mélange is bold and brave, but the vast conceptual aspect of the work is almost overshadowed by the Brazilian guitarist’s physical commitment to complete the album as she battled focal dystonia—a motor disease that left her unable to play guitar for two years.
“I was ready to never play the guitar again, and I would say, ‘The music is in me, not in my hands,’” remembers Assad. “But when that statement really came from my heart—and was not just my head rationalizing my fate—was when I started playing again.”
How did such an accomplished guitarist as yourself deal with not being able to play guitar?
This was one of the strongest experiences I have had in my life, and it’s not something where you can just deal with the mechanics of it. The journey was physical, of course, but it was also very emotional. I had to see my life from every angle to find the reasons why this condition developed. And during this process my vocals became stronger, because I was not able to form even two chords on the guitar.
But you did retrain yourself to play. How did you do that?
Certain hand muscles and movements are compromised, so I avoid them. What often happens with focal dystonia is if you keep doing a movement that’s compromised, you teach your brain that the wrong movement is the right one. That’s the first thing you have to stop. I had to find hand positions that did not use the muscles that were compromised. I kept doing that, and it took me two years to get back on track. There are some things that I can’t play as fast as I used to, but I’ve discovered I don’t need speed to be a musician. Before this happened, if the virtuosity was not in every song, I was not happy with myself. I needed to prove to myself that I was good. But now if I find a piece that’s technically difficult, I’ll simply find another way of doing it. I won’t push myself. I just find another way, and that way will be just as beautiful, because I’m playing it with my heart.
How would you define your sound, and what gear do you use to get it?
My sound is very round and feminine. But, of course, some moments are aggressive. The music always requires the sound it needs, and I pretty much leave myself to flow with it. I tend to like pure sounds, however, because of my classical background. My main guitars are a Paul Fischer classical and a Takamine Hirade, and I use D’Addario ProArte Hard Tension EJ46 nylon strings.
Do you have a particular way of attacking the string—the nail vs. the flesh of the finger?
It’s the nail first. And that makes me crazy, because they always break. I carry fake nails around so I can fix one if it breaks, as well as to ensure the size of my nails is consistent. Otherwise, the whole balance of my hand is different. It’s like if one nail goes down, the others may have to go down, as well. It’s not unlike a woman walking with one shoe in a high heel, and the other without. You have to be equal.
What’s that weird, harp-like sound on “The Being Between”?
That’s a guitar, but I put a drumstick under the strings, near the 12th fret, and the sound is different above and below the stick. It’s like two instruments in one guitar. I played that with the guitar flat on the floor. I was inspired to do this by a Brazilian percussion group called Uakti. One of their ideas was to stick a drumstick under a guitar’s strings, but they didn’t develop the concept musically because they’re percussionists. It took me a long time to develop a technique and a pleasing tuning—even to discover the right fret at which to position the stick—and the result was this song.
Your live performances are explosive. How do you generate such intensity night after night?
Onstage, I let the song pretty much play me. I go for the intensity of it, or the sensuality of it, or the irony of it. So the show is like an emotional journey, and I play every concert like it could be the last one I ever do. I can be totally exhausted, but when I go to the stage, the energy comes. If I have to die in this concert, then that will be it. I don’t save anything. It’s not worth it otherwise.