Andrew Finn Magill had no choice. From his bloodline to his name, Irish heritage stamped Magill’s identity.
His parents played traditional Irish music in the home. He ditched Suzuki method violin practice to play Irish music. And he went to Ireland twice to compete in the all-Ireland violin championships. As a kid, he would take part in the jam sessions at Asheville’s Jack of the Wood, and his father, Jim, founded the Swannanoa Gathering.
So what is Magill doing composing and playing Brazilian music?
“I had one Brazilian music lesson, which blew my mind,” he said. “I went off the deep end and decided I was going to study it eight hours a day.”
Magill has a new album of original music called “Canta Violino,” anchored to the rhythms and musical sensibilities of Brazil and inflected with phrasings of early jazz. Magill is celebrating the album’s release with his full band April 28 at Isis Music Hall in Asheville.
“The violin doesn’t really exist in Brazilian music,” he said. “My mentors and teachers were mostly a saxophone and clarinet player there, guitarists, mandolinists—everyone but the violin.
It might seem odd an Irish fiddler even discovered Brazilian music, let alone devoted himself to it, until you learn more about Magill.
He has a habit of pulling at threads of curiosity, jumping from yarn ball to yarn ball. This is someone who is fluent in three languages and was just 20 when he transcribed the solos of jazz horn players of the 1950s and ‘60s to understand their language.
“I think part of it was probably just musical A.D.D. Because I was also learning old-timey bluegrass, and I had an acapella group, and in college I was in a Cuban ensemble,” he said. “Then one, day I decided jazz was musically the most interesting.”
He spent a year in Malawi on a fellowship to explore social change through music and later went to Ghana as part of his public health studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. But music proved too strong a pull—and so did a woman, whom Magill followed from New York City to her native Brazil. There, his current focus took hold.
“Here’s a music where you solo, you do counterpoint, have to know chord theory, have to play rhythmically. It’s polyrhythmic,” he said. “On on top of all that, it’s communal. You’re sitting around in a circle drinking beer, and that was very familiar to me. I grew up playing Irish music.”
It’s one thing to learn how to perform Brazilian music. It takes an entirely different level of confidence for an Irish native of Asheville to compose music designed to sound authentically Brazilian.
Not long after producing an album of his own Irish folk tunes, Magill approached some of Brazil’s elite musicians to critique and shape his new music and help him record it—in Brazil. Magill believes they welcomed him, in part, because violin is so rarely heard in their music.
“There’s a lot of rule-breaking and a lot of deviations from Brazilian forms, but it’s still Brazilian music,” he said. “I studied my ass off and people heard that. Whether I nailed it or not, I think it was clear I took it seriously.”
For his next project, Magill wants to blend and transcend genre and establish his own artistic voice.
“Instead of trying to be so obsessed with keeping the Irish music Irish and Brazilian music Brazilian,” he said, “what I’m trying to do is cultivate that fan base and that kind of visibility, as just a musician.”