When Brazilian-born Sergio and Odair Assad play their guitars, critics reach for new adjectives and audiences gasp at the technique and depth of feeling they bring to a broad range of music.
"Whether by instinct, training or sheer hard work - or, more probably, a blend of all three - the Assad brothers achieve levels ... which are phenomenally fine," wrote one critic after a concert in Australia.
Sergio Assad chuckles at the assessment: "After playing together for more than 25 years, Odair and I think and play the same way. We don't have to ask. Our brains and fingers just seem to know what the other is going to do."
Sergio and Odair, called "the cream of classical guitar duos" by Classical Guitar magazine, were born in Sao Paulo 38 and 34 years ago, respectively, and began playing Brazilian folk music at their father's knee. Their grandfather had emigrated to Brazil from Lebanon in the early 1900's and joined Sao Paulo's large Arab community.
Despite a local reputation as talented guitarists, it wasn't until a newspaperman from Rio de Janeiro heard them play that their career began to take off. The journalist encouraged them to study with Monina Tavora, a disciple of classical-guitar legend Andres Segovia.
"Our father loved music. He moved the family to Rio so we could study there," says Sergio. "For seven years we studied with Tavora before she thought we were ready."
It was worth the wait. When the duo debuted in New York in 1980, The New York Times called them "virtually perfect." Since then, the brothers have played all over the globe, touring five continents in 1990. Their first US album, of music by Latin American composers, received Ovation magazine's "Recording of Distinction" award. Their second, Alma Brasileira, was released in 1988.
Sergio, who lives in Paris when he isn't touring or in Brazil, says it was nearly impossible to grow up in his homeland and not be interested in music. "It is a very, very big part of Brazil. Odair and I were influenced by all kinds of music when we were growing up, from classical and jazz to folk to popular music from all over."
Though their father was raised in an Arabic-speaking home, Sergio says the Middle East had little direct influence on him and his brother during their childhood years in Brazil - "unless you could say it was in our blood.
"Middle Eastern musical influence has only come in the past six or seven years, but I think we are affected by everything we hear. Somehow, it is incorporated in what we do," says Sergio, who has toured in Turkey and the Middle East. "We play classical, jazz and a mixture of everything. We don't want to be limited. If it is music, we will try it."
In addition to performing, the two teach master classes at colleges when they tour. "The brothers' technique is pristine and dazzling," wrote a teacher at Iowa's Luther College after one of these visits. "And in the master class, Sergio's teaching and comments were full of wisdom."
But it is their concerts that draw the most praise. "What has 12 strings and flies?" wrote The Washington Post's critic. "The Assad duo, guitarists whose lightning speed, versatility and taste earned them highest marks... Either [one] could captivate an audience. When they pool their talents, the results are truly amazing."
Brian Clark, a regular contributor to Aramco World, free-lances from Washington state.