Latin Jazz Conversations: Ami Molinelli (Part 1)


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A change of plan often breathes excitement into life and offers the possibility of digging deep into new paths of inspiration. Leaving yourself open to new ideas may present some initial discomfort, but almost always leads to new learning and self-discovery. Sometimes it's simply better to ditch the plan completely and follow your passion—you never know where it might lead and the journey might be better than the destination. When this journey sends an individual towards music, the entire world benefits from their travels, as they leave behind a sonic record of their trip.

Percussionist Ami Molinelli found her life plan taken over by music, a path that eventually led to an impressive expertise in Brazilian music. Raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Molinelli had limited exposure to music as a child, keeping her focus on other things. When she entered U.C. Berkeley for her college studies, she didn't arrive with the intention of playing music, but the art form quickly grabbed her. The lively community of musicians from around the world on the U.C. Berkeley campus led Molinelli to experiences with West African drumming, Trinidadian steel pan, and more. As she moved towards the end of her time at U.C. Berkeley, Molinelli found herself deeply immersed in percussion. Upon her graduation, Molinelli entered a job in her chosen field, but the call of music was too strong. Following a year in her job, Molinelli took a trip to Brazil in order to learn Portuguese that was intended to last two months. She once again found herself drifting towards percussion though, and at the end of her two months, she kept finding ways to extend her trip. By the time that she eventually returned to the United States, Molinelli was well versed in Brazilian music and ready to dedicate her life to it.

Molinelli's change of plans led her towards music and allowed her to build an impressive connection with Brazilian style. Her skills as a percussionist and Brazilian music specialist would only grow, eventually inspiring her to join a group of like-minded musicians in the outstanding Grupo Falso Baiano. In Part One of our interview with Molinelli, we discuss her journey towards percussion, her diverse experiences at U.C. Berkeley, and her immersion in Brazil.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: Where did you grow up and how did you initially get interested in music?

AMI MOLINELLI: I grew up in an area of the Bay Area called the Peninsula. I played classical piano as a kid, but never really thought about doing anything with music. It was a total accident. I got interested in percussion when I went to school for my undergrad work at U.C. Berkeley. I did some steel drumming there, African drumming, and I met some friends that did Afro-Cuban music.

LJC: Was Brazilian music around you at all?

AM: There was no Brazilian music there at the time—this was in the nineties. There was just West African. Interestingly enough, the West African drumming was as far away from the music building as possible and the administrative staff in the music building still complained. They had the African drummers over by where they did marching band and stuff. So I had very little contact with the music building. U.C. Berkeley has a really renown Ethnomusicology program, but it was a funny thing.

After that, I ended up going to Brazil later and spent a year down there. That kind of got me into the Brazilian world.

LJC: What inspired you to make that jump from music as a hobby to music as a profession?

AM: My undergrad degree is in conservation and resource studies. So I worked as an intern in an environmental non-profit for a year after I graduated. Doing a nine to five job was great—I loved it—but I really missed music. I knew that my internship was going to end, and I'd started studying drum set on the side. I thought it would be a good opportunity to do some traveling. I actually had a friend who had been to Bahia in Brazil. So I kind of went for it and I went down there. I meant to go for two months, and I ended up staying for eight or nine months.

LJC: Were you studying music in Brazil or just hanging out? How did you get in touch with the culture down there?

AM: I went down to study Portuguese, so I did an intensive program. That anchored me a little bit. I ended up trading English lessons for drum lessons with a musical director of a women's drum group. He didn't really want to learn English—his wife had studied English and wanted him to learn. Every time that we had the trade, he set it for their rehearsal time. I think that he was trying to simply appease her. He completely thought that I no rhythm at all, so he had me playing a cowbell to see if I could just keep time. I kept going and I went from the cowbell to the triangle to the shaker through all of the auxiliary percussion. Then I ended up playing with them. I got to perform and do carnival with them as well as do this pilgrimage to a church where they celebrate the Catholic mass and they welcome the Candomblé. I got to do all these things with these girls from Salvador. It was a great experience.

I was also taking dance classes at the University and studying whatever else that I could get into. I was also teaching English. I just ended up teaching and getting a bunch of students that worked for Bechtel in the Oil Industry down there who were corporate workers. So I was kind of making it go for a while.

LJC: Do you come into contact with any of the great during your time down there?

AM: I have in subsequent trips. During that time, I met people from Olodum and Timbalada and different groups that are known more in Bahia. In subsequent trips, I've had the opportunity to met and hang out with people like Hamilton de Holanda. There's a great percussionist named Gello who is a great inspiration for me and whose style, if there's one that I aspire to, it would be him. Brian (Moran) and I both went to the choro festival that's run by the University Of Rio and the Institute Of Jacob Do Bandolim where we met some great choro musicians. There's this seven string guitarist named Alessandro Penezzi that we actually did a concert with last year in California. There were a lot of different folks. I've been able to meet Jorginho do Pandeiro, who was the original pandiero player with Conjunto Época de Ouro. Just being able to see and meet some of these people was amazing. You can throw a rock and if you're looking for it, you can find some of these great people. People are much more open there.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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