Riccardo Crespo’s music, like Crespo himself, comes from southern Brazil, from the pampas or high plains that stretch from there off into Argentina and Uruguay. And it comes out of the traditions of the people there who, for generations, have made their living among the livestock.
“In Texas here they’re called ‘cowboys,’ in South Brazil they’re called ‘gauchos’” Crespo explained when we visited him at his home in New Orleans’s Upper Ninth Ward in the beginning of May.
Gaucho music mixes Spanish, Italian, and German sounds with Brazilian and African ones. Crespo says it’s a music that grew up out in the elements.
“Many gauchos, they stay around the fire. And there, after working, they drink matte and they think a lot of things, they exchange experience, they have a guitar, they have accordion,” he said.
The elements are still important for Crespo’s work. He points out that his home in Brazil is 30 degrees south of the equator, and that his adopted city of New Orleans is 30 degrees north of the equator. This keeps him in touch with the gaucho climate, he says.
He’s been in New Orleans for 13 years, and says one of his favorite moments in the city is the time right before dawn.
Below is the title track off of Crespo’s new album, “Madrugada em New Orleans.” “Madrugada” is the Portuguese term for this time of day.
“I used to walk on the street between 4 and 6 a.m. The foggy early morning—it’s cold,” Crespo remembered. “I wrote the song about the things I was feeling walking, the presence of some kind of spirits: pirates, ghosts, angels, vampires.”
He started getting to know the New Orleans streets as soon as he arrived in 1999. He would play his music outside in the French Quarter.
“I like the street because the street is very straight,” Crespo said, laughing. “If people like you, they stay, they exchange energy with you, and they pay for your work. If they don’t like, they leave, don’t disturb you. That is yes or no.”
Crespo was touring in Europe in August of 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. He learned that the water on his street was seven feet high.
“I felt three feelings together,” Crespo remembered. “First: I couldn’t come back. We call this I was exiled. Second I lost everything. And the third, I was, I couldn’t do anything to help. Man, I cried for three days. And then ‘Okay, Riccardo!’”
He spent some time back home in Brazil thinking about what he’d lost and what to do next. Then it struck him: “I had to come back to help rebuild New Orleans, just to say thank you for what New Orleans did for me for the past six years.”
He found out about a Habitat for Humanity effort to build housing specifically for musicians. He put in a bunch of hours of labor in return for a new home with great mortgage terms in the city’s Upper Ninth Ward.
There have been a few bumps in the road since moving back. He had to move out of his new house briefly while they replaced toxic drywall that had ended up in some of the homes . The school down the street from him–under construction for several years now–still hasn’t reopened.
And a lot of the musicians Crespo worked with before Katrina didn’t come back after the storm. So, like a lot of other people in New Orleans, he had to be creative about rebuilding. He made a new band out of some up-and-comers a local music professor introduced him to.
“The situation that New Orleans was facing at that moment—there was no musicians available–made me to look for another option. And this was very important to my music today because I play with young guys, and they show me different kinds of things in the music, no, and then I learn with them.”
As he said during his New Orleans Jazz Fest set at the beginning of May, 13 years and several hurricanes weren’t enough to wash him away. Then, before launching into his first song, he introduced his band.
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