In Conversation • Leonardo Ramos

Leonardo Ramos is a photographer, musician and filmmaker. Studied Social Communications and Filmmaking and also Science Communication and Natural History Filmmaking at the University of Otago.

​He built his early career as a cameraman and assistant director in wildlife documentaries for National Geographic Latin America and for the movies. His photos have been featured in exhibitions in Brazil and abroad and received awards in both national and international contests. He’s also ​taught lectures in Brazil and abroad.

​As a musician, he currently manages the psychedelic folk band Harmundi, where he also sings and plays a range of exotic flutes.​

You know what? Maybe you should click below and play this album while you read our conversation, as I believe you won’t be able to skip the video, submerge yourself into it:

Leonardo, where do your eyes come from?

My parents, I believe! They’ve given me extraordinary means to explore life and make something out of it, and for that, I’m enormously grateful to them.

Parque Nacional da Serra da Capivara, Piauí – Brazil. Photograph by Leonardo Ramos

You were born in Salvador, moved to São Paulo when was a small child, lived and studied in New Zealand, and intend to move to Galway. What was your experience in all these places, what are your expectations about moving to Galway, and how are the Celtic and Irish music scenario in those places?

Let me put it this way:

In 7 years of filmmaking and photography career in São Paulo, with a network of contacts, I was treated like my work was somewhat passable and I should consider myself lucky to have caught the attention of a couple of film producers, who were kind enough to offer me minimum wage for my full-time commitment year-round. No holidays, no free time. Dared not I complain of answering my phone on a Sunday morning!

In 1 year living in the city of Dunedin, New Zealand, I completed a postgraduate diploma in Science Communication and Natural History Filmmaking, I was hired for two photography exhibitions in art galleries, I gave two lectures at the New Zealand International Science Festival and had a greater creative output than in all those 7 years put together. I also had time to sleep 8 hours every night, do my own groceries, cook dinner, work out, drink and dance on the weekends and take small trips every now and then.

New Zealand offered me a kind of quality of life and peace of mind I had never experienced before and it gave my art something São Paulo never did: value. It was quite tranquilising and energizing to be treated as a professional there, regarded as such, hired as such and paid as such. There’s a reason why the world’s most progressive and developed countries are flirting with reduced working hours, as a means to increase production and the overall quality of it.

I love Brazil. I missed my country and my people so much I had never listened to as much of Zeca Pagodinho and Kid Abelha as I did in New Zealand. My love for Brazil actually brought me back here after postgrad, even though I had a job offer from Natural History New Zealand, one of the world’s largest documentary production offices.

It was a good thing, me coming back! Dunedin was not nearly as big in the Irish music scene as São Paulo is, and this was perhaps the thing I missed the most: playing with my mates at the Irish sessions here. There’s something really magical about the Brazilian Irish music scene. I arrived back just in time for the 2018 Brazilian National Irish Session, where people came from all over the country to enjoy one glorious and an epic night of musical craic.

More good news came from the professional take-off of my band, Harmundi. I wasn’t actually willing to work with film and photography here anymore, due to the terrible working conditions, so financial needs motivated me to give music a professional go, for the first time in my life. And it was amazing! In 2019 I learned I could be just as happy playing Psychedelic Irish Music on the stages of São Paulo as I had been photographing nature in New Zealand.

So when my fellow band members reluctantly brought up with the idea of moving to Galway, it just fit me like a glove: what could be better than to move back to a country where artists are valued as professionals, where I can practice photography again, and where I can learn Irish music from the best in the world, and with the illustrious company of some of my best friends and my soon-to-be-wife from Brazil!

Porto Jofre – Pantanal Norte – Brazil. Photograph by Leonardo Ramos

How and when your connexion with folk music and instruments happened and what does that mean to you?

My first instrument was actually the piano, and I studied classical music and a bit of jazz for over 5 years when I was in school. While I loved (and still love) the piano, it posed me some problems at the time: the lack of portability, which rendered me frustratingly silent at jam sessions; the score-reading, which has never been my strongest, albeit of the utmost importance for studying classical piano; and the lack of time – which was the last nail in the piano’s coffin by the time I was studying to get into Uni while clinging to what social life I had left.

My first attempt to remedy those problems was by singing in a Hard Rock band in High School – one of my favourite and most disastrous musical endeavours so far, which didn’t last long.

But by that time, I had found an old harmonica at my parents’, which had actually been sitting at the bottom of a drawer since I was 1 year old. That wee instrument allowed me to keep on playing music, and it came with an added bonus: I could use it to play some Irish tunes, which was something I was just getting into.

I had recently been forced by a dear mate to watch The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, on the grounds that he considered absurd that, years after its release, I was still oblivious to this magnanimous early XIX century hit. My mate’s act of compassion was what got me so greatly interested in music of a Celtic persuasion, and by the time I finished the Return Of The King, my old computer was already working day and night on downloading whatever I could find online under “Celtic music” (we’re talking early days of the internet, when Spotify was just some Swede’s silly idea and the chances of downloading unwanted viruses and porn were not negligible).

These downloads brought to my attention the works of bands like The Chieftains, Lúnasa, Altan and Planxty, and soon I thought I was the only alien in Brazil who appreciated the fine art of Irish Traditional Music. Eventually, I got my first tin whistle as a gift from an ex-girlfriend and went on to drive everyone crazy with endless repetitions of the Hobbits’ theme. My repertoire got finally broadened when I discovered this rather big community of fellow Irish music players and enthusiasts in São Paulo.

In 2014, I played my first tune on the Irish Session at Deep Bar 611. Echoing the judgment I was used to on my classical and jazz years, I considered my rendition of “The Butterfly” nothing short of a senseless butchering of an otherwise fine slip-jig – still, however pitiful it sounded, I got nothing but warm and encouraging feedback from the present musicians. Honestly, I had never been so well received by artists anywhere. I was not a good whistler by any stretch, but this welcoming compassion at the sessions was what encouraged me to keep on practicing, growing like I never thought possible and eventually moving on to the Irish flute, the Boehm flute and experimenting with other exotic winds like the transverse Ocarina, the Native American Flute and the Xaphoon.

I found that Irish musicians are known for having this unique welcoming and inclusive approach when it comes to music, and this behaviour had become imperative at the sessions in São Paulo. I could play next to people with decades of experience, and it didn’t really matter whether I was a good or a bad musician (so long as I was playing in tune and in time, of course). As more and more people started playing Irish music with us at the sessions, I saw how they were equally well-received, and how this brought in them the same feeling of gratefulness and spontaneity that allowed me to develop my music skills.

Honestly, this is what it all means to me: it’s about relaxing, having a yarn with your mates and not worrying about being judged for your occasional mistakes. The instruments are the means to said yarn, and the music is this beautiful language we use for it. It’s not about being the coolest-looking or the biggest virtuoso, not a contest by any means, it’s just about the music: we’re there because we love the music, and we play because we love the music. Music (especially Irish music, for me) is that “something greater” that binds us and humbles us at the same time…

… which is what motivated me to make a documentary about this amazing musical phenomenon in Brazil, and I named this film after W. B. Yeats’ famous quote: “there are no strangers here, only friends who haven’t met” (available on my YouTube channel). Among the friends I made because of this music are my wife-to-be, who co-founded the band with me and will also be moving to Galway.

Parque Nacional da Serra da Capivara, Piauí – Brazil. Photograph by Leonardo Ramos

One of the things I admire in some of these songs is that there are no lyrics as if it is the instruments singing. Can you tell us about the instruments and their languages?

Even when it comes to songs with lyrics, it seems like they’re saying something that goes beyond words, isn’t it? It’s that thing where the final product is greater than the sum of its parts.

This is one of those things that may sound quite obvious if you’re a long-time professional musician, but that blew my mind anyway and so I keep repeating it to everyone who’ll listen: music is a language!

You can go to a pub, grab some pints, and have a conversation with your mates using the English language, or the Portuguese language – or the jazz language, the choro language, the Irish traditional music language. You learn the building blocks (the words, the notes, the scales, whatever), you learn the grammar, and you use them to communicate. You can “talk” Irish music with people who may speak a verbal language unintelligible to you. You can create bonds through music, and live and communicate very complex and emotional experiences without saying a single word.

The only thing is that, when talking, your instrument is your mouth (hopefully). While in music, one might resort to flutes, fiddles, bodhráns, mandolins, guitars and so on.

It is said that people’s music sounds like that of people’s speech. An instrument is a personal voice for the musician, and it comes not only with the “accent” specific for that musical genre but also with an “accent” specific for that particular person. I’m not, by any means, a great understander of music, but one doesn’t have to be to infer that the same flute may sound dramatically different in the hands of Brian Finnegan, Matt Molloy, Ian Anderson and Jean-Pierre Rampal.

“And the visual bits are just like the music: it’s not about what we want it to look like, but rather about what it looks like once we’re true to our own artistic impulses.”

Your band called Harmundi plays Psychedelic folk music, can you tell us about this type of music, about the band and the reason you chose the name Harmundi?

The name of the band comes from “Harmonices Mundi”, which is the title of an interesting publication by astronomer-musician Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630). In this work, Kepler goes through a mind-bending parallel between musical harmony (the ordered juxtaposition of various sound frequencies) and the combination of frequencies produced by the movement of celestial bodies – these he called the “musica universalis”, or the music of the universe, the harmony of the worlds, which is mighty and beautiful, but one that no living thing can hear. It’s just there, happening as you read this text, oblivious to what will be thought, said and written about it.

We’re quite keen on extending ourselves in long and mind-bending trains of thought – either through verbal conversation or through music improvisation! Bare in mind, though, we steer clear of pseudo-scientific and New-Agey fantasies. I find that especially important to stress from a marketing standpoint, because when trying to sell Irish/Celtic music shows in Brazil, one frequently gets judged through the lens of that old worn-out prejudice revolving around elfic-chants-with-too-much-reverb and synthesizers doing “ooooooooooom” and “A = 432, the healing frequency”. A lot still needs to be done here, marketing-wise, to detach Irish music from the New Age stereotype.

So yea, we originally set out to play Irish Traditional Music! The band was formed by three of us session-goers (a filmmaker/photographer, a scientist/musician and a designer), who, at the time, had close to no experience at all with Irish trad. Also, we were all flutists. It was a three-fluted, supposedly Irish-trad, band. None of that really mattered, seeing it as we just wanted to play for fun.

It was fun (still is, actually).

We formed the band in March 2017, and started off with weekly rehearsals, but not because we wanted to make money, play gigs or make records – we just really really needed a brief escape from our stressful lives and let ourselves go with the flow. This flow taught us a few important things about ourselves – one of them was that we are not Irish musicians, but, rather, Brazilian musicians who love Irish traditional music. That’s very important because it meant we would never sound like our Irish idols, which was not a bad thing! We didn’t have the cultural and musical background that made them sound the way they do, but we had our own cultural and musical backgrounds, as well as our own artistic inclinations, which allowed us to sound the way we do.

So, while we were (and still are) learning more and more about Irish Trad technique, we were also allowing ourselves to try out any musical experiments we saw fit. From this artistic freedom (and from the lack of a more extensive tune repertoire) sprouted a curious tendency to play long improvisations, sometimes on Irish tunes, sometimes just creating melodies and harmonies out of thin air. This is where the psychedelic comes in: we found ourselves making Irish music in a manner not so different than the early psychedelic rock bands of the 60’s made their own sound, which is through free improvs in a sort of flow state that brings about feelings, emotions and experiences which cannot otherwise be expressed.

When we finally decided to make the band a professional thing, this is what we set out to do: play gigs that would stimulate people to pay attention to the present moment they’re living. Our gigs are ultimately unpredictable and unrepeatable, since a large bit of it will be played as improvs, either at melodic or harmonic levels, or both at the same time – so there is no way for one to relive the same experience twice, or even to hear the same music twice – except, of course, by listening to our albums. We didn’t actually invent this idea: Irish Traditional Music does indeed work with the interesting concept of one tune never being played or heard exactly the same – we just brought a psychedelic interpretation to this traditional axiom.

We called that Progressive Irish Music, or Psychedelic Irish Music before we found there’s actually a musical genre called Psychedelic Folk. Still, even within said genre, I couldn’t find anyone doing what we do with Irish tunes.

The cherry on top was the visual bits, our psychedelic lightshow. We needed lights, since that’s not a big concern among São Paulo’s smaller music venues, and I happened to have this other career as a filmmaker and director of photography just desperate for a creative output. And the visual bits are just like the music: it’s not about what we want it to look like, but rather about what it looks like once we’re true to our own artistic impulses.

“one cannot ignore the noises and limitations that are a part of oneself, as one attempts to reproduce Irish traditional music from a Brazilian, postmodern standpoint.”

What bands and genres of music inspire you?

Celtic-wise, I’ve been drawing a lot of inspiration from contemporary ensembles like Flook, Kan, The Elephant Sessions, The Gloaming, etc.

But aside from that, I’d say my biggest inspirations come from the very masters of psychedelic improvisation and creative light show: none other than Pink Floyd. Also from Ian Anderson, a personal flute-idol of mine. Anderson’s solo work, even more than with early Jethro Tull, added some considerable fuel to my early folk music interest and showed me, from a very early stage, that there are no limits to the fusion of musical genres and influences.

Rock’n’roll, then, cannot be overlooked as a major passion for me. I have a soft spot especially for 80s hard rock, which also fueled my interest in Synthwave – as a melodist, I must admit I owe some of my melodic practices to my old keyboard skills, which are now employed in playing delightfully cheesy synthesizers that sound like the soundtracks of Blade Runner and Stranger Things, within my solo project S I M S.

Synthwave also led me to Vaporwave, an acid albeit nostalgic recycling of the 80s and 90s pop aesthetics. The thing with Vaporwave is to work with noise as part of the information, instead of just ignoring it. For example: as far as Vaporwave is concerned the overall experience of listening to a full remaster of Shine On You Crazy Diamond on Spotify is dramatically different from listening to it on an old cassette tape. The distortions, the lo-fi sound, the background noise, they’re not to be seen as noises to an otherwise brilliant musical experience – they are a part of this experience, and they bring with them a whole atmosphere of nostalgia that cannot possibly be expressed by music theory and practice alone. It’s not about judging it better or worse, it’s about treating these as two different experiences: these elements are not disrupting the information, they’re adding to it, maybe even altering it, contributing to the experience of listening to music. This is where my thoughts on Harmundi come from: one cannot ignore the noises and limitations that are a part of oneself, as one attempts to reproduce Irish traditional music from a Brazilian, postmodern standpoint. So instead of deploying enormous amounts of energy to bypass one’s peculiarities in the name of some idealised sound, one could draw their creativity from these very peculiarities, the same way Vaporwave draws art from the noises and uncalled-for peculiarities of the 80s and 90s “faulty” aesthetics.

Jazz and classical music are still a big part of my life. I’m also particularly taken by Native American flute music and I’ve been recently experimenting with Tango.

Your band participated in the Celtic Festival Brazil this year, for the first time online. How was the experience of online events like these?

The Covid-19 undoubtedly made life much harder for us musicians and artists in general. But it also stimulated some of us to be creative and come up with interesting solutions for our lack of jobs – solutions that may even render long-lasting positive results for our enterprises. This was clearly the case of the Festival Celta Brasil (Brazil Celtic Festival) 2020. Until now, no one in their right mind would have considered it a sensible idea to convert this traditional stage-filling Festival to a fully online endeavour. Covid made this the only way for the Festival to happen in 2020, and Fernanda Faez, the director, turned this into an opportunity to expand the range of activities to two weeks of highly diversified takes on Celtic music and culture – as well as an opportunity to bring the Festival to a full-blown national scale. We had artists showing their works from São Paulo to Brasilia to Galway, lecturers from Rio de Janeiro to Dublin to Portugal.

Fernanda really saw the crisis as an opportunity rather than a setback, and unlocked a whole new range of creative possibilities which, hopefully, will be carried on in the next editions of the Festival.

I was honoured to have had Harmundi featured! Fernanda was looking for something celtic and out-of-the-box, and we delivered a truly Psychedelic video clip for Morning Chicken, one of the tracks of our latest album, “Um Orvalho Boreal”, as well as a very stimulating talk about our creative work based on Irish traditional music. This clip is available on the band’s YouTube channel.

“Honestly, I can write pages and pages on why I love nature, but I reckon that would be about as effective as a dog trying to describe the joy of a belly scratch.”

You wrote the article “How Photography Inspired Me To Love Science And Preserve The Planet“, published by PhotographyLife online magazine, and your works are guided by the growing importance of visual communication for environmental preservation, can you tell us about your interest and works with wild nature and animals?

You know how music is a language? Photography is too! Indeed, more and more people are now communicating through images.

So waaaaay before I considered playing music at all (actually, before I was even old enough to entertain such considerations), I had a camera in my hands. My dad’s a photographer and going out to take photos has always been our father-and-son thing. At some point, I figured I liked taking pictures of plants and animals more than of people and buildings, and that drew me progressively closer to the things of nature. That was much to my dad’s delight – our photography expeditions expanded from the streets of São Paulo to the wildest and most unexplored tracks of the Brazilian sertão (our dry-as-hell outbacks), where he currently lives. And it led me to a career in Wildlife Filmmaking.

Honestly, I can write pages and pages on why I love nature, but I reckon that would be about as effective as a dog trying to describe the joy of a belly scratch. The dog had better stick to enjoying the scratch, and we had better stick to enjoying nature, rather than trying to describe it. HOWEVER, since a significant portion of Earth’s population no longer has any real contact with nature (to the point where flat-earthers and climate-change-deniers actually get listened to), I also saw fit to seek a career in Science Communication. And to communicate “nature”, the verbal language may not be the fittest language. I find that photography gets us a little closer to the intended feeling of “awe” than describing it as “awesome”, and that’s the essence of my article.

It’s been said over and over that being in nature brings about this feeling of peace that is utterly indescribable. Saying it’s “peaceful” doesn’t make you feel “peaceful”. Talking about experience doesn’t emulate that experience in any way, and it’s quite frustrating if you expect it to. I’m not saying that showing you a photo of an endangered Jaguar will make you instantly “experience” the Jaguar and care for it – but it may be the next best thing in terms of sensibilizing, if it’s a good shot. And the whole point of my article is that photography may actually bypass a lot of lexical prejudices towards science and environmentalism and may help bring more of us closer to these things that are so beautiful and in such need for our attention.

My work with science communication is to translate that need into art for the purpose of bringing people emotionally closer to it – but also into pragmatic, economically viable terms, which is the theme of a documentary I made called “Welcome To The Amazing World Of Sustainable Capitalism”, available on my YouTube channel.

Parque Estadual do Morro do Chapéu, Bahia – Brazil. Photograph by Leonardo Ramos

Does nature have something to do with your music?

Literally the same thing as with photography!

There’s this fantastic book called “The Doors Of Perception”, in which the author, Aldous Huxley, distinguishes two complementary ways of perceiving reality and acquiring knowledge. One way is to read all about it and gather conceptual knowledge. Human beings are particularly skilled at that, but, ultimately, that’s just names, dates, words, concepts, and they’re quite incomplete if not paired with experiential knowledge – and Huxley is quite critic of that:

“(…) we must learn how to handle words effectively; but at the same time we must preserve and, if necessary, intensify our ability to look at the world directly and not through that half opaque medium of concepts, which distorts every given fact into the all too familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory abstraction. (…) Instead of transforming children into fully developed adults, it turns out students of the natural sciences who are completely unaware of Nature as the primary fact of experience, it inflicts upon the world students of the humanities who know nothing of humanity, their own or anyone else’s. (…) In a world where education is predominantly verbal, highly educated people find it all but impossible to pay serious attention to anything but words and notions. There is always money for, there are always doctorates in, the learned foolery of research into what, for scholars, is the all-important problem: Who influenced whom to say what when? Even in this age of technology the verbal humanities are honored. The non-verbal humanities, the arts of being directly aware of the given facts of our existence, are almost completely ignored.”

Awareness, in the sense of mindfulness, is a concept of remarkably growing popularity nowadays. After fitness, it may well be the next big postmodern trend: the art of being here now, something hitherto reserved to tree-huggers and eastern religions, and now everyone is downloading meditation apps and doing online yoga. I like to think this trend comes from us realising what Huxley was talking about in his psychedelic masterpiece, and it seems like a good thing!

And this is photography and music to me. Photography is not so much about the composition of a colourful Instagram account as it is about being there and actually experiencing nature, seeing it and trying to translate that particular experience into visual stimuli, with the aid of a camera and a laptop. Likewise, music is not so much about having albums on Spotify as it is about the act playing it and listening to it, being present to every beat of it and translating a multitude of sensations and experiences into auditory stimuli, with the aid of an instrument and a good pair of ears.

Now, I draw my inspiration from nature because that’s where all things just are, where my input is not required, and where I can just see and listen and be.

Find more about Leonardo Ramos and his works:

Interested in more Irish music, check our conversation with Mila Maia: