From an early age, Nuno Santos realized that sports and music have a lot in common. They’re both activities that require precise movements during precise moments. Even the process of making a surfboard and a violin are almost identical. The violin and the surfboard are produced by skilled craftsmen using similar tools to carve each item. Both products are finished with a customized varnish and the shape of each is paramount to producing the perfect means to perform both in music and large wave surfing.
Santos’ passion for combining two activities started as a kid when he played the drums while swimming; this pursuit later evolved to playing the violin while surfing. Today, Santos plays the violin in the most unlikely and challenging places.
From growing up in the not-so-well-known village of Vestiaria to becoming Portugal‘s most interesting man, was an unlikely path for Santos. You see, Santos’ musical inquisitiveness was developed from visits to nearby Alcobaça, a place known for its musicians and culture, and his surfing skills were honed from trips to neighboring Nazaré, a beach town infamous for its large surf waves. This cocktail of interests and talents birthed who he is today, a violinist who performs while surfing extreme waves. It doesn’t stop there. Santos also performs the violin on top of some of the world’s highest mountains. Yes, he treks his violin to the summit of mountains around the world.
Music is an important component of Santos’ life, and he has turned to this talent as a way to support himself while completing a master’s and Ph.D. in Sports Science. The merging of these two passions started in 2008 when Santos was working in Ecuador. Every two weeks, he would hike Cotacachi Volcano. One day, Santos took a group of volunteers with him, and among the group was a biologist from Los Angeles who played the guitar. This gave Santos the idea to play the violin at a 17,000-foot elevation, at the summit of Cotacachi. He strapped the violin to his back, climbed the volcano, and played on the summit. This venture then gave him the itch to play at the top of a new volcano. To Santos, “it was a big challenge, and I had so much fun doing it.” He realized how much he enjoyed the feeling and how out-of-the-box the quest was, so he decided to make it his mission to pursue higher and more difficult mountains.
Santos returned to his home country of Portugal, where the only mountains are water mountains, a.k.a. the largest waves in the world. “Just for the sake of it,” he decided to purchase a cheap violin and attempt to play while surfing. “I remember the first time I did it, I was going down the wave, and obviously we’re talking about very big waves, but, I was laughing so hard and I’ve never laughed when I’ve surfed a big wave because I’m scared.” There’s a time and place to laugh, and surfing dangerous waves while preoccupied with a violin probably doesn’t fall under that list. As Santos describes the moment, he chuckles, “I was like, this is ridiculous, this is so fun!” Over time, Santos realized that overcoming these obstacles brought out the best in him and that the combination enhances the importance of being creative, more than being competitive.
Laughing isn’t always the case, though. Sometimes he cries out of fear. “Fear is part of the business; fear is a part of life and that’s something we all need to understand and learn how to cope with. This is when you find strength that you didn’t know you have.” In the beginning, Santos was doing these extreme hobbies for fun, but over time, he started learning about himself. This is why Santos inevitably decided to make A Violin in Unlikely Places his life project.
Currently, the violinist is learning how to play Fear of the Dark by Iron Maiden to raise awareness about the concept of “fear.” He believes these feelings and experiences to be a predominant part of life. “I think we’re all very scared nowadays, and fear is taking over our lives,” says Santos. He wants to have a positive impact on people by encouraging them to face their fears and to believe that anything is possible.
This is part of the message he tries to spread when performing these feats. “I try to have a message every time I’m out there,” says Santos. In 2018, while on the summit of a European mountain, Santos played a traditional type of Portuguese song called “fado.” He played it as a way to tell the people of Portugal that, although they were going through a hard time as a country (financially), they would overcome it as a whole. When asked if he has an overarching message to the world, he humbly responds, “I would like it to be for the world, but I’m just from a very small village in a small country, who am I to talk to the world?” Santos feels confident playing for the world, but as far as his message goes, he says it is for whoever wants to listen, he just wants to spread a hopeful message.
Not everything is dandy in the world of extreme sports. There is always room for error. Here’s a glimpse at an erroneous day in the life of Nuno Santos. “I was playing the violin, surfing a big wave. Everything was perfect. The water was clear, the waves were big, it was a beautiful and sunny day. I was playing a song on my violin and everything was amazing. I got home and the footage was miserable. You can’t hear a thing. It took me a month to prepare for that day!” Another issue he has faced has been breaking a violin while in action. Santos knows to expect the unexpected. His greatest struggle is the pressure to not make these kinds of mistakes. Santos is paying out-of-pocket for all of his equipment and resources, which means limited tools and less room for error. “Everything has to be very, very calculated because I cannot afford to make mistakes.”
Santos isn’t asking for pity though, because there are days in the world of music and extreme sports where miracles happen. While trying to reach the summit of Cotopaxi, an active volcano in Ecuador, through six hours of wind and hail, once he made it to the top, the skies magically cleared. He had fifteen solid minutes to play, no more and no less. In times like this, Santos feels even more grateful.
As of this writing, Santos has performed atop the Alps and the Andes and has serenaded the world while surfing in Portugal, Spain, and Ireland. His next project is to surf in Hawaii, climb Aconcagua in Argentina, and to surf the Qiantang Tidal Bore in China. Long-term goals? Playing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the summit of Mount Everest. “If all goes well and If I don’t forget to turn on my camera,” Santos adds. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was chosen as the song selection for the world’s highest mountain because it stands for the values of freedom, of democracy, and of human respect. “It’s a symbolic way for me to play at the highest stage so everybody can hear it. To say, please respect freedom, respect democracy, respect each other, and stand for what’s right.” The ultimate idea is to climb the tallest mountains of the seven continents and surf the largest waves over the seven seas. With a violin, obviously.
Watch Nuno Santos play violin in the most unlikely places at his website, Nuno Santos Violino.