Thursday, August 15, 2013

Six Months in Brazil in Seven Minutes

I finally finished a video I've worked on and off during and since my trip to Brazil. It's a collage of five-second video clips that show the amazing variety of music that I got to witness and play during my six month musical odyssey there. It still hardly does the trip justice, and there are so many more moments that will only live in my mental memory banks. The video goes in order of my trip - Sao Paulo, Fortaleza, Jericoacoara, Olinda, Recife, Rio, back to Olinda, back to Sao Paulo, and back to Rio. I'm grateful to the amazing musicians I met along the way who welcomed me with open arms into an invaluable exchange of music, culture, and friendship. Muito obrigada.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Choro Train

How fitting that my last week in Brazil was also the week of the Dia Nacional de Choro and the birthday of one of the most important choro composers, Pixinguinha. I spent that week in Rio, the birthplace of choro music, playing in a few special rodas de choro and seeing all of my new Brazilian facebook friends wishing everyone a happy Choro Day. Pixinguinha also shares his day with saint São Jorge whose feast day is cause for a national holiday, so everyone gets the day off. But the composer is regarded almost like a saint himself and both seemed to be honored equally which I thought was so cool.

The best part was the Sunday prior when my friend Leandro invited me to the first Trem do Choro. I had to meet him at the central train station at the crack of 9am. I was running late as usual which doesn’t tend to be a problem here but this time I had a train to catch. Luckily the train followed suit and we had plenty of time. We were greeted at the track by a roda already in full swing and they happened to play some of the whopping 11 songs I have memorized (hey it was only 3 songs when I arrived in Brazil!) so I was able to join in. We played as we boarded the train and kept playing the whole way, even as we got off at our destination. I think I truly hadn’t lived until I played choro and danced samba on a moving train.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Fun With Portuguese

I've been proud of my Portuguese progress these past five months. It’s changed my whole experience here. It feels like second grade when I got glasses for the first time and I could suddenly see a world I didn’t know existed. I can tell my language skills are excellent because I have conversed successfully with a six year old about super-homen and other heroes, I gave directions to a local without being asked where I’m from, I had mini-arguments in the themes of racism and feminism, and I let an old American expat believe that I’m a Brazilian native who happens to speak some English.

Umm, this company might need a native English speaker's help!
I'm loving getting to know this language. I love that the word for shopping cart is "little car" and the word for gate is "big door." I learned an expression for heartache, dor de cotovelo, which literally means "elbow ache." It refers to the pain you feel when sitting down with your elbow on the table and head in your hand, sighing for your broken heart. I also love that in what can sometimes be a pretty macho culture, they have a word for penis like pica which sounds like a small cartoon character. I learned that saideira is your last drink of the night, but is also the last song performed of the night. If you sit in with someone's band you are giving a canja which is literally chicken soup.

When describing someone who plays well, they tend to say "ele toca muito" instead of "ele toca muito bem." I'm sure it's just a shorthand way of speaking, but it literally translates to "he plays a lot" instead of actually saying "he plays really well." I know the intended meaning is a positive compliment, but I always laugh when people are coming up to me to say I did a good job but instead it sounds to me like "Wow, you play so much! Look at all those notes you played!"

free smiles
I had a great midnight conversation in mostly Portuguese and some English with friends Maria Rosa and Dida
when I asked them to explain the expression "pois é." I still don't think I can translate it completely, but equivalents such as "é isso aí," and "that's how it is" came up. This resulted in Maria Rosa sharing this great video of Damien Rice performing "The Blower's Daughter" that starts with the lyric "And so it is," followed then by Seu Jorge performing his version of the same song called "É isso aí." This particular Damien Rice song also happens to be the unofficial anthem of the year I lived at the International House at UCSD, so I found it a fitting addition to my experience here.

I also love this verb pretender which I haven't quite figured out. I think the closest definition is actually "to intend" but of course to an English speaker it always sounds to me like it means "to pretend." So it always sounds like people are asking me things like "So how long are you pretending to play music in Brazil?" or "Will you pretend to play music professionally when you return to California?"

Speaking of that, my return to California is coming faster than I thought. Ten days from now I'll be on a plane back home. A few days after that I will pretend to play music professionally in my new gig playing clarinet in "Fiddler on the Roof" with the Lambs Players in San Diego. In between all of that I will pretend to turn 30. The adventure continues.

Monday, March 18, 2013


"Vicente is a lifelong Carioca [Rio native] with a lot of knowledge about the local music scene," said my friend's cousin who put me in touch with this quirky man. Vicente is a local tour guide in his fifties and was very sweet to show me around town a bit and let me do some laundry at his house. I explained to him that the goal of my trip is to hear and play and learn as much as possible. One evening he told me he would take me out to a place with great music and atmosphere and that I should bring my clarinet to play a few tunes. I imagined we were going to a local music hot spot where they would let me sit in. I thought perhaps he knows the owner of the venue or the musicians performing that night. I dressed up and packed all of my charts just in case.

We arrived at the venue and it was a karaoke bar. A karaoke bar. Here I was nervous about meeting some big name musicians and making a good impression and we walked into a karaoke bar! Actually Vicente explained that “karaoke” here in Brazil is with live music and we were actually in a “videokê” bar that uses the traditional videos with recorded music. I asked him why he told me to bring my clarinet and he said “so you can play along with people while they sing. See, I told you this would be fun!” I contemplated this strange idea while a man in a sharp hat strolled in and whipped out a soprano sax. He sat in the front and started jamming along while an array of Brazilian people took turns singing to electronic versions of Elis Regina, Djavan, Michael Jackson, and the Beatles. I figured I may as well join in so I pulled out my clarinet and he waved me over to sit with him in the front. We took turns improvising background lines while the people sang. I had a blast!

I think the favorite moment of my entire trip so far has been hearing a tall Brazilian gay man belt “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” in English. I also got to hear Pink Floyd and a Portuguese version of the 80’s song “Power of Love." A man who was always clutching a comic book on stage was the highlight of the evening for me as he not only sang with feeling but danced as well. I heard from one of the regulars that this man has a mental disability and shows up every week to sing his heart out along to supportive cheers from the crowd. I then joined Vicente on stage to back him up as he sang an impressive “New York, New York.” 

After putting myself out there in so many challenging musical situations on this trip, I realized that here was a low-stakes enviornment for me to take risks and express myself without fear of judgement. The perfect musical training ground. It was then when a group of young girls completely destroyed “Can’t Buy Me Love,” that I decided “man, if these Brazilians can go up there and butcher songs in another language without shame, I have the right to do the same.” I marched to the window and put my name in. This time to sing. What did I choose? The first song I learned in Portuguese class with Professora Claudia. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Choro Na Veia

Carnaval was definitely in the air in the Cidade Maravilhosa in January. I got to see the samba school São Clemente rehearse in their quadra and saw Unidos da Tijuca parade in the street in the middle of a flood. I drummed with the blocos Bangalafumenga and Monogato again and worked on my caixa playing with my teacher Nico. I played my clarinet in a bunch of rodas de choro and sat in on some friends' gigs. I heard amazing instrumental music including heavy hitters in choro like Hamilton de Holanda, Yamandu Costa, Daniela Spielman and Zé Paulo Becker. And I got to hang out and learn from wonderful clarinetist Rui Alvim.

The most special moment from my time in Rio was visiting my friends in the group Choro Na Veia. I met my friend Marino last year at a roda de choro and he was so kind to invite me into his home to participate in their weekly choro rehearsal (post from last year here). I was enamored by this group of musicians and honored to participate in their weekly ritual. I arrived this time a year later, so much looking forward to seeing them again. Marino and Ivan knew I was coming and greeted me warmly. The three older men however each shook my hand and said “muito prazer.” My heart sunk. They didn’t remember me! Marino explained that I’m the American girl who had played with them a couple of times last year. They all nodded but didn’t seem to register.

Seu Barretinho do Imperial Marinheiro is the 89 year old former-navy mandolin player whose compositions are played by the group. Last year he said he had composed 1,006 choros so far in his lifetime. This time the number he gave was 1,507. Either he was very busy in the last year or that number has shifted a bit. In any case, it’s quite a repertoire of choros and they are all lovely. Since he was a child he would go out in a sailboat alone with his mandolin and “receive” melodies from above that he would then write down. The group puts chords to his melodies and the guitarist Ivan notates them on the computer. I was honored to receive a few of them from Ivan via email last year and I introduced them to my group Choro Sotaque. Because Seu Barretinho had forgot about my previous visit, he was so surprised when he heard me play one of his melodies. It was fun taking turns playing each section with him and seeing him smile. As we played more, it was clear that they remembered me after all and we exchanged memories from my last visit.

I asked them later on if they would like to see a video of my group playing one of his compositions. They all crowded around my iPhone and watched Choro Sotaque playing “Meu Amigo Urbano,” which is dedicated of course to Urbano, the 83 year old Converse-wearing cavaco player. . Urbano heard me introduce the piece in the video and exclaimed “É meu choro! É meu choro!” They all approved, even of the creative license we took with the meter (except Marino the purist who said that pandeiro shouldn’t be used in a waltz style). In Portuguese Urbano said “You really played that in the United States? Can you believe that everyone? I’m international!” Seu Barretinho was proud that his piece was played in the states. Marino said we did a great job but it would have been even better if we had played "San Marino" which was, of course, the one written for him.

Urbano and I took the elevator together one night and he said that music is what keeps him going. He explained that his wife has Alzheimer’s and that playing choro gives him a reason to live and a reason to be happy. He goes to two rodas de choro every week plus the rehearsal for Choro Na Veia. At the following rehearsal he shared that his wife had gone to the hospital that morning with pneumonia. The others thanked him for his presence at rehearsal despite the stressful day he had had. He explained that of course he showed up to rehearsal because there really isn’t any other way. That we have so much to be grateful for and that God gave us this life to live and be happy. How wonderful for him to be able to be with friends and play music. He toasted his beer and said “isso é a vida boa.” I started to cry, grateful for moments with this amazing sneakers-wearing man, grateful for this musical exchange that I cherish, and grateful that throughout the evening I was able to understand every single word.

Here's a video of Choro Sotaque performing "Meu Amigo Urbano" with a clip at the end of my friends in Choro Na Veia.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Finding the One in Olinda

Olinda Christmas tree made of recycled bottles

I’ve been thinking a lot about time and timing in these last few weeks. I’ve been in Brazil less than two months and I’ve seen so many significant events happen. I was here during the day of the Republic, the Dia do Consciencia Negra, Thanksgiving, the Brazilian National Day of the Musician, 12/12/12 at 12:12, Christmas. I got to be in Ceara and Pernambuco during the centennial of Luiz Gonzaga’s birth which was celebrated widely. Five really close friends have gotten engaged since I left and one is expecting a kid. Then Dave Brubeck and Ravi Shankar died. The shooting in Connecticut happened. I’ve felt disconnected despite having been online a lot and I feel like I’m in some kind of time warp where time is fast and slow at the same time. Now I’m contemplating this new year and what 2013 will bring. It will bring my 30th birthday for one, and that’s pretty exciting. And I hope it will bring even more opportunities for adventure and growth on this trip which I am continually grateful for.

jamming at our house
December brought me to Olinda and Recife to check out Nordestino music in person, study maracatu, play choro with new friends, and study with Mestre Nininho of Maracatu Badia. I connected with Nininho at camp and when he stayed at my house on tour, so I was excited to get to hang with him and learn more. My friend Derek Wright was in Olinda at the same time working with Nininho and preparing for a big show they’ll do together soon. The two of us stayed around the corner from Nininho in a house rented by a mother and daughter who were artists, musicians, vegetarians, and kindred spirits. Olinda is a beautiful town with lots of great music happening within walking distance, and with Recife just a bus ride away. I got to see great côco, forró, frevo, samba, and of course maracatu everywhere. I also got to visit an Estrela Brilhante rehearsal in Recife with Jorge Martins, one of my all-time favorite Brazil Camp teachers. Some highlights in Olinda included dancing to live côco music on the beach during the a moon, playing choro in the street until 5am on Christmas Eve, and the thundering sound of endless maracatu drums parading through narrow cobble stone streets on Sunday. I liked it so much here that I decided to return in February to see how they do Carnaval in the Northeast.

So back to this issue of time and timing. I always love to contemplate the concept of counting – how people in different musical contexts from different musical backgrounds communicate time. I have quite a bit of experience speaking and translating in different musical “dialects” here in Brazil (in various drum and instrumental communities) and back at home (wind ensembles to pep bands to samba schools to drum circles). Something you hear in the US from both Americans and Brazilians in the samba community is to never ask a Brazilian “where’s the 1?” meaning don’t ask where the downbeat is of a particular rhythm or piece. Asking that supposedly marks you as a gringo and a square. Reasons include: “Brazilians don’t need to know where the 1 is, they just feel it” or “samba lives on the 2 and 4 so you shouldn’t be worrying about the 1 anyway.”

On the one hand, this concept is kind of neat. It’s so much cooler to have the repique play a call-in to the samba or have the 7-string guitar player do a little bass line lead-in to the choro instead of having some dude go “One, two, ready, go!” I agree that it feels less square. And it’s true that certain syncopated Brazilian claves and patterns skip the downbeat. This is something that makes samba feel like constant forward motion with no beginning or end (and definitely no 1). In addition, this concept appeals conveniently to my sense of gringo shame: “I don’t deserve to play this music and I’ll always be the awkward outsider forever wanting to know where the 1 is. And I’ll never find it!”

Badia rehearsal
On the OTHER hand, this concept is absurd. Any two or more people who want to play music together need to be able to play at the same time. You can’t just play a rhythm out of thin air without giving it a context. Some of the maracatu players here would sing a rhythm to me without counting it out first or at least singing the call-in. Without any context my brain learned the rhythm as if it began on the 1. Hearing it later on in the context of the call-in I learned that it actually began as a pickup note on the second sixteenth note of beat 4. It sounded like a completely different rhythm and I had to retrain my brain! I do think that the Brazilian players have a slight advantage having grown up in this musical environment where certain patterns are just more familiar. But that only goes so far (a series of terrible forró dance partners with no rhythm proved that they are not all born with it). You have to know where you are in relation to the music and to others.

On the THIRD hand, maybe I just need to get over myself. What a liberating idea to not worry about where the 1 is all the time and just give in to the music! Once we added singers to these maracatu beats I’d been learning, the vocals entered in places in the music I wouldn’t have expected. All of a sudden the downbeat didn’t feel like the downbeat anyway. And if the number of beats in the song didn’t match the number of beats in the drums (intentional), we’d come around to the second chorus and the downbeat would be in a totally different place. My part wouldn’t change, but it would sound like a deliciously different part. So in the end, learning all these rhythms shifted and in the “wrong” place actually trained me and my muscle memory to play this stuff a bunch of different ways. How beautiful to let go and let the rhythm be carried by your body instead of your head.

There is an older German drummer and flautist named Klaus Urban who like Derek has come to Olinda for years to perform with Nininho and Maracatu Badia. Nininho gave a couple maracatu charts Klaus had written out using western notation. After hearing this German being described as very strict regarding music, I was impressed but not surprised at how clear and accurate his handwriting was. I was curious to see how he addressed the occasional issue of measures not all adding up to four (yes I’m still counting, I can’t always help it). Instead of cursing the music for not making sense, giving up trying to use western notation to depict it, or using a bunch of different time signature markings, he did the coolest thing. At the end of a measure that had only three beats instead of four, he left it with only three beats in it and drew the next bar line as a dotted line instead. No written explanation needed. What a beautiful way to acknowledge the “idiosyncracies” of the music without having to modify it.

Parabens if you have made it to the end of what turned out to be a long post, and thanks for reading. I’ve now made it safely to Rio when I got to ring in the new year among 2.3 million people in Copacabana under a shower of champagne and breathtaking fireworks. Wishing the best for you in 2013! Please enjoy the video below of the fun 5am choro performance on Christmas Eve.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Band Camp in Paradise

After my two week stay in São Paulo I took a plane up to the other end of the country to state of Ceara. I spent almost two weeks in Fortaleza and Jericoacoara at the Choro Jazz Festival. The festival is a production of Capucho Produções and is partnered with California Brazil Camp which is how I knew about the festival. It was fun to see Capucho in charge and running this show instead of lurking around like he does at camp :) This time it was Dennis the Brazil Camp director who got to be the lurker. Just kidding! But seriously, I was so impressed with the whole operation. Three days in Fortaleza plus six days in Jericoacoara with workshops during the day and concerts at night, all with world class musicians. And all FREE thanks to government and corporate sponsorship. Fortaleza was a good chance to get in the swing of things and check out some of the workshops and concerts. But the real adventure started when four of us hopped in a hired pickup truck scheduled to drive us almost 200 miles to Jericoacoara. We stopped in Jicoca so the driver could let some air out of the tires. Then the last hour was a bumpy ride spent driving on sand, along the beach, past giant dunes, and into this beautiful beach town with sand instead of pavement.

The town has four main streets and a population of 3,000 (4,000 if you include tourists, and a lot more if you include the donkeys and cows everywhere that walked me to class). The sand was a challenge to walk on, but it was a constant reminder for me to slow down and stop rushing everywhere since I physically couldn't rush. Capucho had posted a class schedule online but with no locations at all. People kept asking each other where to go but nobody knew. Like so many things here that just seem to work themselves out, I figured the class locations would present themselves at the right time. And by word of mouth and a lot of directions given by local shop-owners, we all found our way. I spent a lot of time in inspiring workshops with Gabrielle Mirabasi, Teco Cardoso, Arismar do Espirito Santos, and Mauricio Carrilho. Then unexpectedly at the end of the week we were told we'd be performing on stage before the shows that night! Gabrielle Mirabassi and Alexandre Ribeiro flanked me on stage and there was such a great energy playing and dancing around all three of us together. What an honor.

Alexandre led a roda de choro every evening and a full on jam session every night late after the shows. I played in the rodas and made good use of the choros I've been memorizing. The jam was a bigger challenge for me - trying to navigate when to sit in, when to take a turn, when to call a tune, etc. Alexandre saw me at the bar and asked me why I wasn't playing more. When I started whining about how I didn't really know what to do, I didn't know that particular song they were playing, my dog ate my homework, etc etc, he literally pushed me into the circle and told me to play. I was glad for the kick in the butt and really appreciate his support and mentorship.

And then another chapter of my trip had passed and I hopped on another plane to another paradise. Not before a grueling ride back to Fortaleza. This time instead of the private truck I took a bus. That first trip back over the sand felt like the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, but in a seatbeltless rickety metal bus for an hour. This trip has been bumpy but this place teaches you to roll with the punches. I am constantly reminded of a quote from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which I watched on the plane. Judy Dench talks about adjusting to a new environment in India: "Initially you're overwhelmed. But gradually you realize it's like a wave. Resist, and you'll be knocked over. Dive into it, and you'll swim out the other side."