Although this trip has had many strange and noteworthy events, most of our time here is taken up mainly by living. And living can be a full-time endeavor. Even our days that don’t have classes can still be packed with practicing whatever our professors want us to play for the next week, which on a good day it’s Choro and on a bad day it’s the harmonic minor scale in thirds, or cleaning or cooking or using the internet or walking to whatever place we need to be. I have not watched any sort of screen-based entertainment (no movies, TV) since I left or done anything to waste time and I still feel behind on what I should be doing.
A day might go like this; I wake up first, at 8 or 7:30 if I’m not sleeping well, and immediately make coffee. I have learned, probably way after I should have, the best way to handle the whole hand-washing-your-clothes thing is to take 15 minutes right when you get up to do one small load each day. So I do this, while listening to some music, as the water for coffee is heating up. Then I work on technique. Then continue to work on technique. If I can’t play the guitar like a beast when I get back I am going to be very mad. Eventually, Ben wakes up and makes more coffee and I have another mug as well. I drink this while I practice more then realize I have to go soon and I haven’t taken a shower.
Our first class is Portuguese at 10 and it’s on the other side of campus, so we have to leave at 9:30 to get there on time. I am always tired and hungry in this class and it lasts for two hours, so when it gets out all I want to do is go to lunch. I know I should say and talk to the other Americans from Westpoint, but I’m probably going to see them again soon. We tried going to RU, the on-camups restaurant the serves lunch for 5 reais, which is about two dollars, but the food is terrible and the line takes about an hour to get in. So instead, we might go to Ka-sabor, a self-service in the closest quadra, or walk back to Colina to eat whats there.
When we go back to Colina, there is a door man who sits a booth towards the other side of the build that lets us into the building of our apartment. It’s set up that he should be able to see us when we come to the door, but most of the time he is facing the either direction watching TV. If I am lucky, he’ll be there and open the door right away. If I am unlucky, I have to walk over to his booth and wake him up. But, on a day like today I literally cannot find anybody to open the door. It’s a holiday, one of the many, and there is no one there. So all I can really do is write.
The next class we have is at 2. It’s one of our three classes with Bruno and it’s pretty much him talking about Brazilian music and it’s history and playing recording for us. It’s actually really great. For a while we had a big problem with him because he would talk about harmonic concepts we already know and are a part of American music. But one day he was talking about the whole tone scale, something we have in America, for the third class in a row to the very uninterested three of us and says “But it would be better for you all for me to talk about Brazilian music since you are here,” and almost simultaneously we said “Yeah, that sounds great. (Why are you just realizing this now?!?!?)”
As we leave the class with Bruno, Ricardo, the dean of the music school, drags us into Choro class with hardly enough time to pick up our instruments. For a while we tried to avoid him because Choro is super hard and everybody in the group is awesome and we felt like the stupid gringos that couldn’t play anything. But as we are practicing more Choro on our own time it’s getting easier to play and honestly one of the high points of my week. I’m trying to learn 7 sting guitar (in Portuguese it’s called violão sete cordas) which sort of functions like the bass in the group, although it’s more like the lowest part in a group of improvised counterpoint, which is different but it’s hard to explain. The point is I’ve never played anything quite like this before. Some bassline with chords in Jazz, but it’s still not the same; there is a different function, language and rhythm that you can only learn form listening and play with great players. There is an amazing sete cordas player in that group named Danilo that speaks no English, so for a while all he could do to help me is to play what he might play during a song and I’ll play it back.
At times we could go to Alfredo’s, a pizza place in the quadra closest to Colina that plays 90s rock and has an amazing sausage pizza. From there, we might meet up with some friends or go back and practice. I don’t know, it depends.
Entry Two – Forró
Today I slept in until about 11. I did the same the day before. Normally, I wake up at 7 so I have time to practice in the morning, work on whatever I have to and drink 2-3 cups of coffee, but because Bruno took us out to a Forró last night and the night before until 4 in the morning, any sleep that I get is brief and interrupted by about 17 hours. Yet despite intermittent yawning, I’ve been surrounded by amazing music so I not complaining. On Thursday we went to Clube do Choro to see Anat Cohen, an Israeli clarinet player, playing with the Trio Brasilerios. This trio actually came to U of L two years ago and played the first Choro I ever heard. Anat played more traditionally than I expected her to, calling classic Choro tunes like Cochanido, but also many Choro-inspired originals by Anat and the Trio. I should try to find if they have any recordings together. In the final set for the last two tunes a chromatic harmonica player that was in the audience, Gabriel Grossi, came up and played with them. I have been getting into harmonica a bit, only yet able to play basic blues lines and with some easy bending, and I have heard a bit of his first album, but hearing him live was unbelievable. I literally did not think it was possible to do what he did on harmonica. His fantastic technicality and precision with his instrument and used bending and other idiomatic harmonica techniques to create a deeply expressive sound. Gabriel is actually a good friend of Bruno’s and played on this last album, so we got to meet him and talk to him briefly after the concert.
After this our professor that took us to the Choro, Bruno, our guitar teacher who we have almost all of our classes with, told us there was a big Forró show going on later on that the musicians from the connect where going to. “Yeah, it would be good for you to learn how to dance; it helps with rhythm” he said, so we thought, yeah, sounds good. So we went and saw everybody dancing and realized, we don’t know how to dance Forró. We knew before we got there that it would be different than any American dance that we (don’t) know, but we thought we could pick it up. Bruno told us “All you do is move,” Easy right? “But you have to move like this,”
Forró is a dance from the North-Eastern area in Brazil, from a state called Bahia, that is traditionally played with a trio consisting of Accordion, Triangle and a deep drum called a Zabumba. Tonight they were joined by a few more musicians, a Violão Sete Codas and a Caviquino, later by Gabriel and Anat. I have been learning about the music a bit in my Brazilian Rhythms class; there are two styles of rhythm with the tradition of Forró, Baião and Xote, each with their own groove and dance. The dance itself is with partner, very close and can be very sensual. Susan, don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be and I didn’t try. What made it really difficult for us to pick up is that the man leads the woman, so nobody wanted to dance with the Americans guys that can’t dance Forró. The first group of girls that we asked said they didn’t know how to dance either, but then within the same song they were all dancing with another guy.
So that night was pointless. We stayed out until four just talking with some of the Swedish girls who also didn’t know how to dance – although they had a bit better of a time because guys are more than willing to teach them. The next night was much better. As we stood looking at the dense crowd of couples dancing incredibly close, closely studying the feet of some of the more advanced dancers, a girl walked up to me and asked, in English, if I wanted to be taught how to dance.
Another story that I am obligated to add is this; as we were standing and talking, a girl walks up to me and I thought, as I was in a very loud in environment and really not that good at Portuguese, she said something like “Sua barba é limpa,” meaning “Your beard is clean.” So I just kind of looked at her, confused like ‘how do you know that and why are you telling me?’ and when she finally gave up I turned to Ben and told him “I think she just told me my beard is clean.” – “Did she say ‘limpa’ or ‘linda’?” – “Linda” – And he starts laughing, “She said your beard was pretty.” A basic compliment probably with the intentions, as I see in retrospect, to get me to ask her to dance.
With this basic knowledge of the dance, I worked up the courage to ask another girl. It is fairly obvious to tell when they want to dance with you; they will walk up, sometimes from across the room, and stand next to you or in front of you and try really hard to make eye contact with you. What’s more is that I knew this girl saw me dance, so she knew I was bad. She taught me a bit, I learned a lot more from just doing it.
It has certainly been an interesting time to be an American abroad. I first arrived in Brazil as there were unprecedented protests beginning in all of the major Brazilian cities and soon after I was witnessing the reaction to the discovery that the United States’ National Security Administration had been spying on Brazilian citizens. As this is my first time outside of the United States, I have never really had the opportunity to observe my country from a perspective other than as an American citizen but being in Brazil I’ve had much more of a chance to see how others see America.
One of the things that stands out the most is that Brazilians don’t seem to really think about the United States as much as we think that they might. They are as busy as we are thinking about school, work, parties, families, and soccer. Most of their reactions though are positive and sometimes funny, barring the news about the NSA, and are often from our movies. A few in particular that stand out include my friend Tatiana telling me upon seeing a FedEx folder, that she has always wanted to get a package from FedEx since seeing Castaway. Another friend was very amused when we ate pizza with our hands, saying that it was like “we’re teenagers in a movie.” And more than once people have apologized when they’ve served breakfast for it not being as fancy as an American breakfast, only to try to explain to them that we don’t have breakfast like that everyday.
Not being so caught up in what’s going on in the United States has also been strange for the past couple of days since the possibility of US involvement in Syria. It was really nice not to have to hear so much about whatever Miley Cyrus did at the VMAs but President Obama’s speech on Saturday had caught me totally off guard. As Congress looks into possible US involvement, I think it will also be interesting to see a foreign perspective on this issue.
We’ve sort of started classes. The first week here is even less productive than the first week at UofL. But the guitar teacher, named Bruno Mangueira, is really awesome, and he teaches most of our classes. He’s a little bit different from most Brazilians in that he’s very adamant about being on time and being productive. At least comparatively. He’s a really cool guy too, and a very good guitar player. I think I’ll be able to learn a lot from him. My classes are going to be a little different than I thought though. But I’ve also started learning a Brazilian instrument called the cavaquinho (I’m not sure how to spell it, but I think that’s right) which kind of looks like a ukulele but has steel strings. It’s one of the main instruments in a Brazilian traditional style called choro, which is similar to bluegrass and New Orleans jazz (I think so, at least). We’re going to play in a choro group here at school, so I’m really excited. It’s fun music to play.
One of my assignments is to transcribe (figure out and write down by ear) a song by João Gilberto, who is one of the most famous guitarists/singers in Brazilian history. He’s one of my favorites, and I’d really like to learn to sing a lot of his songs too. His vocal range is really really good for mine, and it’s all really pretty stuff. I think I’m going to do “A Primeira Vez” (The First Time) and “A Coisa Mais Linda” (The Most Beautiful Thing).
We jammed with a few of the students at the studio in the music school yesterday all morning and afternoon! It was an incredible amount of fun. We played a lot of jazz tunes that we knew and then a bunch of Brazilian tunes, which were really cool! I like their music a lot. Most of it’s honestly a lot prettier than a lot of the stuff we play in the US. And all the students were awesome players. It would be nerve-racking except that they’re so cool about everything. There isn’t really any kind of competitiveness at all here, so they’re just as happy to be making music with anybody. It’s really a great environment with the people there. The facilities are garbage compared to UofL, but it doesn’t make a bit of difference I think. I sounded really good on some tunes and really bad on some tunes, but it was totally cool all the same. One of the drummers here, named Renan (Henan is how you’d say it) is a really nice guy. He invited us to come play yesterday. I think we’ll be hanging out with him a lot. And there’s a jazz festival in Brasilia tomorrow and Sunday, so it should be a lot of fun!
We went to Thiago’s jazz show last night and met a bunch of UnB guys. These guys are GOOD. They’re incredible. And they’re all very humble. It’s actually rude here to tell someone that you (yourself) play well. They all just say they’re studying to play. I think I’ll be able to learn a lot.
And I’m meeting a lot of people. People are easy to approach and start conversation with, especially since they understand we want to practice speaking. I mustered the courage to talk to this girl at the restaurant/bar we were at, and she was legitimately one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever met. Her name was Heloisa (Eloise, my late grandmother’s name), so I thought that was pretty cool. She and her friends were really nice and want to show us around the city and help us if we need it.
Last night we met up with our friend Thiago (one of the guys who came up to Louisville last year; he’s a really good sax player and an awesome guy; he’s actually leaving in a couple weeks to start his grad school at UofL) and went to a little jam session/hang out in one of the quadrants nearby. Which brings me to describing what the quadrants are (at least as I understand them to be).
This city was designed and built in the late 50s literally by two people, an architect and a civil engineer. They designed everything to be almost exactly symmetrical, and it was carried out exactly that way. All of it is very strategically planned out, which makes if very different from every other Brazilian city. So the quadrants are kind of like blocks. Each of them is numbered and laid out basically exactly the same. I think the layout is two residencial quadrants between every commercial quadrant. All of the residencial quadrants have only apartment buildings similar to ours, and all of the commercial quadrants are laid out in exactly the same fashion. So the only cross streets from the main road are where the commercial quadrants are. It makes so you usually only ever turn right onto a road, which makes for very few stop lights and a lot of U turns. So across the road from campus are quadrants. You know where to go to find something by what quadrant it’s in. So we went to this one nearby.
And we were expecting it to be the jazz hang out that the UnB guys do weekly, but it wasn’t. It was Brazilian stuff, pop and traditional. A little jazz too, but much more open to whatever kind of music. And they wanted us to play something.
There was only one guitar player playing a nylon string guitar (which is the norm in Brazil) so I let Isaac play while I sang, and Ben played drums. Thiago and a couple of the Brazilian guys in the house band played with us too. So we played and I sang “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” by Bill Withers and a B.B. King blues tune. It was really weird because I can’t remember the last time I sang in front of people without a guitar in my hands, but I think I’m pretty decent at singing the blues. And they loved it. Partially because Brazilian music never does the raspy dirty blues voice that I did. So I could have been terrible, but they thought it was great, and the guys all liked how I sang, so I’m really happy about it. I really like singing the blues. The Brazilian guys (aside from Thiago) didn’t really know the structure of a blues well, but I can’t imagine anybody in the audience could tell. In fact it was much easier to sing blues for them because it would be kind of ridiculous for one of them to criticize an American jazz student on his blues, so I felt pretty comfortable throwing it all out there. I even introduced the three of us and talked about our playing in Portugues from the stage.
But then Isaac let me take the guitar and I played a jazz tune called “Cantaloupe Island,” and I’ve played it a hundred times so it was a lot of fun. Some guy from Texas jumped on stage with his harmonica and played with us. It was pretty cool. But then after that song it happened.
They wanted to play “Girl from Ipanema.” So I got to play “Garota de Ipanema” on a nylon string guitar in the middle of Brasilia, Brazil, with a band of all Brazilian musicians. And they let me take the solo. It was something out of a dream. That’s a bucket list thing. Especially because the guitar is pretty much the most important part of that style of music. Antonio Carlos Jobim was one of their most beloved musicians, and an awesome guitar player, so I hope he approved. Isaac was pretty jealous.
The people were all really cool, and they were complimentary of my playing and my Portuguese. It was a lot of fun.
Today Isaac and I ran, and I tried to find a soccer game, but couldn’t again. I’m getting a little frustrated about that. Oh well, gotta keep looking I guess! We’ve been making a lot of food in out apartment, which has turned out really well because Isaac is a good cook. The weather was perfect today, so I took a nap out on the balcony. That’s about all we’ve done today. Listen to music, talk about music, talk about other stuff, hang around, practice. That’s life here. We’re going to see Thiago play a jazz gig tonight, so it should be a lot of fun. I’m excited to meet and talk with some more musicians here.