#11 A great big slice of Brazilian humble pie
Updated: Jul 24, 2022
It occurred to me that what I’m doing is a type of ethnomusicology. My Fulbright grant specifies that I both teach and research at UFU. I’ve talked about my teaching but not as much about my research.
A few weeks ago, the university newspaper interviewed me about my research. I’ll repeat here what I said there. Research for a musician in a foreign country often involves performing with musicians in the region and learning the local styles. This process has really started to come together. I’ve been playing with so many different musicians from so many parts of Brazil, that I feel like I’m doing a type of field research, an ethnomusicological study of Brazilian musical styles. This past week I played with musicians from two state capitals, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, as well as musicians from here in Uberlândia. I’ve deepened my knowledge of styles I already knew, like samba and bossa nova, but also learned about new styles, like valsa mineira, samba em tres, and pagode. I’ve played music by Brazilian composers and musicians who would probably be recognized by many people in the U.S., like Tom Jobim and Chico Buarque. I’ve also played music by those who may be more well-known in Brazil or in the state of Minas Gerais, like Hermeto Pascal, João Donato, Dori Caymmi, Milton Nascimento, and Toninho Horta. “Rich” is the best word to describe this experience. The interesting thing about this field research is that it’s so rich, that there’s only so much I can process at once. I will be sorting through my experiences for a long time to come.
Recently, I gave a jazz guitar clinic. One of the attendees asked what my thoughts are as I’ve been performing with Brazilian musicians. I said the following. In my second week in Brazil I performed with some musicians for a project that one of my UFU colleagues was working on. Before we arrived in Brazil, I thought I was at least competent in Brazilian musical styles, but playing with the “real deal” Brazilian musicians quickly disabused me of that notion. As I continue performing with Brazilian musicians, my weaknesses surface. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s positive. One of the reasons I’m here is for a cultural exchange. I’m getting exposed to ideas that I probably wouldn’t have encountered had I not come here. It’s given me the chance to explore a new musical universe. Part of the reason it’s been so positive is that everyone is encouraging. They're enthusiastic in sharing with me artists and recordings they deem important. As a result, I am continually humbled by how little I know.
This humility extends beyond music. In previous posts I’ve mentioned how social situations test the limits of my Portuguese. This past week that reality reached new heights. Banana da Terra is a restaurant one of my UFU colleagues took me to a couple of months ago. I decided to give it another try for lunch this past week. After getting seated I grabbed my plate and went through the buffet line. When I got back to my seat, the waitress took my drink order. She returned a minute later and asked me… something. I didn’t understand. She repeated it. Finally I latched onto a word she kept saying, “balança.” I asked what that meant. She paused and then held up a finger to indicate, “wait a second.” A minute later, another server showed up to save the day. At first, I understood her as little as the first server, and at this point, the whole room had stopped to watch the gringo stumble awkwardly through his lunch. The silence and stares weighed on me like an anvil. My instinct was to turn around and ask, “Are you finding this entertaining?” but I tried to remain good-natured about it. Then something the server said or maybe a gesture she made finally clicked. “Balança” means “scale,” and she was asking if I had weighed my food yet. Brazilian buffets are priced by the kilo. You pile food on your plate, they weigh it, write the weight in kilos on a little ticket, and you pay. I had forgotten that crucial weigh-in step. The server was kind enough to spare me any more embarrassment by taking my plate (with food already eaten) and weighing it for me.
More condiments than you can shake an unweighed plate of food at, at Banana da Terra restaurant
Traumatic experiences tend to burn new words into one’s brain: I will never forget what “balança” means. For this reason, it would be great if I could have more traumatic social experiences. Emotionally, it would be soul-crushing, and logistically, it would be challenging, but practically, it would make me fluent in no time.
Let me talk a little bit more about my most recent performances. Two happened here in Uberlândia. Last weekend I was at the ever-popular Libertas, where I’ve performed more than any other place here in Brazil. Two fantastic musicians, Felipe and Cyrano, from the state capital of Belo Horizonte, came to the area for gigs and masterclasses. They are first-rate jazz musicians who also play Brazilian styles, of course. They couldn’t find a bassist for the gig (apparently it’s a problem not only in the U.S.), so I got the call, and we did a two-guitar/drums show. Then this past week was the first ever Jazz Festival of the Orquestra Popular do Cerrado (OPC), organized by my UFU colleagues Alexandre Teixeira and Elder Thomaz. Cerrado is the name for the wooded ecological region here in the state of Minas Gerais. The OPC is a big band made up of professors and students from UFU who perform jazz and Brazilian styles. The festival took place over three days and featured Beto Caldas, a Brazilian vibraphonist, Dirk Amrein, a German trombonist, and me. Throughout the week, we each gave various masterclasses in our areas of specialty and performed in shows at UFU and around town. On Friday, we were guest soloists with the OPC in a final concert at the Nininha Rocha Theater in the city center. The OPC performed three pieces of mine, including two original compositions, all arranged by Elder. We got a standing ovation.
With the Orquestra Popular do Cerrado at the closing concert of the Jazz Festival of the OPC
With my UFU colleague Cintia Morato talking about entrepreneurship in music
as part of the Jazz Festival of the OPC
With Liliane, a wonderful young lady and guitarist who I think came to
all my events at the Jazz Festival of the OPC
After the final concert with the OPC and guests Dirk Amrein and Beto Caldas
I bolted out of the theater as soon as the concert ended, because I had to be up early the next morning for a gig in São Paulo that evening. SP is a seven-hour drive from Uberlândia. Once you get into the city-- a megalopolis of twelve million people-- it usually takes some time to find your destination. Getting to, into, and around São Paulo is no joke. Even long-time residents get lost. Frankly, I was intimidated to drive to SP by myself, so I took one of my UFU students, Marcos, with me. Marcos was happy to come, because going to SP for a Brazilian is like going to NYC for an American-- it’s an adventure. Marcos was a huge help, giving me insider’s advice I wouldn’t have thought of. We’re close in age and married with kids, so we had lots to talk about. I picked Marcos’s brain about tons of Portuguese phrases and asked him to correct my errors, so in the future I can at least partially avoid embarrassing social situations (see above).
On the way to São Paulo with my student, Marcos, my guide to avoiding literal
and figurative pitfalls on the road in Brazil
SP is a juggernaut. It’s the fourth largest city in the world. You really feel the enormity of it when you’re in it. There is so much happening around you, people, traffic, everything. It can be overwhelming. Like any major world city, it also has its share of “stuff” going on. We drove through “Crackolandia,” an area of the city inhabited by drug dealers and users. Swaths of rough-looking folks live on the streets in tough conditions. Though it probably wasn't necessary, Marcos made sure to tell me to keep driving straight through. It was sobering to witness.
The gig was at JazzB, a well-known jazz spot in the city. JazzB has a great vibe, and the club was packed. An interesting feature of the club is a graded box section above the stage that’s walled off from the rest of the club, like a private seating area for people who are just there for the music. Like any self-respecting jazz club does, the host asked people to silence their phones and be respectful of the performance, a real “listening room,” as we say in the business. My band was made up of my UFU colleague Raphael Ferreira, who organized the gig and contracted the other musicians, bassist Jackson Silva, and drummer Rodrigo Digão Brás. What a band. We played a mix of jazz, Brazilian, and my original music. The audience ate it up. A big surprise was a club owner from another club in SP approached me about performing at his club. Somebody wake me up. I truly never expected this. For the considerable challenge it was getting to SP, it was worth it. Without question, this has to rank among one of the best gigs I’ve ever played in all aspects. Here was a bucket list moment if there ever was one.
With my quartet at JazzB in São Paulo; L-R: me, Jackson Silva, bass, Raphael Ferreira, saxophone,
Rodrigo Digão Brás, drums
View from the stage of the "music seating section" at JazzB in São Paulo
View from the stage of the rest of JazzB
After the gig, we had dinner and talked musician stuff. The post-gig “hang” is sometimes the best part, where you catch up with old friends and get to know new ones, trade stories, commiserate, and just chill. Rodrigo drove us back to the hotel after dinner. Even after living in SP for over twenty years, he got lost. SP is not for the faint of heart.
We got up the next morning for breakfast. Here’s an episode that encapsulates the SP experience. We pressed the down button on the elevators on the fourteenth floor where we were staying. Even with six of them, elevator after elevator was full of people with no room for us. This was going on for fifteen minutes with no end in sight, so we decided to walk down fourteen dizzying flights on some of the most narrow stairs I’ve seen in a building (see photo). When we got to the restaurant, there was a line. I can’t remember ever seeing a line for breakfast in any hotel I’ve been to. The restaurant was total commotion, overflowing with people who we had to slither around to get through the buffet line. I wrote in my journal, “SO. MANY. PEOPLE.” And of course, with that many people, it was noisy. This was not a tranquil-way-to-start-your-day breakfast. This was stress. After being in SP twice now, my observation is that it’s not a city to relax in. When you’re there, you become part of an unstoppable energy force that swirls around you. It’s at once frightening, exhausting, perilous, and thrilling.
The narrow but not straight path down fourteen floors at the Dan Inn Planalto Hotel in São Paulo
Back in the relative calm of Uberlândia, we had a car incident. Shaunna had to run into the Kamel Mix supermarket to grab something quickly. She heard an announcement over the PA. Even though she doesn’t speak Portuguese, she somehow knew it was about her, so she went to customer service. Sure enough, they told her to go outside and check on our car. Apparently it had rolled across the parking lot and hit another car. The damage, if you can even call it that, was a few scratches on each car. No one was in either car, and no one was hurt, which is the most important thing. In the process of sorting it out, however, we discovered other problems related to our rental. Hours of texting— they won’t speak to us by phone apparently— to resolve various financial issues resulted in talking to eight different people in at least three departments with no resolution. This is one of those international problems you kind of dread. We’re working through it, and, of course it will eventually get resolved. In the meantime, though, funds transfer issues complicated by the international nature of the transactions are giving us a headache we can’t wait to get rid of.
Brazilians regularly ask me how my family and I like living in Brazil. In some ways, what’s not to like? Beautiful weather, delicious food, friendly people. In other ways, the unfamiliarity of living in a foreign country has its challenges. Each of us has a different perspective on it. As adults, Shaunna and I appreciate many aspects of Brazilian life, and Shaunna has joked (several times, which is slightly concerning) that when I go back to the U.S., she’s staying here. Our kids appreciate various aspects of Brazil but also miss their lives back in the U.S. (read: friends are an integral part of a teenager’s life). One of my colleagues helped us get a temporary membership at one of the country clubs in Uberlândia, so the boys go over there and play basketball, which is something they have missed about the U.S. Sometimes Shaunna and/or our daughter will also play tennis, though Shaunna got bit by mosquitoes at the club, which left her with nasty blisters (rather than the little red bumps you expect) and painful swelling that lasted more than a week. This story requires a little extra explanation.
The infection wasn’t West Nile virus or dengue or anything like that. It was simply a reaction to the saliva of Brazilian mosquitoes that we as Americans have no resistance to. Children in Brazil typically get these infections. As the children get older, the infections go away because their bodies develop immunity to repeated bites. We didn’t grow up here, so we never developed that immunity. This also explains the relatively high number of colds and other ailments we’ve had in only three months. We’ve had no exposure to the Brazilian germosphere, so we’re like little kids getting these infections for the first time.
In short, some days (or weeks) are better than others. Sometimes, the country club activities help. Other times, the struggle is real, and notwithstanding the many wonderful things Brazil has, it doesn’t have our kids’ friends, and it doesn’t have the comforts of home. I will say that despite having their moments, our kids are generally very good sports about the whole thing, and I think that the experience they’re having here will impact them in positive ways for the rest of their lives.
Perhaps a quick story will illustrate this dichotomy. Recently we were trying to decide where to go out to eat. A “lively” discussion broke out. No one could agree on where to go. We were each pretty set about where we wanted to eat, so we got into the car in a sour mood not knowing where we would end up. As we turned onto the main avenue, we passed a person on the median with his back to us. When he turned to face us, we could see the cardboard sign he was holding: “Estou com fome.” Translated, it means, “I’m hungry.” Bickering about which restaurant to eat at suddenly seemed an embarrassment of choice in the face of someone who had no food. Of course, we pass people with similar signs in the U.S., so this incident isn't necessarily unique to Brazil. But the point is that the accumulation of moments of self-reflection in a foreign culture will leave a profound impression that I think will shape our kids into empathetic adults. They may not necessarily see it now, but we, as their parents, see it, and we hope that one day they will see it, too.
I’m fairly exhausted as I write this. A jazz festival on top of my teaching duties plus the adventure that is going to São Paulo have left me with less energy than usual. So I will close with one of the things that brings me the greatest joy in life: dog videos. I’ll leave all the political posts, endless ads, and general toxicity of social media any day for these cute dog videos that people post. They bring a smile to my face every time. A few blog posts back I talked about how dogs wander in and out of the open building where I teach at UFU. Even with all that was going on this past week, I found a quiet moment to capture a pooch on video in my building. Enjoy.
"Not even a gringo with a camera will disturb my nap on this cool floor"