Things have been happening in pairs. We’ve been in Brazil for two months. I had two gigs in two different cities. It took two weeks to get this post up. So before *two* long, let’s get started with a summary of what’s been happening:
First, my parents’ visit. It was good to have them here. For a couple of folks in their early eighties/late seventies traveling to South America for the first time, eighteen hours in transit, and not speaking the language, they did great. They’re adventurous in this sense. From the time I was an infant through to my twenties, they took me all over the world and gave me a love of travel that has never left me. They’ll likely be among the few American visitors we’ll get during our time here, so it was interesting to watch them experience Brazil.
I asked them to give me their impressions on the day they returned to the U.S. They said they enjoyed experiencing a new country. They thought the food was fabulous. On the whole, they found the people sweet and friendly. They agreed that Brazil does some things better than the U.S.
Enjoying our last night with my parents doing, what else… eating.
My dad made an astute observation. Outside in Brazil, streets or sidewalks may be in disrepair or trash may be strewn about the neighborhood, but when you step inside, you enter a whole new world. The apartments, stores, and malls are modern and often beautifully decorated. The issue of exterior vs. interior can be disconcerting because you’re not expecting the dichotomy. This is not to say there is no exterior beauty. My parents really enjoyed the renowned Parque do Sabiá with its lush vegetation, something I talked about in a previous post.
But I think my parents may have had the impression, as do many Americans, which stems from a lack of education about it, that Brazil is quite underdeveloped. Of course, there are some areas of the country that do suffer from underdevelopment, but Uberlandia is anything but underdeveloped. It’s a new, modern city with a solid infrastructure… and it’s growing. On our street alone, there are four apartment buildings under construction. People are flocking to Uberlandia because of its smaller size, seven hundred fifty thousand vs. São Paulo’s imposing four million people, for example. There are employment opportunities across various industries, but particularly in agribusiness, as Uberlandia sits in a dense agricultural micro-region. The city offers leisure spots, a thriving night life, tons of delicious restaurants, terrific retail, the comprehensive research university where I teach, and on and on. The amenities of a big city with the feel of a small one. I have to say we really lucked out with Uberlandia. It has been just the right fit for our family. And it was just right for my parents, too. They got to experience a miniature of what we’ve been enjoying for two months.
Brazil’s everyday processes can differ significantly from those in the U.S, and my parents observed this. For example, once a week or so in our city in Illinois, the street sweeping vehicle comes down the street, noisy as all get out. In Brazil it’s similar but much quieter, because there are literally street sweepers, people on the street with brooms, sweeping trash into bags. In fact, there’s a small army of them fanned out across the city on designated days, donning their characteristic blue jumpsuits.
This system may seem outdated to Americans, but when I took my parents to get their covid tests to fly back to the U.S., it was an easy, streamlined, friendly, relaxed, and inexpensive procedure that we accomplished at the drugstore down the street from our apartment. My parents were shocked and delighted. Last summer, when they traveled to Italy, the covid test procedure was more complex, more expensive, and more stressful. The U.S. could learn something from Brazil in this area. If my parents didn’t already love Brazil, this simple but memorable experience sealed the deal.
Now onto the gigs. I played two very different gigs, one here in Uberlândia and one in Uberaba, about an hour and fifteen minutes by car. The Uberlandia gig was at Alfiataria, a restaurant which serves typical mineiro food (we live in the state of Minas Gerais, so things are “mineiro”). They also have music, usually pop music, but they sometimes feature jazz. As it often does here, the crowd grew as the night wore on. Music starts late here. I think we began at 8:30. It was a good crowd. They loved the Brazilian songs, but they didn’t seem as interested in my original jazz compositions. Polite applause is what I would call it. By contrast, the gig in Uberaba, at Archimedes, well-known for its long-running jazz series, differed markedly. That crowd has been cultivated for it, and they really dug the original jazz stuff. It has been an education to try to read the crowds and program music accordingly.
The band is back together! My second gig with these great musicians,
this time at Alfiataria in Uberlândia. L-R: Raphael Ferreira, me, Jack Wills, Daniel Lovisi
I also had my first “bad gig” incident in Brazil. It had nothing to do with the venue or the players, who were all great. On the break, a gentleman approached me and asked to sit in. The band members warned me about him. The most polite way to put it is that there was something off about him. He had a crazed look in his eye, and he addressed me with a mix of English, Portuguese, and, inexplicably, Spanish. As much as I would like to adapt to the cultural norms— like sitting in— of the country I’m in and please the people around me, something told me allowing him to sit in could turn out badly. For starters, he wanted to sing a song I didn’t know. I had never met him and didn’t know how he sang. His demeanor and the warning from the band were all enough to cause me to decline his request with as much tact as I could muster in a language that isn’t my native. Even so, he got quite offended. His tone of voice and body language became menacing. At one point, he wouldn’t let me pass. I didn’t know if he was gonna hit me or what. Eventually, he stormed off and sulked at the bar. I kept my eye on him, because I had a feeling this wasn’t over.
Sure enough, as soon as our second set started, he made his way over from the bar and planted himself right in front of the stage. As each soloist took their turn improvising, he moved in front of that soloist, sometimes mocking them or laughing. Eventually, he found his way to me. He began flailing his arms wildly and singing something at the top of his lungs, blocking the audience’s view. He stared defiantly into my eyes as I watched him carefully, trying to maintain a neutral expression. He really looked maniacal. I was waiting for him to pounce. But when the song ended, he just stormed off again and went… somewhere. I never figured out where, and by the end of the night he was gone. Interestingly, the management stayed out of it and never addressed it with me afterward.
Having to deal with the potential explosion of a ticking time bomb while leading a band and performing on stage in front of an audience was, how can I put this… stressful in an unprecedented way. And this, by the way, was also the first gig I announced in Portuguese. I was already nervous about addressing a crowd of Brazilians, playing their music with their musicians, and not wanting to say something wrong.
With a quintet at Archimedes in Uberaba. L-R: Tim Fernandes, Fernando Rodovalho, me, Tarcisio Oliveira, Eduardo Coelho
There were a couple of other unexpected twists on this gig, like the voltage. Voltage is not standardized acrossBrazil. You have to ensure the voltage on the outlet matches the voltage on your device. For example, in Uberlandia, the voltage is 220, but in Uberaba, it’s 110.
I learned about voltage the hard way during our first week in Uberlândia. I plugged my 120v amplifier into what I later found out was a 220v outlet. I thought the U.S to Brazilian adaptor would be enough, but when I plugged the amp in, it made a loud buzzing sound and then just abruptly shut off. A strong burning smell wafted into the air. I had burned out the circuit board. Four hundred reais later I got it back from the repair shop, where the technician showed me how to flip the little knob on the back of the amp to the 220v setting. Pretty smart to have this feature for foreign markets, but I didn’t even know it was there, and I never considered that voltage would be a problem. But it is, and most of the guitarists I’ve met here have the same story about burning out their amplifiers. I felt slightly less stupid knowing it wasn’t just the American gringo. By the time I got to the gig at Archimedes, I knew better. The voltage at the club didn’t match the voltage on my amp, and I had to turn the knob accordingly… and then back again before I plugged in at home. As is often the case with things that don’t seem to make sense, there are political and economic reasons behind the voltage discrepancy: special interest groups benefit.
My classes are in full swing. Each of my two performing ensembles are working on various pieces, my guitar students are working on their repertoire, and my improvisation class is preparing for its first exam. Make no bones about it, this is work. Sometimes the term “visiting professor” has the connotation of a consultant who sits quietly in his office waiting to give the occasional lecture. My visiting professorship is not this. I’m having the complete teaching experience, a full load of classes, lesson plans, exams, advising, the works. It can be tiring, especially translating documents into Portuguese and researching the equivalent for terms like “attendance policy” or “rubric.” And, of course, I teach in Portuguese. My knowledge of musical terms is improving, but I still get stuck every day. The students teach me phrases— second half of the beat, top note of the chord. Even as it’s frustrating, I love the challenge.
I decided to take the long way into work one day, through the campus rather than around it to a back entrance. It gave me the opportunity to capture its beauty.
In a way, I‘d rather have more of it. On the infrequent days I speak Portuguese for 5-8 hours, I can feel my Portuguese improving. On the days when I speak only an hour or two— like on the weekends— I might as well be back in the U.S. practicing for a couple of hours a week with my conversation partner. I was hoping to become fluent by the time I leave here, but I think it probably won’t happen, simply because as immersive as living and working here for five months is, I’m not in a regular eight-hour-a-day situation communicating in the language.
We had some wonderful family experiences these past couple of weeks. One of my colleagues, Mauricio, invited us to spend the afternoon with him and his wife and two cute little daughters. They took us to an outdoor restaurant, Fazendinha Sabia, with great mineiro food and a lovely decor. Mauricio invited his former student, Paulo and his wife, Tanya, to dine with us. Tanya is from London. I didn’t know that when she introduced herself. Not expecting an English speaker and not detecting her British accent, I said, “You speak English very well!” She must have thought I was a dummy or something, but she very politely said, “Well, I’m actually from England.” It’s unusual to find native English speakers in Uberlandia, which is not a tourist destination. There are Americans, Brits, and Australians who work for an English school and come to Uberlandia to teach for a year, but they are few. Our thirteen-year old daughter was a real hit with a group of girls at the restaurant. They circled around her and asked if they could take a picture with her and give her a hug. She said she felt like a celebrity. If American tourists are rare here in Uberlandia, then fair-skinned blue-eyed teenage American girls living here are rarer still.
Making new friends and enjoying typical mineiro food at Fazendinha Sabiá
I was invited to give a talk in our church’s religious service last week. This is common in our church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Members from the congregation give the weekly sermons. I kind of expected to be asked, but it was still an interesting and fulfilling challenge. I was asked to base my remarks on a talk given by a church leader at a recent worldwide conference. I thought carefully about how I would prepare for this assignment. Would I read the talk in English? Would I write my talk in Portuguêse? In the end, I decided to go all out. I read the church leader’s talk in Portuguese and wrote my talk directly in Portuguese. I only checked the English talk once or twice to make sure I really understood the meaning, but I used Google translate multiple times as a check to make sure what I had written in Portuguese was correct. Because it’s one thing to have a conversation or teach a class or even announce a show in a foreign language, but it’s another thing entirely to give a religious sermon on delicate spiritual subjects with the intent to edify people. I hope I didn’t mess up too badly and that the members of our congregation walked away feeling uplifted.
Trying my best to not mess up my Portuguese during a talk in church
Having to communicate in a foreign language across the full range of life situations is a profound experience. If you want to learn about the world, about culture, about people, about communication, about common understanding, and about yourself, then spend time in a different country. You'll grow in ways you never imagined.