#16 One week to go and a beautiful horizon in Minas Gerais

Updated: Aug 22

First things first. If you’ve read the previous post, you know that on my tour last week, I missed a flight and lost my laptop in Brasilia. It was a week. I still hadn’t recovered the laptop by the time of publication, but I have it back now. Thanks to the sheer luck of having a friend from Uberlândia who just happened to be in Brasilia plus the help of Uber’s delivery service Uber Flash, the laptop was collected and delivered to my friend. It was no small feat to coordinate this delivery. It took three different tries with three different Uber drivers. I was sweating bullets watching one delivery after another get cancelled due to various misunderstandings. I thought I’d never get my laptop back, but it all worked out in the end. My friend kindly brought it to Uberlândia with her the next day. Laptop successfully recovered. So the saga came to a close in an unexpected way, a fitting end to a series of unexpected incidents.


Now from the unremarkable to the remarkable. First, I participated both as performer and listener in two shows this past week here in Uberlândia. The first was a performance by my student ensembles at my home away from home in Uberlândia, Libertas. Not every student was able to make it, so the two groups ended up mixing personnel to cover parts and added several unplanned songs to their set in the spirit of the “jam session.” I also filled in on some parts. It was a history-making performance: the first time ensembles from the newly-formed Popular Music Program at UFU performed off-campus. While it was my idea to have the students perform off-campus— a “real” gig in the local community, similar to what I do with my student groups in the U.S.— I really can’t take credit for it. The pandemic interrupted two years of in-person classes at UFU, and if it had not been for this, I’m sure students would have performed off-campus previously. All the same, I was glad to be part of a new enterprise within the Popular Music Program, and I hope it sets a precedent that continues after I leave.

With students from my popular music ensembles at UFU at their performance at Libertas


I’d like to relate a story about this experience, one of these stories that I think makes teaching worth it. A student in one of the ensembles, Fernanda, is a classical pianist. She had never performed popular music before. Nearly every aspect of performing popular music was an entirely new experience. She was starting from scratch, a whole new world. The ensemble she was in had begun the semester with two pianists. The other pianist had previous jazz experience and was helping Fernanda acclimate, but about one month into the semester, he had to drop out, which left Fernanda as the sole pianist in the ensemble. So in addition to learning the parts on the songs she had to play, she now had to learn the other pianist’s parts, without the benefit of him to guide her. I’m not a pianist, but I studied piano enough to be able to give Fernanda some tips. I also recommended some books to help her, but there was only so much time I could spend with her, because I had to attend to the duties of the group as a whole. I watched Fernanda struggle through understanding how form, harmony, improvisation, and the many non-verbal cues that happen in a popular music group work. Much of what happens is improvised or memorized or relies on eye-contact among the musicians. This can be disorienting to a person who has spent their whole life playing music in which every single note is written. The other students were patient with Fernanda, helping and guiding her when she needed it.


What impressed me about Fernanda is that she took the bull by the horns. She came to rehearsal ready to work through the challenges. She didn’t get frustrated, at least not on the outside, because I imagine on the inside she must have felt frustrated. No, she hung in there. She had also accepted the challenge to improvise on some songs. Improvising is not easy for any musician but particularly for one who has never done it before. Fernanda came to one particular rehearsal late in the semester with a noticeable uptick in her improvisational ability. She told me afterward she had found a video on YouTube about how to improvise on a song the ensemble was performing, and it gave her some ideas to use. In other words, she took the initiative and did what she needed to do outside of class to improve in class. This is what every teacher hopes for in a student, a proactive approach that the teacher can then mold.


By the end of the semester, Fernanda had participated in two popular music performances, one on campus and one in a local venue, two firsts for her. At the performance at Libertas, I had a chance to talk with her for a bit. She told me she had wanted to do this for a long time, and when she learned I was coming to UFU, she was excited to register for my class, because it was an opportunity she had been waiting for. She said it had been an amazing experience and was opening new opportunities for her. I was so proud of Fernanda. She engaged in something totally outside her comfort zone and stuck with it. I loved watching the class rally around and support her, and I think that made a big difference in making it a positive experience for her. Fernanda told me she’s looking forward to continuing to develop her popular music skills. Being part of an experience like this is what teaching is all about. That it happened on a Fulbright in Brazil made it even more special.


The second performance in Uberlândia happened at my other home away from home, Camargo Guarnieri Hall at UFU. It was the closing concert for the popular music ensembles directed by my colleagues Carlos Menezes and Daniel Lovisi. The concert began with the three of us performing two beautiful pieces, “Léo” by Milton Nascimento and Chico Buarque and “Ave Rara” by Edu Lobo. It was my “farewell performance” at UFU. Afterward, the student groups took the stage. Over the next two hours, a kaleidoscope of various configurations of students covering wide swaths of Brazilian popular music styles left me entranced. I simply loved every note. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this ranks as one of my most favorite performances, and I’ve attended a lot of performances, so that’s really saying something. The students’ skills were impressive, and they obviously have dedicated teachers in Carlos and Daniel, who have impeccable taste in selecting repertoire, and Carlos’s skills as a vocal arranger are off the charts. I captured a couple of minutes of Carlos’s final group of the evening. This clip highlights all the things I’ve mentioned— the high quality of the song (also by Edu Lobo), the students’ performance skills, and Carlos’s arranging talents. This is serious stuff.

View from the balcony in Camargo Guarnieri Hall of my final concert at UFU with colleagues Carlos Menezes and Daniel Lovisi

An excerpt from a spellbinding performance of students in popular music ensembles performing their final concert of the semester at UFU


The week closed out with a trip to the capital of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, which means Beautiful Horizon, hence the title of the post. “BH” is built on a mountain with not so-gently-rolling inclines throughout the city. It doesn’t have quite the intimidation and sheer size of São Paulo, but it has a calming energy, natural beauty, interesting history, great food, and loads of culture. The famed Clube da Esquina (Corner Club) movement was born here in the early 1970s. Clube da Esquina is renowned throughout Brazil and known by musicians worldwide, but here in Minas Gerais, and especially in Belo Horizonte, it’s almost sacred. It’s the region’s most significant musical contribution to the world.


The Clube da Esquina sound is difficult to categorize. It’s a mix of Brazilian folk music, jazz, The Beatles, and subtle political commentary during a time when an oppressive military dictatorship reigned in Brazil. The result was several albums with a core group of musicians, notably Milton Nascimento and the Borges brothers, Lô and Márcio, and a few other characters that appeared here and there, like guitarist Toninho Horta. All these musicians are essentially legends in Brazil now, particularly Milton Nascimento, who is also a globally recognized world music figure. To give you an idea of the impact of Clube da Esquina, I have three Brazilian friends who did their masters or doctoral theses on aspects of Clube da Esquina. It’s common for venues in the region to dedicate entire nights to the music of Clube da Esquina. In other words, Clube da Esquina is a big deal. While in BH, I visited some of the places where the Clube da Esquina musicians gathered to make music. Clube da Esquina is the official research component of my Fulbright, so to have visited the city where it took place is beyond words.

A plaque inside the Maletta building in the Centro neighborhood of BH, commemorating where members of the Clube da Esquina movement used to gather


But I also got to perform in BH, which was the icing on the cake. The two shows happened through the generosity of some kind people who helped arrange them for me, particularly vocalist Carolina Emilia in Uberlândia and saxophonist Breno Mendonça in BH, both of whom performed with me. The drummer in both shows was Jimmy Duchowny, the musical director at Mina Jazz Bar, where we performed. Other than the few Fulbrighters I met at UFU and at UnB in Brasilia, Jimmy is the only American I’ve met in Brazil in five months. The story of how he got here is the stuff of movies.

With drummer Jimmy Duchowny's quartet at the stylish Mina Jazz Bar in Belo Horizonte


Jimmy grew up surfing and playing music in southern California. His dad was a director for TV shows like The Love Boat and The Partridge Family, and Jimmy got to go on set and even make it into a scene occasionally. He relocated to Boston for college at Berklee School of Music. After paying dues in the Boston jazz clubs for a few years, he longed for something more, so he made a list of next possible steps, including moving to a foreign country. On a whim, he contacted a friend who lived in Brazil and arranged to stay with her for a few days. Days turned into weeks into months into years as he discovered the charms of life in Brazil and rose through the ranks of various Brazilian cities, eventually landing in BH. That was 35 years ago. He speaks perfect Portuguese and at this point has lived in Brazil longer than he lived in the U.S. The proof is in his driving: Jimmy navigates the twisty turns of BH with the skill and daring of a native.


After years of renting an apartment in the city, Jimmy relocated to the middle of the Atlantic Rainforest, otherwise known as the jungle. His home sits among dense mountain foliage within a gated community in the suburb of Nova Lima. They basically just dropped homes in the middle of the jungle and built a community around it. Jimmy’s house was designed by a renowned Brazilian architect, Carlos Teixeira, who built it for himself in 2000 and lived there for a time. Its open and modernist design has been the subject of many architectural articles and studies. Jimmy just happened to come into it a couple of months ago, and I had the incredibly good fortune to be hosted there by Jimmy. To say the home and its environs are breathtakingly beautiful would not begin to scratch the surface, but fortunately I captured some images, so you can decide for yourself.

The Brazilian jungle which surrounds Jimmy's house near Belo Horizonte

A landscape to take your breath away and a home to match it


In between shows, I experienced other parts of BH with Jimmy and Carolina as my guides. The legendary Oscar Niemeyer, whose structures I saw in São Paulo and Brasilia, also designed many famed buildings in BH. One is São Francisco de Assis Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the "Pampulha architectural complex,” an area of the city commissioned in 1940 by then-mayor of BH and future president of Brazil Juscelino Kubitschek. Oscar Niemeyer was 33 at the time (he died in 2012 at age 105). The other building I saw is the wavy-looking apartment building known simply as the Niemeyer Building, regarded as one of the symbols of BH and located at the historic Praça da Liberdade (Freedom Square). We also visited some of BH’s mercados, large indoor markets with row after row of the most incredible artesanal shops, where we also sampled delicious local foods from among a myriad of eateries.

The Niemeyer Apartment Building at Praça da Liberdade in Belo Horizonte

São Francisco de Assis Church, the other Oscar Niemeyer building I saw in BH

Praça da Liberdade in BH. Check out the Brazilian Bob Dylan who steals the show.


On my way out of the city I was running late, so we asked the Uber driver to step on it a little. He took this charge seriously and catapulted us on a harrowing ride through the city streets, racing full throttle the wrong way up a steep one way street and barreling down another as people scurried across the crosswalk to avoid getting hit by him. I wasn’t sure if asking the Uber driver to speed up was increasing or decreasing my chances of making it to the airport on time, but I made it to the bus station transfer that takes you to the airport with minutes to spare, so I guess it worked out. What a week.


Speaking of a week, we have exactly one left in Brazil. How is that possible? Where did five months go? I’m not ready to leave yet! There are some cool things planned for this week, and I’m sure I’ll talk about them in the next post— which could very well be written from the U.S.— but much of the week will be occupied by closing up shop here in Brazil. Wow. Did I mention I’m not ready to leave yet? The absolute thrill of living in a foreign country is incomparable. I can’t imagine how I will adjust to life back in the U.S after this. On the personal side, I’ve already had to say goodbye to some folks who left town for the month-long break between semesters. That was hard and left a little hole in my heart. I can’t imagine what it will be like after I have to say goodbye to so many people who have become dear to us. I think my heart will just wither away. I can see myself daydreaming about Brazil once I’m back in the States. I think it will be a hard transition, much harder than I anticipated. The imminence of leaving is hitting me like a ton of bricks. There are so many things and people I’ll miss, that I don’t know where to begin. So for now, I’ll just focus on the good things, enjoy the precious time I have left to spend with people we care about, and treasure my last week in this magnificent country.

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