Archive for the ‘Brazil’ Category

My musical life in Belo Horizonte: Part 1

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

I spent 18 months conducting dissertation research on music and politics in Belo Horizonte, Brazil in 2011 and 2012. Thinking back on a few of the performances that have touched me the most, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. In retrospect, perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me. I have ended up performing far more American jazz—and unfortunately far less Brazilian music—than I anticipated.


On the one hand, it has been infinitely rewarding to feel the genuine appreciation and warmth from audiences towards my jazz singing and improvisation. I have dedicated years trying to develop my own “voice,” in the sense of interpreting lyrics with conviction, but also in trying to develop my improvisational voice like any other instrument.


On the other hand, sharing this part of my musical life with Brazilian audiences has kept me from learning more Brazilian music. That being said, my jazz performances did open new doors to me.


The first open door actually came from a performance I did last summer in July 2010. Knowing I sang jazz, my roommate Ana invited me out one night to hear her cousin play a trio gig at a newly opened club called Nelson Bordello. From the outside, the club looked like a decrepit garage and, in fact, the entrance was through a metal garage door. But the interior had been renovated with a long skinny bar, simple wooden tables along the opposite wall, and ending in a small stage. Above the stage was a more intimate lounge with additional tables overlooking the first floor. Tables spilled out the entrance onto the concrete underneath the iconic Viaduto Santa Tereza. The place was truly charming.

Viaduto Santa Tereza

Viaduto Santa Tereza in Belo Horizonte. Photo by Alexandre Costa.


The trio sounded great. Ana introduced me to her cousin João Antunes and convinced him to let me sit in with them, much to my terror. I have never liked sitting in on someone else’s gig, or showing up to jam sessions. I am awful at remembering lyrics—a terrible affliction for any singer—so spur-of-the-moment performances are often stressful. Not one to back down from a challenge, I sang well. João and his trio even invited me back the following week.


After a single rehearsal with João and bassist Trigo Santana, we had a fabulous time at the gig. João had also invited drummer Guto Ferreira—son of legendary drummer Esdras “Nenêm” Ferreira—and saxophonist Chico Amaral to join him. I was really touched by their dedication to learning my arrangements.


I can remember feeling a buzz of nervous excitement before the show. The buzz was from having had such a blast with João and Trigo at rehearsal. There was no sense of just going through the motions—they gave their all every moment. The nervousness was my usual worry for how the audience would receive me, particularly as a foreigner.


Before stepping on stage, each musician greeted me with such enthusiasm, I felt buoyed with positive energy. I stepped onto the tiny stage for sound check and began to unroll a little carpet I bought for gigs. For anyone who has ever worked on balance skills as part of a workout, you’ll know that balance is most difficult to do with your eyes closed. As a singer, I sing with my eyes closed almost constantly, and, though I have never fallen down, I have waivered dangerously in high heels while singing a particularly impassioned passage.


Two memories of that night stick with me until today. The first is the transcendent feeling that set in almost immediately—every member of the band really listened. And it was contagious; the more they listened to me, the more I listened to them, eyes tightly shut, turning my smiling face towards the guitar, now bass, now drums, now saxophone, reacting to them reacting to me. I barely opened my eyes, but when I did, bright friendly eyes met mine.


The other memory I’ll never forget was a comment from the drummer as I started to count of the Chick Corea tune “Sea Journey.” Though the audience was engaged with us, they were also drinking, chatting, and “feliz da vida [happy-go-lucky],” making it hard to talk to each other on the bandstand. As I counted off, Trigo asked the drummer Guto if he could hear me. Looking down at my bare foot, he replied, “Não, mas vou olhar esse pézinho aquí [No, but I’ll just watch this little foot here].” Ha!


Sadly, my research grant ended just a few weeks later, and I left Belo Horizonte that August. I have never had the chance to perform with that great quartet since.


But there would be other performances.

Review in Guitar International: Milton Nascimento at the Barbican

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

Many thanks to the editors at Guitar International for their interest in publishing my recent review of Milton Nascimento e Banda at the Barbican in London on 20 October 2013 as part of Milton’s tour 50 anos de Carreira – Uma Travessia [50-Year Career – A Taverse].

As published in Guitar International, 2 December 2013.

2013 has been one of celebration for Milton Nascimento. Besides celebrating his 71st birthday on 26 October, Milton has been commemorating his 50-year career as a musician that began with the EP Barulho de Trem recorded in Belo Horizonte in 1963. If the London installment of Milton’s tour 50 Anos de Carreira—Uma Travessia [50-Year Career—A Traverse] is any indication of his vibrancy, then I expect to see many more commemorations to come.

After a captivating performance by the performer-composer Siba from Pernambuco state in northeastern Brazil, the audience murmured with anticipation while the crew changed the stage to receive Milton Nascimento and his band. Much of this buzz was in Portuguese—in the lobby, in the ladies’ bathroom, and from my own friend from Lisbon who joined me for the concert. A mug sat prominently on a stool next to Milton’s microphone showing his own drawing of the mountains from his own state Minas Gerais that also adorns the cover of the album Geraes.


Album cover from Milton Nascimento’s 1976 release Geraes, featuring his artistic rendering of the mountainous landscape of Minas Gerais state.

Album cover from Milton Nascimento’s 1976 release Geraes, featuring his artistic rendering of the mountainous landscape of Minas Gerais state.

Milton entered the Barbican auditorium to enthusiastic applause, and the slow pace of his ginger footsteps gave him all the more time to soak it up. As a commemorative show, the repertoire drew largely from Milton’s best-known albums of the 1970s (see full set list below). The group kicked off the evening with the rousing anthem to liberty and optimism “Credo [Creed].” Though it is a song that few would name as a favorite (through no defect of its own), it sums up Milton’s ability to compose veiled protest song that functions equally well as a timeless rock anthem about the hope invested in Brazilian youth:


Caminhando pela noite de nossa cidade

Walking through the night of our city

Acendendo a esperança e apagando a escuridão

Lighting hope and putting out the darkness

Vamos! Caminhando pelas ruas de nossa cidade

Let’s go! Walking through the streets of our city

Viver derramando a juventude pelos corações

To live pouring the youth through our hearts

Tenha fé no nosso povo que ele resiste

Have faith in our people that they resist

Tenha fé no nosso povo que ele insiste

Have faith in our people that they insist

E acorda novo, forte, alegre, cheio de paixão

And awake new, strong, happy, full of passion.”


Many shouted along with the band’s punctuated accompaniment to the word, “Vamos! [Let’s go!]” It struck me that such socially conscious song is as relevant in today’s democratic Brazil, rife with political dissatisfaction and social protest, as it was in the dictatorial Brazil of the 1970s.

Guitarist and musical director Wilson Lopes, Milton’s constant companion since first working together on Angelus in 1993, provided sensitive accompaniment on “Cais [Quay]’, one of Milton’s best-loved songs. Fans and journalists alike have recently criticized Milton for not using as much falsetto as he once did or for the occasional out-of-tune notes at the extremes of his range, but I feel that these critics are missing the point. Milton’s voice is still quite strong and rich, and it is the conviction with which he sings that is most beautiful: “Eu quero mais! [I want more!]” For the famous closing theme, pianist Kiko Continentino left his perch allowing Milton to take over the grand piano. Drummer Lincoln Cheib—a joyful performer and attentive collaborator—helped build anticipation first with the toms, then with the full drum set until the group reached a bombastic peak.

Kiko’s lush piano accompaniment segued directly into “Vera Cruz.” First recorded on the album Courage in 1968, the session was held at the legendary Van Gelder Studios in New Jersey alongside jazz legend Herbie Hancock and Brazilian arranger and organist Eumir Deodato. As a young jazz singer in Michigan, this was the first song I ever heard by Milton Nascimento. For my generation of jazz musicians, it has remained a fervent favorite, and it is no wonder why, after witnessing the exuberant solos by saxophonist Widor Santiago and each of the band members in their turn.

Another strong theme in Milton’s music is that of fraternity and friendship. The medley of the songs “Clube da Esquina” and “Clube da Esquina No. 2” by Milton and Lô Borges celebrated his lifelong friendships with the collective of musicians that became known by the name Clube da Esquina [Corner Club]. The latter song became perhaps most poignant as Wilson and bassist Gastão Villeroy contributed backing vocals for the first time, while Milton performed lyrics that play with the sound of repeated words. Speaking at first about childhood friendships, then adult friendships, the lyrics eventually expand to include the universal friend, that is, Milton’s fans from all over the world: “Quero ver então a gente, gente, gente, gente, gente … [So I want to see the people, people, people, people, people].” Raising his arms in offering to the crowd, ecstatic cheers from the audience confirmed that the sentiment was reciprocated.


Milton Nascimento e Banda at the Barbican, October 20, 2013.  Pictured from left: Kiko Continentino (piano, keyboards), Widor Santiago (saxophones), Pedro Nascimento (vocals, cavaquinho), Gastão Villeroy – obscured (electric bass), Lincoln Cheib (drums, percussion), Milton Nascimento (vocals, guitar), Wilson Lopes (musical director, guitar).  Photo by Matthew Warnock.

Milton Nascimento e Banda at the Barbican, October 20, 2013.
Pictured from left: Kiko Continentino (piano, keyboards), Widor Santiago (saxophones), Pedro Nascimento (vocals, cavaquinho), Gastão Villeroy – obscured (electric bass), Lincoln Cheib (drums, percussion), Milton Nascimento (vocals, guitar), Wilson Lopes (musical director, guitar).
Photo by Matthew Warnock.

The rest of the show was peppered with crowd pleasers, favorites for the connoisseur, and an obscure gem. Milton’s gypsy samba in ¾ time “Cravo e Canela [Clove and Cinnamon]” got the crowd to groove and sing, but the band also showed appealing versatility by ending with a stripped-down, bluesy and gritty version at half tempo. Another crowd favorite came in the form of the psychedelic rock song “Fé Cega, Faca Amolada [Blind Faith, Sharp Knife],” a song rarely played by Milton in live shows. Faltering slightly on the falsetto melody, the song once helped launch the career of fellow performer-composer Beto Guedes when they shared lead vocals on its 1975 recording.

For the connoisseur, Milton played a lovely instrumental medley in dedication to his mother Lília. Adopted at an early age by Josino and Lília de Brito Campos, Milton described her influence on him as inestimable: “You can look for … [his English falters] poesia … o que é que é poesia? [he asks the audience what is it that is poetry? someone answers] … poetry, books, the world. Never you gonna find something as beautiful as my mother. She is the goddess that made me a musician, a person, everything.” The wordless theme “Lília” is perhaps not what one might expect of a doting son. Rather than a sentimental ballad, we hear something more akin to film music—perhaps cowboys crossing the vastness of the sertão [Brazilian hinterlands] at a punishing pace.

“Lília” moved seamlessly into a wordless version of “Maria Três Filhos [Maria of Three Children],” and the playfulness of the band was in full force. Used as a vehicle for improvisation, each member played cleverly with the theme, that can be divided simultaneously into either 4 beats or 5 beats, including a particularly satisfying exchange between drummer Lincoln Cheib and Milton’s percussive guitar chords. In an ongoing tribute to family and fraternity, Milton introduced his own adopted son to sing and play cavaquinho—a 4-string instrument similar to the ukulele used commonly in samba and choro styles—on “Circo Marimbondo.”

As for the rare gem, Milton sang his Portuguese version of “Amor e Paixão,” a song he performed and recorded with the jazz singer Sarah Vaughan as “Love and Passion” in 1987. He has never recorded the song as a soloist, but remarked that he still intends to do so. Milton did not leave his most dedicated fans in the lurch for popular hits. He handled the vociferous fans with grace as many shouted out requests throughout the night, while others insisted, “Deixa ele cantar o que quer! [Let him sing what he wants!].” Each hit was cheered as he sang “Para Lennon e McCartney [For Lennon and McCartney],” “Maria, Maria,” and closed the show with the song that started his career “Travessia [Journey].”

The real demonstration of the fandom present at the Barbican came when he asked the audience to sing to him. He has been making this request of audiences for the past few years, and London did not disappoint. If somewhat bashfully, one could hear “Canção da América [Song of America]” from beginning to end. Though composed in Los Angeles, for many the song is an homage to Brazilian friendship (the first line sings, “Amigo é coisa pra se guardar debaixo de sete chaves [A friend is something to be kept under seven locks and keys]”), for others an analogy for shared struggle and oppression throughout Latin America. Perhaps in the Barbican, the best metaphor was one of a friendship that can dissolve the constructs of nation, borders, and cultural difference. Surely, one thing Milton best demonstrates is the power of music to unite and delight.

Author’s Note: Milton Nascimento recently donated thousands of items from his personal archives to be shown on digital display at the Jobim Institute in Rio de Janeiro. Music fans can stream many of his albums for free: Follow the link to the website, click on Audio and Video, then scroll down to the album covers and choose from more than 30 recordings released throughout Milton’s long career.

Milton Live At Barbican Set List

1. Credo (Milton Nascimento / Fernando Brant; Clube da Esquina 2 1978)

2. Cais (Milton Nascimento / Ronaldo Bastos; Clube da Esquina 1972)

3. Vera Cruz (Milton Nascimento / Márcio Borges; Courage 1968, Angelus 1993)

4. Clube da Esquina (Milton Nascimento / Lô Borges / Márcio Borges; Milton 1970)

5. Clube da Esquina No. 2 (Milton Nascimento / Lô Borges / Márcio Borges; Clube da Esquina 1972)

6. Cravo e Canela (Milton Nascimento / Ronaldo Bastos; Clube da Esquina 1972)

7. Amor e Paixão (Milton Nascimento; Recorded as “Love and Passion” on Sarah Vaughan’s Brazilian Romance 1987)

8. Lília (Milton Nascimento; Clube da Esquina 1972)

9. Maria Três Filhos (Milton Nascimento / Fernando Brant; Milton 1970)

10. Circo Marimbondo (Milton Nascimento e Ronaldo Bastos; Geraes 1976)

11. Ponta de Areia (Milton Nascimento / Fernando Brant; Minas 1975)

12. Saídas e Bandeiras (Milton Nascimento / Fernando Brant; Clube da Esquina 1972)

13. Canção da América (Milton Nascimento / Fernando Brant; Sentinela 1980)

14. Fé Cega, Faca Amolada (Milton Nascimento / Ronaldo Bastos; Minas 1975)

15. Para Lennon e McCartney (Lô Borges / Márcio Borges / Fernando Brant; Milton 1970)

16. Maria, Maria (Milton Nascimento / Fernando Brant; Clube da Esquina 2 1978)

17. Raça (Milton Nascimento / Fernando Brant; Milton 1976)

18. Travessia (Milton Nascimento / Fernando Brant; Travessia 1976)

Autumn in Minas Gerais: Part III

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

Outono em Minas Gerais: Parte Três

Monday morning, Jaimie and I arose to squeeze in a bit more historical tourism in Ouro Preto. We climbed the ladeira up to Praça Tiradentes. On the way, I took this picture of an oratório perched on a corner overlooking a steep valley.

Passo de Antônio Dias: an example of an oratório in Ouro Preto

(Note: an oratório is a structure constructed for personal worship and prayer. It ranges in size from one wall of a room, to a portable chest, to a medallion worn around the neck. Click here to visit the photo gallery of the Museu do Oratório in Ouro Preto to see examples).

The small plaque to the right of the double door explains that this oratórioPasso de Antônio Dias—is one of five remaining in Ouro Preto. It opens only during Semana Santa (Holy Week), specifically during the Processão do Encontro on Domingo dos Ramos (see my prior post), the Processão do Enterro (Procession of the Interment of Jesus Christ), e Sexta-Feira Santa (Good Friday).

Looking back at my photos after the trip, I realized I had snapped a picture of that same oratório the day before—on Domingo dos Ramos (Palm Sunday). What luck! I remember having watched ouropretanos (residents of Ouro Preto) pass by, pay their respects, and resume the quotidian, such as running errands, shopping, visiting relatives.

Passo de Antônio Dias: open for only a few days of the year, I snapped this on Palm Sunday

This aspect of individual spirituality fascinates me. Historically, it seems to have arisen out of colonial necessity. Portuguese settlers simply couldn’t build churches fast enough, especially not in the remote, mountainous state of Minas Gerais. But, portable oratórios helped keep people invested in the Catholic Church.

Here are two more oratórios that opened during the evening processionals of Semana Santa (Holy Week).

Oratório in Ouro Preto open during the Processão do Encontro on Domingo dos Ramos (Palm Sunday)

Oratório in São João del Rei open during Quarta-Feira das Cinzas (Ash Wednesday)



















Monday evening, Jaimie and I parted ways. She returned to Belo Horizonte to continue her biological research on tadpoles (so neat!), and I took a bus to São João del Rei.


Rio de Janeiro in Five Days and Four Nights

Monday, August 29th, 2011

Rio de Janeiro: A pior viagem da minha vida

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across an announcement for an ethnomusicology conference that would take place in Rio de Janeiro. It was set to begin in just two weeks—a little tight for flight shopping—but as I read the program I decided it was not to be missed.

The conference was to focus on the Palavra Cantada (or, Sung Word) and among the presenters listed in the program were numerous well-respected and widely published researchers of Brazilian music, including Liv Sovik, Carlos Sandroni, José Miguel Wisnik, Luiz Tatit, Marcos Napolitano, Elizabeth Travassos and David Treece, and my own mentor at UFMG (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais) Glaura Lucas.

The guest speaker, much to my delight, was to be Anthony Seeger, an American ethnomusicologist whose best known work Why Suyá Sing: A Musical Anthropology of an Amazonian People is never missing from required reading lists in academia. He has also written extensively about ethics, recording practices, and copyright, and served as executive producer at the Smithsonian Folkways record label for more than a decade. [A surprising sidenote: Why Suyá Sing has never been translated into Portuguese!?!?!]

Upon taking a closer look at the program, I realized that all of the events started at 2 pm each day—nothing at all was planned in the mornings! I have NEVER seen a conference schedule like that in the US or UK. Rather than spending my time on the beach, as many of my friends recommended, I planned to spend the mornings doing archival research in the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library).

Photo Credit: Agência Estado. Interior of Biblioteca Nacional de Rio de Janeiro (Nacional Library).

Delighted by all I would learn and discover, I enrolled in the conference, found a cheap flight, and booked a moderately-priced hotel in Glória, a neighborhood just south of Centro and a few metrô stops away from the conference site in Urca.

At this point, my perfectly planned—and nerdtastic, as my husband would say—research trip started to unravel.

Rather than bore you with all the hairy details, I decided to write a little story about my failed trip. In fact, as I write it, the trip still hasn’t ended—I still have two more hours until my flight leaves Aeroporto Santos Dumont.


Rio de Janeiro in Five days and Four Nights


Day 1: 98.6o

I dreamed of five days and four nights in Rio de Janeiro,

until the workers of the National Library went on strike: Biblioteca fechou.*

I dreamed of five days and four nights in Rio de Janeiro,

until I forgot the often-elusive, but ever-essential charger for my waning cell phone.

I dreamed of five days and four nights in Rio de Janeiro,

until Prince canceled his scheduled appearance with Chaka Khan. Prince. PRINCE. NOOOO!!

I dreamed of five days and four nights in Rio de Janeiro,

until I awoke at 3 am with tonsils each the size of a small plum.


Day 2: 100.5o

I dreamed of four days and three nights in Rio de Janeiro,

as I bought my first box of Cimegripe** from the farmácia.

I dreamed of four days and three nights in steamy Rio de Janeiro,

while I shivered, sweated, and slept, waking only to eat or pee.

I dreamed of four days and three nights in Rio de Janeiro,

including a nightmare of a Brazilian wandering spider attacking my spine as I slept.


Day 3: 102.1o

I dreamed of three days and two nights in Rio de Janeiro,

as the garçonete*** looked pitifully at me upon arriving late for breakfast. (She let me eat anyway).

I dreamed of three days and two nights in Rio de Janeiro,

as I bought my second box of Cimegripe from the farmácia.

I dreamed (in vain) of three days and two nights in Rio de Janeiro,

until my dizzy head and flaming cheeks were no match for the conference in its second full day.


Day 4: 100.8o

I hoped for just two days and 1 night in Rio de Janeiro,

until I turned on the hot water in the shower and absolutely nothing came out at all.

I pleaded for two days and 1 night in Rio de Janeiro,

while I napped through my third consecutive morning in the Cidade Maravilhosa.****

I longed for two days and 1 night in Rio de Janeiro,

and when I made it to the closing night of the conference, I listened, weak and bewildered, but left without meeting a soul.


Day 5: 99.2o

I settled for one last day in Rio de Janeiro,

and just missed extending my hotel room to accommodate my 8:50 pm flight.

I left the hotel for one last day in Rio de Janeiro,

and bought my third box of Cimegripe, much to the pharmacist’s amusement.

I wandered through the last day in Rio de Janeiro,

and huddled in a dark café corner with an extreme-garlic-and-potato soup, a new book, and no one in sight.

I could not face the last day in Rio de Janeiro,

and settled in for five long hours at the Aeroporto Santos Dumont.


Home: 98.6o

I spent five days and four nights in Rio de Janeiro,

and all I got was a cold and this lousy poem.

*Biblioteca fechou—library closed

**Cimegripe—Tylenol- and chlorphenamine-based cold medicine and sister to the infamous Benegripe, but without the wallop of 250 mg of caffeine. (Note: an average cup of coffee/tea contains 75-100 mg of caffeine).


****Cidade Maravilhosa—marvelous city, Rio de Janeiro’s nickname


[Note: Apologies to the city of Rio de Janeiro—I am sure you are perfectly marvelous under normal circumstances.]

Autumn in Minas Gerais: Part II

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Outono em Minas Gerais: Parte Dois

Two of the reasons Ouro Preto attracts so many visitors: historic churches and the mountainous landscape

The next morning, Domingo dos Ramos (Palm Sunday), Jaimie and I awoke early in order to participate in another processão. This one was to depart the beautiful Igreja de São Francisco de Assis—the church that uses the second largest amount of gold in its interior design in Brazil (the first is in Salvador da Bahia). We heard ringing church bells as we showered and prepared to leave, but when we arrived at the church, it was empty. Despite local advertisements, the processão had already departed before 8 am!

We asked some locals and discovered that we could walk a few short blocks and find a mass in session. We did so, and took part in the blessing of the ramos, or palms. A choir sang accompanied by an ad hoc group of instrumentalists—flute, trumpet, organ, a few clarinets.

After the mass had concluded, I spoke briefly with a few of the singers. When they found we were Americans, they seemed very excited that we would be interested in the church music, and shared their personal experiences.

A woman in her thirties said she had only been in the choir for a year and learned mostly by ear, but that she hoped to learn how to read music. The choir director, a man in his early fifties, had been with the church for thirty years, and was proud to be able to keep the music going as part of religious services. The elder member, a man in his late sixties, complained that cell phone use during services was becoming all too common. He also ridiculed local politicians for having closed a government-funded music school in the area, the only option for those of modest means to access music education.

As we happily chatted, the elderly man explained that his voice felt very hoarse that day and not to judge him too harshly. Then, he told us that we couldn’t miss the evening processão which would feature the Cerimônia do Encontro, a reenactment of the meeting of Mary and Jesus Christ as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. We promised to be there.

Bells ringing outside the Santuário Nossa Senhora da Conceição

After a full day of visiting historical sites of Ouro Preto, Jaimie and I struck out to find the evening procession. I had read conflicting information about where the processão would begin, but when we saw an elderly trombonist in a marching band uniform, we knew he would lead us in the right direction.

Trombonist heading to the processão. The windows in the distance are decorated with red banners in honor of Palm Sunday.

We arrived at Praça Tiradentes—the central town square—just before sunset. We found an empty curb in view of the temporary stage set up for the occasion and watched the crowds slowly gather. My favorite scene is of a young girl in an angel costume being photographed by her adoring grandfather. He snapped picture after picture in front of the setting sun as the I-know-I-am-adorable-but-I-will-pretend-I-don’t-notice-all-of-the-people-watching-me girl gave smile after smile.

Angel granddaughter in Praça Tiradentes

The sun set. The humming crowd of over one thousand quieted and an hour-long sermon commenced as the moon slowly rose over Praça Tiradentes. I marveled at the silent attention this huge mass of ouropretanos gave to the impassioned guest bishop. Only the sounds of fidgety children could be heard and the occasional hum and creak of a passing car.

Moon rising over Praça Tiradentes

The priest gave particular attention to Mary, or Nossa Senhora das Dores (Our Lady of Sorrows), explaining the significance of this encounter and the pain she would endure at the impending loss of her son. Mary’s significance for this priest was as a metaphor for the pain and suffering of motherhood and a reminder for ouropretanos to honor the matriarchs of their families.

As the priest spoke, two wooden images squeezed their way through opposite sides of the crowded square. Each dais was accompanied by costumed sentinels in Roman dress and a band of brass, winds and percussion. As the priest spoke, the images neared closer and closer until his passionate speech reached a peak and the images met face to face.

Cerimônia do Encontro: the images of Mary and Jesus Christ meet in Praça Tiradentes

The priest closed his speech, hundreds clapped, and the processão began. Jaimie and I were unprepared for what followed.

The processão wound through street after street, over a river, past warmly glowing restaurants, solemn-looking churches, and many open windows. The two bands following each wooden image traded off playing hymns throughout the 3-hour journey.

Processão under a nearly full moon

A musician struggles to find the next song while descending a steep street

Church elders leading the processão

After snapping pictures of the happy but tired musicians, Jaimie and I found our way back through the winding streets to eat a quick dinner and collapse into bed. The next morning we awoke feeling like old women—our legs ached, we limped around our little pousada room, and only long showers could prepare us to climb the ladeira for our last day in Ouro Preto.

Autumn in Minas Gerais: Part I

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Outono em Minas Gerais: Parte Um

Evening in Ouro Preto with Jaimie

One of my goals here in Minas Gerais has been to try to get a broad understanding of the types of cultural production that involve music-making. Though my research focuses on the Clube da Esquina—a musical collective often categorized as MPB (música popular brasileira)—I am devoted to investigating the many musical manifestations in Brazil and Minas Gerais that influenced their output.

One of those influences comes from Catholic religious celebrations. During Semana Santa (Holy Week), I traveled to two colonial cities in Minas Gerais in order to learn more about the importance of Catholicism in civic life. First, I took my dear friend Jaimie to Ouro Preto.

Ouro Preto celebrated its 300th anniversary this year (1711 – 2011). Its original name was Vila Rica (Rich Village) due to its status as the center of Brazil’s gold rush and was the capital of Minas Gerais for much of the 19th century, well before Belo Horizonte (the current capital) was constructed. Today, Ouro Preto teams with domestic and international tourists, stumbling through the many ladeiras (steep streets; or literally, ladders) to museums, churches, and shops.

Looking down the "ladder", or ladeira, past the Casa da Ópera (in yellow), the oldest working concert hall in the Americas

Although Jaimie and I ventured into museums and a few shops, my willing assistant accompanied me on at least three of the many processões (processions) scheduled throughout Semana Santa. We arrived on Saturday afternoon, the day before Domingo dos Ramos (Palm Sunday). After checking into a modest, but very well-kept pousada (bed and breakfast), we climbed our way back up to Praça Tiradentes (the central town square) in search of the first of many processions.

We wandered down a few winding streets and found the Matriz Nossa Senhora do Pilar (head church, or also womb, of Our Lady of Pilar). At 7 pm, the church was already overflowing with a softly buzzing swarm of worshippers. The priest gave a brief sermon introducing Holy Week, and then unveiled a wooden image of Jesus Christ inside of a purple-cloaked dais.

Priest blessing the image of Jesus Christ with smoke

Image of Jesus Christ leaving the Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Pilar

The churches in Ouro Preto share the responsibility and honor of hosting the images of Jesus Christ and Mary. This night, the image of Jesus Christ was carried through the steep and winding streets of Ouro Preto to arrive at Santuário da Imaculada Conceição (Sanctuary of the Immaculate Conception).

Church volunteers carried the dais while followers filled the narrow, cobbled streets from door to door. A city band in navy uniforms accompanied the procession playing religious hymns. Marching over the uneven ground at night and reading the sheet music attached to the musician’s backs certainly made for challenging music-making (and photography—my apologies), but ouropretanos are used to scaling these streets.

Processão with the image of Jesus Christ at left in purple

City band marching under onlookers leaning out open windows

Two things particularly struck me about this event. First, the processão seemed to be an event for generations to gather together. I saw granddaughters assisting very elderly grandmothers over the cobblestones, nephews walking with uncles, and parents greeting children arriving from other cities in Minas Gerais who had come home for the holiday week.

Second, despite these encounters, the followers were solemn. Mineiros (residents of Minas Gerais), and brasileiros in general, greet family and friends with enthusiasm! But, this night was muted and reserved for an internalized religiosity.

My subsequent travel to São João del Rei would be a very different experience.

Arrival at Santuário da Imaculada Conceição


Tanta contramão

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

I am riding through Belo Horizonte, and Robson is driving. This means two things: we are laughing a lot and we are getting lost. In fact, we are laughing because we are getting lost, or getting lost because we are laughing. Peripheral activities include singing along with the radio, my yelling frantic directions at Robson, and mutual bickering in a halting combination of Portuguese and English.

I have never driven myself anywhere in Brazil. After a serious head-on collision stateside in 2004, driving in unfamiliar places makes me nervous. Other peoples’ driving makes me nervous too, but at least I don’t feel responsible for any unexpected outcome. My discomfort with driving, however, does not stop me from having opinions about how it should be done, sometimes to the irritation of others.

Our trip began in Anchieta, a neighborhood to the southeast of Belo Horizonte, where I rent a room from a group of nice girls. Our destination was a neighborhood to the southwest of Belo Horizonte, where I was to interview one of the founding members of the Clube da Esquina. I had written out instructions from GoogleMaps to guarantee that we arrived on time, but Robson–as he himself would tell you–doesn’t trust my sense of direction and headed due north into centro.

Though Belo Horizonte originated as a farm settlement called Curral do Rei, the centro (downtown) of Belo Horizonte was planned in the 1890s in homenagem to Washington DC. Both cities feature wide boulevards, a grid layout, and several roundabouts. Parks with statues serve as centerpieces of the urban landscape and are often named after historical figures and events.

Washington DC is well-known for its street names: east-west streets are letter names (e.g. J Street) while north-south streets are numbered (e.g. 14th Street). City planner Aarão Reis envisioned a less utilitarian, more nationalistic, naming system for Belo Horizonte: east-west streets are named after indigenous Brazilian groups (e.g. Rua dos Tupinambás) while north-south streets are named after states (e.g. Rua Espírito Santo).

Arriving at the Praça da Liberdade, Robson began to have doubts about the path he had chosen (much to my inner delight). We decided to head back south, but unfortunately the traffic had become quite slow, even at 8:30 in the evening. The Praça da Liberdade has long been the civic and cultural heart of the city, and it was originally conceived to host the houses of state government, including the residence of the governor.

The Palácio da Liberdade can be seen here by daylight between two majestic columns of palm trees:

Praça da Liberdade

Praça da Liberdade

It has been decades since the governor resided in the Palácio, but it remains a symbol of state governance even as many other government buildings are being relocated outside of town (see prior post for more on this). The departure of government buildings has made room for additional cultural buildings, such as the Centro da Cultura and soon the Museu Clube da Esquina.

Even in the evening darkness, the square is bustling. Some walk circuits for exercise; others rush off to the nearby independent cinema; and still others relax at various restaurants, like the famous (or infamous?) Xodó offering fast-food and ice cream, or the popular Pizzeria Sur on the corner with Rua da Bahia. I watch the laughing and chatting figures as we round the three corners of the Praça da Liberdade to cruise south again.

Upon crossing the Avenida do Contorno, we leave centro behind us and near the correct neighborhood. Robson gives in and begins to ask what I had learned from GoogleMaps, though with an air of suspicion. And for good reason, as it turns out.

We follow my directions, but quickly lose the way. The road we followed simply changed names, and we didn’t run across the next street on my list. We turned right in order to head in the correct general direction, but after a few blocks, the street became one-way in the opposite direction. This is known as a contramão.

What to do now? We could not continue straight, so left seemed like the best option, but this too became a contramão as well as a “no right-turn” sign preventing us from staying on our path. Lovely. [Note: heavy sarcasm]. Que bonito.

We had no choice but to turn towards where we had come. Taking a little loop, we started over with the very first street we had started on in the neighborhood, but we fell into the same traps. All streets seemed to point back the way we had come.

We passed a boteco (small neighborhood pub) for the second time, and this time Robson got out to ask directions. I could tell just by the gestures of the people gathered there, that this was not the first time someone had asked for directions. The dono do boteco came out to the street and gestured what appeared to be very specific instructions. Several people inserted their own suggestions as Robson alternatively nodded or repeated back what they had said. Finally, the man repeated the entire set of directions a second (or third?) time, and Robson thanked everyone.

And we were off. Amazingly, the directions were accurate and involved a number of abrupt turns through the labyrinthine neighborhood. We even got back on track with my GoogleMaps directions. But we soon lost our way again, prompting me to lament, “Tanta contra-mão! [So many one-ways!]”. We asked directions two more times (at a gas station and a public square) before we finally pulled up to our destination.

I nervously checked my recording equipment and worried about how late we were. I had agreed to arrive at 9 pm for the interview (I shudder to admit that I had originally thought we were meeting at 9 AM, but that’s another story…), and Robson asked, “What time is it?”

“9:15,” I said nervously.

Ah, bom atraso.” Though I had never heard this phrase, having traveled and lived in Brazil already several times, I immediately understood its import. Though some might compare it to the English phrase “fashionably late,” that brings with it connotations of class (an elegant invitation-only party) that isn’t present in the Portuguese phrase. Bom atraso is more direct, more frank. It simply means “acceptable, good or even polite lateness.”

I smiled at my unintentional appropriateness. Had we not gotten lost, we would have arrived at least 10 minutes early. Though I can’t say it doesn’t exist, I have never heard the phrase bom precoçe (good earliness).

We spoke with the 24-hour doorman, and he let us into the building after calling up to confirm our appointment. We ascended in the elevator, walked the short hallway, and knocked on the apartment door … as butterflies fluttered in the pit of my stomach.

We were greeted warmly! After some brief introductions, our host asked if we found our way okay, and we laughingly admitted our evening hijinks.

Our host smiled knowingly at the story, then asked, “Did you use GoogleMaps?”

São João del Rei

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

I spent the second week of my trip to Minas Gerais, Brazil (third week of June 2010) living with Carol’s husband at his house in the mid-sized city of São João del Rei located 200 kilometers south of Belo Horizonte. Guilherme is a professor of guitar at the Universidade Federal de São João del Rei and proved to be an excellent host and we had several helpful discussions in the chilly June evenings.

While Gui taught private lessons and classical guitar history classes during the day, I took the opportunity to research, watch World Cup futebol and explore the city by foot. We arrived Monday morning, June 21st and after Gui departed for work, I tried to capture the central location of his apartment within the city. Visually, Gui’s apartment is surrounded by 7 different Catholic churches.

São João del Rei


São João del Rei


São João del Rei


São João del Rei


But physical geography is not the only interest here–the sonic geography is truly captivating. Each of these churches, as well as several others not pictured, has a bell tower, and over the years (centuries, in fact), they have worked out a system in which each church takes turns ringing out its messages to the city. Saturday evening became a favorite time for me to sit in Gui’s apartment and simply absorb the soundworld of secular weekend street life mixed with the sacred bells.

Gui explained that the bell ringing repertoire has been studied by several musicologists, and after a few nights, it became apparent that the diverse sounds emanating from these churches deserved the attention. Gui told me that some churches had developed a system of ringing by which church-goers could discern important news. For example, researchers claimed that church-goers could hear in the ringing that not only had a fellow worshipper died, but could hear in the sound the age, gender and disposition of the person to such accuracy that many could conclude the identity of the deceased!

Another style of ringing required collaboration between a pair of churches. One evening, after a series of what I would describe as typical bell-ringing from 2 or 3 churches, I began to hear 2 bells of different pitches ring out in short, crisp and syncopated rhythms–a very different sound from the typical long and droning tones of the previous churches. After about 30 seconds, I realized that two ringers were imitating the agogô bells–two tubes of metal ringing with one high and one low pitch–often heard in many styles of samba music! Incredible.

World Cup in Belo Horizonte

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

I arrived in Belo Horizonte, Brazil at 1:13 pm local time on Tuesday in June, the summer of 2010. I chose June 15 as my arrival date, more or less, arbitrarily, but as it turned out, I arrived just 47 minutes before Brazil was schedule to make its first appearance in the 2010 World Cup tournament, hosted in Johannesburg, South Africa. Brazil had been placed in bracket G along with Cote D’Ivoire and Portugal, and was scheduled to face the final member of the bracket: North Korea.

I had arranged to stay with a friend of a friend–a family I had never met, but had been in contact with several times before my trip–and I was relieved to find Carol’s smiling face at the airport. We considered stopping for lunch on the way home, but remembering what day and time it was, we quickly realized that most restaurants would probably close down during the game. My head reeling from the 15-hour journey and from mentally scraping off the 2-year layer of rust on my Portuguese language skills, I was pleased to be heading to Carol’s house.

The ride home gave me the chance to get to know Carol better, as well as to re-learn the city. My last trip to Belo Horizonte had been in August 2008 in order to appear as a guest vocalist for the second studio album of friend and composer Robson Santos. [Robson released Límbico Trem in 2009 featuring my vocal work on four tracks.] The swift 10-day trip hadn’t allowed much time outside of the studio for exploring the CD, but I had remembered Robson mentioning that the state government in Belo Horizonte–the capital of Minas Gerais state–had decided to move their central offices out of centro and nearer to the airport. As we drove, I discovered Carol was an architect, and she pointed out the modernist architecture of Oscar Niemeyer in what is now referred to as Cidade Administrativa (Administrative City). Here is the Palácio dos Tiradentes:


Palácio dos Tiradentes, Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais


This structure is architecturally fascinating to me. The central “box” hangs freely from the roof of the outer shell–could it sway in the breeze?–with the only visible entrance curling from the center of the glass box like a white ribbon. A striking building, I wondered how the average citizens interpreted this relocation of the physical reminders of the government’s presence from the Praça da Liberdade–a park located in the city center and a common gathering place for workers, families, lovers, tourists–to this remote site beside the highway that leads to Confins International Airport.

As we neared the western suburbs of the city, we noticed businesses starting to close their doors and traffic starting to slow us down. Futebol in Belo Horizonte, as in many places in Brazil, is treated much like a federal holiday, even if just for a few hours. Besides private businesses, lots of government offices closed up shop. Those that didn’t had a television going and workers and customers settled in for a pleasant break from the everyday. We passed cars decorated in green and yellow with green and yellow men, women and children cheering, chanting and honking the car horns.

Not everyone in Brazil loves futebol, just like not all Americans love baseball. But given the chance to gather with friends and family, many people are happy to love futebol for a few hours. I later met one friend, João, who took an entire week off from work to make sure he could watch the semi- and quarter-final games. When Brazil was ousted earlier than expected, João didn’t go back to work early, but found another team to support.

Carol and I arrived home a few minutes into the first half of the game. The neighborhood had quieted noticeably as we parked the car, aside from the occasional firework set off a few blocks away. Mineiros (residents of Minas Gerais) are known for their hospitality, and, though I was greeted warmly, I had to smirk at the atypical brevity of it. I settled into the couch, accepting a beer and some pão de queijo and cheered Brazil’s 2-1 victory over North Korea, the first of many happy afternoons and mornings of watching great futebol and enjoying new friends.

Trip to Brazil

Friday, August 20th, 2010

When I tell people I am going to Brazil, they always respond with jealous comments about the time I will spend on the beach. Maybe it was my landlocked Midwestern upbringing, or my dangerously pale skin, but I am just not seduced by beach life. Instead, I head straight to the third largest city in Brazil.

Belo Horizonte sits in a valley in the mountains of the Southeast, an 8-hour bus ride North of Rio de Janeiro. This past June and July, I spent two lovely months escaping from the oppressive heat and humidity of central Illinois in Beagá (Portuguese for BH). Winter in Beagá is fantastic—75 or 80 during the day, 50 at night and sunny every day—perfect for Northerners like me and my Canadian husband.

I first went to Beagá in 2003 and fell in love with the giant intersections of downtown, labyrinthine streets of the suburbs, and, most of all, the people. I stayed four months in 2004-05 and discovered mineiros (residents of Minas Gerais state) to contradict the stereotypes assigned them by other Brazilians. My next few blog posts will be dedicated to describing my experiences in Belo Horizonte—if you have any comments or questions, shoot them my way!