Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Origem: An exercise in adjusting my expectations

I spent the long Easter weekend visiting friends in one of my favorite cities. No, it's not Belém, or Rio, or New York, but rather our lovely nation's capitol, Washington, D.C. One of the reasons I love D.C., aside from the overly confident and morally void policy wonks who strut around the hill, is all the free entertainment. Just my luck, that on this particular weekend there was a free event at the National Museum of African Art. On the museum's calendar, event was called Origem: Sounds from Brazil. 

Origem jamn' and the un-fun, sedentary humans watching them.
My friends and I followed the sounds of base and keyboard down the granite staircase to a packed room, at the front of which the members of Origem had already started to play. I have to say, my first impression was not great. First of all, whenever I go see a Brazilian music performance, I expect a dance floor, or at least a space clear of chairs and un-fun, sedentary, humans, in which I can get down and shake my tail feathers. No such space existed in this set up. Second, the event was titled "Sounds from Brazil", but the music I followed down into the depths of the African Museum was more akin to the "Sounds from the hotel cocktail lounge." Despite my initial skepticism, I decided to give Origem a chance. After the conclusion of that first musical number, Leonardo Lucini, Origem's bassist and founder, introduced his group and their music. This context was necessary for me to enjoy the rest of the show. 

Leonardo studied music in Rio de Janeiro and Brasília, before coming to the U.S. to attend Howard University's prestigious Jazz Studies program. Leonardo's appreciation for the parallel musical histories of the United States and Brazil, both heavily influenced by African musical traditions, was a major reason he chose to study at Howard, a historically black college. Being obsessed with Brazil, I often think about the ways in which it is similar to the United States: its size (5th largest in the world behind US and China which are tied for 3rd/4th), its unique regional cultures (North, Northeast, South, Southeast, Central-west), its history of slavery (Brazil didn't abolish slavery until 1888). But I hadn't yet made the musical connection, and I was super excited to learn about it form Leonardo. 

After this introduction, I shed my expectations of samba and bossa nova, and was able to appreciate Origem's music for what it is: Jazz, albeit a special kind of jazz with subtle notes of Brazil.  As usual, I couldn't keep still and, to the embarrassment of my friends, managed to dance in place a little, squished between another member of the standing audience and a glass case that was part of an exhibit. I wasn't alone, though, in my physical appreciation of the music. I was pleased to see seated across the room an older fellow chair-dancing! (see previous post for description of chair-dancing.) This guy was really getting into it, rolling his clenched fists in front of his chest and then throwing them to the side, like the leader of a conga line. His enthusiasm and delight also helped me warm up to Origem's performance.

I have to admit that I didn't stay until the end of the show (I had to resurface into the DC sunshine), but I'm really glad that I stayed past the first musical number. Even though I recognize the my knowledge of and experience with Brazil is incomplete, I have a very specific idea of what it means to be Brazilian: loud, ostentatious, grand, and indulgent, which, in my head, are all great things. My idea of Brazilian-ness shapes my expectations, which I placed on Origem that day at the museum. In writing this post, I came across a review of Origem on the Washington Post's website whose author seems to have done the same thing. The review reads: "Not Convincing. As a Brazilian I must say that this band does not get even close to represent Brazilian Jazz. The arrangements are quite poor and predictable, and the music is quite synthetic - nothing like the real thing. I find it frustrating to have such a mediocre band burning the name of Brazilian jazz like this."

Yes, the performance did not live up to it's name, "Sounds from Brazil," but I was able to adjust my expectations and get over that fact. And I definitely didn't think the group was mediocre. In fact, Leonardo has performed with a number of well known artists like American saxophonist,
Benny Golson, and the Brazilian group Nó Em Pingo D'AguaOrigem's members may be Brazilian by birth, but they are Jazz musicians by profession. And as crazy as I am about Brazil, I'm glad I was reminded that I'm still capable of appreciating entertainment that isn't 100% Brazilian.

Here is a pretty long video of Leonardo talking about Origem.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rio, The Movie: Let go of your seats!

I have the good fortune to have fabulous friends who once in a while indulge me by joining me in my pursuit of Brazilian bliss. This past Saturday, two such friends did exactly that when they agreed to cough up $20 each to see the movie Rio in 3-D. Bless their hearts. 

Rio's main message was a nice one- open your mind, listen to your heart, be confident in your abilities, and you will discover wonderful things about the world and yourself- but the soundtrack is what really brought the movie to life. When I say soundtrack, I mean the music, the sounds, beats, rhythms, and melodies. I'm talking so infectious that I couldn't sit still during a single musical number. The lyrics, on the other hand, leave a lot to be desired, and certain refrains are ridiculous enough that they merit mentioning. The movie opens with a thriving community of tropical birds that breaks into song and dance to "Real in Rio" by the Rio Singers.

Magic could happen for real, in Rio
All by it self (it self)
You can't see it coming
You can't find it anywhere else (anywhere else)
It's real, in Rio
Know something else (something else)
You can feel it happen
You can feel it all by yourself

Magic happens all by itself, huh? That must be some special kind of magic. I can feel it happening all by myself, too? Wow! I'm a big girl now! Huggies Brazil must be a corporate sponsor... Along with the Association of Brazilian Gazebo Builders, as suggested by this catchy tune, "Let me take you to Rio" by Ester Dean.

Let me take you to Rio, Rio 
Fly'o the ocean like an eagle 
And when can chill in my gazebo, zebo.
Oh oh oh oh oh, na na na 

Actually, they are macaws, not eagles. And any song lyrics that so prominently feature the word gazebo loose major points in my book. It's not like these shady resting places so are central to Brazilian architectural style either. I can think of 100 better reasons for me to take you to Rio than my gazebo. How about cachaça, or beautiful people, or beautiful beaches? I think kids could appreciate all of these things. 

Another saving grace of the movie are the complicated dance routines that these animated creatures so flawlessly execute. In fact, I couldn't help myself from joining them. I may have been restricted to a chair that was bolted to the floor, but that didn't stop me from getting my heart rate up during each musical number. In my moments of fist pumping, shoulder shimmying, and leg kicking to the samba and bossa nova beats, I felt like the dancing car-seat baby who can't get enough of Florence and the Machine's Dog Days. Here's the clip again, so you can understand what it means to dance in a chair. Instead of a proud mother looking on and cheering, however, I was surrounded by uncomfortable minors and their parents.

Unlike this kid, I didn't cry when the music stopped or when the movie ended, but I can't say that I wasn't sad. I absolutely was sad. I was sad that I wasn't in Rio. I was sad that baby tropical birds are robbed from their nests and sold to exotic pet stores around the world where they may never have the chance to reproduce their species, unless they have the good fortune of being tracked down by an endearingly nerdy Brazilian ornithologist, played by Rodrigo Santoro, and reintroduced into their original hot and steamy habitats. I was sad that Ann Hathaway was so unconvincing as, Jewel, the smoking-hot-Brazilian-blue-macaw-lady-bird. Poor casting choice, if you ask me. I could have been a better smoking-hot-Brazilian-blue-macaw-lady-bird than Ann. She should to stick to the angry/awkward female roles she is so good at and leave the sensual, Latina characters to the pros. 

But don't let my criticisms get you down, the music will lift you right back up. 

Rio Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Various artists

1. Real In Rio – The Rio Singers
2. Let Me Take You To Rio (Blu’s Arrival) – Ester Dean and Carlinhos Brown
3. Mas Que Nada (2011 Rio Version) – Sergio Mendes featuring Gracinha Leporace
4. Hot Wings (I Wanna Party) – & Jamie Foxx
5. Pretty Bird – Jemaine Clement
6. Fly Love – Jamie Foxx
7. Telling The World – Taio Cruz
8. Funky Monkey – Siedah Garrett, Carlinhos Brown, Mikael Mutti, and Davi Vieira
9. Take You To Rio (Remix) – Ester Dean
10. Balanco Carioca – Mikael Mutti
11. Sapo Cai – Carlinhos Brown and Mikael Mutti
12. Samba De Orly – Bebel Gilberto
13. Valsa Carioca – Sergio Mendes

Monday, April 18, 2011

DanceBrazil: Gateway drug to the Northeast

The Joyce Theater, 175 8th Ave, New York
I've been to Brazil a few times, but I haven't yet made it to Bahia or any other state in the Brazilian Northeast, for that matter. I've heard and read enough about this part of the country, though, to know I am missing out. BIG TIME. And every time I see an Afro-Brazilian dance troop perform in New York, I swear to myself I will put Salvador on my next Brazil itinerary. 

DanceBrazil, now at the Joyce Theater through April 24th, is no exception. This New York-based company brings to the stage a fusion of traditional Afro-Brazilian movement, contemporary dance, Capoeira, and even a little bit of Samba. Jelon Vieira, DanceBrazil’s artistic director, and almost all of the dancers were born and/or studied in Bahia, the country’s center of Afro-Brazilian culture and a hotspot of general artistic and creative genius. (Many of Brazil’s most critically acclaimed authors, composers, and cuisines have come out of Bahia.)

Watching the show was an emotional roller coaster. Certain movements graphically portray scenes of slavery and other pieces the light heartedness of samba. Once of the dances seemed to me a country ho-down of sorts. (I LOVED that one.) I particularly enjoyed the promonant role capoeria played in the show. The Playbill actually distinguishes between dancers and capoeiristas.

While I have summoned up the courage to take samba classes, I haven’t gotten that far with Capoeira. Mainly because it looks so difficult. Capoeiristas can dedicate lifetimes to studying this musical martial art whose origins could date as far back as the 16th century when the Portuguese brought the first West Africans slaves to Brazil. I’ve seen many a Capoeira demonstration, but, for me, watching it performed on stage was a different, more enjoyable experience. Capoeira is generally done inside the roda de capoeira, a circle of capoeiristas and muiscians. At demonstrations, I’m on the outside looking in, and, having a sense of the seriousness with which this art is practiced, I often feel like I’m intruding on some sacred tradition in whose teachings I’m not learned. It was refreshing to watch Capoeira on stage as a member of an audience. I was able to sit back, enjoy the show and let go of my insecurities, as silly as they maybe. 

All an all, I couldn’t have been happier having spent my Sunday afternoon, even on a beautiful day, watching this performance. So whether you end up taking advantage of the Joyce’s $10 tickets (a true bargain), or you wait for the next Afro-Brazilian dance troop to come through New York, I’m confident you won’t be disappointed. As for me, I'm already thinking about how to fit a tour of Salvador and maybe even a Capoeira workshop into my next trip to Brazil. 

Just to wet your palette, here is a video of another group, Balé Folclórico da Bahia, which I saw at NYU's Skirball Center back in January.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Bem-vindo a Manhattanlândia!

Welcome to Manhattanlândia! I hope you enjoy your stay. I’ve been living here since I moved to New York about 6 months ago. Before that I was living in Nova New Jersey. Before that, São Saint Louis. And before that Belém do Pará, Brasil, which is the inspiration for all of the subsequent residences I have called home.

If you haven’t caught on already, I love Brazil. So much so that I work to recreate some semblance of a Brazilian lifestyle everywhere I go. It’s not easy doing this, especially in a place with relatively few Portuguese speakers and Brazilian owned business like Saint Louis, Missouri. But I usually manage to rout them out.

Fortunately, I now live in New York. One could even call this city a Brazilian hub in the United States, but still behind Newark, Boston, and Miami. It’s great here, though. I get my news in Portuguese every morning, speak Portuguese when I go out at night, dance samba and forró, see Brazilian talent live on stage, and drink too many caipirinhas too often. I even celebrate the Jewish holidays in services lead by a Rabbi from São Paulo.

Yes, one day in the near future I plan on moving to Brazil. But until I do, I am content living in my own Brazil in New York City, a place that I call Mahattanlândia.