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.

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