Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Singer Mônica da Silva Straddles America and the Amazon

I recently reviewed for Sounds and Colours Putumayo’s newest world music compilation, Brazilian Beats. In writing the review, I did a little research on each artist in the collection and was excited to discover that one of the artists on the album, Mônica da Silva, has roots in Belém, my home away from home.

While I love all of Brazil, I have a soft spot in my heart for Belém since it’s the Brazilian city I know best, and since its out of the way Amazon location translates into relative neglect by, well, just about everyone. Most Brazilians I meet in New York City have never been to Belém. Unless you work in natural resource extraction or agriculture, or you love nature vacations, you might never think to visit. But Belém, the State of Pará and all of Norhtern Brazil is, culturally speaking, one of the richest areas in the whole country.

Mônica da Silva sings in both English and Portuguese, tossing together alt rock, folk rock, bossa nova, and MPB tracks in her newest album, Brasilissima. Although her Portuguese language songs are influenced more by Brazilian Popular Music than by the sounds of native Belém, her genealogical and emotional connections to the city are quite notable. 

I asked Mônica to share a few stories and experiences from the city we both love so much. 

Tell us more about your family’s story in Belém.

My grandfather, Manuel Pinto da Silva, was born in Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal, just south of the city of Porto.  He and his family came to Belém do Pará, Brasil when he was 15 in search of more opportunity.  Being that Brazil was such a new country, they thought that it was the place to go.  His father, Camilo Pinto da Silva, started a public transportation company, a bus line.  

My grandmother's name was Maria Moura, and she was born in Belém. Maria's parents were both professional musicians.  They both died when she was little, and she and her sister were raised in an orphanage.  She later became a teacher.  

Manuel met my grandmother, when she came to his office to ask him if he would reroute the bus to come near the school where she taught.  He agreed to send the bus to her school the very next day.  To her surprise, he came to pick her up in his own car, instead.  They fell in love, and were married shortly after.    

What's the story behind the building named after your grandfather?

Edifício Manuel  Pinto da Silva 
Manuel envisioned the building he wanted to construct.  When it was built, in 1950, it was the 16th tallest building in the world, and the tallest building in Northern Brazil, if not in the whole country.  Being that it was so undeveloped in that part of Brazil, the people of Belém were fearful when they saw the height of the building.  Oscar Niemeyer, the guy who designed the capital city of Brasilia, came to Belém to look over the plans, and confirmed that the structure was sound.   He assured the people that they were in no danger. 

What brought you to the States and where are you based now?

My father is American, from Michigan. He spent a few years in Belém, while he served in the Peace Corps.  He fell in love with the country, the language, the lifestyle and with my mother!  They moved from Brazil to the U.S., where my father had lined up a job.  I was born in the U.S.  Being a citizen of both countries, I've spent my whole life going back and forth between the Midwest and Belém.  Both places are like night and day different.  I feel equally at home in the snow or in the blazing, jungle heat.  I guess this diversity has made me super open minded and easy going.  I live in Miami Beach now.  I just moved here about 6 months ago.

What do you miss most about Belém? 

River dwelling on Ilha do Marajó - Mônica da Silva
I miss my family and friends the most. We're really close.  When I go back to visit, it's almost like no time has passed.  The other thing I miss a lot, is the warmth and genuine happiness of the Brazilian people.  The only way I can explain it, is to say that their happiness is so contagious.  It permeates your cells, your heart, and makes you really feel alive.  The whole mindset and lifestyle kind of forces you to slow down, breathe deep, and take everything in.  The way you did when you were a child, and things were just magical.  That's never changed for me.  I feel it every time I go back.

Where do you go/what do you do in the States to matar as saudades de Belém e do Brasil?  

Now that I'm living in Miami, and I'm surrounded by Latin culture, Brazil seems so much closer.  I play at different Brazilian venues and restaurants, so I'm able to get my fix of some of the staple foods I miss, like feijoada, strogonoff, churrasco, etc.  I do have to admit, though, there's just something about eating these things in Brazil.

Check out Mônica da Silva's album, Brasilissima, on

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