Wednesday, March 26, 2014


The party in Rio rocks on! Last night went to a samba club in a warehouse district. Big, high ceiling room with some ten to twelve musicians in the center seated around tables with microphones. This was not the big bateria percussion ensembles with dancers that I’ve known, but the folk roots of samba with song at the center and an even mix of guitars/ flute/saxophone with pandeiros/surdo/ caixa/ reco-reco/ tamborim (all Brazilian percussion instruments). Mostly the same rhythms as the dancing percussion ensembles, but with the added perk of fabulous songs. 

And how joyful they are! Even the minor ones are buoyed up by the infectious rhythms. It never fails to strike me how the most joyful music— these samba songs, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, Count Basie’s Orchestra and so on—come from people marginalized in society who suffered from racism, poverty, injustice and more. “Alegria” was one of the songs and alegria bubbled up in every song. In a variation of “you’ve got the watches, we’ve got the time,” we can add:

“You have the money, we have the music.” 

“ You have the power, we have the fun.”

" You have Club Med, we have the jazz club (or samba or fado or flamenco etc. club)"

But don’t get me wrong— it’s no fun to be marginalized and impoverished. If the rich and powerful would be so kind as to share some of their resources and inclusion in decision-making, we’ll be more than happy to teach them how to laugh and play music. And though it’s bold for me as a privileged white guy to say “we,” I identify with being on the edges of the money-power game and close to the center of the music-fun one.

Meanwhile, after converting myself over to “one thing” as the golden road to musical success (see a few blogs back), these musicians showed me the high road of the Orff ideal of “everyone plays everything.” Because they did! The sax guy played flute, guitar and pandeiro and each one expertly, the surdo player flipped back and forth between agogo and tamborim, the ukulele player picked up every percussion instrument in the house at some point— and everyone sang. Everyone. And some twenty songs moving seamlessly with changes in keys and tempos without ever stopping the flow, all without a single sheet of notated music. I’m sure they would have danced as well, but seated in chairs, the dancing was inside them. And that circle formation! Orff class all the way!

Meanwhile, the folks in the club got up danced as the spirit moved and the waiter was particularly remarkable, effortlessly and graceful doing some rapid-fire fancy footwork while every part of his upper body articulated another quality of the rhythm. Fred Astaire would have worked hard to keep up.

In the past two nights, I’ve had the pleasure to witness samba, maracatu, choro, jazz and a host of Afro-Brazilian styles in all sorts of setting, all soaring over a high bar of musical virtuosity and intensity with a wholly participatory and educated-in-the-styles audience. Rio is knocking my socks off as one of the more musical cities on the planet.

And yet still, all the local teachers lament the poor state of music education in the schools, some lingering Puritan resistance to songs from the African-diaspora and kids growing up with random exposure to the vibrant music of their culture rather than consciously cultivated and equalitarian exposure. Lots to celebrate, lots of work yet to do.

But at least we get to do it with alegria!

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