Since February, I’ve been following a local rock band called Eletrocactus. I met them while they were working in a recording studio as they started mastering their first CD. I was attracted to the way they drew on regional imagery in their music. Almost everything they do refers to the sertão, the semi-arid hinterland, of the Brazilian Northeast. One of the members of the band explained to me that they use regional rhythms like the baião to musically evoke Ceará’s interior, and maracatu cearense for Fortaleza and urban life. Songs have names like “Calango Eletrônico” (Electronic Lizard), “Fogo do Sertão” (Fire of the Sertão), and “Seco Sertão Sangrado” (Bled Dry Sertão). The title track of their new album is called, “O Dia em que a Fome Morreu de Sede” (The Day that Hunger Died of Thirst). At times the singers’ vocal style mimics rural traditions like cantoria and embolada, and the melodic and harmonic foundations are mostly blues and rock. They’re constantly combining images of the city and the sertão, tradition and modernity, local and global.
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Since April, I’ve been rehearsing quadrilha, a kind of northeastern Brazilian square dance with French roots, twice a week with students at the Instituto Federal de Educação, Ciência e Tecnologia do Ceará. The teacher (and my dance partner), Simone Castro, is a professor of folklore and has been preparing her students to dance at this year’s São João (St. John’s Day) party.
Here we are (I’m in the front on the right at the beginning). Unlike their parents’ generation, a lot of these students didn’t grow up with this tradition and learned it for the first time this year as tourism and sports-and-leisure majors. (In case you can’t tell, it’s my first time, too . . .) Viva São João!
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
For the past week or so my days have been punctuated by the sound of firecrackers. Brazil has yet to compete in the World Cup, but the excitement kicked in a while ago. My friends ask me if I’ve bought my yellow, green or blue Brazil t-shirt to wear during the games – it’s a requirement. And this year’s decorations for the festas juninas, the June festivals, which are usually multi-colored and suggestive of life in the rural interior, are mostly green and yellow, colors from the Brazilian flag and the Brazilian soccer jersey. My neighborhood bakery recently installed a flat-screen TV and hung hundreds of little yellow and green flags from the ceiling.
Today is more or less a national holiday. Schools, banks, and pretty much everything closes at noon or by two so everyone can watch the game. I drove out to get a sandwich for lunch, and cars with Brazilian flags hanging from the windows passed me on the otherwise empty streets. Right now, I can hear horns and whistles along with firecrackers as people prepare for the 3:30 game against North Korea. I saw a man trip in the pharmacy this morning. As he stood up, he announced, “I’m sorry, I’m just emotional! And the game hasn’t even started yet!”
I just put on my yellow t-shirt and I’m headed to Kukukaya, my favorite forró venue in Fortaleza, to watch the game. They’re advertising screens, lots of forró music, and traditional northeastern cuisine to accompany the game.
A few too many beers and I’m now home safe and satisfied that Brazil beat North Korea two to one. The crowd at Kukukaya seemed a little disappointed. I guess they imagined a bigger win. But I danced forró for about an hour after the game with some people I met from the secretaria de cultura, and I’m now being serenaded by explosions (maybe three times as many as earlier today), barking dogs, and car horns, all declaring Brazil’s first victory of the 2010 World Cup.
See the excitement yourself:
People describe the city of Juazeiro do Norte as the largest center of religiosity in Brazil. In the late 19th century, a priest known as Padre Cicero, driven by a desire to help the poor, became a primary figure in the region’s development. Many believe that while giving communion to one of his followers, one of Padre Cicero’s wafers turned into blood. It was quickly declared a miracle, and people from all around the Brazilian Northeast came to see the priest. (Here’s a 2005 New York Times article on Padre Cicero if you’re interested.) Today, people still make pilgrimages to Juazeiro do Norte on Catholic saints’ days. The town’s tourism industry seems to be based on the memory of Padre Cicero and his brand of Catholicism.
A few weeks ago, I traveled with my parents, who were here visiting, to the region surrounding Juazeiro do Norte. We saw the important Padre Cicero sites, like the twenty-five meter statue that sits above the city, and a few of the churches where pilgrims leave wooden milagres and light candles. I interviewed accordionists and artisans, saw rehearsals of reisado dance groups (both Reisado São Miguel and Reisado Dos Irmãos) and spent days with the instrument builder and musician Francisco de Freitas. I presented a lecture on my research at the Juazeiro do Norte campus of the Universidade Federal do Ceará. And I made my own personal pilgrimage to the town of Exu, Pernambuco, the hometown of Luiz Gonzaga, Brazilian musical legend and central figure in my dissertation, where a guard at the little museum in front of his final home let me play one of Gonzaga’s accordions. It was one of the great moments of the year. Sadly, the museum is struggling to stay open, and the caretaker told us that they often can’t afford to pay their electricity bills.
I made this little video with some highlights from my trip. You can see Freitas playing one of his instruments, an oud-like lute made out of a calabash.
Xote, pronounced SHO-chee, is one of the basic forró rhythms. The lead singer of Banda LeChaim, Fortaleza’s klezmer band (yep, Fortaleza’s got a Jewish wedding band) described this song as Yiddish-xote. Considering that I used to play accordion in a klezmer band when I was in college, you can imagine my giddiness when I got to hear my two favorite kinds of accordion dance music at once. Hear for yourself: