Monday, September 9, 2013

Brazil: Weeks 26 & 27 - Arrival in João Pessoa and first visits to PRIMA

Manaira Beach in  João Pessoa, a couple blocks from my apartment 
I'm rolling the past two weeks into a single post, as my first week in the city of João Pessoa (which literally means "John Person") was pretty uneventful and basically consisted of hunting for a place to live and settling in.  I decided to take an overnight bus from Salvador up here, a 14-hour trip, probably something I won't be doing again here in Brazil (so many speedbumps!)  João Pessoa is the largest city (pop. 750,000) and the capital of the state of Paraíba, a state about the size of West Virginia.  The city isn't one of the most well-known ones outside of Brazil, but is a cultural center and home to some of the nicest beaches in the Northeast.  It also holds the distinction of being the easternmost city in the Americas, where the sun first hits every morning in the "New World " (if you don't count Greenland.)  I was able to make it my second day in town to Ponta dos Seixas, the easternmost point of the city, and hence of the Americas.  
"Lighthouse of Cabo Branco.  Inaugurated in April, 1972.  The easternmost point of Brazil and the American Continent"
But the reason I am here is that a new El Sistema-inspired program began here about a year and a half ago called PRIMA which stands for "Programa de Inclusão Através da Música e das Artes" ("Program of Inclusion through Music and the Arts.")  It is run by Alex Klein, a Brazilian oboist and conductor who for many years played principal oboe in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  In 2011, a new governor of the state of Paraíba was elected, Ricardo Coutinho, who is a music lover and, inspired by El Sistema and by Neojiba, wanted to create a system of youth orchestras here in his state.  He sent his secretary of culture, Chico Cesar, down to Bahia to meet with Ricardo Castro who recommended that they hire Alex Klein to implement this program.  Alex was then invited to create the program and, as part of the deal, become music director of the Paraíba Symphony Orchestra (which he just resigned from a few days ago to devote more time to PRIMA.)  PRIMA then began in February 2012 as a program completely funded by the state, and now counts 6 administrative staff and 50 coordinators and teachers.  

Today, they have already opened up 11 centers around the state, all of which work within public schools.  It has been only recently, however, that the state purchased and received instruments after a lengthy and bureaucratic bidding process.  They now have about $2.5 million worth of instruments from which they created identical packages of 109 instruments and are currently in the process of distributing these to the various centers.  Unlike Neojiba in Bahia, there already existed an established orchestral culture in João Pessoa, including 4 professional orchestras, a state-wide youth orchestra and a children's orchestra.  Unfortunately, the directors of the youth and children's orchestras do not want to establish a partnership with PRIMA, so the project is currently are only dealing with beginning students in the neediest neighborhoods in the state and not following the strategy of Neojiba in creating the best youth orchestra as quickly as possible.  But Alex is fine with knowing that they will not have such an advanced orchestra like at Neojiba for a long while.  He sees PRIMA's primary goal as providing supplemental education for these children in subjects that they do not study in the public schools, like music, art, and philosophy, and PRIMA's primary goal, while striving for musical excellence, is to create good people, good citizens, and help these children go to college. 

The Cabedelo Youth Orchestra rehearsing
I first was able to visit the center in Cabedelo, which is PRIMA's first and now most developed center.  The city of Cabedelo lies on a long thin peninsula just north of João Pessoa and is slightly smaller than Manhattan in area.  At its tip is where the Paraíba River meets the Atlantic Ocean, and were BR-230, the Transamazonian Highway, begins.  

"Highway BR-230.  Here begins the Transamazonian.  Cabedelo, Paraiba"
As PRIMA has only recently received their instruments and are now distributing them to the various centers, up to this point their activities have focused on choir and music theory/literacy.  Cabedelo has been an exception, however, as they were able, through a partnership with the Cabedelo city government, to purchase instruments and borrow others from the city's municipal band.  The students here have had instruments for over a year and they formed the first youth orchestra in PRIMA and are the most advanced players in the program so far.  

The Cabedelo center.  Alex (center) talks with a student
I arrived at the Cabedelo center with Alex.  The school, like many Brazilian public schools, is very simple and bare-bones.  In the middle was a large courtyard with two soccer goals, but it had been transformed into a pool thanks to the incredible downpours in the past few days here (Alex referred to it as a "Dengue Factory" as its a clear breeding ground for the mosquitos that carry the disease [which, if you recall, I had a bout with back in April].)  

The school's "new pool" and "Dengue Factory"
The orchestra today had only a handful of members: about 8 violins, a cello, a clarinet, a horn, and 2 percussionists, but Alex told me sometimes it grows to about 40 kids.  These kids are the core group, the most dependable and enthusiastic students they have so far and they are steadily progressing.  You can tell the kids enjoy playing and being there, and there are several that are playing at a very high level considering they have been playing for just over a year.  There are actually 6 other sub-centers around Cabedelo and in total there are about 140 students in these Cabedelo centers combined.  The next night, the orchestra gave a short performance in the courtyard of a "Fortaleza," an old Portuguese fortress, at the tip of the peninsula during some sort of city meeting, performing a popular tune (I haven't identified yet) and the Brazilian national anthem.   

The Cabedelo Youth Orchestra performing at the Fortaleza
(old Portuguese Fort)
During their first year of existence, PRIMA had a lot of trouble with the first batch of teachers they hired.  Alex is not comfortable with being a dictator; his goal is to set up structure and procedures, but then to empower the staff and teachers to be creative, develop their own ideas and be dynamic contributors to the growth and development of the program.  In the first year, they didn't have this, and most of the teachers simply viewed their job as a "gig" and not as an opportunity to grow and develop.  So Alex's wife, Catalina, who is the head of teacher training at PRIMA (and a fine bassoonist in her own right) developed a training program called "Crescendo" that all teachers and coordinators must go through.  It is designed to encourage them to become active and creative parts in the formation of the project, and, of course, this kind of thinking and creativity is exactly what PRIMA wants to inspire in the students as well.  The training also addresses how to deal with the children not just as music students but as human beings with human needs.  Thanks to this training, the program has improved drastically, and Alex is very excited about the contributions the staff are now creating.   

Additionally, they have been in the process of developing a "PRIMA method" and curriculum for all the centers to follow, but built into it is a lot of flexibility to use their own regional musical traditions.  Even though Paraíba is a fairly small state, the culture and musical traditions vary quite a bit, from the more cosmopolitan João Pessoa, to the stronger pride of the people of Campina Grande, the state's second largest city, to the cities of the "sertão," the largely arid interior region often dealing with drought and apparently is a little like the "Wild West" of the United States with a kind of cowboy-culture, to parts that have a very strong indigenous influence.  Having the power to use their own local musical traditions gives the centers a greater sense of pride in what they are doing, that it is their culture that they are developing through PRIMA.     

Sertanejos ("cowboys") from the Sertão

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