Sunday, November 3, 2013

Brazil: Weeks 33 and 34 - Trip into the Sertão of Paraíba

Recorders rehearsing at Mandacaru
Mandacaru neighborhood at night
PRIMA currently works in several neighborhoods in João Pessoa, the largest city and capital of Paraíba, including Mandacaru, one of its most dangerous neighborhoods.  I visited the PRIMA center there with Alex, which he told me they shut down for several days last year because there were 5 murders in the neighborhood in the span of a few days.  This, combined with the fact that we arrived just after the sun went down, definitely made me feel uneasy.  The Mandacaru center works as a partnership with an already existing music project in the neighborhood called "Uma Nota Musical que Salva" ("One Musical Note that Saves").  "Uma Nota" was started by a woman in the community after she was fed up seeing so many young people in the community killed as victims of the drug violence and traffickers that dominate the neighborhood.  She decided to start a project designed to get these kids into a safe place before they can get involved with drugs, giving them classes in guitar, singing, recorder, computers, and English.  When Alex realized that this project already existed in this neighborhood that was chosen to have a PRIMA center, he naturally decided to partner with this project so that they could work together and help each other, she bringing her position as a respected and strong leader in the community, and he bringing the resources of PRIMA.  While the PRIMA center is located at a public school, it was closed the day we visited because it was a holiday, and instead the kids rehearsed at the woman's house, in which she runs the project out of.  The next day, the center held one of it's very first concerts, singing a popular song accompanied by several students on recorder, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" theme, and "Asa Branca."

On the road in the sertão
After spending a few days with my father who was visiting, I left with Alex for a 4-day road-trip into the interior of Paraíba to visit all of the PRIMA centers in the sertão region.  We left João Pessoa and first headed to Campina Grande, the second largest city in the state and the capital city's main rival.  I had visited the city a few weeks before for a PRIMA concert, but hadn't yet visited the center itself.  It is housed within a really funky 1970's style building that is really impressive for a Brazilian public school, yet very poorly maintained and covered in graffiti and very run-down. 

Trucks filling up water to sell in remote communities
On the road in the sertão
Alex's main reason for making this trip was to help teach the coordinators and teachers how to use the PRIMA website, which he has designed using a combination of Wix, a free website creator, Google Drive, to manage all of the administrative spreadsheets and calendars, Dropbox, to share documents and files, and Tumblr, for publicizing and sharing news and content.  What he has created is a way for all of the staff of PRIMA to be able to easily connect with each other, send and share information and documents quickly and cheaply, enter data for enrollment, attendance, and inventory easily and in a central location, and for each center allow each center through their own Tumblr blog to take control, personalize it, and share the activities and content that is important to them (for example, check out the Mandacaru center's page and Tumblr.)  Alex wants to have as much as possible run through the PRIMA website as the central location for all the staff's administrative needs, and soon also expand to things such as lessons via Skype because, for example, there are not enough harp teachers in Paraíba to be able to teach in person every week at all 11 centers around the state (and, yes, all 11 centers will have a harp soon!)  The problem he is running into right now is that there is a learning curve with these new internet tools, especially for the centers in the interior of the state which in many ways are still living more traditional lifestyles with less access to modern facilities and technology that exists in the large coastal cities like João Pessoa.  At each center we visited, Alex gave a presentation showing them how to use these tools, and I believe that in the long-run this is really going to pay off with faster communication and sharing, more efficiency, and less expenses.

On the road in the sertão
More than any other El Sistema-inspired program that I know of, PRIMA has had to deal with more administrative and logistical issues because of the fact they have essentially opened 11 centers dispersed around the state all at the same time.  In terms of number of centers/nucleos, it is already the largest in Brazil of it's kind (NEOJIBA has more if you count the 21 or so partner projects in its network, but these are independently run.  In terms of centers/nucleos, NEOJIBA currently has 5 which are, with the exception of one, all very close geographically.)  All of the other programs I know of have started with a single center and then added more, thus increasing their administrative load, as they went along.  Alex and his staff have had to deal with a lot of these issues at the onset, and I think running as much as they can through the website is going to help a lot down the line.

Notice the lush green vegetation around the water contrasted
with the brown and grey vegetation farther away
We then traveled on to the city of Patos (which means "ducks") located just about in the dead center of the state and the gateway to the Paraiban sertão.  The sertão is a large semi-arid region in the interior of Northeastern Brazil that is characterized by long droughts every year, which has formed its inhabitants into hardy and tough people that are proud of their cities and their cultures.  We visited during the beginning of the dry season, so there was still water in most of the lakes and reservoirs, but at a low level.  We already saw large trucks or even donkeys with tanks filling up with water to take and sell to people in rural communities who have no access to water.  The landscape reminded me a lot of the American southwest, from the deserts of Arizona to the rock formations of Utah and the mountains of Colorado.  The entire landscape was brown and grey, except for occasional patches of bright green vegetation, which invariably meant that there was a body of water there.  

The public school soon to be home of the Patos center 
Patos is a city of about 100,000 people.  We met with the teachers and coordinators there, who are very anxious to receive their instruments, as they are the only PRIMA that hasn't received any yet.  They have been holding classes at a nearby charitable foundation because they do not have room in the public school for their activities yet, although the day we were there they were supposed to be cleaning out their depository on the top floor to make room for PRIMA.

Bare bushes, a very common sight in the sertão
Through PRIMA, Alex wants to address a different social issue each month, such as violence against women and discrimination towards homosexuals, and really connect with the public schools, the churches, local non-profits, and even private schools to discuss and address these issues.  We met the director of the school, and Alex was very surprised to learn that they have already started discussions and debates about discrimination and homophobia on their own.  I wonder how much direct addressing of social issues the El Sistema-inspired projects in the US are doing, perhaps it is something we can take a cue from. 

Catole do Rocha
From Patos we traveled up to Catole do Rocha, a town of about 30,000 next to the border with Rio Grande do Norte, after 50 km of a heavily potholed roads.  This little town has actually produced several prominent people; the musician and Secretary of Culture for the state of Paraiba, Chico Cesar, as well as the Maia family, which has produced three-time mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Cesar Maia.  After Alex gave his presentation, the coordinator of the center took us up on a nearby hill overlooking the city and region.  Many outsiders wonder why these people continue to try and live in such challenging conditions in the sertão, but I think part of it must be because of the natural beauty that surrounds them everyday.

Catole do Rocha
Dinosaur tracks in Souza
Leaving Catole the following day, we headed farther west and stopped along the way in Souza to check out the Valley of the Dinosaurs, a park that has dinosaur footprints and fossils, but it was pretty disappointing.  We continued on to Cajazeiras, the westernmost city in Paraiba on the border with Ceará to the west, and apparently the hometown of the composer of the well known Brazilian tune "Mulher Rendeira."  The PRIMA center here has not yet opened because they still lack music teachers, which are difficult to find out here.  During the visit, they were also working out an agreement between the city and state governments which will enable them to start receiving their instruments as well.  We visited the future site of the PRIMA center, a funky circular building that needs to be cleaned up, but will work perfectly for their needs with many small rooms for lessons, a larger room that could fit a chamber orchestra, and space to store all the instruments.  After that visit, we went to a local radio station where Alex did an interview about PRIMA on air.
Future home of the Cajazeiras center

We hit the road again through the beautiful countryside and spent the night in a tiny town called Conceição, which is actually the hometown of the gifted conductor and composer José Siqueira, who founded the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra in Rio and composed some fantastic music.  In the morning we started heading back east, driving to Itaporanga where Alex gave the same presentation to the PRIMA teachers there.  We also headed up to a tiny town of 6,000 up in the hills about 20km from Itaporanga called São José de Caiana because the coordinator at the Patos center told us that there is a little music project in this tiny town that is already doing great things.  For the past 3 years they have had a marching band with kids and recently just bought a handful of string instruments and have begun teaching a few students.  Alex was impressed and wants to help them become a PRIMA sub-center of the Itaporanga center.  

The violin students in São José de Caiana
From there we headed back to João Pessoa, and then it was only a matter of hours before I left and ended my 2 month stay in Paraíba.  I'm very excited to follow what they are creating and I think that in a few years they will really be doing big things, so keep your eye out.  I certainly hope to visit Paraiba again in the future!

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