Saturday, November 16, 2013

Brazil: Weeks 35 and 36 - Return to Rio and Interview with Marlos Nobre

The view outside my new apartment window in Rio

I’m back in Rio de Janeiro now for my final month in Brazil.  Coming back to this city after 7 months, I now beginning to realize what an incredible city this is.  This is not to say anything bad about the other cities in Brazil that I have lived in or been to, but there is really something special about Rio, and I’m really starting to see why it is called “a cidade maravilhosa” (“the marvelous city.”)  It has the amazing natural beauty of the beaches, the mountains, and the forest, plus so many interesting buildings, architecture, and neighborhoods, the Portuguese pavement sidewalks, and the still mysterious favelas set up on the hills.  There is so much to explore and do in this city, it kind of overwhelms me, and I’m really glad to be able to spend more time here.

Marlos Nobre with Rio in the background
Shortly after I arrived, I was fortunate to be able to meet and interview Marlos Nobre, perhaps the most prominent and recognized classical Brazilian composer still living.  The reason I wanted to talk with him was that back in 1976, while he was the director of FUNARTE, the National Foundation for the Arts, he created a social music project called Projeto Espiral (“Spiral Project”) that was eerily similar to El Sistema in Venezuela.  Projeto Espiral started just one year after El Sistema, and although Nobre has always been good friends with Jose Abreu, they were unaware of each other’s projects until a couple years after they started them.  Nobre partnered with SESI, a national organization of industry workers, to start giving free string instruments and classes for the children of these workers, many of them living on the streets or in slums, in the northern state of Ceará.  He also partnered with a violinist and teacher named Alberto Jaffe, who, as I learned about several months ago, had developed his own method of collective music instruction by adapting the Suzuki model and was looking for an opportunity to implement it. 

Program booklet from the 2nd national meeting of string teachers of
Projeto Espiral, Fortaleza, Ceará, May 11-12, 1979
At that time, there were very few Brazilian musicians in the country’s own professional orchestras, and even fewer that were willing to teach.  As a result, Nobre hired foreign musicians who played in Brazilian orchestras to teach at the project as well.  The project provided the kids, none of whom had had previous musical training, with instruments and classes, although because there were thousands that wanted to enter the program, Jaffe tested the children on basic musicality to whittle down the number.  They started with about 100 kids in the program but it expanded and grew quickly and in just a few years it already had over 1000 students in about 5 different centers in cities around Brazil.  Nobre told me that the kids were so dedicated to practicing, up to 15 hours a day, because while the Brazilian middle class viewed music as a lower profession and pursuit, the poor viewed music as an opportunity to escape a life of poverty. 

Another aspect of the project was that, as a way of providing instruments, which are quite expensive to buy, Nobre decided to create a national luthier school by training kids in a juvenile detention center in Rio to make string instruments for the project.  He brought in a great luthier from Italy named Guido Pascoli, whose dream was to create such a national luthier school.  Many of these kids, who had been murderers, thieves, drug dealers, and had been given up on by society, went on to become the most important luthiers in Brazil during the past 30 years. 

From the same booklet: a picture of Projeto Espiral's
 National Luthier School
The project was very successful, but as it expanded in 1978, they began to run into problems with a lack of teachers and so needed to start training more in Jaffe’s method.  It was around this time that Nobre got back in contact with Abreu and they were surprised at how they had been doing such similar work for the past couple years.  Then, in 1979, Nobre was arrested and interrogated about his involvement with the project, and was accused of being communist.  This was during the era of the military dictatorship (1964-85) which was a very repressive time in Brazil’s history.  Projeto Espiral was created during the presidency of Ernesto Geisel, who was very tolerant of the project because his daughter was a big supporter of the arts and she respected and supported the project, as did the then Minister of Education Ney Braga.  After 38 hours of interrogation without water or being able to sleep, Nobre was finally released, which he believes was due to the intervention of Geisel’s daughter in the situation.

But this was just the beginning of Projeto Espiral’s problems.  Shortly after this incident, a new president, João Figueiredo, was designated and was much less tolerant with the project.  Nobre contacted Abreu again and asked him what he could do to save the project.  Abreu advised him to get the project funded not by the Ministry of Education as it had been, but through social development funding like he had done in Venezuela.  Nobre says the difference between him and Abreu is that Abreu has the ability to be very politically involved yet is willing and able cooperate with whatever regime is currently in power, whether it is on the left or the right.  This is because he cares first and foremost about the project, even more so than any personal political beliefs or convictions, yet this is something that Nobre couldn’t bring himself to do.  In his own words, he couldn’t “samba” with politicians, and this led him to being fired, as well as Jaffe, and the project crumbled shortly after.

Just like that, the project was destroyed.  Had it continued to this day, like in Venezuela, Nobre thinks that Brazil would have an even larger and impressive “sistema” than Venezuela.  Nowadays, Brazil is starting all these social music projects inspired by Venezuela, but it as if Brazil lost 3 decades while Venezuela continued to grow and progress during that time. 

From the same booklet: Projeto Espiral string orchestra
Since then, Nobre has been very happy with what Abreu has accomplished.  They remain very good friends, practically brothers as he says, and share the same age.  Nobre has written several pieces for El Sistema, performed many times with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra as a pianist, as well as recorded with them.  He recently wrote a 35-minute concerto for orchestra for them and is working on another couple pieces for Gustavo Dudamel to conduct.  When I talked to him, he was getting ready to head off to Venezuela in a couple weeks where he will have one of his pieces performed by a Venezuelan-Brazilian bi-national youth orchestra that will be formed with several young players from the two countries, including kids from NEOJIBA, Orquestrando a Vida, and from Nobre’s own orchestra which he directs in Recife

While he certainly supports El Sistema and is proud of what they have accomplished, he is worried about whether it can have a truly large-scale impact on Venezuelan society by reducing poverty and crime.  300,000 kids is a large amount to be involved in El Sistema, but it is far from a majority of Venezuelan children.  He is also worried that El Sistema is creating so many youths that want to become professional musicians that there are not enough orchestras in the country or abroad that can absorb them all, creating a lot of unemployed musicians around Caracas, and he is afraid of Brazil following in the same path and meeting this same problem down the line.  He thinks that there should be a lot more professional orchestras created in Brazil, one in every good-sized city to address this in the future in order to address this growing need.    

Parque Lage, Rio de Janeiro

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