Monday, March 25, 2013

Brazil: Week 4 - First Visit to ASM in Rio

View of Dona Marta from the Botafogo neighborhood
After making my first ever all Portuguese-language phone call to a stranger (I was quite proud, as this is hard enough for me in English), I set up my first visit to an El Sistema-inspired nucleo here in Brazil for last Friday.  I visited the Dona Marta (also known as Santa Marta) nucleo, located in the favela (slum) of the same name, of Ação Social pela Música do Brasil (Social Action through Music, of Brazil.)  Dona Marta, which is one of the steepest favelas in Rio and has a tremendous view at the top, was the first favela in Rio to be pacified, meaning the police came in and secured the area while ousting the drug traffickers, who for decades ran the favela as it was essentially ignored by the government.  This happened on Nov. 28th, 2008 and since then 30 other favelas have been pacified.  The community has been calm and much safer ever since.  The favela's biggest claim to fame is that in the mid-90's, Michael Jackson visited (with permission of the then-reigning drug lords) and filmed part of his music video for his song "They Don't Care About Us."  There is even a statue of Jackson somewhere in the favela in his honor.
The view from the top of Dona Marta
Luckily, I didn't have to walk up this whole hill.  There is a monorail/inclined plane that was installed shortly after the pacification.  It takes you all the way up to the top and the UPP (Permanent Police Station), where the nucleo is located.  On the way up, I was clearly the only non-resident as we were packed like sardines in the small carriage.  There was a mother breastfeeding her baby as we slowly moved up the hill.
Dona Marta Favela

The monorail
The UPP station, home of the Dona Marta nucleo
I arrived at the UPP station and met up with Julio, the pedagogical cooridinator.  He explained to me that this program was begun by David Machado, a prominent Brazilian conductor who was good friends with Jose Abreu, the founder of El Sistema in Venezuela.  After Machado's death in 1995, his goal to start a similar program in Rio was carried on by his wife, the cellist Fiorella Solares.  Julio stressed that this is a social program and it is not a music school.  A child can join the program anytime during the year and they are welcomed as long as there is an instrument available for them to use.  The process is very simple for joining: if the child has the desire to be there, they sign up and get permission from their parents and they join.  This nucleo only currently teaches orchestral string instruments and serves about 100 students from Dona Marta and 3 other nearby favelas.

The Dona Marta nucleo was founded in 2009. The students are divided into two groups, with about 60 currently in the beginners group and 40 in the more advanced group.  During the three days a week they have classes, they each have sectionals and orchestra rehearsals.  About 15% of the students who have the potential and the desire take a track with the goal of becoming professional musicians and/or teachers.  These students are awarded a small stipend and take classes in theory and ear training.

The advanced orchestra in rehearsal at the Dona Marta nucleo
After talking with Julio, who also invited me to perform a short piano recital for the students in the near future, I sat in on the advanced students' orchestra rehearsal.  They rehearsed a string arrangement of Edvard Grieg's "Peer Gynt," an arrangement of the Aria from Heitor Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 (in 2/4 time instead of the original 5/4, and "Samba del Sol" by Doug Spats.  While the biggest issues for the group were tuning and playing rhythms accurately, I was surprised at the dynamic range of the ensemble and how reactive they were to the conductor in dynamics and articulations.

In Dona Marta, a dog sleeps on the edge
As I left the center, I took the same monorail back down to the bottom of the hill.  This time it was much less crowded.  A little girl, who couldn't have been more than 4 years old, took notice of me while we were  inside and she started to grab and look at my thumb.  Within a few seconds and without even exchanging any words, I realized that she wanted to play "hand tag" with me, so I played along and she giggled and laughed like she was having the time of her life.  It was a good way to end my first experience in a favela.
Petrobras Symphony Orchestra and the Rio Symphonic
Choir in the Municipal Theater
That night, I went to my first concert at the Rio's Municipal Theater to see the Petrobras Symphony Orchestra and the Rio Symphonic Chorus.  The theater is beautiful, and it and the surrounding square are modeled on the square and theater of the Paris Opera House.  The performance was really fantastic, a 200th birthday celebration of Verdi, who I'm usually not wild about, which consisted of "Four Sacred Pieces" and several opera overtures and choruses.  But I was really taken by the performance.  I got a free ticket because the father in the family I am living, Marcelo, plays flute in the orchestra.  He gave me a pass that I could exchange for two free tickets, so I arrived an hour early to do just that and ended up with two tickets to the concert to myself.  I had 45 minutes still before the concert started, so I stood at the top of the entrance steps looking out over the square trying to figure out how I could not let this extra ticket go to waste.  For about 10 minutes I stood there trying to think of a way to give it to someone who needed a ticket, but I was too shy, especially in Portuguese, to go up to someone and ask if they needed a ticket.  Just then, a girl who was probably about my age approached me to ask if I knew where the box office was.  I told her it was on the other side of the building, but I actually have an extra ticket right here.  Oh, she said, to sell?  No, for free! and I explained to her why.  I was really glad that someone was going to be able to use this extra ticket.  We talked for about 5 minutes, she was from Sao Paulo and just up for the weekend, works at the Immigration Museum there and played classical guitar when she was young.  We decided to enter the theater and take our seats when the men who check the tickets at the door took a look at her and turned her away because she was wearing shorts.  I felt so bad for her!  But at least she hadn't spent money buying her own ticket.  I told her she should at least find someone else to give it to so it wouldn't go to waste still, and a few minutes after finding my seat a man did come and take the open seat next to me which that other ticket was for.

While the Petrobras Symphony concert was fabulous, there is one thing that really irked me.  It is called the Petrobras Symphony because it was founded and is funded by Petrobras, the Brazilian state-owned oil company, which is the largest company in Latin America, hauling in $137 billion (US dollars) a year.  They are a huge patron of the arts here and you see their name and logo at nearly ever every art-related thing around.  But, beyond even the obvious massive polluting of the air with carbon dioxide from all the oil it was distributed, it has a horrendous history of major oil spills.  Their concert programs proudly displayed themselves as carbon-neutral, as well as a CD recording of a Brazilian opera that Marcelo has let me borrow that was recorded by the orchestra.  It seems these eco-friendly gestures are just a way of trying to clean up their image, akin to US oil companies running TV commercials taking about how they are investing in developing cleaner forms of energy.  I actually have a composer friend who currently has received a commission to write his first symphony, which I'm sure will be an excellent piece and it's a fantastic opportunity for him, but the commission is partly funded by ExxonMobil.  If I were presented that opportunity, I don't know if I could accept dirty oil money for my music.  But then again, El Sistema in Venezuela has been heavily subsidized by the Venezuelan oil industry under the past decade or so under Hugo Chavez, as has basically every social program in Venezuela.  I'm not sure what to think.

The next night, I returned to the theater to hear the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra's concert.  They began by playing the Brazilian National Anthem as everybody stood up and most sung along.  I was pretty impressed with the audience's singing, good diction and on key, yet not overly enthusiastic or loud.  It was interesting to watch, as I didn't know the words to sing along.  The rest of the program consisted of a fabulous "Concert Romanesc" by György Ligeti, a fun yet unspectacular premiere of a guitar concerto, played by a flamboyant Yamandu Costa, who the audience absolutely loved, Ottorino Resphigi's "Brazilian Impressions" which I'd never heard but set my expectations too high for, and then a powerful performance of Heitor Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras No. 7.

I will be visiting more of the ASM nucleos this week and I have it set to arrive in my next city, Campos dos Goytacazes to work with "Orquestrando a Vida" (Orchestrating Life) in two weeks for a two month stay working with them.


Glenn Thomas said...


I'm very glad you joined Sistema Global. I like your writing style very much!

We should talk about your hopes and dreams soon.

Glenn Thomas
Sistema Global

Keane said...

Thank you, Glenn. I would like talking with you about that soon very much.