Saturday, 14 September 2013

A Musical Mission – Life as an AmazonArt Volunteer

My time in Para was spent working as a volunteer for AmazonArt, an NGO founded by cellist Diego Carneiro who spends his time between London, Para and Mexico as a concert musician. AmazonArt's mission is to bring music and art to deprived communities throughout the state of Para through a series of didactic concerts, workshops and music teaching. AmazonArt also runs a series of fundraising events in London, including concerts and music festivals.

I was somewhat of a curiosity when I first arrived in Bragança. From my very first day I was swept under the wings Mariana and Cibele, AmazonArt’s Bragança team of volunteers, shepherded around the town to sort out my accommodation and teaching schedule, and presented to various people of more or less importance who all seemed to blur into one. My first few weeks there were a flurry of concerts in the most bizarre venues: a University ‘cultural evening’, a family birthday party, a harbour in a tiny rustic fishing village, a school Mothers’ Day celebration (with the most sickening mummy and baby videos full of hearts and sleazy songs) and a Court. I felt somewhat like a performing monkey…

Talking to the high-school class at Treme about myself. They had no idea where Europe was, let alone England. I was certainly an oddity - a non-married girl of the ancient age of 24 who speaks Portuguese travelling alone in a far country. The idea was to emphasise the importance of education and learning a foreign language.
 Playing at the harbour in traditional fishing community Treme. There is a high drop-out rate since many pupils are obliged to work to help sustain their families, or, in the case of many teenage girls, drop out due to pregnancy or motherhood. Treme also suffers a high instance of drug abuse - principally cocaine base, an incredibly cheap and addictive substance which is devastating many rural fishing communities in the region - and HIV is on the rise.

 Here I was playing an Irish folktune. A few moments later Aurimar and I attempted to get them to do Irish dancing. The girls were enthused, but teenage boys are the same wherever you go...
 A week later playing at the school's 'Festa Juninha' with AMA teacher Salomao and singer Judite Nascimento
Carimbo presentation at the Treme school

After a while the novelty wore off and routine kicked in. I taught the recorder to a group of around 12 children at the delightful hour of 8am three times a week, followed by private flute students, two evenings a week I arranged for and conducted the teenagers Wind Band, and one afternoon a week I taught in a nearby town. Life in Bragança starts ridiculously early – I struggled with my early start, but that was nothing to most Bragantinos. The streets buzz with activity around 7am, die at around midday, and slowly come to life at around 5pm after a hot afternoon snooze. Makes sense that way – avoid the heat of the day at all cost.

The AMA is a social project which was born out of the desire of Mestre Aurimar Araujo to revive the dying culture of the rabeca, a rustic violin of Arabic origin brought over by the Portuguese. The instrument is common in Northern Brazil, and forms a vital part of Bragança’s own musical tradition: retumbao. What started as a small initiative to teach the art of playing and making rabecas transformed into a successful project with around 400 pupils learning all kinds of musical instruments. The children and adolescents, who are mostly from underprivileged backgrounds, receive their musical education and instrument free of charge, and all are encouraged to play in the AMA’s bands and orchestras. The project won a prestigious award from Criança Esperança, a nationwide NGO, and was able to expand its stock of instruments and equipment.

However, during my time at the AMA the project was slightly less splendid – the AMA had lost its funding and was undergoing reform, which meant that I had to give lessons in the evangelical church across the road. The storerooms of the AMA are spilling with musical instruments, many rotting away on the shelves and rarely used. The institute is now run by Aurimar Junior, the son of the rabeca maestre. Due to the construction works, the AMA lost a large number of students this year. Hopefully with the refurbishment complete (the institute finally has toilets!) the AMA will get back on its feet. However, what the institution needs most is teachers, and with no money to pay salaries the future is grey...

After 3 months working with children from the favela in Rio de Janeiro, the AMA institute children seemed like little angels- too timid and well behaved to be true. It felt highly strange not to have to scream, bang a drum and wave my arms around like a lunatic to get them to shut up. And what was worse – they all called me ‘a senhora’, the equivalent of ‘madam’. My male colleague once uttered a swearword in front of me, and then apologised profusely for his behaviour. This was a complete culture shock after living in Rio where the swearword is a comma.  Kids will be kids, and of course, after a while they started to become more confident and play up in class – but they were on the whole very easily managed. They were also ridiculously keen – I had never witnessed anything like it. Children would arrive early for class full of beans, having practiced the music and demanding more challenging pieces. In the three months I was there, the children performed publicly in three large concerts.

My first major concert, “Choro, Bossa Nova and Musical Surprises” with local musicians and my pupils from the AMA, was around a month after I arrived. I played Brazilian popular music, principally chorinho,  with local musicians, and the children open and closed the concert with a romantic ballad for mothers' day (huge in Brazil) and local folktune Uirapuru. It was in the Town Court (our charming lawyer Cibele’s doing). I was intrigued –  popular music and justice makes an interesting mix. The Brazilian court seemed somewhat less imposing than an English court , with a colorful mural behind the judges table. The event itself went down really well – I was even interviewed and filmed by local TV!

Being interviewed at a hideous hour in the morning. 
 The cast of the concert - from left to right Ze Brazil, ace percussionist, Cibele - AmazonArt volunteer and lawyer, Carlos master of all strings, myself, Aurimar who runs the AMA, Judite who has got the most beautiful voice and percussionist Bibiano Filho. In the front is Aurimar Senior, the rabeca player who founded the AMA. 
 The AMA kids. They played Uirapuru, a local folktune, and a Roberto Carlos number. They were impeccably behaved and did a remarkable performance! 
 Children playing 'Yesterday' at the AMA's 10 year anniversary concert. Below, the wind band playing my arrangement of the chorinho 'Lamentos' by Pixinguinha at the same event. 

The next two concerts aimed to explore music from both British and Brazilian cultures. The children expressed a great interest in learning English, so I launched an English class on Wednesdays which aimed to teach English through movement and song. The result: a lively performance of ‘Rock Around the Clock’ and other English numbers dressed up in wigs and sunglasses. They seemed to love performing and certainly rose to the occasion!

AmazonArt Summer Festival

The months of July and August, which are summer holidays in Pará as well as in the UK, were spent doing a series of concerts and workshops around the state of Pará. I travelled with guitarist Diogo to the Ilha de Combú, an island just over the river from Belem but yet a world away. There, the majority of houses are palafitas, simple wooden constructions on stilts with thatched roofs. The school there, a beautiful traditional construction with a strong emphasis on environmental education, was constructed with support from AmazonArt.

The fact that it was the summer holidays meant that it was difficult to get children to participate in the workshop due to the lack of transportation- the school boat does not run during holidays. Nevertheless, the 5 students I had were extremely keen and enjoyed the two recorder workshops.

 AmazonArt recorder project with the Combu community

I spent the night on the island with Nena, a true warrier of a woman who, after tragically losing her husband two years ago after being bitten by a cobra, decided to carry on alone and established her very own artisan chocolate factory. She collects the cacao grown on her farm, grinds it by hand, and converts it into brigadeiros (Brazilian sweet made of cocoa and condensed milk), bonbons, cacao juice, chocolate liqueur and 100% chocolate bars - great for cooking and melting down with sugar and milk.
Nena at work weighing cocoa 
Nena's chocolate factory - cocoa and cupuacu liquour / jam (left), Andirroba (bottom) - an incredible natural remedy from an Amazonian plant, 100% ground cocoa (middle) and cocoa bars wrapped in cocoa leaves (right). Mmmm...
Emerging from the Ilha de Combu river to cross the city to the metropolis of Belem, another world away.

My second visit was to Refazenda, a beautiful centre of permaculture and community education near the island of Mosqueiro, one hour away from Belem, where I conducted a workshop in rhythm and recorder playing. Eating at Refazenda was a unique experience – Fernando, who set up Refazenda, travels the world learning about permaculture, organic farming, cookery and ‘slow’ food – and is  a first class chef. Our meal was risotto with balls of fried green papaya, and freshly ground coffee with a touch of Nena’s chocolate inside. The coffee alone took around half an hour to prepare, but the flavour was definitely worth the wait.
Rhythm and recorder workshop, Refazenda.
Fernando's house in Refazenda. Fernando also grows a large array of organic vegetables, which he sells in Belem's organic market on Saturdays. The Refazenda site also boasts a waste filtration system which takes human waste from the toilet through rubber tyres and stones, resulting in extremely fertile soil from which a banana tree is thriving. It also has a 'dry toilet' which uses wood and leaves to speed up the decomposition of human waste and transform it into compost. 

The AmazonArt Summer Festival also had a series of concerts in Belem. I played in the most random musical ensemble - 2 violins, cello, horn, 2 saxes and a flute - which worked surprisingly well! Paraense musician Kalie Akel, who is currently studying in France but came back to spend summer in his homeland, did many of the arrangements and compositions. Our first concert was in the beautiful Santo Alexandre church in the historical centre of Belem.

Playing a choro waltz Santa Morena in Santo Alexandro church, arranged by Paraense musician Pardal. Musicians from left to right: Julio Freitas, Joca Silva, Diego Cardoso, Sara Moraes and myself.

Our second concert was in the Conservatoire Carlos Gomes. Here we are playing Zaki no Frevo, a composition by Brazilian composer (from Recife) Ewerton Oliveira, living in France.

The final leg of my Pará-wide musical tour was the Turedjam village, home to the Kayapo Indians. I stayed in the village a week, during which I led a musical-environmental project with the children in the school and provided recorder lessons for both children and adults. This was a fascinating experience - more details to come in next blog installment!

Kayapo aldeia de Turedjam, South Para

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