Southern Exposure: SFJAZZ in Brazil
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Southern Exposure
SFJAZZ in Brazil

March 26, 2019 | by Erin Putnam

Many people have memories of a travel experience with a youth group – often a musical ensemble, but maybe a sports team or an academic club. It may have been their first trip away from their parents, their first exposure to a new culture or a large city, or even their first time leaving the country. For many, the independence sparked by that experience is eye-opening; for the very fortunate, however, the cultural and artistic knowledge gained by it can be transformative.

SFJAZZ in Brazil

Three weeks ago, the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars traveled internationally for the very first time, taking a 9-day trip to Brazil to play in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The impetus was the Graded School Jazz Festival – a 3-day youth festival comprised of jazz workshops with international faculty, peer exchange, and performances for the student body and community.

SFJAZZ in Brazil

The Graded School is an international k-12 multi-campus school; this meant that the majority of the festival was conducted in English. Brazilian faculty and students comprise most of the participants, however, which made for a richly immersive environment of Portuguese conversation (often with simultaneous translation), as well as Brazilian repertoire and technique. As the SFJAZZ musicians got to know the Graded musicians better through rehearsing and performing alongside each other for several days, wisdom, confidences, and contacts were shared; we would be lying if we said extracting the groups was an easy or unemotional task when it came time to say final goodbyes. Alto saxophonist Marcello Pajoh-Casco admitted, “I created so many good memories and friendships I won’t forget,” pointing to not only the musically inspiring elements of the festival, but also the peer-to-peer cultural enrichment.

SFJAZZ in Brazil

On day five of the trip, the group made their way up the coast to Rio de Janeiro. After our time in the 14.7 million-person commercial metropolis of São Paulo, Rio’s rainforested landscape made for an interesting juxtaposition. Additionally, whereas the All-Stars had traveled to São Paulo to focus on jazz, Rio offered a chance to compare both North American and South American musical experiences.

SFJAZZ in Brazil

Our visit to one of Rio’s newest schools, Escola Eleva, centered around a performance for high school peers all the way down to early elementary schoolers. Following a Q&A session in which Eleva musicians asked All-Stars about everything from technique, to effects pedals, to how SFJAZZ was incorporating Brazilian forms and instruments into their repertoire, the school’s musical director, Ivan Britz, expressed just what it meant to the newly-founded school: “Just so you know the effect,” Britz wrote, “our middle school coordinator personally sought me out to accelerate the growth of our band programme [sic].” While it is a lot to hope that the work an organization does creates ripple effects around the world, SFJAZZ Education is incredibly proud to say that through our exchange with Eleva’s young program, we may have been lucky enough to accomplish just that.

SFJAZZ in Brazil

From Eleva’s campus in Botafogo, the All-Stars took a jog up to the bustling, bohemian neighborhood of Lapa in order to take in the sights of its colonial-era aqueduct and the famous steps of the Escadaria Selarón. Then it was a trip up into the clouds to see Cristo Redentor, the incredible art deco sculpture that defines Rio’s cityscape. The massive work adorns Corcovado peak (“the hunchback” in Portuguese): the steep mountain made world-famous by Antônio Carlos Jobim’s 1960 bossa nova of the same name.

SFJAZZ in Brazil

On our final day in Rio, the All-Stars traveled outside the city center to the neighborhood of Piedade, where we had been invited to a Candomblé terreiro (sacred temple) to observe the drumming rituals of the religious tradition. Similar to Cuban Santería and Haitian Vodoun in that it is a syncretic blend of west and central-African religions with Catholicism, Brazilian Candomblé is deeply tied to its music and dance rites. Candomblé practitioner and master drummer Jorge Alabê opened his home and his family’s terreiro to our young musicians, allowing them to observe the patterns, calls, and movements that align with each of the religion’s deities, or orixás. The All-Stars even got to learn to play some of these patterns on the family’s consecrated drums. High School All-Star Carson Grimes said of the experience, “As a drummer, understanding the history and importance of the instrument is a privilege. Going to Brazil and experiencing this kind of culture was so eye opening; it’s going to influence my playing forever.”

From the sacred to the secular, the All-Stars rounded out the day in the neighborhood of Madureira, where we were able to use space and drums provided by the cultural organization CUFA (Central Única das Favelas) to learn samba batucada drumming. This large ensemble percussion style essentially defines the soundscape of Brazil’s pre-Carnaval week – in which our visit happened to fall. Between the many styles of drums and technique foreign to jazz playing and the purely rote learning, the lesson was an incredible tabula rasa exercise in team building. Add to that the deafening cacophony of the full bateria as the group put together all that they had learned, and the experience was an unforgettable picture of the sound and energy that permeate Brazil’s music.

SFJAZZ in Brazil

What began as a shadowing of the SFJAZZ Collective’s homage to Antônio Carlos Jobim (album available on April 5th) came to fruition as a week-long Southern Hemisphere deep-dive into not only samba’s influence on jazz, but its cultural underpinnings. With a fresh understanding of the repertoire, the All-Stars head into the studio this April to record their 2018-2019 double album, then play their final concert on May 12th in Miner Auditorium. We hope you’ll join us for the chance to hear the incredible outcome of all that these young musicians absorbed in their world travels!