Opposite a glamorous building of the privately-funded Universidade Nove de Julho in Barra Funda, a slightly shabbier building plays host to a minor musical miracle.
In the music room of the Colégio Olga Ferraz, where the Associação Cívica Feminina (ACF) runs after-school activities, a band for local youth meets regularly to practise. It’s the Banda Choro Blue from a small charity, the Instituto de Música Choro Blue, run by expatriate Bostonian John Berman and his partner, the tireless Lilian Candalaft. This article in the Brazilian business magazine Epoca has more details http://epocanegocios.globo.com/Informacao/Resultados/noticia/2012/11/alegria-do-choro.html
When we arrive, some kids are already there, and greet us in a consciously adult manner, secure on their own territory. A good number of them are children of migrant workers from the north-east of Brazil, nordestinas who find work in Sao Paulo as maids and cleaners, some of them single parents supporting children on very modest wages. One of Berman’s motivations in working with these students is to raise their awareness of and pride in their own musical culture, which is rich and strong in the African-influenced north-east.
A natural and charismatic teacher, he gradually draws them into the practice room, helping them to set up music stands and instruments, checking tuning, welcoming his students warmly as they arrive, and introducing the visitors. I am presented as an interested blogger, his daughter Debra as a New York visual artist – more about her work at http://brasilart.org/2012/07/15/human-canvas-photo-post/ and at http://brasilart.org/2013/02/17/decor-deb-berman/ . Her boyfriend Max Comasky, a bass player of 13 years standing, sits in with the band today.
Berman begins by reinforcing some learning points on Brazilian musicians and musical styles, in the guise of choosing something to play. The kids respond with good-natured, sometimes jokey answers.
Veterans of public playing despite joining the band somewhere betweeen the age of eight and thirteeen years, they settle comfortably into playing from their repertoire, and the music begins to swing. One young man sits beside the guest on bass, absorbing his moves with close and longing attention – he aspires to playing the bass himself.
Students begin with the recorder before choosing an instrument, perhaps starting in the band on percussion, which is also Brazilian.
Some are studying instruments elsewhere – the sisters on the front bench are taking classical lessons for violin and for flute, though they play the band repertoire with skill too – and everyone can take the loan instruments home to practise.
The elan with which they play makes clear that these students do practise – the two lads on saxophone swap improvised phrases playfully, the other flautist on the front bench shyly constructs a phrase, the clarinettists underpin the pieces with steady melodic flow.
When Berman wants to illustrate a point about the rhythm of the music, he waves his arms wide and claps and counts in the rhythm he wants, and has the students stand and move to the music so that they feel the rhythm. Spontaneous smiles break out.
Comasky demonstrates his ‘slap bass’ technique, adding the instrumental element.
As latecomers arrive, they pick up instruments and join in. Despite it being school holiday time, the band’s all here.
And yes, during this practice, Deb Berman warmed up by decorating the entrance door before moving on to the back wall, for a quick-sketch mural in the colours of the Brazilian flag.
But by far the most exciting and impressive thing is that these kids, barely teenagers, perhaps in the face of indifference from parents
are enjoying practising and playing music, over a time-scale of years – that’s more than many students with much greater access to such opportunities can manage. Their joyful noise is a testament to their spirit and that of their supporters. Encore!
P.S. Here’s a clip from Brazilian breakfast TV about Choro Blue. The band is covered from about 2:15 on.
P.P.S. And here’s a snap of Deb Berman’s mural at Choro Blue’s forthcoming new practice rooms. The paint is still wet …