Saudade for Favela Brass

When I sit in the Georgetown University library mulling over recycled development policy reports, sometimes all I can think about is going back to Brazil. No matter how hard I try to process what I am reading, I just can’t, especially when it’s the predictable mix of “fiscal discipline, liberalization, education, and targeted infrastructure improvements” about to come my way. Perhaps to your surprise, my lack of focus has little to do with the Carnaval photos I have been seeing on Facebook. A sense of saudade simply consumes me when I think about what I started doing nearly a year ago.

Teaching underprivileged kids music in a favela was not part of my original plan when deciding how to spend the year after college in Rio de Janeiro. But after several months of teaching English to business people, drinking too many caipirinhas, and hitting Ipanema beach daily in the so-called “marvelous” city, the opportunity to do so came about unexpectedly…

As all part of my predominately hedonistic routine, I had made friends playing trumpet at some wild jam sessions out in the dive bars of Lapa, where the musicians wailed over jazz standards and Brazilian classics with amps that went to eleven. While this was socially invigorating, it was deeply unsatisfying from a musical standpoint. I still felt like there was a whole community of dedicated musicians in Rio I had yet to encounter, despite already being two months into my stay.

Finding this community was not as easy as I thought it would be, but a break came my way when a friend invited me to sit in with his group at Pedra do Sal. Possibly the best plaza in Rio to see weekly live music, Pedra is a hidden gem in the outskirts of Rio’s seedy downtown. It always has an eclectic crowd and never a shortage of attractive women. But on this night the music was even better than what I had become accustomed to. Among the musicians I wailed with was an outlier, an especially talented sax player named Zé Maria. Zé was also extremely friendly (even by Brazilian standards) and after exchanging contact info, he later invited me to sit in with his big band.

Jammin with Zé at Pedra do Sal.
Jammin with Zé at Pedra do Sal.
Jammin with Zé at Pedra do Sal.
Jammin with Zé at Pedra do Sal.
World Cup pre-match performance
World Cup pre-match performance
World Cup pre-match performance
World Cup pre-match performance

The night I got to sit in with Zé’s big band, I finally found the musicians I had been looking for and they were all much, much better than me. I will be forever grateful that sitting on my right in the trumpet section that night was an Englishman named Tom Ashe. I may have not nailed much of the music we blew through, but Tom and I quickly bonded. He was keen on helping me find my way in this crazy new city and defied the all-too-common trumpet player with a big ego persona. I certainly fit the bill at times, jumping at the opportunity to play loud high notes and take solos. But I could immediately tell that Tom was nothing of the sort: he played his parts with brilliant tone and attention to dynamics, only soloed when asked, and possessed a certain humility words cannot capture. This impressed me most about him beyond the fact he had clearly found a life for himself in Rio, already five years in when we first met and living contentedly in a charming favela near Santa Teresa (a neighborhood in the hills surrounding the Cristo statue).

You might be wondering, “Why would a blonde British guy do such a thing? Aren’t favelas dangerous?” As I learned in between songs and after the show, Tom was just starting The Favela Brass Project, his own music school I could not pass up the chance to become involved with. This was not your typical social project song-and-dance circle. Tom was trying to revive a dying tradition of brass-infused samba music while providing the children of the Pereira da Silva favela with an opportunity they could not find anywhere else: a well-rounded musical upbringing.

Over the course of a few visits, I quickly saw how Tom’s teaching plan meshed perfectly with his intentions. The kids were to have weekly lessons with Mangueirinha, a professional percussionist who’s played with Seu Jorge and has many years of experience teaching kids. They’d learn how to read music through figurenotes, an innovative and fun methodology that emphasizes shapes and words they already know to help them quickly decipher notes and rhythms. And they’d put this into practice on melodicas and mini-xylophones, which ease the transition to brass playing and give them a more visual understanding of basic music theory. My job would be the final step of introducing them to the trumpet.

Not long after our first encounter and a few more chats and hang-outs (in which Tom greatly assuaged my anxiety about living in a favela), I moved into his place in Pereira da Silva (affectionately know as Pereirão) to really start dedicating my time to teaching these wonderful kids. Over the span of five months, I saw incredible progress. The project may not have expanded as much as we hoped or thought it would at certain junctures, but we had a steady stream of roughly ten students among the thirty or so that cycled in and out. Toward the end of my stay, we did some memorable pre-match performances for the Pereirão community during the World Cup and made an appearance on British national television. But the improvement I saw right before my eyes is what will always be my strongest source of pride.

First day of lessons with the kids
First day of lessons with the kids
First day of lessons with the kids.
First day of lessons with the kids.

I will never forget the trio of Victor, Venicius, and Gabriella, who from what Tom tells me, still rarely miss a lesson. During my time at the project, they were always the first to arrive and the last to leave. And since they were my neighbors, I could always hear them practicing. I’ll never forget those days when I’d be heading out for a jog or a night out on the town and they’d lean out their window with trumpet in hand, yelling “professor, professor!” Of course they’d then proceed to knock my socks off with one of the songs we’d been working on.

Victor showed incredible promise. In just his first two months, he had memorized all ten songs in the book and was getting a darn good sound. But his curiosity to learn impressed me most, as he drilled me with questions during our lessons and used his ear to figure out melodies.

Venicius was less focused than Victor but his boundless energy was enlivening. When he put the trumpet to his lips there was no putting it down. And that was part of the reason I’d have to spend more time with him learning the tunes because he would tire out so quickly! But he never lacked motivation or positive energy even if he thought it was ridiculous that I rooted for Botafogo instead of Flamengo.

Gabriella (Victor’s younger sister), from what I hear, continues to revel in the sibling rivalry. She never wants to play the little cornet, only the trumpet like her brother. And musically she more than keeps up with the others despite being several years younger.

Venicius, Gabriella, and Victor with Mangeirinha at a recent fundraiser. Still the star students!
Venicius, Gabriella, and Victor with Mangeirinha at a recent fundraiser.
Still the star students!

And of course there are others I will never forget. Tuany, Camila, Caio, Carlos, and his sister Gabrielle all showed tremendous potential even in their moments of adolescent sass!

While Pereirão is quite a ways from Ipanema beach, it was much closer to everything I was really looking for when I came to Rio: lasting friendship, a sense of community, and artistic inspiration. But beyond the warm favela residents, the proximity to bohemian paradise (Santa Teresa), and Tom’s musical genius, there was and still is this incredible project. I’m sure you are wondering why I have not gotten up and left DC by now. It certainly has crossed my mind at times, but Georgetown does have some Tom Ashes in the midst of social climbers. Inspiring professors and students truly passionate about education and progress have not been nearly as hard to find as one of Rio’s most caring and dedicated musicians. And the last piece I wrote on the project did help Tom find more volunteers. But here I am again, reminiscing and trying to spread the word on a project I hold near and dear.

Please visit our website at favelabrass.org if you are interested in learning more.

Back in his hometown of DC after living in Rio de Janeiro for almost a year, Joe Epstein is a first year master’s student in Latin American Studies at Georgetown. He is concentrating in Political Economy and plans on returning to Brazil this summer.

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