The first night passed pretty quickly… I didn’t know anybody, and my Portuguese still wasn’t too good, but it didn’t matter, I just kept having the same little conversation with innumerable people, about where I came from, growing up in the hills of New York and moving to Arizona after 20 years when I was going mad in that little place, about why I came to Brazil, to learn the language so that I could return for graduate school and study participatory budgeting—the remarkable form of local democracy that only such an affable, beautiful culture as Brazil could have invented—and they did invent it, back in 1989, shortly after the military dictatorship was overthrown, and then the process spread to cities on every continent in the world and continues to gain momentum to this day. Most people hadn’t heard much about it, and were interested to learn something new about their own country from this American. When I wanted to meet somebody new, I’d just ask them for a lighter or offer them a cigarette, and then I’d repeat the story again, but each time it was different, because I was talking with a different person, and the conversation demanded a particular way of telling the story, not just repeating a script, and each time new details came out that I had completely forgotten about, and before I knew it I was having whole conversations in Portuguese, making friends with the best people from São Paulo, and thoroughly enjoying every moment. Sometimes I’d just sit and listen to the sound of the soft music, rolling off the fingertips of a handful of people in the bar as they pattered away on their hand drums and gently stroked their guitars… and I’d listen to the Portuguese words of the people talking all around me but deliberately avoid understanding them just to hear the lovely melody of their language… and all that noise was filling the mysterious space between human selves, linking them all in a warm embrace, obliterating the distinction between the self and the other.
The time had come for dinner, and I parted with my newly made friends, and found the people I’d come to the festival with, and we headed over to the kitchen to wait in the great line wrapping around the veranda. When I got to the cashier, I saw a few items wrapped in plastic and some fruit, but the main course was a soup that they’d made in one huge pot, a vegan soup—the whole kitchen was vegan—that was hopeful, “maybe it’ll be gluten free too,” I thought. But the soup had gluten, it had been thickened with flour… I was horribly hungry now, I hadn’t had anything in my belly for hours, besides peanuts and wine, so I just meekly asked her what they had that didn’t have gluten. She pointed to a couple sweets wrapped in plastic—little rice cakes of sorts—and I ordered three of them and an apple. The chef saw what was going on from the kitchen, and came out to my table after I’d sat down with my friends, who were eating their hearty soup as I ate my sad rice cakes… I couldn’t understand her, my mind couldn’t focus, I was feeling lousy, thinking that I was going to starve all weekend, eating sugary rice cakes and miserable apples, and Fazzi talked to her, explaining that I couldn’t eat gluten… a pained expression rolled over her face and she told us that she’d make a special soup, just for me, without gluten. “Ah! What people! What a place!” I’m thinking to myself, ecstatic. Fazzi too was impressed, “man, that’s Brazilian hospitality at its best!” It was great, and after everyone else at our table had finished she brought out a whole pot full, and I scarfed down three big bowls out of that, and she insisted that I don’t pay for it today, but said that each day she would make sure that there was something for me without gluten available. For breakfast, I’d usually have a big slab of cheese with a couple apples and a glass of milk and a coffee, and for dinner, she just started cooking the entire course gluten free for everybody. I was in love with this place, with these people, with this country.
After some time, the main performance started up and everybody headed over under the great tent, and we all danced and sweated together for three hours before heading back over to the bar for a few more rounds of wine. This time I found a set of bongos and set to work weaving into the rhythm with everybody else, and I was squeezing them between my knees so hard that night that I had little bruises on the inside of each leg when I woke up. Eventually the bar slowly emptied out until it was just me and a few others playing music and drinking wine. We stepped outside to have a cigarette, and to have a look around, and we saw seventy or so people gathered around the main campfire, which had been setup with massive logs laid around it as benches. We headed over and the music continued there—dozens of people playing all sorts of strange little hand drums, one guy on a cajón, that wooden box that you sit on top of and slap in the front to get a variety of tones, incredibly deep booming ones in the middle of the box, and really high pitches tones when you slap the edges… and there was old Filipe, keeping that subtle rhythm on his triangle, hanging off to the side, carrying on some crazy conversation with a small group, sending them all into eruptions of laughter as he just calmly smiled and kept the rhythm with that beautiful little piece of steel… there were a couple didgeridoos and three or four guitars, and they were playing songs that everybody knew, so a great chorus of voices raised up into the night sky with the sparks and smoke from the fire, and I wondered how that old farmer on the neighboring hill was enjoying this Brazilian folk music… it’s probably a treat for him, once a year, they have this festival, and he gets to see a bunch of strange folks from the city, and listen to all that wonderful music. This folk music, is called “forró,” but it’s pronounced “fo-ho,” and it actually derives from an English phrase “for all,” but with the slow speech pattern of the northern states of Brazil where the music had originated, where the sun of the tropics slows everything down, even the language, “for all” had been transformed into “fo ho.” I played the bongo until my eyes grew tired and then headed off to the tent to get some rest for the day to come, the rhythm of the music resounding in my mind.
When I woke up, I opened up the door to the tent and laid back down, looking across to the green hill and its cattle, just as I’d imagined before… I laid there for ten minutes, gathering my thoughts, and munching on peanuts. Then I crawled out and laid in the grass for awhile, closing my eyes and feeling the sun on my face. After the rest of the gang woke up, we all headed up for breakfast, ate, and then headed down the steep slope to the waterfall… past all the tents on the hill below the kitchen, past the field of tall grass and wild flowers, past the little area that had been cleared for lumber when they built this place, and into the folds of the dense woods beneath. Wooden steps zig-zagged down the slope, weaving between vines and trees and palms and all sorts of exotic plants, with insects and birds singing and swimming through the air. I held on to the little rail that had been constructed out of saplings and made my way down. The water was cold, cold, cold! But it was so refreshing that I just stood under it for a good 2 minutes… the cold put pressure on my lungs and I had to make an effort to breath in a regular pattern… The sweat rolled off my skin, and flowed down the stream, and eventually into the Atlantic ocean, where it mixed with the sweat of all the people swimming in all the rivers in the world, and I thought of the kids in my home town, jumping off the cliffs into the Hoosic river as I had done as a kid, sweating into the eventual Atlantic and tasting the exhilaration of life with each jump—all rivers flow into the ocean, and all humans tap into the same life-source when they revel in the bliss of existence. I scrubbed down my body and figured that this shower was good enough for me, and I hopped out of there feeling like a new man, and we headed back up through the vines to the bar above, passing by gentle jam sessions in every little space as we went, and there was a great jam session in the bar again, as always, and we played and felt wonderful.
Later in the night, people learned that I could play harmonica and they wanted to hear it. I pulled it out of my pocket, and they started a blues jam and I cranked out my woeful melodies for thirty minutes, but then put it away so that people wouldn’t get sick of its cries. I remember one moment when we were playing a particularly wild part, and the guy on the ukulele was swapping melodies with me, we were going back and forth, tangling up our notes with each other and letting something new emerge among the driving rhythm around us, and all these cameras were swarming around, people were recording us playing this bluesey, funky number, me on the harp, a guy on a ukulele, two people playing guitars, four or five people playing a variety of hand drums, and Filipe on his trusty triangle. I never saw any of the videos, and I’d rather keep it that way. I prefer my memories of the feeling of the moment over the static, dry recording of the noise… any day. A moment in a jam session can’t be captured by a video camera or microphone—these devices lose all the interconnections that you can feel when it’s happening, between the various musicians, between all the people who are humming or clapping their hands or banging their hand on the table to the rhythm, or just exchanging looks with the musicians, changing the course of the melody with their very presence. It loses that glint in the eye of the guitar player outside the frame, of the smile on the face of the adorable girl rocking to the music across the room, of all the immense human connections that you can feel when you’re there inside that moment, inside that whooshing up of life and joy and beauty. The same principal applies to life in general—stop taking so many pictures, and feel your existence for all its worth!