Musings on Brazil as the Olympics Near

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View of Rio from above Corcovado. Photo by Pedro Vasquez Colmenares (CC BY-NC 2.0) via Flickr

With the Summer Olympics in Rio just two days away, I’m thinking about our great southern neighbor. Caetano Veloso once told me that Brazil is “the great other.” The largest Latin American country but the only Lusophone nation, separated by Pope Julius II in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas so that Spain and Portugal would not fight over dominion of newly-discovered lands. Caetano implied that this was an existential separation, not just a linguistic or cultural one.

I have always been drawn to Brazil by the lyricism and beauty of its music. Beginning with my first Baden Powell albums in the mid-60’s, I have been a lifelong fan of Brazilian music. There is nothing quite like it in the world. It is a perfect blend of classical music, jazz, and African rhythms. If I had to go to a desert island, I would take some Brazilian music with me.

I’ve been there eight times. I was robbed in Olinda, went everywhere with a Varig air pass, and ate acarajés, the wonderful shrimp fritters served up as street food by bahianas, on the Pelouinho in Salvador.

I once went to the top of the Jardim Botánico in Rio (where Jobim lived). There were the red hardwood trees that Brazil was named after, as well as various indigenous plants, bushes, and wildlife. Then I looked over the edge of the hill and saw a man standing at the entrance of the favela below, wielding an automatic weapon. I felt I was seeing the two sides of Brazil.

Let’s hope that the upcoming games don’t come with too much saudade. Reading about Brazil’s ill-or-under-preparedness for the games, I am a little nervous. Maybe once things get going, however, things will change.

In the spirit of grand events and celebration, here is Antonio Carlos Jobim‘s music for the opening of Brasilia, from an excellent CD called Jobim SinfonicoBrasilia — the new modernistic interior capital city designed by the great Oscar Niemeyer which opened in 1960 — was once called “the city of the future…and always will be.”

Finally, the New York Times has just published a great playlist of Brazilian classics to be enjoyed during the games. It spans decades and covers all the major genres of Brazilian music. Jon Pareles knows a lot about Brazilian music, and he’s joined by Times critics Ben Ratliff, Jon Caramanica, and Nate Chinen. Highly recommended!

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