The beautiful ceremony concluded with wedding guests walking down to the beach to cast flowers in the ocean and congratulate the bride and groom. Several members of the band had brought drums and hand percussion down to the beach, leading the guests in song and dance that mirrored the ebb and flow of the waves. I recognized one of the musicians; he performed with Saulo Duarte when he came to Barbes in Brooklyn several years earlier. I remembered that night, how much fun I had, how I regretted not talking to the musicians and asking them to hang out after the show.
The sun was starting to lose its afternoon intensity, the wedding guests would linger on the beach and eventually make their way back to the venue for appetizers and drinks. I was thinking about what I would play. It was my first time in Brazil and I was DJing a wedding where the majority of the guests were Brazilian. From my conversations up to that point I realized that Brazilians generally did not listen to other Latin American music. That in fact, in many ways, they were very disconnected from the rest of Latin America. Would I play the role of cultural ambassador, and show them all the music that I thought they should be listening to? Or would I take the role of the proud student, showing them how much I had learned about their music?
The start of a lifelong love affair
Brazilian music seeped into my soul little by little throughout my youth. My father listened to Gilberto Gil, Elis Regina, Djavan, and other MPB artists (among many other genres). I didn’t realize how much of a grip it had on me until I started college. Without regular access to my father’s collection, my brother and I were desperate to tape as much of it as we could. Chico’s “En español” album. Caetano’s “Bicho”. Quinteto Violado “Missa do Vaqueiro”. Every time we went home on vacation we plundered his collection for more gems.
When I stumbled upon a “Portuguese for Spanish Speakers” class in my school’s course catalogue, I didn’t think twice. I had a great professor, and I was familiar with the phonetics of the language from the music I listened to. I tried hard to learn the correct accent. After a year and a half, I had a good knowledge of the language. When I listened to songs I had memorized phonetically, I understood most of the words. It felt like someone put a babel fish in my ear.
Beyond studying the language, I started exploring Brazilian culture in New York. I took a few capoeira classes and met Brazilians. I had my first tastes of Brazilian food; I went to the Brazilian day parade regularly. From that point on I started dreaming about going to Brazil. But I didn’t want to go alone; I wanted to visit Brazilians who could show me around and talk to me about their country.
For over twenty years I continued to collect Brazilian music, practice my Portuguese, and dream about going to Brazil. That’s when Bel and Geoff came into my life. My wife met Bel and Geoff one night at a Venezuelan bar where I was DJing. They were warm, generous, open, passionate and deep. Our friendship grew quickly and we were honored when they invited us to their wedding celebrations in Brooklyn and in São Paulo. When I met Bel’s family in Brooklyn, they couldn’t have been more friendly and inviting. I started to realize that my dream to visit Brazil was finally going to come true.
Bel and Geoff had live music planned for their wedding, and they invited me to DJ. I was thrilled to participate in their ceremony but also full of questions: what kind of music did people listen to at Brazilian weddings? What kind of music did Brazilians listen to in general, for that matter? I had been collecting different genres of music from all over Brazil, both old and new. But I wasn’t sure how much of the old music people still listened to, how much of the new music was popular, whether Brazilians listened to music from other regions of Brazil. DJing a wedding in Brazil would be an exciting musical challenge.
The wedding would take place on our third night in Brazil, at a beach near São Paulo, in Juqueí. We spent the days before the wedding eating scrumptious Brazilian food and talking with Bel and Geoff’s welcoming family and friends. The Brazilians I spoke with complemented my Portuguese. They often asked, somewhat bewildered: so, how come you speak Portuguese? And when I told them I studied it because I liked the music, still puzzled, they wondered: and how come you know Brazilian music?
The proud student
My first selections for the wedding were mellow, mostly bossa nova and mpb. But as soon as I found a moment, I played a Saulo Duarte song, looking at Túlio, the musician I recognized on the beach. He immediately looked up, surprised, and gave me the thumbs up. The rest of the evening, my selections stayed mostly within the four corners of Brazil. I did play some North American music, a few well-received PALOP songs, and a couple of Caribbean songs. But I knew the Brazilians wanted Brazilian music. And it was hard for me to resist showing them how much I loved their music and how much variety I could play. Funk, Rock, Disco and boogie from the 60s through the 80s. MPB. Samba. Pagode. Forro and other Northern music. Modern electronic Brazilian music. Several people came up during my sets and complimented my selections. Many told me that I played Brazilian music that they didn’t know. And at the end of the night, Túlio congratulated me on a job well-done. “We play a lot of weddings,” he told me, “and we’ve heard a lot of different wedding DJs. They tend to play pretty much the same kind of music. The variety of Brazilian music that you played was impressive. The other members of the band kept commenting on how good your selections were.” I was on cloud nine. The Brazilians I spoke with were so complementary, my ego ballooned. Could it be that a Puerto Rican who had never been to Brazil before had become an authority on Brazilian music?
…That thought lasted until I stumbled upon my first record store in Rio, a few days later.