How can North Americans learn Brazilian dance or musicianship without packing up and moving to Brazil?
Few are lucky enough to live near a master instructor, and even when visiting Brazil, absorbing the rhythms, the language, and the irresistible swing like a local would require a lifetime. But every summer under the redwoods of Northern California, hundreds gather at the California Brazil Camp to participate in sacred Candomblé dances, incendiary choro circles, forró hoedowns, smoldering bossa nova jam sessions, and all-night pagode sing-alongs.
A few students arrive from Madrid, Toronto and Tokyo. Most drive in from places like Berkeley and Orange County. Others arrive by air from the U.S. Northwest, Midwest, Texas, or the East Coast. From the San Francisco or Oakland airports, students connect by airport shuttle to the Sonoma County Airport, to be met there by a camp shuttle.
For a week, participants hear, think, eat, dream, talk and practice Brazilian music and dance in a self-contained village of fellow artists. The faculty includes more than 20 instructors, many flown directly from Brazil. "We give you a chance to spend all week with your teacher,” says founder Dennis Broughton. “Many teachers and students have told us that in Brazil it would take you a month or two to get this much knowledge rounded up. California Brazil Camp is a total immersion. In a week, it's going to soak in."
As students arrive on opening day, a nervous energy buzzes through the camp, punctuated by excited exclamations and hearty reunion hugs. Clearly, many attendees have become regulars. Altogether, almost 200 students are expected for each session.
On the first night faculty members introduce themselves and their classes. About half are percussionists; guitarists, pianists, dancers and singers make up most of the rest. Specialists in mandolin, woodwinds, and unique Brazilian instruments are common. Introductory Portuguese language lessons are available.
Students range from performing professionals to absolute beginners. Pros include classical guitarists and jazz pianists looking to swing like a carioca and dancers who want to add authentic samba to their repertoires. In 2006, Paul Simon's percussionist studied pandeiro with Guello, a master player from São Paulo. Dancers are encouraged to try music classes, and musicians are often coaxed onto the dance floor.
Veteran campers still recall with horror the early morning when, drowsy in their bedrolls, they opened their eyes and contemplated a honking racket. Perhaps a pack of lovelorn sea lions, lost in the redwoods several miles from the coast, were trying to find their way home? But no, it was just the sound of the cuíca, a friction drum. The squeaky din is essential in many forms of samba and often used outside of Brazil to evoke the play and jabbering of monkeys in cartoon soundtracks. The session was promptly rescheduled.
Cuíca wake-up calls aside, a normal day at California Brazil Camp begins with yoga for early birds, includes several morning and afternoon sessions, and concludes with a few more after dinner. Each time slot offers several choices of music and dance classes. No auditioning is required - one simply shows up and participates. Some classes do segregate beginners and advanced students. These include the large samba drumming ensembles, guitar lessons, and several dance classes, but the students are largely left to determine which level suits them best. At the end of the week, participants can show off what they've learned by taking part in a formal performance in the camp's amphitheater.
But classes are only one component of the day’s activities. Listening to and participating in jam sessions, mostly in the evenings, can be unforgettable. Many would dazzle a music festival audience, while others are humble practice sessions among dedicated students.
Most students are adults, but supervised children and mature teens are welcome. In 2001, a contingent of teenage drummers from Loco Bloco - a youth percussion group in San Francisco's Latino Mission district - contributed vitality and an idealistic sense of purpose.
Also in 2001, a few students decided that the aural pleasures of music, the physical pleasures of dance, and the visual beauty of the towering redwood groves were poorly matched with the food served at camp. It was exactly what you remember from childhood summer camps: bland, industrial, and uninspired. Camp directors got the message. The next year the kitchen was run by gourmet chefs. The food budget was increased and campers reveled in Italian, Mexican, Thai, and even Brazilian dishes. The last day of camp became a celebratory performance crowned with a Brazilian-style barbecue. The menu also includes vegetarian options.
In recent years, two week-long sessions of the camp have been offered, both featuring faculty of considerable instrumental, vocal and dance prowess. The first week in 2007, beginning August 19, promises immersion in the folk rhythm and culture of Pernambuco's maracatú and the return of Rio de Janeiro's Guinga, perhaps the most talented composer in Brazil after the loss of Tom Jobim. The second week features keyboard wizard, composer, and arranger Jovino Santos Neto (who will again assemble a gafiera dance big band), NYU music professor Jason Stanyek and Mike Marshall, one of the world’s best-known mandolinists.
We’ll give Jovino Santos Neto the last word. "The experience provided by California Brazil Camp is unique and invaluable for anyone who enjoys Brazilian music and culture,” he says. “I find it to be one of the high points of the year for me. A gathering of musicians and dancers who every year learn more and more about their art, while remaining open to new talents is what makes this such an amazing week. The balance between structured classes and spontaneous musical encounters is excellent. I recommend it for everyone who would like to experience the music and the energy of my country."
California Brazil Camp
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Eric Crawford is a veteran Brazil Camp attendee, photographer and shuttle driver. As a musician, he has advanced in just a few short years from neophyte to advanced beginner. He is also co-founder of Na Roda, which arranges private music lessons for foreign visitors to Rio de Janeiro.