In the summer of 2017, I began a long wait to hear the outcome for my application for a Fulbright Award in the U.S. Fulbright Scholar Program to study Afro-Brazilian music and culture. I don’t remember what possessed me to apply for a Fulbright, but I figured it would be a great way to fulfill my dream of living in Brazil and legitimize my 15-plus years of studying Brazilian music and culture as a performer, educator and scholar. After waiting six months to hear that my project was accepted by the three peer-reviewed committees in the U.S. State Department and the Fulbright Commission of Brazil, I got the good news. I was a Fulbright scholar so the Fashun family packed our bags to spend four months living in the Afro-Brazilian capital of Brazil, Salvador da Bahia, in the summer of 2019.
Living in and learning a foreign culture is like unraveling a mystery with no end. It brings with it all the things shared by humans everywhere, but requires a special decoding ring of language, regional dialect, slang, cultural, social, political and religious history. In Brazil, and more specifically, Salvador da Bahia, these ingredients make for one complicated society where music becomes that decoding ring.
So, a bit of Salvador history . . .
Salvador is the most African city outside the continent of Africa. Of the three million people living in the city, 82% identify as Afro-Brazilian. Situated on a peninsula, Salvador was Brazil’s first capital, founded by the Portuguese, and was the primary city for slave trade. Of the 10 million slaves brought to the Americas, 4 million ended up in Brazil. Through years of miscegenation and cultural and religious syncretism, Brazil became a true melting pot. They even sell crayon sets representative of the spectrum of Brazilian skin color.
Now, back to my experience there. . .
My official project title, “The Dissemination of Afro-Brazilian Music and Culture in Salvador da Bahia” soon became a project with a much broader scope. A backwards scholarly approach, no? What I discovered quickly through interviews, observing and taking classes, and living in a place with such a volatile and amazing history, is that Brazilians learn and share music (folk, classical, pop, samba, etc.) on several levels-nationally, regionally, culturally, socially, and inter-generationally. It is a river that runs through the bedrock of their culture. Since music is not taught in schools, this led me to ask the question, “How do people learn music?”
The answer: social projects.
In Salvador, music and culture are taught through social projects that have to be approved by the government. Some receive government funding, some from private corporations/individuals, or both. When I say music, I mean all music — classical, pop, Afro-Brazilian, indigenous. One social project I visited in the heart of a favela (a Brazilian ghetto) taught music, theater and dance. Run by volunteers and funded by private citizens, it was clear that this project was a source of pride, joy and unity for the students and community.
On the other end of the spectrum, we had the honor of being invited to the inaugural celebration of the new NEOJIBA headquarters, a social project based on the Venezuelan El Sistema of teaching classical music to children ages 5-18. It was a day full of performances by the top NEOJIBA orchestra, choir, and band with a special appearance by Bahian Governor Rui Costa and other political dignitaries. The brass and percussion opened the festivities with Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, and I couldn’t believe the power and accuracy that projected from the horns and trumpets. Keep in mind that these are teenagers. There are places in the United States where youth orchestras achieve this level of musicianship and expression, but those are students who aren’t from extreme poverty with little or no quality of education. Not music education, just education.
Imagine hundreds of kids doing music everyday for three to four hours. In the United States, we don’t think anything of this when it comes to athletics, but I don’t know many places where the orchestra rehearses everyday for two-and-a-half hours.
In both social projects, there was a contentedness and happiness of life among the professors, students and parents, which is generally true of most Brazilians. They are enduring optimists always finding the best in the worst. They find joy and community despite their socioeconomic status, low income, small living spaces, and lack of systemic infrastructure for things that would agitate most Americans (insert any 1st world problem here). I would argue that the reason the Brazilians have such a strong sense of community is because they live with less. They have each other and they share the joys and challenges of life through cultural festivals, music, political instability, racism, and soccer.
Brazilians are enduring optimists always finding the best in the worst. They find joy and community despite their socioeconomic status, low income, small living spaces, and lack of systemic infrastructure for things that would agitate most Americans (insert any 1st world problem here).
In light of my research, I started to think about the state of music education in America. I think that America is positioning itself ever closer to relying on social projects to inspire our children to become involved in music and the arts. My daughter goes to a great public school that has an integrated Montessori program, but she only gets music once a week for 40 minutes. In comparison, students in a social project like NEOJIBA have a two-and-a-half hour rehearsal everyday of the week, plus group lessons with a professional musician on their instrument. Imagine hundreds of kids doing music everyday for three to four hours. In the United States, we don’t think anything of this when it comes to athletics, but I don’t know many places where the orchestra rehearses everyday for two-and-a-half hours. The best part of this is that this program is funded by the government and private corporations. The students don’t pay a single centavo.
Needless to say, I have more questions now than when I started my Fulbright research. Beyond the call to return to the beautiful beaches, amazing cuisine, and musical richness of Salvador, I have been welcomed into a new community to help me unravel more of the cultural mysteries of Brazil.
Learn more about Senator Fulbright and how he created the Fulbright Program at