Last week, as I waited in the car to pick my daughter up from school, I heard an All Things Considered review of the recently-released album from Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. And, as these things do, it got me thinking about my mission.
When I got my call to the Brazil São Paulo East mission, I knew three things about Brazil: first, it was in South America. Second, they spoke Portuguese there. And third, it was the home of Bossa Nova.
Today, I assume that when kids get their mission calls, the immediately go to Google and Wikipedia to learn everything they can about the place they’re going. And, if it’s a foreign country, I expect (or at least hope) they eventually get to Spotify to get familiar with the local music.
But back in the dark ages of my call (1995), there was no Google or Wikipedia or Spotify.[fn1] I mean, I went to the library and checked books out. But musically, until I went to Brazil, I basically knew Stan Getz.[fn2]
Once there, my world of Brazilian music exploded.[fn3] Samba, pagode, axé. Roberto Carlos, Skank, Mamonas Assassinas. Though the music was rarely front and center, this musical mélange was continually in the background of my mission.
Which eventually led to Caetano. In one of my areas, we started visiting an inactive member, her 4-year-old daughter, and her husband who was not Mormon. They welcomed us in, and we loved to visit with them. One visit, the husband pulled out a guitar, and he played and sang “Sampa.”
“Sampa” is a love song to the city of São Paulo, the story of coming to one of the biggest cities in the world. It is beautiful and poetic and frank and amazing, and I fell in love with it as soon as our friend performed it for us. I memorized the name and, the next time p-day took us to the center of the city, I bought a (probably bootlegged) copy of a Caetano Veloso greatest hits album.
It wasn’t until I got home and listened that I encountered the avant-garde Tropicalismo movement and learned that he’d been exiled to London by Brazil’s military dictatorship during the late 60s and early 70s. I didn’t understand how influential he’d been, musically, artistically, and politically. (And it wasn’t until my Portuguese minor that I started to get his allusions and artistic references.)
Even with all of the additional information and music, though, “Sampa” remains one of my favorite songs. It is, in fact, sacred to me, a love song to a place I spent two years preaching the Gospel, and a gift from a Brazilian friend.
[fn1] In fact, my freshman year at BYU was the first time I’d seen the internet. And we didn’t even have graphic web access in 1994-1995; we used the University of Washington’s Pine, which basically looked like DOS prompts, and really screwed up my future interneting. Because on Pine (at least back then), if you entered your password wrong, you couldn’t delete and fix it. You had to start all over.
[fn2] On further reflection, my dad had a bunch of Sérgio Mendes records that I’d listen to growing up. So I guess I knew two bossa nova musicians.
[fn3] Yes, I know, missionaries don’t listen to music. And I was a tremendously obedient missionary. But music infused the urban landscape—you couldn’t miss it if you tried. I remember one day knocking on doors up and down a street, the whole time hearing an album being blared from one of the homes on the street. Over the course of the hour or so we knocked that street, we were able (or, perhaps, forced—I don’t remember what the album was or whether I liked it) listen to the whole thing.