ipiranga-saojoao-575x431Last 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.


  1. Sam, you’ll be happy to know that the U’s Portuguese program has a whole course on Brazilian Popular Music during the dictatorship — and Caetano / tropicalismo factors heavily into the curriculum.

    As you tacitly suggest, taking university courses about one’s mission country is tremendously illuminating for any RM, adding a whole new dimension to the experience.

  2. Last Lemming says:

    So I was actually listening to a Gilberto Gil song when I clicked on your post. Just thought you’d like to know.

  3. I was first introduced to the well-known English band Marillion on my mission in Germany when a Polish family (investigators) asked me to translate some lyrics for them. They were shocked I hadn’t heard of the band before. Perhaps a little introduction to “famous things that everyone but Americans know about” would be useful too. I liked the tidbit of Marillion I heard, but wasn’t sure if I liked it because I’d been deprived of rock for almost two years or because it was actually good. Turned out it actually was good.

    I wish I would’ve been smart enough to look for good German music before the mission. I could’ve familiarized myself with Blind Guardian and Edguy years before I discovered them.

  4. John Harrison says:

    No Legião Urbana in your list? You would have been there when Renato died.

    Anyhow, Caetano was amazing. Saw him at Expo98. My kids love the Leaozinho…

  5. You know, Os Mutantes actually came to SLC three years ago. That’s about as crazy to me as the fact that D. Pedro II did as well (not three years ago, though).

  6. I was a missionary in Bahia at the time of the Mamonas plane crash late Saturday / early Sunday morning. It was a sad day for os bahianos. It was equally sad for my companion and me when all our investigators told us they couldn’t go to church after all because they were in mourning.

  7. Totally understand about not being able to avoid the music. I served in Rio and Vitoria in 94-95. I arrived in Copacabana, my first area, just days before the tetra-campeão. To say I was affected by the music there would be an understatement. There was just no getting away from it and frankly, I didn’t try. It infused my soul in ways I can’t and won’t forget.

    Brazil is on my mind right now–they are going through a crisis right now. I’d be interested in a guest post from someone in Brazil with their perspective on the goings-on.

  8. Forro was our jam in the Nordeste, so I often inflict Gonzagao on my patient family. :)

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