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Brazil

Day 11: Belém

 
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The Amazon Cello Choir. Each player has their own named T-shirt.
Michael Palin - BrazilOur last morning in this beguiling city. As we drive away from the hotel, police are clustered around a vagrant on one of the benches outside the Teatro da Paz. As I look closer I see the vagrant is a woman with a patch over one eye and a baby in her arms. A tall, well-dressed man walks by without breaking step. He's reading a piece of paper very close to his face and has a tiny dog on a lead far below him. Then they're lost behind the mango trees that line Presidente Vargas Avenue, as we turn and head for the waterfront. We're joining a boat which will be taking a twenty-strong cello orchestra out across the river to some of the nearby islands. The cellists are all teenagers, many from tough, poorly educated backgrounds, who get together every now and then to visit outlying areas of the city to introduce people to their music.

They're called the Orquestra Juvenil de Violoncelistas da Amaz˘nia, or the Amazon Cello Choir for short. It's the brainchild of another force of nature, male this time, called ┴ureo de Freitas, a, wiry, restless, forty-five-year-old cello teacher. He has persuaded a company to sponsor a mini-ferry on this voyage to the islands and he is fussing about arranging the chairs and the speaker system on which he'll be playing a backing track. The children, whose only qualification is that they should have had no previous musical training, are dressed in uniform black T-shirts with a green cello on the front and their names on the back. It's already hot and many of the cellos lie propped up against the chairs, with towels over them for protection, looking like elderly sunbathers.

Once out into the stream, with the fancy turrets of the Ver-o-Peso Market receding behind us, they rehearse their repertoire. It consists of a beautiful Bach Prelude, which suddenly, violently, and for no reason I can see, breaks into Led Zeppelin's 'Kashmir', at which point the young musicians leap to their feet and thrash away at their cellos in rock and roll style. On paper it sounds pretty ghastly but on the boat in the middle of the river, with the sun on the waters and the forested shores of the first island coming closer, it is actually quite thrilling. Proud parents are on board to film their children. The local TV channel is reporting on it. And the cellos, for some inexplicable reason, are a job lot of 300 sent out by Kent County Council.

'They were all messed up,' says ┴ureo. But repairs were made and he was able to offer them very cheaply to the families of the children.
 
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The Choir in Led Zeppelin mode.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 11: Belém
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: BelÚm
  • Book page no: 58

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