Music: A Bridge Between Language and Cultures
Rio Pilgrimage Memories

by Karol Kimmell

Adult Pilgrimage to Rio

Street music after a Brazil World Cup win

“Portuguese,” I said. “I can learn to speak it in 10 months, can’t I?” Since this pilgrimage was a relational trip, I didn’t want to be totally dependent on a translator to communicate with our hosts. And so my journey to Rio de Janeiro began as I purchased a language CD program in September 2009, long before our departure on June 18, 2010.

I was that Atlanta driver you saw talking to herself, driving up and down Ponce de Leon Avenue, answering and formulating simple Portuguese words and phrases and later more complicated sentences and questions. My husband, Kim, who also went on the Rio Pilgrimage, joined the Portuguese language learning fun. He started in February 2010, and, having been conversational in Spanish at one time, zipped past my level quickly.

I learned just enough Brazilian Portuguese from the language CDs to get by. I was fairly successful at ordering meals and drinks, asking the location of the bathroom and other important places, purchasing souvenirs, talking to and paying cab and bus drivers, counting money, and saying hello, see you later, good day, afternoon and evening, and thank you (oi, até logo, bom dia ~ boa tarde ~ boa noite, and obrigada.) In Rio I found myself looking to Kim with a desperate expression whenever the conversation asked for words and verb tenses beyond my expertise (that would be any verb tense except present!), but I was thankful that I had given myself time to become familiar with basic words and with the lilt the Brazilians give to the language.

On our first night in Rio, our group traveled to the Centro, the center of Rio, to worship with Bishop Celso and the homeless he ministers to every Saturday evening. It was our first Rio excursion. It was dark; we were told not to bring our cameras and we were a bit nervous for our safety. Bishop Celso put on his priestly robes, set up a card table altar, and laid out the elements for communion. We all gathered in a large circle: homeless men and families with children, our Brazilian Anglican friends and the eight of us from All Saints’ Atlanta. The greeting, liturgy, readings and prayers were in Portuguese. We followed as best we could. As the bishop called for a song I thought “Yet another unknown segment of worship.” But I immediately recognized the song! It was the Caribbean hymn Halle, Halle, Halle, one that I learned about 15 years ago and have taught the youth and children’s choirs at All Saints’. It only has one word: Hallelujah! I joined in and immediately felt a part of that worshiping community. After my months of Portuguese preparation, it was the language of praise and the medium of music that truly connected me to the Brazilians in our circle.

The immediate connection through music continued at almost every turn in Rio. The next morning at worship at St. Paul’s, the Anglican Cathedral, our host, the Reverend Inamar de Souza, asked if I would lead the first congregational hymn, Cantai ao Senhor, from the piano. It is the only Brazilian hymn that I know! At All Saints’ Atlanta we have sung it in choir and played it on handbells. It was so meaningful to sing it in worship in Rio. Another connection to home came as a surprise. As a communion response the Brazilian congregation sang the African-American spiritual Amen.

On Monday we visited the cathedral-sponsored organic garden in a nearby favela. Our driver’s daughter, eight-year old Laura and I started chatting about singing. We quickly discovered a song we both knew: Siyahamba, a South African freedom song from the Apartheid era. Again, it was a song I’d taught to our choirs at All Saints’. Both of our faces lit up when we sang through it. What fun!

Tuesday morning the All Saints’ pilgrims piled into a van and rode two hours into the mountains near Petropolis to visit the Anglican School. When we arrived on the school grounds we met the principal, Carlos Jose, and chaplain, Reverend Abimael Da Silva Rodrigues. We were quickly ushered into a classroom of 5th graders. Abimael had his guitar, so after we introduced ourselves, we asked the children to sing us one of their songs. Next, I taught them a song I sing with the younger choirs at All Saints’. It is simple, repetitive, and has lots of finger movements in it. Soon they were singing and laughing along. Then the combined groups sang Jesus Loves Me in Portuguese and English. The children were eager to share their songs, and we loved watching their faces as they sang. After school was dismissed, the children gathered around, and the conversations in partial English and Portuguese flew between us. They were eager to try out their few English words and we were able to converse with our limited Portuguese. Once again, sharing music opened the door to friendship and conversation.

Wednesday evening we were back at St. Paul’s for a worship service in the Taizé style. Music from the monastery in Taizé, France is composed so that worshipers from all over the world can easily join in. The songs are repetitive yet full of interesting chord progressions and melodic twists, sung in English, Latin or French. Inamar and Noelle, our priests and Juarez and Pedro, the musicians at St. Paul’s, led us through the beautiful contemplative worship surrounded by candles in the darkened church. I provided descants and harmony with my soprano recorder. Later in the service I taught the congregation a Taizé piece we use often at All Saints’, Eat This Bread. We didn’t fully understand each other’s language, yet our songs of praise came together beautifully.

Kim and I stayed in Rio five days longer than the pilgrimage group, enabling us to go to church on a second Sunday morning. We attended another Anglican parish, Todos a Santos (All Saints’), Abimael’s parish in Niteroi – across the bay from Rio. At the coffee hour after church, I met five elementary-aged church members. Aided by Abimael’s 16-year-old daughter, Talita, who served as our interpreter, we started our conversation by talking about their lost teeth, moved to discussing Brazilian foods that were new to me, and before long we were singing together and sharing songs. They sang a version of If I Were a Butterfly for us in Portuguese. Then, they learned two songs that our young choirs at All Saints’ sing: The Lord Is Great and God Is Here, Celebrate. We videotaped us singing these songs together. It was so much fun that none of us wanted to leave. Again, music opened the door to friendship and a wonderful shared experience.

Not all of our musical experiences were church-related. Neighbors gathered at the local square the evening after Brazil beat Cote d’Ivoire in the World Cup competition, singing and playing percussion instruments to vocal improvisation. Many local restaurants had live music, often a combo playing Corinho, a beautiful Brazilian style of music with flute, guitar and a native cavaquinho, a steel stringed ukelele-like instrument. Again, smiles and nods were exchanged when common words could not be found.

So, even though my Portuguese was limited, a love of music bridged the language and cultural gap over and over on our wonderful trip to Rio de Janeiro.

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