Vanessa Rodrigues Joy of Music in Rio de Janeiro
Home these days for Edmonton native Vanessa Rodrigues is high on a hill in Rio de Janeiro in a place called The Maze that doubles as an inn and happening underground music club. Her birds-eye views of tropical forest, Rio’s famous Pão de Açúcar mountain and Guanabara Bay couldn’t contrast more with Edmonton where she grew up. This multi-talented salsa and jazz keyboard player works the Rio clubs and tours with some of Brazil’s best musicians. Her recording and performance roster in and out of Canada is impressive, but even more singular is her social activism through music.
Rodrigues teaches violin and string ensemble 3 days a week to kids in the Roçinha favela, one of South America’s most populous, poor urban neighborhoods (traditionally called slums). Between a quarter and half a million people live there on hillsides just out of view of the glitzy Ipanema and Copacabana beaches.
We are slaves to our desires, Vanessa says, commenting on what she calls her dream-life in Rio, combining sweat, hustle, and a gritty determination to survive.Destiny chooses you, she continues, then you have to respond to the call. That’s why I am here doing what I do.
It all started back home for this thoughtful, soft-spoken woman from Edmonton whose Latin complexion and name could easily mark her as a native Brazilian.
She grew up playing classical music in a cultured home. Insightful parents wanted her to have a variety of life-experiences so she attended a rough and tumble inner-city school with an engaging music program. She played with the Edmonton Youth Strings, performed in city events as well touring to Portugal, Taiwan, and Germany.
That experience was all about being a team…friendships, learning collectively…That’s the backbone of my childhood in Edmonton.
And it was a defining one. After jazz studies at McGill where Rodrigues was active in Montreal’s jumping Salsa scene, she traveled to Brazil for the first time in 2009 to study percussion. There, Rio cast its spell on her. At first I thought it was just like a drug, she says,and the effect would wear off. By January of 2012 she had returned, hoping to call the exotic city home. My life is divided in two sections: before and after discovering Rio.
While taking Samba lessons in Roçinha, Vanessa discovered the favela’s non-profit music school with a closet-full of un-played violins and no teacher. Rodrigues volunteered. The inspiration and guiding light for her musical activism is José Antonio Abreu, the Venezuelan economist and public music educator who founded the famed El Sistema (Social action for Music) program.
Music has the power to combat social problems, she affirms.It saves kids who have tough lives
Brazil Strings is the NGO Rodrigues recently founded to facilitate socially focused Canadian musical expertise. Her goal is to make a difference by bringing volunteer music teachers to Brazil.
It’s not about me. I want to do my work in peace and spread the happiness of joy in music.
At the Santo Scenarium jazz club in Rio on a Saturday night, Vanessa Rodrigues plays keyboards with one of her numerous ensembles. When she takes a solo, snarls and waves of glee accompany her improvised peaks and runs. She digs for rich chords while powerful provocation and joy play in her physical expressions. Who can doubt she will create the sound and vision she is searching for?
Richard Simas, 2014