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Brazil's Hidden Magical Music Festival

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One of the best music festivals in Brazil, or the world for that matter, is one that few people know about. The Festival Vale do Café (the Coffee Valley Festival) is a ten-day celebration set in a picturesque valley two hours by car from Rio de Janeiro. This year's event ran from July 23 to August 1 and offered everything from classical music and Brazilian popular music to the folkloric music-and-dance traditions of jongo, calango, caxambú and folia de reis. Cristina Braga, the first harpist of the Symphonic Orchestra of Rio's Municipal Theater, created the festival eight years ago, and recruited the renowned classical guitarist Turíbio Santos to serve as its artistic director.

The festival's intent is to present great music in an idyllic setting, create a destination for cultural tourism, and to help preserve the cultural heritage of a region that has been somewhat forgotten. The Vale do Café, situated in the Paraíba River valley in Rio de Janeiro state, is an area of rolling green hills and a temperate climate, situated at a higher elevation than the steamy metropolis of Rio to the South. The weather is like that of Southern California, only milder and with bluer skies. It was the coffee-growing center of 19th century Brazil; later, the country's coffee production shifted to the rich soils of the states of São Paulo and Paraná. The valley and its small towns like Vassouras were left with some impressive colonial buildings in the cities and lavish estates on old coffee farms, and a less than vibrant economy. Atlantic rain forest (mata atlântica) has grown back atop many hills, adding to the beauty of the region, but a lack of opportunity has kept it in a somewhat suspended state.

Braga and Santos have succeeded admirably in their goals, so much so that tickets are scarce for the paying events, which have small seating capacities. Their efforts may have helped lure new luxury hotel-spas and gourmet restaurants to the Vale do Café, and the city of Vassouras feels like an Ojai in the making - a charming small town with world-class cultural events and high-end hotels and villas in the local countryside. It also may be inevitable that some Rio de Janeiro residents will tire of their city's crime and traffic, and start looking for nearby areas that offer a better quality of life.

The festival is a music lover's dream: superb musicians performing a wide variety of styles in intimate and scenic settings. Events in the church and main square of Vassouras (the most historically and culturally important town in the region) and other area cities are free. And small concerts requiring admission are staged at fourteen different coffee plantations, in lavish period mansions or on the surrounding grounds.

I attended a performance by Cristina Braga at the Fazenda Cachoeira Grande (Big Waterfall Ranch), a beautifully restored estate in Vassouras. The innovative harpist played pieces by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and herself, and was accompanied by an accordion player and bass guitarist. She added a strong rhythmic drive to some compositions, and supplemented others with her soft, breathy voice. The pairing of guitarist Turíbio Santos and poet Affonso Romano de Sant'anna at the stately Fazenda Guaritá in Rio das Flores was another highlight. Santos is one of the planet's great classical guitarists and also adept with Brazilian popular music. His sublime intepretations of Villa-Lobos, Albeniz, and Luiz Gonzaga counterpointed Affonso's wise and clever poetry on a bright sunny day under a white tent on the sweeping green lawn of the estate.

Leo Gandelman, Victor Biglione, Carl McDavit, Zé Paulo Becker, Duo Gisbranco, Carlinhos de Jesus, and Marcelo Caldi were among the festival's other featured performers this year. One could hear Brazilian music ranging across choro, bossa nova, forró, MPB, and Brazilian jazz and orchestral works. If you were a fan of the influential composers Jobim and Villa-Lobos, you could hear their works interpreted by many fine musicians in a variety of settings. It was a feast for musical gourmands, and this mood of refinement extended to other events: several free cooking classes were part of the festival's programming.

The Cortejo de Tradições, a presentation of regional musical/cultural traditions, was especially striking and unlike anything I've ever seen in Brazil. On the balmy evening of July 24th in Vassouras, bells rang out a little after 9pm in the square in front of the city's beautiful Igreja da Matriz. Colorful groups carrying banners appeared out of the darkness and converged on the 150-meter lawn that runs from the church downhill to the end of the plaza. There were folia de reis, jongo, caxambú, capoeira, calango, cana-verde, and maculelê groups from towns in the valley. Each one took a different place on the grass and performed simultaneously with the others. You could wander from group to group, taking in a staggering array of venerable Afro-Brazilian traditions that were enough to make a cultural historian run a fever. The Vale do Café is one of the few places, perhaps the only one, in Brazil where so many traditions can be found in one region. And the festival seems to be playing a role in helping to perpetuate them. It is also doing its part to further develop Brazil's already formidable musical strengths; the celebrated participants offer some four hundred free music courses to local children.

If you happen to be in Brazil next year at this time, this is a music event not to be missed. There are many fine hotels in Vassouras and the valley, ranging from simple and cheap to high-end luxury. And Rio is just two hours away by bus.

Further information (in Portuguese): Festival Vale do Café website