Tour Diary: Bichos Vivos’ Brazilian Odyssey (Updated 6/12/2024)

Athens very own Forró band, Bichos Vivos, has ventured to Brazil’s Nordeste for Festa São João. Follow along through the band’s tour diary below as members dive headfirst into a world of music, dancing, food and culture. 

Sunday, June 2

“Dawn of the First Day” – Entry by Philip Kohnen

We have arrived in Brazil!  It took us 36 hours of constant travel until we reached our first rental house in Gravatá. We will be traveling to Caruaru today to a São João Music Festival, and will have a few performances in the next few days.

Bichos Vivos

Update: Tuesday, June 4

Day 2: Monday, June 3″ – Entry by Philip Kohnen

We arrived late the night before and didn’t truly see the landscape around our rental home in Gravatá.  We rose to coffee, breakfast and misty hills surrounding us in every direction.  There was a rain shower, and then sunshine. Rinse and repeat. We soon learned that we were here in the rainy season which is why all the flora, fauna and grass around us was in full bloom.

Breakfast was served by Rosa, a native of Gravatá and an employee of the home owner. Rosa not only made the most amazing breakfast, but her sense of humor and silliness made our morning even more special. She laughed at us as we recorded and re-recorded a promo video for our Brazilian tour coordinator, PC.

We gathered everybody and hit the road to Caruaru to meet Herbert Lucena, an accomplished vocalist, percussionist and producer in Caruaru and throughout Brazil. Herbert (Ehr – beht – chee as pronounced in Portuguese) led us though the frenetic streets of central Caruaru to a small hill town outside of the city called Alto do Moura.  

Bichos Vivos

As we approached the town gate, we saw thousands of people buying grilled corn, hats, Devassa, Coca-Cola, fresh fruits, grilled sausages, more hats and more grilled corn. Once through the gate, we were exposed to an unparalleled cultural experience.  It was like drinking from a fire hose.

Walking along the road up the hill leading to the town center, we passed vendors and performers offering authentic music and food. We made our way through the ever-growing crowd to a Bode Asado restaurant, where we enjoyed a truly Brazilian lunch of Churrasco style goat, rice, black eyed peas, goat stock, goat butter, fried yucca, tomato salad, farofa (toasted cassava flour) and two hours plus. Cold Cerveja in abundance.

 Back on the street, we soon met a man with a microphone, a fake mustache and a personality the size of Saturn. He was filming a segment on the festival and offered us an interview, which was an experience that we revisited throughout the day, quoting his dirty jokes in Portuguese.

Entering Vitalino’s small adobo house transported us back through time to 1909, giving us a peek into the life of one of Brazil’s greatest master flautists. His life and story was on display in the tiny museum, bringing the house to life in our imagination. Once the rain started, we decided to head down to the main stage to see the music. Herbert walked briskly toward the back of the stage and leaned close to the security guard. A moment later, the concert organizer appeared and gave Herbert a big hug and a smile. Then the gates opened and we shuffled into the VIP area, our minds blown that Herbert just performed a miracle before our very eyes.

As we were enjoying the music, Herbert introduced us to the Mayor of Caruaru!  Following the Mayor was a crew from TV Cultura, a national news broadcast in Brazil. Herbert, the ever resourceful guide, spoke to the host and all of a sudden we were walking to a quieter place for another press interview!

After the interview and more live music, we said goodbye to the Mayor and the concert organizer and left for more live music on a massive hill in the center of Caruaru. We finally decided to head back to Gravatá to get some dinner and rest, concluding our first full day in Brazil.

Update: Friday, June 7

“Day 2: Monday, June 3” – Entry by Philip Kohnen

I woke up to rain and birds outside of my window, the wind blowing a shutter back and forth rhythmically, musically. Anxiety and excitement commingled in my thoughts. We were headed back into Caruaru with a full agenda. First, our morning ritual. Yellow watermelon, guava, papaya, mango, bananas, eggs, corn couscous, sweet corn, fresh rolls, butter, sweet potatoes, fried cheese, manioc and hot black coffee.

Some of our Bichos were still in hibernation, so I took a walk around “Valle Verde,” our private compound in Gravatá. On this quiet Monday morning almost all of the guests of the other homes had gone back to Caruaru or Recife for their work week. I meandered along the perimeter road, taking pictures of flowers and cows. A light rain dusted my back, and I decided to walk up the hill to our house before the rain truly started. On the last step leading up to the patio, the sky opened up and dumped giant buckets of water.  I barely made it.

 As soon as the rain started, it slowed down and stopped. Our crew was all up, and we were deciding who was going to stay in the house and who would venture in to Caruaru again. A band meeting was called, intent upon discussing our upcoming performances, set lists, new song additions and scheduling. Jokes and silly stories pulled us off track; our modus operandi thankfully intact across international borders. However, we had the opportunity to practice more than we ever have before and we were going to take full advantage. Some snaps and claps mobilized our musical Voltron back into action.

Two hours and 22 songs later, the car to Caruaru was packed and we watched  “Verde Valle” disappear in our rearview. Braving the hillside winding dirt road in a 4 cylinder Peugeot, we struggled up a hill when a guy in a 1983 Suzuki blew past us, kicking up a cloud of dust. He smiled and gave us the thumbs up, silently saying “Thanks.” Everytime we reached another peak, we saw the edges of Gravatá below, more cows and more granite outcroppings.

Our first stop was in Bezerros at the Jorge Borges Art Museum and Shop. This was my first visit to this magical place, and it would not be my last. The museum was dedicated José Francisco Borges, also known as J. Borges. He’s a pretty big deal in the Brazilian folk art scene, particularly when it comes to woodcut prints. Born in 1935 in the village of Bezerros, Pernambuco state, Borges has shared his unique art with the world for quite some time. 

His work is rooted in the tradition of Cordel literature, which are these kitschy little folk poetry pamphlets that people used to sell by hanging them on strings. Over the years, Borges has become Brazil’s most famous folk artist in this medium, and his art has been exhibited all over the world. He is truly a living legend when it comes to Brazilian folk art.  His art depicts popular poetry, local legends, and infamous love affairs. Throughout his career, Borges has received numerous awards, including the Order of Merit from Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the UNESCO award in Educational/Cultural Action.

After buying as many prints as I could get my hands on, we packed up and kept driving to pick up Herbert in Caruaru. Greetings and hugs, then back into the car. All of the details of the day were described to us, however I could only understand roughly 40% of what Herbert was saying. After the prior day, I was willing to follow Herbert anywhere that he led us, so comprehension was irrelevant.

Driving up winding roads in the hills of Caruaru was a cultural experience by itself. The car came to a slow stop and I heard the parking brake pulled up to its limit. On this tiny road surrounded by small brick row houses, we saw the mural and a small man standing in the doorway. It was him.

 João do Pife, born João Alfredo Marques dos Santos, is a significant figure in the cultural scene of Caruaru, Brazil. Known for his mastery of the pife, a traditional Brazilian fife, he has performed both nationally and internationally, spreading the unique sounds of Brazilian folk music. João do Pife is part of the band “Dois Irmãos” along with fellow musician Marcos, and they have traveled extensively, sharing their music with audiences around the world. As a respected artist in his field, João do Pife has contributed to the preservation and celebration of Brazilian cultural heritage.

“Meeting and Playing with João do Pifano” – Entry by Natalie Smith

Stepping out of our car onto a cobblestone street in Caruaru, I first noticed the beautifully painted wall with a larger than life portrait announcing the “Oficina João do Pife.” Local legend pifano (Brazilian flute) maker João do Pifano came out to greet us, and he immediately welcomed our guide Herbert Lucena, a well-known musician himself, with warm hugs and smiles. I waited patiently for my turn to meet this master, but really I wanted to get right down to business: seeing João’s pifanos and hearing him play.

Inside was a room full of instruments handmade by João—many, many pifanos, but also many large drums that he skins and crafted himself. I loved seeing the instruments as well as the tools João uses to make them.

After some chit chat, João played for us. What a joy! It was evident right away that this music is in his blood. He said his father was also a pifano player and started the pifano band that João still leads today. I told him that I would like to purchase a pifano, and he immediately presented one to me. I played for a few seconds, finding my footing, then João picked up another pife (short for pifano) and began playing with me. 

Magic! I tried my best to keep up with his intricate melodies, watching his fingers and feeling his rhythm. I wanted to take a pifano home immediately and get to work! It was such a joy to make music with this beautiful person. The next evening I would meet Vitoria do Pifano, João’ mentee and an all around wonderful person, who is carrying on this tradition of playing and making flutes in the Brazilian Nordeste. I’ll meet with her again next week to buy a pair of pifanos she is making for me. It’s an absolute honor to know and play with these brilliant musicians!

Bichos Vivos

Update: Monday, June 10

“Day 3” – Entry by Philip Kohnen

Waking up to the sound of birds, rain, flute and guitar wasn’t getting old, but I was starting to get used to the cacophony. This was our first day to take it easy in the morning. Our typical breakfast had to wait for sleepy Bichos. After breakfast, we convened in the downstairs apartment for a long rehearsal. A tentative gig in Caruaru fell through, so we had the time and opportunity to rehearse for our larger gigs later in the week.

With a few solid hours of productive rehearsal under our belt, we concluded for the day and prepared for a Brazilian style Churrasco lunch. Rosa exceeded all of our expectations and made an absolute feast for our group. We learned about how Brazilians typically eat their biggest meal of the day at lunchtime since the sun sets around 5 p.m. most of the year.

Discussion of our day determined that we wanted to revisit the Borges Museum, as some of us missed the opportunity the previous day. As we pulled up to the small neighborhood in Bezerros, we saw a gentleman with a white cotton hat in a power scooter smiling for a photo. Then we saw a few more people ask for a photo. We soon realized that this was HIM, the artist Jorge Borges!

After photos and fun conversation, he invited us inside of the museum to tell us more about his work.  We followed him around listening to him describe his life and how he came to create this style.  We learned more about the Sertão, which is the desert region of the Nordeste (Northeast) of Brazil.  

The people that live here have endured drought, endemic poverty, lack of infrastructure and political isolation from the South of Brazil for generations. Borges art depicts the dichotomy of existence in the Northeast; absolute beauty interrupted by drought and poverty. For this reason, many people in the Northeast have been forced to leave their home land to move to the south, bringing their music and culture with them. Without Luiz Gonzaga leaving the Nordeste, Bichos Vivos may have never come into existence. O efeito Borboleta.

Visiting with Jorge Borges was an absolute delight; his winding stories punctured by outbursts of laughter and intense hand gestures. Erica McCarthy, our beloved documentarian, bought a print of a Sanfoneiro (accordionist) and Borges was intent upon signing and dedicating the print to ME. Erica bought it as a gift and he personalized it for me. This was completely unexpected and very much appreciated. I was beaming as we said goodbye to Borges, having stayed more than 30 minutes past closing time.

The sun had set and most of us decided to get back to the Verde Valle home to prepare for our departure the next day. A small cohort broke off and drove back in to Caruaru to meet Vittoria do Pifano, as Natalie Smith described in her previous entry. She was a delightful person who shared her story with us, describing her ascension as the only female Pifano maker, an acolyte of João do Pifano. We said goodbye to Vittoria and to Caruaru, heading back to Verde Valle for a movie night with Robert Moser, our Lead Singer.  We watched a movie called “Bacurau,” which was set in the Brazilian Northeast and follows the tradition of Cinema Novo. (Cinema Novo was a revolutionary Brazilian film movement in the 1960s and 1970s that challenged traditional cinema by focusing on social equality and intellectualism, inspired by Italian neorealism and the French New Wave.)  

  The next morning would bring unfortunate news…

Update: Tuesday, June 11

“Day 4” – Entry by Philip Kohnen

The clouds were darker than usual when we awoke, quickly dropping their contents on the valley below.  Bright sunshine peeked through, rapidly spreading and reconquering the blue sky from the grey clouds.

A band meeting was organized before breakfast. Our beloved lead singer, Robert Moser, was experiencing health issues and would not be able to continue on the trip with us. Our time in Caruaru for São João was extremely special, and we were grateful to have that time with him in Brazil. After breakfast, we hugged and kissed Robert, thanking him for helping to organize the trip and bidding him safe travels.

Soon after his departure, our bags were packed for the IRL Tetris game that Lucas and Todd played.  Each time we packed the cars we had more stuff procured at markets and shops in Caruaru. Just like Tetris, it gets harder each time you level up.

The rest of the day was comprised of travel from Gravatá to João Pessoa. We stopped in Recife to upgrade the rental cars, knowing that we had lots of driving ahead. We finally made it to our house in João Pessoa, exhausted from a full day of travel.

As soon as we arrived, we unloaded the cars and immediately left to meet our tour manager, PC, for dinner and a meeting. This was the first time that most of had the opportunity to meet PC, so we did the classic Brazilian introduction of hugs and warm greetings. We discussed how we would be moving forward with our set given that our lead singer was not going be performing with us. Over the next few days, a plan would emerge.

Reading up on history before bed, I learned that the city was renamed “João Pessoa” in 1930 in honor of the state president João Pessoa Cavalcanti de Albuquerque, who was assassinated that year. His death was a significant event that contributed to the Brazilian Revolution of 1930, which led to Getúlio Vargas becoming the president of Brazil.

In English, “João Pessoa” literally means “John Person,” which became an ongoing joke in the band. We all said good night and settled in to our first night in João Pessoa, a large city on the coast of Northeastern Brazil. The bustling cityscape contrasted the rolling hills of Gravatá, promising many new experiences with music, food and people.

Update: Wednesday, June 12

“Day 5” – Entry by Philip Kohnen

Alongside the birdsongs and pattering rain, we woke up to a bustling city filled with cars, buses, motorcycles and people. Our first gig would happen later that night, so we agreed that we would be spending a majority of the day rehearsing and getting our set tight. But first, we had to go to the beach. Rehearsal could wait.

Since we had to call an audible on our original set, we started working out which of us would sing certain songs. My vocal range fit “Don’t Think Twice” by Bob Dylan and “Morena Tropicana” by Alceu Valenca. Nic Wiles and Natalie Smith would sing “Jackson” by Johnny Cash. Tony Oscar and Todd Mueller would be singing backup on many of the songs. Lucas Tavares and William Freeman Leverett would sing everything else. We had 32 songs ready, so we felt confident and prepared. More than anything, we missed Robert Moser and Keiko Ishibashi (violin), our missing band members. 

After a long rehearsal and lunch, we starting packing up the instruments to head to the venue, a small club near the Universidade Federal da Paraiba called Recanto Da Cevada. Entering the venue was magical, traversing out of João Pessoa and into a tropical wonderland. Flowers hung from the trees above, with moonlight peeking through and shining onto our table. The first band started playing and we were blown away by their performance. This would happen frequently as the trip progressed.

After the second band concluded their set, there was an announcement made in Portuguese that said “Our next band comes all the way from the United States, and they are playing Forro!” The audience was equally confused and amused. We set up our equipment quickly, thankfully using some of the instruments from the other band. Natan Nunes was so graceful to let me use his accordion, an amazing Scandelli. Natan (IG @natannunes.sanfoneiro) quickly became a friend that I would see many times over the next few days at each of our gigs.

After a lightning fast sound check they gave us the green light. We all looked around at each other in disbelief. Here we were, in Brazil, onstage in front of a massive crowd watching with palpable anticipation.  We were ready, so we started our first song. The crowd did not know what to think of these gringos playing their “country” music. It took a few songs before we truly won them over. The dance floor was moving again and we saw smiling faces. When we started “Take On Me” by AHA, the crowd became wildly excited, phones blazing to record this crazy band of Americans. We played a short set, and they demanded an encore. “Mais Um! Mais Um! Mais Um!” 

We concluded and thanked everyone for their kindness. As we were breaking down, someone said “Did that just happen?” It turns out that phrase would be used many times over the next few days. We hung out with the other musicians outside of the club when it closed down, sitting on a grassy hill sharing beers and laughs. Finally, we headed home. Good night, John Person.