Muito Obrigado Axé: Why Ivete Matters To Me

ivete sangalo, são paulo

Ivete Sangalo performing August 28 at Espaço das Américas

Ivete. How do I begin to describe what this woman has done for me?

I was first introduced to her about ten years ago in college. I happened to see a sign announcing samba classes on Saturdays, and I decided to try it out. One of the songs they played, “Toque de Timbaleiro,” featured her vocals, and it was one of those songs that just goes inside you and takes you prisoner. Days after I first heard it, the percussion combined with her deep voice were still reverberating in my mind. At the end of the semester, my samba class had a party, and one of my instructors played us Ivete’s DVD celebrating her 10 years of career. I decided to look more into her songs and soon my fandom was born.

Her lyrics are happy, her music infectious and her personality absolutely magnetic, which would soon serve me well. Later that year I was diagnosed with an eating disorder (and at the time was undiagnosed with bipolar II). Simply put, she kept me going. In my manic episodes, I would play her music and dance so hard it eventually brought me back. In my depressive episodes, her warm voice commanding everyone to get up was the only thing that gave me motivation.

When I first heard of her, Brazil was foreign to me. I was taking Portuguese in school, but couldn’t understand all of the lyrics. I had to look up what galera and arerê and  meant. (The latter took me awhile to learn that it’s just a shortened version of estou, or I am. I consider it a true testament to my language abilities that I now instinctively say  instead of estou.)

Now it’s ten years later and I just went to her twentieth anniversary concert in Barra Funda. She came out shouting Levanta a mão! and my hands shot up. I ran to the left, I ran to the right, I sang along. Best of all, her show was good. She and her band gave it their all, while being playful and spontaneous.

Towards the end of her (forty-five minute) encore, she asked the audience what they wanted to hear. Someone yelled out “Flores,” and it brought me back, as it was one of the first songs I learned. I was late to the party, but now I could sing along with everyone else.

Taking a bow after nearly three hours of show

Thanking everyone after nearly three hours of show

Ivete has been with me through every phase of my relationship with Brazil as well as myself. She got me moving at my most depressed and calmed me down at my most manic. Her effervescent, joyful spirit is something I aspire to have. And her 20th anniversary concert reminded me: I’ve become well enough to learn the language, move to Brazil and watch her sing. What can I accomplish by the time she hits 30 years?

The video below is not the best quality, but it’s mine, my personal reminder of what makes her so special to me.


Stop to Smell the Goiabas


Credit: Rajesh Dangi

Note: This post has a soundtrack. Listen accordingly.

I learned the word guayaba before the word guava. Growing up, I only experienced them during vacations in Mexico to see my family. Knowing I adored them, my grandfather would bring home a bag of them from the market, and I’d end up eating them all in one evening. Guava was a sickeningly sweet Kerns juice; guayaba was a fragrant, juicy piece of joy to bite into. I love them any which way: stewed with cinnamon, as ice cream, in the form of ate paste (or goiabada, in Brazil), but nothing compares to eating them fresh.

Now I’m in a country with goiabas, and I can eat them any time I want. I can barely handle this fact. Mexican guayabas are yellow with a nearly white flesh, while the Brazilian goiabas I’ve seen so far are larger and green with bright pink inside. There doesn’t seem to be much difference in taste, but interestingly enough the yellow ones are slightly higher in vitamins and minerals.

Even more than the taste, I’m obsessed with the sweet, slightly floral smell. I just need to pass by a stall at the feira and get a whiff to put me in a good mood. The aroma only gets stronger as they ripen, so I wait until they’re thisclose to going bad before I devour them.

I decided to try something different and have them in the form of syrup. Lately I’ve been on a homemade syrup craze, partly because it gives me something delicious to flavor my água com gás, and partly because it’s a fun way to make the kitchen smell heavenly for a few hours. It’s simple, it turned out well, and the best part is whenever I pour a bit in a glass and add cold water, the delicious smell releases into the air and my senses rejoice.


Guava Syrup
1/2 kilo (roughly 1 lb) guavas
2 cups turbinado sugar
1 cup water
sterilized 500 ml bottle or jar




Cut the black ends off the guavas and chop into quarters or eighths. Combine guavas with water and sugar and bring to a boil. Simmer for at least an hour. Remove from heat and let cool before straining and pouring into the bottle. Refrigerate. With the high amount of sugar, it will keep longer and the flavor is more concentrated.

It turns out so pretty!

So pretty!


Samba, soul and other strange sounds by Max de Castro

Max de Castro

Photo Credit: Julia Chequer/R7

Born in Rio de Janeiro but based in São Paulo, Max de Castro straddles spaces, genres and eras with his rich, vibrant sound. His official bio manages to describes it as, “Samba, rap, soul, jazz, afro-beat, funk, rock and other beats. There’s always space for new experiments in the cauldron of harmonies of this singer, composer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Max de Castro. What does he make? Brazilian music.”

I first learned about him in 2001 when Time profiled him in their special edition of music around the world. It’s funny to look back on that now because the article “Max de Castro: Beyond Bossa Nova” starts out with a description of São Paulo, “the city that foreigners don’t know.” My sixteen year old self was intrigued by this mysterious, glamorous sounding city and put it on my long list of places to visit.

After reading the article, I bought his album Samba Raro blindly, and fell in love. My only exposure to Brazilian music up until that point had been my parents’ old bossa nova records, but this was an eclectic mix of different genres and beats layered beautifully, different than anything I had heard before.

The title track “Samba Raro” (Strange or Rare Samba) immediately sucked me in.

Samba Raro immediately became one of my favorite albums, despite not knowing a single word of Portuguese yet (although I had fun singing já chhhegou, já chhhegou). Now that I am fluent in Portuguese, it is interesting to listen to the album again because it sounds different. No less great, of course, but different. Before it sounded like a little bit like Spanish but with a lot of “cheese” and “geez” and “õe” and “ão” and other weird nasal sounds. But now that these sounds have meaning for me, there’s a new depth added to the lyrics.

Max* has an interesting song on his second album Orquestra Klaxon called “O Nêgo do Cabelo Bom,” or “The Black Man With Good Hair.” Sung with Paula Lima, an MPB/soul/funk singer from São Paulo, it’s a more straightforward jazz and soul piece.

The song talks about a black man who is teased because of his natural hair and told not to swim in the ocean, but his nêga, or black girl, assures him:

Alisa ele não / Don’t straighten it
Você é meu nêgo do cabelo bom / You’re my black man with good hair
Alisa ele não / Don’t straighten it
É você quem dita a moda em Paris / You’re the one who sets trends in Paris

His father is the late Wilson Simonal, a legendary artist who rose to prominence in the sixties by mixing samba, soul and blues, and was one of the first black musicians in Brazil to achieve mainstream success. However he was ostracized from the music industry after collaborating with the military dictatorship and the secret police in the seventies, and he died from alcoholism in 2000. Max and his brother Wilson Simoninha contributed to the 2009 documentary about their father Ninguém Sabe o Duro que Dei, or No One Knows the Hardship I’ve Endured. That same year they paid tribute to their father by recording the show Baile do Simonal, or Dance of Simonal, with artists such as Caetano Veloso and Seu Jorge, and released it on DVD and CD.  The two brothers took the show on tour in 2010, which was met with so much critical and public success that three years later they are still performing.

Max plans to release a new album later this year called A Fantástica Fábrica de Champigon or The Fantastic Mushroom Factory, a nod to his father who often used the expression “com champignon” (with mushroom) to refer to something with swing or movement. He’s already released his new single “Entrar Para Ficar,” or Enter to Stay.

*It’s a Brazilian custom to refer to people by their first names. Even the current President is more often called Dilma than President Rousseff.