July 6, 2014

Day 5: São Miguel road trip, East & Northeast

Today I drove to Nordeste, the most “remote” town here, up in the top right corner. On the way I was so happy to encounter a field full of cows wearing fabulous brass bells. Many minutes of blissful recording ensued.

I stopped at Furnas, located inside yet another volcanic caldera. There are lots of geysers/boiling mud pits, a big lake, and many hot mineral springs. At the lake you can get a meal cooked in one of the geothermal pits. They take a big pot full of beef and pork and potatoes and kale and cabbage, lower it down into the hole with a rope, bury it, and pull up your dinner six or seven hours later. Clearly, you need to make reservations for this — not a casual drop-in situation!

A little further up the road is the town of Furnas, a resort/spa town, very pretty and I imagine very expensive. Lots of nice hotels, each with their own hot mineral baths. I went to Terra Nostra garden, a large semi-formal garden and home originally constructed by a British land baron in the 19th century. For €5 you can walk the gardens and swim in the very large hot pool. The water is maybe 100º - 120º, rust colored, smells like sulphur. I went for a dip and a walk, then hit the road. The town of Furnas is laid out kind of like an Ikea store — apparently designed to keep you from finding your way out. Had to drive in circles for about 20 minutes before I finally found the road out of town.

Most of the terrain is large volcanic mountains that give way to gentler slopes by the coast that are all green and crosshatched with black lava rock walls that help protect the crops from cold winds. The east side of the island is quite different than the west. The further east you get, the steeper the mountains (volcanoes) become, until there are these lush, green vertical walls going up into the clouds and straight down into the ocean. A few little villages perched precariously on the sides of these incredibly steep and deep ravines. Looks pretty scary, but they seem to have been there for a long time. It reminds me a bit of Hawaii. As you wind up into the mountains, it gets cloudier. So even though it’s a pretty small island, Nordeste does feel quite isolated. There are a few scenic overlooks where you can pull over (it was cloudy, so I didn’t), but not much else, and the road is quite narrow — hence the lack of photos. Most of the road was in good shape, but a few chunks were kind of rough. Apparently this is the new road, built in the last ten years. Before that, the old road (which still exists) was much worse and took much longer. As it was, it took me much longer to get there than I expected. After the drama of getting there, it’s kind of strange to find a modern highway as soon as you get out of Nordeste. This goes all the way across the north side of the island, and got me home in about a third of the time it took me to get to Nordeste.

I got back just in time to meet Rafael to go to the folk music festival he was playing for in Vila Franca do Campo, a town I had driven past earlier in the day. The festival was being held in a huge indoor sports arena, a monstrous new building that has apparently bankrupted the town. Some previous mayor thought it was a good idea, and left the town with a huge white elephant.

Most of the festival was dedicated to Rancho Folclórico groups which do “authentic” folk music and dances. I had seen this in Nodar in 2011 (see photo below). On the one hand, it’s great that these amateur music groups are so dedicated to preserving the music and dances. On the other hand, it is completely sanitized and romanticized, with most of the good gritty parts polished away. Sometimes the singers can be a little rough around the edges, but otherwise it’s like something you’d see in a theme park. Rancho (pronounced RAN-shoo) was originally embraced by the Salazar regime, the fascist dictatorship that ruled Portugal until 1974. They wrapped it in patriotism, and used it as an example of the “happy, simple peasants” being content with their lot and not expecting anything else. And displaying them in a way that was considerably cleaned up, in colorful “native” costumes that had little to do with what people actually wore.

These days, Rancho seems (maybe?) to be less tied to reactionary politics, but it has retained the aesthetic trappings. There was one group tonight that wore normal modern street clothes, which I thought was interesting. The rest were in full regalia. One of them was from Furnas, and the woman singer was great. Rafael said that for some reason Furnas has the best singers, that the closer you get to the coast the rougher the voices are, but up in the mountains they sing like birds. (There's an ethnomusicology dissertation in there somewhere.)

The groups were separated by silly skits from a comedy duo who people seemed to find totally hilarious. Most of it was beyond my language capabilities. (My vocabulary does not include any obscene words!) Rafael played a solo set of four or five songs, really good. He bravely threw in one of his own original pieces, which met with polite applause. Once he got back to the trad stuff, the crowd was clapping along in approval.

We listened to the rough mixes of his new CD in the car on the way home, and it sounds great. He’s not just playing traditional music now, but more original music, and with other musicians: bass, cello, violin, guitar, drums. He’s an interesting guy because he comes out of this strong tradition and is really good at it, but he’s aware of and curious about the larger musical world beyond it and is trying to find a way in (or out?) that makes sense for him — a courageous pioneer of viola da terra!