July 2, 2014

Day 1: Ponta Delgada & Ribeira Grande

I'm spending my first week in Ponta Delgada, the capital city of the Azores on the southern coast of the largest island, São Miguel. It's the largest city in the islands, and in some ways the most cosmopolitan and accessible — a good place to land for first-time visitors, as many people speak English quite well and there are plenty of places to stay and eat and things to do: hiking trips, whale watching, museums, theaters, art galleries, book stores, yoga classes, a nice waterfront promenade along the harbor, some good parks, a large public/farmers market, etc. There's a good vegetarian restaurant, a couple of jazz clubs, and a good library. On the other hand, you can walk from one end of town to the other in an hour or so, at a leisurely pace. Narrow streets that all lead to the water or run parallel to it. Pretty hard to get lost here.

I’m in a very basic, small hotel: simple and clean, with friendly and helpful staff, great location in the older part of town, within easy walking distance of everything. It's on what looks like a narrow, charming, “quiet” street, but is in fact quite busy with traffic. There's a bakery a few doors down that smells wonderful, but they start loading their delivery trucks around 4 AM. There is also a fair amount of random shouting and swearing (?) in the middle of the night by possibly crazy and/or drunk guys in the street. So sleeping has been tricky, in addition to jet-lag and being in a strange bed.

My entry here has been made much easier by a couple of internet acquaintances. A few years ago, a record label in Lisbon released a CD of mine. I asked Paulo Raposo, the guy who ran the label, if he had any contacts in the Azores. He referred me to Sérgio Fazenda Rodrigues, an architect who has done some work here in Ponta Delgada. Sérgio is living back in Lisbon now, but he sent me a great list of things to see and do, and referred me to Emanuel Albergaria, a very interesting artist/anthropologist who also works at the Museu Carlos Machado here in Ponta Delgada. Smart person, good at making things happen.

I've been in contact with Emanuel for a month or so, and she has been super kind and helpful. A few hours after I arrived, we met for a snack when she got off work at the museum (three blocks from my hotel), and then she offered to give me a ride to Ribeira Grande, a city on the north coast about a 20-minute drive from here, where I was going to a concert. She said it was on her way home, but I later realized that the town where she lives is just a short drive east from Ponta Delgada, nowhere near Ribeira Grande. She just didn’t want me to have to take the bus as I had planned.

I had been researching viola da terra, a beautiful type of 12-string guitar that is indigenous to the islands, and found the web site of Rafael Carvalho a few weeks ago. He is from the small town of Ribeira Quente, but lives in Ponta Delgada, where he teaches at the Conservatory (also a few blocks from me). It also turns out that he did a project here with Miguel Carvalhais, a nice guy I met three years ago in Porto who makes electronic music.

I saw that Rafael plays sometimes for the Cantigas ao Desafio, a form of folk music I’m interested in — improvised “song duels” in which two singers trade barbed verses back and forth for as long as they can go until one of them is stumped for a witty response, thereby losing the duel. This is still performed in Azorean communities in the US and Canada, so it’s a nice connection between there and here.

So we exchanged emails, and he said I should come to his concert in Ribeira Grande. Even though I had just landed and was pretty jet-lagged, I took a nap and went.

Emanuel dropped me off a couple of hours before the concert and I wandered around the town, went down to the beach to record the waves and watch the surfers. Found the HQ for the local Philharmonic Band, which is a major institution in the Azores. Every town seems to have one of these large brass/marching bands, which play in religious processions, festivals, and formal concerts. The little sign above the window says "Os Gatos Têm Sete Fôlegos" — "Cats Have Seven Breaths."

The concert was in an old church that is now the Museum of Living Franciscanism. The current exhibit is on Penitentes — lots of mortification of the flesh.

 It was an odd event, commemorating the release of a new series of postage stamps featuring folk instruments of Portugal, one of which is the viola da terra. So before the concert there was a kind of “official” introduction, with a panel of bigwigs from the post office speechifying and ceremoniously hand-canceling sets of the stamps for the stamp collectors present. (They kindly gave me a set.) Then Rafael did the concert with Amadeu Magalhães, who plays viola toeira, a similar kind of guitar from Coimbra, as well as the cavaquinho — which we should all remember is the precursor of the ukelele! They traded solo pieces back and forth, and did a few duets.

Both excellent players, and the music was beautiful, ranging from very traditional dance music to some more adventurous originals. I caught a ride with them back to Ponta Delgada, and arranged to do some recording with Rafael later.