Manaus is green and tranquilly chaotic with charming and inviting people. It is a city where over 600 billion-dollar industries collide with the impending brute force of the surrounding sea of inhospitable jungle. No man-made roads lead to Manaus; there was a failed attempt at one from Matto Grosso, which the Amazon took hold of and promptly re-ingested into its suffocating embrace. Now, the only ways into the city are, as was always the case, via one of the thousands of waterways winding their way to the Amazon itself, and flight. The heat has character. It has a weight, music and flavor all its own; it works its way into the wood of the small houses along the riverbanks, into the fibers of clothing and finally into deeper epidermal layers where it gleefully takes hold. It smells lush- every plant fighting to dominate the dense air with its own native, pungent and glorious perfume. The fish is meaty- it tastes like the earthy tannins that dye the Rio Negro while complimented by the vibrant local condiments: onions, exotic fruits, manioc, oils, lime juice and petit, pale, green peppers that burn all the way down.
Manaus is a city of contrasts; today’s frenzied metropolis of 3 million inhabitants still has the shadows of European wealth from the rubber and diamond boom lingering in its doorways alongside the struggle of displaced natives from ancient indigenous cultures often times living on the fringe of society. Within any one person in Manaus culture and identity are deeply rooted yet strongly polarized between western-centric 21st-century appropriation and the centuries of traditional ways that date back to pre-Colombian times. The best representation of Manaus’ puzzling character is its iconic Teatro do Amazonas (Amazon Theater). In the heart of this gritty city, a mighty tribute to the turn of the century wealth that once flourished in this unsuspecting locale stands, seemingly untouched by time, in its full splendor and glory as it has for the past 100 years. Once a space reserved solely for the upper, European class, the theater today has been made a public space and platform for local visual and performing arts- it is free so anyone and everyone in the community can share and take part in what is showcased. Performers of all types come here to present local dance, music, theater and more. Smartly dressed locals come from all over the city to partake in what are now deemed cultural nights at the theater.
While recently in Manaus during my trip to Brazil I had the blessed opportunity to see one of these free shows at the Amazon Theater. I climbed the polished stairs to the highest balcony level. Dim lights illuminated the way and red velvet covered chairs awaited the theater’s patrons. When the performance began, around 10-14 guitarists came out on stage and performed local classics. Deeply moving, the crowd was instantly entranced- people began swaying, tapping feet and singing along; these songs were heartfelt and connected the youngest children through to the oldest grandmothers in the crowd with themes of love, loss and longing. Halfway through the show, a surprise guest group came out: a group of about 12 middle-school children from a rural town in the Amazon called Manacapuru. Several local public schools in Manacapuru participate in a developing project focused on bringing youth together with music as a focus. Each student in the program builds their own Ukulele by hand with wood gathered from trees that have fallen down naturally in the jungle; through this process they learn about the importance of their surroundings and build pride in protecting the Amazon. Before playing, several of the students gave moving speeches about the importance of protecting the crowd and the performers’ collective home: the Amazon. “If we don’t protect and take pride in our home, who will?” one boy demanded. The ukulele band performed more local songs and then harmoniously joined the larger group of guitars for a grand finale.
With the mounting threats the world poses on this life-giving area of our planet, hearing these students speak from the heart and collectively sing, play and unite the crowd, one could not help but feel an overwhelming feeling of respect, joy and hope. Please watch the following video about the Manacapuru students and music project and watch some of their behind the scenes performances.
Manaus is a city in flux. Its exterior a cold, industrial port in the middle of a jungle the size of the United States with an interior raw and beautiful in its roots and genuine collective struggle for identity and a place on the modern world’s stage.
Warm regards from the Amazon,
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