One of the best music festivals in Brazil is one that not many people know about. The Festival Vale do Café (the Coffee Valley Festival) is a ten-day celebration set in a picturesque valley two hours by car from Rio de Janeiro. The event, which began July 23, offers everything from classical music and choro to regional Brazilian music/dance like jongo, calango, caxambú and folia de reis. Cristina Braga, the first harpist of the Symphonic Orchestra of the Teatro Municipal of Rio, created the festival eight years ago, and classical guitarist Turíbio Santos and Paulo Barroso are the artistic directors.
Free presentations take place in Vassouras and other towns in the historic region, once the coffee-growing center of colonial Brazil and situated in the Paraíba River valley in the state of Rio de Janeiro. In addition, small concerts requiring admission are staged at many old coffee plantations, in lavish period mansions or on the surrounding grounds. The settings are historic, beautiful, and unique.
Leo Gandelman, Victor Biglione, Carl McDavit, Zé Paulo Becker, Duo Gisbranco, Carlinhos de Jesus, and Marcelo Caldi were among the festival's featured performers, along with Cristina Braga and Turíbio Santos. I attended a performance by Cristina Braga at the Fazenda Cachoeira Grande in Vassouras. The innovative harpist played pieces by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Tom Jobim, and herself, and was accompanied by an accordion player and bass guitarist. She added a strong rhythmic drive to some compositions, and supplemented others with her soft, breathy voice. The pairing of guitarist Turíbio Santos and poet Affonso Romano de Sant'anna at the Fazenda Guaritá in Rio das Flores was another highlight. Santos's sublime guitar playing, excerpting Villa-Lobos, Albeniz, and Luiz Gonzaga, counterpointed Affonso's wise and clever poetry on a bright sunny day under a white tent on the sweeping green lawn of the estate.
The Cortejo de Tradições, a presentation of regional musical/cultural traditions, made for a stunning evening on July 24 in Vassouras. Bells rang out a little after 9pm in the square in front of the city's beautiful Igreja da Matriz, and colorful groups carrying banners appeared out of the darkness and converged on the 150-meter lawn that runs from the church downhill to the end of the plaza. There were folia de reis, jongo, caxambú, capoeira, calango, cana-verde, and maculelê groups, each from a different town in the valley. Each one took a different place on the grass and performed simultaneously with the others. You could wander from group to group, taking in a staggering array of venerable Afro-Brazilian traditions that were enough to make a cultural historian run a fever. The Vale do Café is one of the few places, perhaps the only one, in Brazil where so many traditions can be found in one region. And the festival seems to be playing a role in helping to perpetuate them.
The Festival do Vale do Café is a multi-faceted affair, and part of it is devoted to music instruction. The celebrated participants offer some 400 free music courses to local children. The firm Backstage produces the event, and Embratel, Petrobras, o Globo, and the state of Rio de Janeiro are among the sponsors. If you happen to be in Rio de Janeiro next year at this time, this is a music event not to be missed.
Further festival information (in Portuguese): Festival do Vale do Café website.
Photos copyright Chris McGowan 2010. From top to bottom: (1) a capoeira group; (2) guitarist Turíbio Santos and poet Affonso Romano de Sant'anna; (3) a jongo group.