A profoundly significant and enriching travel experience for me was my first visit, and associated performance, over in São Paulo, Brazil. More from a personal perspective than a professional one, actually.
See, here in London, with me being a teenager in the mid to late nineties, a little of the music and movie culture of the time would filter through in the collective consciousness of us young ‘uns to where we’d take on a little more of the idea of things like “ghetto” and “the hood” than we realistically would have otherwise. In that time period nobody was particularly wealthy, but nobody was actually impoverished either — and to be fair nobody actually claimed those things unironically — but it wasn’t uncommon for such talk to be bandied around in conversation and whatnot.
I, being in my quietly considered opinion to be one of the smarter ones, took this frivolity on to a lesser extent than a lot of my peers… I say all that to ultimately say that when I got to Brazil, it was an eye-opener of an experience in a way that nobody could have prepared me for. It was my first experience of a “third world country”, you see. Certainly my first as an adult, as I’d been to both my parents’ home countries (Jamaica and Guyana) as a child — I’m not sure if they are actually classified/categorized in that same way, but I personally drew a few comparisons in my mind; in some small way it felt familiar because of those childhood trips. What substantially blew my mind about São Paulo was, first and foremost, how the people ‘without’ were REALLY without.
While not exactly like the scenes from Rio (made famous by media outlets the world over), São Paulo also has its fair share of favelas woven through the city without care or regard for the surroundings, the postcode/district or other such things; people literally live however they can. And while there’s certainly wealth there for the select few, the disrepair, dereliction and generally haphazard nature of the city shocked and charmed me in equal measure.
It was a mess of color, sound, smells (not all of them pleasant), skylines… people, LOTS of them, every variety of human imaginable, all going about their lives. And most importantly, irrespective of how much or how little they had, for the most part they did it with a smile. What really hit home hardest for me was how trivial so much of the things that would come up as complaints back home actually were, seeing what ‘life’ is in a place like that.
Brazilian culture is very much to laugh, to share. I got to witness and understand a greater sense of kinship and of community, and I’d not even done the gig I was flown over for yet! But that was for sure a ‘landmark’ experience. I didn’t think of myself as overly cocky or anything, but that grounded me big time. I came back having learned a bunch about myself just as much as I did about a new nation of people. I found myself far less likely to criticize or complain about things in the aftermath of that trip, as just one example.
The event itself was fantastic — it was a festival called Skol Beats, which took place in April of 2002 on the grounds of the Interlagos F1 race track. Literally ON the track! Even just walking around there, seeing tire marks on the roads from cars having taken hair-raising bends at gut-churning speeds was a thrill all its own. But there were also tens of thousands of people in attendance, they all knew their music (and all the words to the songs of the time, despite most not actually being able to speak English), and were happy to party all day and night with nothing more than the god-awful beer of the festival sponsor in their system.
Exhibit A. All style, no substance. I really can’t oversell to you on how vile this stuff was.
They were appreciative, passionate, and LOUD. I’d done only a handful of festivals in England before this, but I knew already they were basically incomparable, it was night and day. The sheer scale of the event sites, the production, the absence of fun-killer noise restrictions… this was a whole other level. I was 24 years old, drinking it all in, still in disbelief that any such things were part of MY life, that something I’D done had provided me with such an opportunity… I don’t think there was any realistic way I wasn’t going to change thereafter, in all honesty.