BrazilFest immerses island students in Latin jazz

Jovino Santos Neto

South Whidbey High School’s music students are taking a Latin immersion trip without leaving the band room next week.

Thanks to good timing and band director Chris Harshman’s vision, Brazil’s sounds are coming to the isle for the first ever Whidbey Island BrazilFest. Capped by a performance from visiting musicians, the experience includes lessons for his music students from musicians familiar with Brazilian instrumental tradition.

“We’ll learn some samba, which will be fun,” Harshman said Thursday while students hung around the band room, one practicing on the upright bass, others fiddling with their instruments and eating lunch.

Getting such an infusion to the normal music curriculum helps bolster the entire program, Harshman said. For the past couple of weeks, he has led the wind and jazz ensembles, as well as the music theory class, through some lessons on Brazilian music. The most famous examples are the samba and bossa nova.

The band is not the show choir or the cheer team, and as such is not known for its dance floor talents. But they know rhythm, and the music they’ll learn from Jovino Santos Neto, a Brazilian three-time Latin Grammy nominee, arranger, composer and master pianist, and San Luis Obispo, Calif.,-based Choro de Ouro (for which Harshman’s son Keegan performs) have lots of it.

“I don’t know if we’re going to study a dance or not,” Harshman said. “But the rhythm is a dance rhythm.”

Brazilian music, he said, is largely identified by its Cuban/Latin jazz roots. It’s fast and spirited, upbeat and bright. Just a few samplings of Neto’s works and Choro de Ouro’s recordings confirm this.

Students in Harshman’s jazz and wind ensembles, plus his music theory class, will learn directly from these visiting musicians between Feb. 2-4. Everything culminates with the professional performance from Choro de Ouro and Neto. Thanks to the sponsorship of the school’s music booster club and Island Arts Council, Choro de Ouro will be in the classroom for a few days.

“We don’t often get to have artists in residence for a couple of days,” Harshman said.

Samba drum lines are a big part of modern Brazilian culture. An example is their inclusion at football games, similar to the drum lines leading Seattle Sounders fans to the game. Taking a page from Brazil, the South Whidbey High School band is working on a piece that includes each student musician breaking into a samba line. Drumline bands are popular, but it’s rare to see a jazz band or wind ensemble all break into samba drumming.

“You don’t see a lot of bands do that,” Harshman said.

Putting on a festival like this exposes students to the sounds and culture of different places, more than the curriculum normally allows. For years, Harshman has incorporated world music, but typically he can only feature one country or genre per year due to the tight schedule. In past years, Zimbabwean music was highlighted, and for good reason. Zimbabwe’s sounds have penetrated South Whidbey with local bands such as Sarungano occasionally performing.

“I think it’s understanding other cultures,” Harshman said. “It’s like food.”

“You don’t feel so alone. You understand we’re more alike,” he added.

Most people won’t get to see South Whidbey’s students dancing the samba, as the high school bands aren’t performing as part of BrazilFest. So the best bet is to catch the music of Choro de Ouro and Neto, or wait for another visit to Brazil by the SWHS band.

Whidbey Island BrazilFest

South Whidbey High School’s band program is hosting the first-ever Whidbey Island BrazilFest, including a concert featuring a pair of prominent musical groups at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 4.

Brazilian master pianist Jovino Santos Neto and Choro de Ouro of San Luis Obispo, Calif., featuring SWHS graduate Keegan Harshman, son of the school’s band director, Chris Harshman, will perform.

Tickets cost $20 for adults and $10 for students and seniors.