I believe in the cuíca. The cuíca is the Brazilian drum that sounds like crazy possibility. You don’t play the cuíca by beating on its top but by pulling on a string underneath the drum head. Not that I’ve ever played one. The other day I asked a friend of mine who is a Cuban drummer if he knew how to play the cuíca and his eyes got really round when he answered, “No, but I need to learn.” He understands.
When I evacuated New Orleans last year one day before Hurricane Katrina hit, I took very little with me. Like everyone else, I expected to be home in a few days. Instead, I ended up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for six weeks. Here’s what I had with me: my car, my passport, two dresses, four books, and all of my Brazilian music.
The Brazilian music saved me. I don’t mean to discount the monumental kindness friends and family showed me; I think they love me well enough to understand what I mean when I say all those songs in Portuguese kept me going.
Here’s the thing: I couldn’t concentrate to read. I always read. I couldn’t exercise either—not without weeping as soon as the endorphins kicked in. But I could listen to music—to Gilberto Gil singing about monkeys on branches and dream avocado trees in Tennessee, to Caetano Veloso singing the praises of João Gilberto, to Carlinhos Brown, Marisa Monte, Virginia Rodrigues, Elza Soares, to the extraordinary songs of Vinicius de Moraes and Ant”nio Carlos Jobim, Dorival Caymmi and Paulinho da Viola.
And scampering through all that music is the sound of the cuíca. It is impossible not to smile when a cuíca drum is sending its whacked-out joy into the air. It sounds like Africa exploding across the whole of Amazonia then piecing itself back together again, note by note, shaping a New World.
The fact that music heals is a generous reality of human existence: that music might contain the sound of the cuíca is a possibility almost too gorgeous to bear.
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