Home these days for musician Vanessa Rodrigues is high on a hill in Rio de Janeiro, in a place called The Maze that doubles as an inn and a happening underground music club. Her bird’s-eye views of tropical forest, Rio’s famous Po de Acar mountain and Guanabara Bay couldn’t contrast more with Edmonton, where she grew up. This multi-talented salsa and jazz keyboard player works the Rio clubs and tours with some of Brazil’s best musicians. Her recording and performance roster in and out of Canada is impressive, but even more singular is her social activism through music.
Rodrigues teaches violin and string ensemble three days a week to kids in the Roinha favela, one of South America’s most populous, poor urban neighborhoods. Close to 200,000 people live there on hillsides just out of view of the glitzy Ipanema and Copacabana beaches.
“We are slaves to our desires,” Rodrigues says about what she calls her “dream-life” in Rio, combining sweat, hustle, and a gritty determination to survive. “Destiny chooses you, then you have to respond to the call. That’s why I am here doing what I do.”
It all started back home for this thoughtful, soft-spoken woman whose Latin complexion and name could easily mark her as a native Brazilian.
She grew up playing classical music in a cultured home. Insightful parents wanted her to have a variety of life experiences, so she attended Spruce Avenue School, a rough-and-tumble inner-city school that took part in a city-wide music initiative. She played with the Singing Strings Orchestra and performed in city events, as well touring to Portugal, Taiwan and Germany.
“That experience was all about being a team: Friendships, learning collectively,” she says. “That’s the backbone of my childhood in Edmonton.”
And it was a defining one. After jazz studies at McGill University, where Rodrigues was active in Montreal’s jumping salsa scene, she travelled to Brazil for the first time in 2009 to study percussion. There, Rio cast its spell on her. “At first I thought it was just like a drug,” she says, “and the effect would wear off.” By January of 2012 she had returned, hoping to call the exotic city home. “My life is divided in two sections: Before and after discovering Rio.”
While taking samba lessons in Roinha, Rodrigues discovered the favela’s non-profit music school with a closet full of unplayed violins and no teacher. Rodrigues volunteered. The inspiration and guiding light for her musical activism is Jos Antonio Abreu, the Venezuelan economist and public music educator who founded the famed El Sistema (Social Action for Music) program.
“Music has the power to combat social problems,” says Rodrigues. “It saves kids who have tough lives.”
Brazil Strings is the NGO Rodrigues recently founded – it’s a Canadian organization with all its activities carried out in Brazil. Her goal is to make a difference by bringing volunteer music teachers to Brazil.
“It’s not about me. I want to do my work in peace and spread joy and happiness through music.”