Since I’ve arrived in Brazil I’ve become enamored with the Rio de Janeiro. I only have one more day here before I have to travel to other cities in Brazil and so I’ve wanted to make the most of my time. My tour manager has been “The-Most-Gracious-Host” by taking me around and introducing me to locations off-the-beaten path (which is the way I love to travel).
We hit the streets early yesterday morning going all over the city, visiting sites, checking out historical architecture, and taking-in breathtaking landscapes. Mid-day we made it to Corcovado and visited the famous landmark of Christ the Redeemer with outstretched hands.
Following the visit to Corcovado we went to “Escadaria Selerón.” This is the iconic tiled stairway extending from Rua Joaquim to Rua Pinto Martins. The artist, Jorge Selerón, started placing tiles scavenged from around Rio on the steps outside of his own apartment in 1990. Today, 21years later, he has installed more than 2,000 tiles given to him from donors around the world. Those tiles presently cover more than 250 steps and Selerón expects to continue this work until the day of his death.
My interest in the artist had less to do with the famous tiled pathway and more to do with the theme of his paintings. For some reason, which Selerón will not tell, the subject of the majority of his paintings is the pregnant figure of a black woman. He has said that it has something to do with troubles from his past. I was hoping to have a chance to take pictures of the tiled images of his paintings along the stairway.
As I was taking some pictures of different tiles, Selerón’s assistant showed up. Fortunately for me he spoke Spanish. We conversed for some time and he invited me into their studio. We entered the studio, a cramped, dark space. I could barely stand up some in some areas of it without bumping my head into the low-hanging beamed ceilings. I looked around at all of the paintings, trying to figure out which one I could afford. I settled on a really nice painting of two pregnant black women playing musical instruments against the backdrop of a favela.
We hadn’t been in the studio for too long before Selerón himself walked in. It was a great surprise. We struck up a conversation in Spanish, Selerón originally being from Chile. Once he found out that I was a storyteller he became animated. He talked about his grandmother in Chile and the stories she used to tell him, he told me about his travels and some of the stories of his life. As we were conversing he began telling me about a storyteller from Africa he had once seen in Rio. A storyteller musician from West Africa who made such an impression on him that he has never forgotten the performance so many years later.
The irony in the situation was that he seemed to be describing me. I was standing before him in jeans and a t-shirt. He had no way of knowing that the colorful robes he was describing, the elaborate hats and strange stringed instrument were all part of my artistry. As I stood there not saying a word, my tour manager interjected excitedly, “That sounds like you Baba!”
It obviously wasn’t me, but another griot who had traveled through Rio performing many years ago.
Our conversation was so engaging that I didn’t want to leave, but we had a schedule to maintain. As I was leaving Selerón surprised me by handing me a gift. I was so touched by his generosity that I promised to return later in the afternoon to play my instrument, sing for him and share a story.
I returned later in the day and stood below of Selerón’s balcony. I sang a traditional praise song. He appeared on his balcony, smiled, and then came down the steps to sit outside of his apartment on the tiled stairway. I played my Kora, sang and shared a tale in Spanish with him. Once again, it was hard to leave. An impromptu performance for a world famous artist; what a memorable experience.
After I left Selerón, my tour guide took me to a dinner hosted in my honor by a group of local Brazilian storytellers. I had an exceptional time there as well. I told a few tales but also got to hear a few as well. I received gifts of books, food (and more food), tales and wonderful conversation. I was exhausted because the day had been a nonstop itinerary of moving from one thing, or place, immediately to the next.
I love my work!