Four months before the Pandemic forced the world into lockdown, my wife went to Brazil to work on a project. I asked if she could bring me back a Brazilian banjo. It’s a local and reshaped version of this African instrument that’s also popular in the southern United States. For years, I tried to learn how to play the Brazilian banjo, but I never could.
Growing up in a favela, my home — where all seven of us lived — wasn’t much bigger than a room. Finding any sort of privacy in the claustrophobic environment was nearly impossible. Even in the unfinished bathroom, you couldn’t find privacy: only a bedsheet draped over the door frame would shield you from onlookers while on the toilet.
The neighbours’ shoebox-sized houses were so close you could reach out the window and touch the side of their home — that is if their house wasn’t already on top of ours. Through the cinder block walls, you could hear what the neighbours were watching on TV. You could hear other people laughing. You could hear neighbours crying, arguing, telling secrets, and, sometimes, even making love.
Inside our house, we learned to whisper so our secrets stayed secret. If we wanted to discuss family issues we would only speak about them during the day when barking dogs and noisy kids running through the favela would muffle the conversations coming from inside our house.
So it was nearly impossible to practice the Brazilian banjo in our tiny home without annoying someone from my family or the neighbours. Finding the time to practice was another issue. Between school, work, and having a social life, there wasn’t much time left. Back then, few of my friends taught themselves how to play several musical instruments so I felt I didn’t need to learn the banjo since they were bringing the entertainment.
I sold my first banjo for half of the price I paid for it. I had to save for six months just to buy it. I was sad to see it go.
Twenty-five years later, I now live in Canada, and finding live samba here is hard to come by. And as the pandemic shuttered businesses, I too found myself without work but time to practice. So I realized this is finally the moment to learn the Brazilian banjo with the hopes of eventually hosting a live samba music party (when the pandemic finally ends, of course), like the old days back in Brazil.
Thanks to many YouTube tutorials and a few online banjo lessons from a Brazilian musician over Zoom, I finally started to learn how to play the Brazilian banjo. It’s been the best medicine to cope with anxiety and all sorts of stress the pandemic has brought into our lives.
As the world faces the third wave of COVID-19 infections, I practice the Brazilian banjo daily. I’ve joked with my wife that it’s my new best friend. I hope that one day we will be able to celebrate life together again, and I would be able to show off some skills that took me 25 years to finally start to learn.