Skip to content

If music be the food of…

February 17, 2014

“Love” according to Shakespeare, but it could be any number of things. Music has been a form of communication since the first notes were struck.

This post is inspired by an article I picked up the other day on a Japanese singer who has become a YouTube hit here in Brazil because of her cover versions of some of Brazil’s most well-known singers (Caetano Veloso, Maria Monte, among others). What is so impressive about this young Japanese singer, Tsubasa Imamura, is that the Portuguese language is far from easy for a European let alone a Japanese speaker. She admits having trouble with the “r”s and “l”s as every Brazilian would appear to have his or her own way of pronouncing them. However if you take a look at her special Brazilian YouTube channel and then compare her to the original…you will be impressed.

So this got me thinking about Brazilian music as a tool for learning Portuguese. I have studied a number of languages in my time and never have I spent so much of the language learning time filling in blanks for the lyrics of songs, and then having to actually sing the song! Brazilians love their music, but it’s not just the carnival style Samba and moving to the beat that they enjoy: they actually love singing along to a vast repertory of songs known as Música Popular Brasilieira (MPB). 

MPB is derived from bossa nova which took its inspiration from Samba. Bossa Nova means “new trend” or new way of doing something and although the word was coined as early as 1932 it was a certain Joao Gilberto who popularised the fusion of jazz and samba to produce this new trend of music that has evolved to include a variety of different styles, all now considered part of MPB.

One aspect of this music that might explain why it is so widely used in Portuguese language classes, is its development as a genre during the period of military dictatorship and its clever use of the Portuguese language. During concerts in the late 60s, programmes or song sheets with the words to all the songs were distributed to the audience. Personally, I think this explains why Brazilians take such pleasure in singing along to their favourite sambistas and musicians.

Chico Buarque for example ( like many others), used his music to avoid censorship and disguised the political message he was trying to get across in a series of plays on words. Perhaps one of the most well-known of these is a song called “Cálice”- literally chalice, where the expression “shut your mouth” – cale-se sounds exactly the same as “cálice”. The song is a protest against censorship disguised as a song about the Last Supper.

But it is not so much the disguised words that make it a tool for language learning, as the fact this genre came from the well-educated classes of Brazilian society. Subjunctives are rife, grammar is excellent and, from a student of Portuguese’s perspective, these songs are one of the more relaxing ways to learn subjunctive tenses and interesting vocabulary. I haven’t quite worked out yet whether the cadence of the Japanese language and the need to pronounce every vowel sound, as one does in Portuguese, means Tsubasa Imamura has an advantage over us all. Her latest single “Singular” is actually in Portuguese with a chorus in Japanese…

So for any budding lusophone, I strongly recommend tuning in to Gilberto Gil, Maria Bethania, Caetano Veloso or Chico Buarque as the secret to mastering the Brazilian language (and a little of its culture too!) And to quote the bard once more “If music be the food of “globalização”* play on…

*globalization…in case you hadn’t worked it out!

Brazil 2016 to Tokyo 2O2O …connect the dots

September 17, 2013

Japan plays a big part in my life and as I watch from afar, I cannot help but become excited about the Olympic Games that are to be held there in, wait…another 7 years. Ok , so it’s not tomorrow and the Rio Games are still another three years away.  Why the excitement?

Well, the funny thing about Brazil is that there are more links to Japan than one would imagine. For a “nippophile” like myself this is good news and makes for interesting research, comparisons and musings.

As I sat in a local restaurant last week, eating one of the best Japanese meals I have had since moving West (yes, it beat anything I had eaten in Miami), I started wondering about the Japanese-ness of Brazil or of certain Brazilians. The other day, I almost started talking Japanese to somebody at the gym who I am sure is of Japanese descent, however, I stopped myself as I have discovered that many Japanese descendents no longer speak the lingo.

The first Japanese settlers in Brazil arrived in the early 20th Century to work not on tea plantations but on coffee plantations, because of the shortage of labour Brazil was experiencing due to the abolition of slavery and the lack of European labourers coming to South America. In fact, Brazil and Japan signed a treaty in 1907 allowing Japanese immigration to Brazil and, over a period of seven or so years, almost 15,000 Japanese moved here. The peak was in the 1930s and today the current Japanese Brazilian or Nikkei-burajiru-jin  population is estimated at somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 billion.

So if wanted to immerse myself in Brazilian Japan where would I need to go? The largest Japanese population today is concentrated in and around Sao Paulo city and state, quite simply because most of the coffee plantations were in that area. However, there are Japanese immigrants (now fourth generation or “yonsei”) in Parana, Pernambuco, Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso do Sul and Bahia as well as small numbers elsewhere. Liberdade, in Sao Paulo city is Brazil’s largest “Japan town” and home to the Festival do Japao, an annual event that was launched by the KENREN (association of Japanese regions in Brazil) in 1998 and has since become the largest Japanese cultural event in South America.

As well as numerous activities, exhibitions, and commercial and industrial promotional events (notably on Japanese innovation), one of the attractions of this year’s event was the Brazilian final of the World Cosplay Summit to select finalists who would go forward to compete in Japan. This year’s world final was held in Nagoya and the Italian team won: 

Guess where I plan to be next July? Liberdade here  I come! OK not dressed in a crazy manga character costume, but ready to make the most of Japan in Brazil. Between now and then I can mug up on my history of Japanese immigration with a publication launched by the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics) in 2008 to celebrate a 100 years of Japan in Brazil “O vento do Oriente” (The wind from the East). It is a book in manga format that reads from right to left (for the manga part) and from left to right for lessons on how to do Origami!

O vento de Oriente

I am sure I have only scraped the tip of the iceberg in terms of dots connecting these two countries…plenty of time for more between now and 2016! Ganbarimashou as the Japanese would say…not found the Portuguese translation yet…(something like esforça -se) will keep you posted!


Lost in Translation…

August 30, 2013

in Brasilia…

This is definitely not Tokyo but I can’t help thinking of that fabulous film. In fact it is helping put everything into perspective and shine a little light on the ups and downs of discovering a new culture, city and a totally new way of communicating. Yes, Brazil speaks Portuguese like Japan speaks Japanese. There is no need to learn another language because with an ever increasing population set to top out at 228 million in 2045, in a country the size of the States (minus Alaska), why learn English?

Whatsmore, I am not only in Brazil, but in Brasilia, in the Brazilian equivalent of the midwest; it is not quite in the Amazon, and is up at 1000m on a dry arid plateau of red earth which receives a yearly watering from October to April. The city was built between 1956 and 1960 on a site envisioned by the Italian monk Dom Bosco, who, in the late 19th century, dreamt of a utopian city somewhere in the New World between the 15th and 20th parallels. The name Dom Bosco is found all over the city ; one of the most impressive monuments to him is the Sanctuary of beautiful blue stained glass designed by Claudio Naves

Brasilia has half a foot in the sixties and half somewhere between 1980 and now…or at least that’s the impression it gives me, inquisitive and questioning newcomer. I am not going to attempt to explain the logic of the plano piloto which is the central part of the city and looks like an airplane from above (who ever takes a plane up just to admire the view??).  However I can confirm that Brasilia in the winter (winter? average temp 27/28, no rain, no snow, a little chilly at night…nothing like winter if you ask me…eternal summer more like!) has the most incredible sun rises and sunsets, especially from the 16th floor of a centrally located hotel.


Scenery and sunsets apart, the challenge of the moment is communication. OK, so I am a fairly culturally fluent member of society and love learning languages and Portuguese is a wonderful mix of French and Spanish with nasal stuff here, guttural stuff there and a lot of swallowing of word endings…but have you ever tried to negotiate on the telephone successfully in your own language, let alone a foreign one you don’t actually master?

Situation 1:

Me (in Portuguese of course!!) : Hello, I have seen a house I would like to visit. Do you think it would be possible to see it today?

Them: blahblahblah blah, bbblahd ok?

Me: Ok so 1:30 works?

Them: blahblah blah 1…blah blah address

Me: Super. So I will meet you at the house at 130pm?

Them: blah blah blah. Thank you

Me: Thank you and see you there.

And what is incredible is that I have somehow managed to visit about 30 houses and each time turned up at the right place at the right time and somebody was there. AND the people that I have met all continue to speak to me in Portuguese as if it was my native tongue and I understood everything! Where things get lost in translation is the next step which consists of trying to negotiate a rental agreement or the price, or even repairs and paintwork. The other day I simply had to ask the person to send me an email with exactly what they had just said to me. At least I am in a country whose language is relatively straightforward to read if you already speak French and Spanish. Imagine an arabic speaking country. OK so you have a few basic words of Arabic, you go and visit a couple of houses and then ask for the details. Lo and behold wonderful piece of beautiful looking script that you have no idea how to decipher!

Thinking about arabic, hindi, swahili or the challenges of communicating when you don’t have the faintest idea of what is being said, reminds me of how necessary it is to take a step back and think about how body language and facial expression are essential tools to communication. If all else fails a smile, a laugh or a handshake can save the day. The first step to culturally fluent communication* is pulling down your own natural barriers (the ones that are screaming at you, YOU DO NOT FEEL AT EASE BECAUSE YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND). Breath deeply, smile, think of how funny the situation is. The person opposite you hasn’t a clue what you are saying either. They want to help you as much as you want their help.  Once you do this, I assure you, somehow, the miracle of human nature and our ability to communicate will take over and you will no longer be lost!


* a quick reference to my research project on Cultural Fluency with Elva Rickard.

Photos by Tom.

Miami the magic city…thank you!

July 15, 2013

As I pack my bags and wonder to myself if I really do need all this “stuff” (not kit that I have accumulated in Miami by the way, but just stuff that I seem to drag around the world with me), I muse over what I have accumulated during my time here.  Although America is by essence the land of the consumer, my baggage doesn’t weigh anymore than when I arrived…well not much more. I didn’t accumulate objects, things or even (perhaps a little sadly) art. No, it is the experiences and people I have made and met that will accompany me on my travels.

Amazing encounters, fabulous experiences, meetings with like minds, sharing ideas, the tastes of Latin America and the Caribbean, and the friends I made along the way…Yes, Miami really is magic. It is one of the USA’s best kept secrets and I was lucky enough to be part of the magic for four amazing years. So here’s a small dedication to a place I highly recommend, to work in, live in and play in.

NPR’s morning shows and meeting their local team, cafecitos and cortaditos at Llarios, traffic on US1, a drink at sunset overlooking the harbour at Coconut Grove, music at the clubs with Guetta and friends, cycling to the Fairchild Tropical and Botanical Garden, Wynwood and the walls with graffiti art to  blow the mind, events galore at New World Centre, LabMiami , the Light Box, the Wolfsonian, and of course the Arsht Centre…UM, FIU, MDC, downtown, the Beach, Midtown, MiamiArtBasel, sport with Ricky, Joseph and the gang, sundowners on Fridays, film festivals, museums and Art Deco…Just a little of what made Miami magic for me!

But of course more than the places, sounds and smells are the people I am leaving behind. So this little, late post is for them: Helene, Valerie, Jodi, Ellen, Erica, Evelyn, Audrey, Matt, Stephanie, Jodie, Matt, Lisa, Sylvia, Marya, Cathy, Amy, Cecile, Mark, Pato, Alex, TEDxMiami team, Thibaut, Victoria, Gisele, Ilaria, Ted, Kathy, Nan, Pablo, Ricardo, Nabyl, Germain, Louis, Lorena, Laure, Laurence, Sebastian, …and everyone else, thank you for sharing the magic!


ABC* Foundation – let’s hear it for social entrepreneurs

November 29, 2012

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend the Americas Business Council Foundation  Continuity Forum here in Miami. A three-day event showcasing 32 great social entrepreneurial ideas, the conference was also an amazing melting pot of what Miami does best…gives a voice to both North and South America through connecting business and ideas from both ends of the continent.

Food for thought and music to the ears. Kofi Anan shared his view on how the world today should be addressing many of the issues facing both North and South American nations. His message was that the rule of law is the key to building strong democracies and Latin America needs to build strong democratic societies in order to further the economic and social development that is their focus today. Narrow national interests will not help address problems like climate change, clean energy and improving social infrastructures.

His words set the scene for the three days which took us on an enlightening tour of social entrepreneurs from every walk of life from the heartlands of Mexico’s rainforests to Indian ideas on better healthcare for migrant workers. Of the thirty or so projects that had been selected by the Ashoka Foundation and the ABC Council, a couple particularly grabbed my attention.

Johnny Cohen is a high school student who has come up with a very simple idea on how to save energy and make school buses more streamline. Take a look at the Green Shields project: http://www.greenshields

I was also impressed by a Mexican project called Sierra Gorda whose aim is to mitigate global warming and poverty by using a network of over 40,000 participants in the Sierra Gorda region of Mexico who all work on different projects for conservation, biodiversity and restoring local fauna and flora. There is a social return on every dollar invested thus creating an “economy of conservation” for the local population. More on:

Other speakers included Jared Cohen who gave his five cents on cyber terrorism and the empowerment of the individual in the new digital age; Steve Wozniak on his experience as an entrepreneur creating Apple Macs in his garage; and a rather long-winded discourse from Chris Hughes (who really needs someone to coach him so that his talks have a lot more punch) on both his experience founding Facebook and his projects for the New Republic and the future of long-form journalism in the age of social media.

Perhaps the only wrong note in the conference came from Coca Cola. For reasons beyond my ken, the Sustainability Director of Coca Cola came to talk about all the good Coke is doing in the world…I suppose my “anti-sugar”, “hate-high-fructose-corn-syrup'” stance just couldn’t understand how a company that produces one of the most toxic drinks in the world can possibly crow about the social and sustainable good it is doing in the world. Surely, surely the killer sugar drink and its consequences (obesity, tooth decay, bad health), far outweigh any benefits this company is trying to promote?

So my take away from this conference is quite simple really. Lend an ear to the social entrepreneurs of this world as they are a collective force for good and need our support.

To find out more about the 32 candidates go to :

TEDxMIA 2012 – we framed the future…or at least tried to…and here’s how we did it!

November 20, 2012

As you know one of my more time-consuming tasks here is organising and curating TEDx events. This year was no exception and TEDxMIA successfully held its third annual event at the New World Center on Miami Beach. We sold out to more than 600 attendees who came, mixed, mingled, shared drinks and ideas on the future and then sat and listened (and we think enjoyed) 9 performances.

I use the word performance because a TED Talk really is a performance of sorts. The process of putting on a show like this is much more complex than it might appear. If you read the New Yorker on 9th July 2012 there was a very enlightening article about TED and how the “mother” organisation curates speakers . I now know we are on the right track : as I read it, I realised that we try to take the same care to curate “the talk of your life” with each speaker. So instead of giving a blow-by-blow account of the evening (check out the talks on our website:, I thought I would share a little of the process we go through to produce the event.

We spend hours reading through applications to speak. It is quite jaw dropping the number of applicants and the ideas they want to share. Obviously not all make the cut, not necessarily because the ideas are bad, it is simply a question of choosing the right idea for Miami. Our mission being to share ideas about and for Miami, we want to try to eek out that special person  who may not have done any public speaking before, but who really has an IDEA to share…not a business, or a book, an idea! Once we have a short list, we meet the potential speakers and listen to their ideas in under 3 minutes.

The show doesn’t last all day so we can only select up to 10 different speakers and once this is done, our theme tends to fall into place after an evening of brainstorming and piecing together how the ideas will resonate alongside each other. This year’s ideas all resonated with what the future holds…so Framing the Future became our theme.

Thereafter, we spent a serious number of hours listening, commenting, writing and exchanging with our incredible line up of speakers and performers. The input to a short 7 minute talk is often far greater than one would ever imagine. Just have a go at talking consistently in an engaging manner while keeping to the point and sharing a complex idea in a simple way for 7 minutes. It is not easy! I take my hat off to each and every one of our past speakers for their time and dedication to each talk they have given. My task is to put the nuts and bolts together and produce a great show, with great talks, but rewriting, rethinking, re-planning and re-doing slides, presentations and performances is up to the speakers.

The final result is always so much better than any rehearsal and this I put down to the other essential element to a successful conference, event or show: the audience, spectators, attendees…call them what you may. The atmosphere they create will put the finishing touches to a talk. The energy they diffuse will set the speaker on the right path. The enthusiasm they show will make the event a success.

Whether our future be in saving sharks, listening to better music, making politics less polarised, painting school roofs green, eating marshmallows, building houses in slums or disrupting philanthropy, going beyond bionics, developing new forms of percussion, searching for the other, or simply finding the secret to life, it is going to be an amazing place to be.

So thank you to Justin, Leisha, Joachim, Nicolas, Pioneer, Peter, Svet, Neil, Pablo, and Shelly for framing the future with us and sharing their amazing ideas.

To listen and watch all the talks please go to:

Lend your leg

April 4, 2012

Today, April 4th, is International Mine Action Day. So what? I hear you say. So alot I say. This is a day where around the world people are giving a voice to all the “ban land mine” campaigns and in support of the UNs action to get rid of this unnecessary evil, are rolling up a trouser leg and saying “no” to landmines.

When I lived in Sri Lanka, I saw the devastating effects of landmines. The people affected were neither soldiers nor rebels, but simply people like you and I who went to the end of their gardens to dig up a few vegetables, inadvertently stepped on a landmine that had been “left behind” from the war, and lost a limb for life. Yes, it’s as harrowingly simple as that.

So today please take two minutes to go online, lend your leg and find out a little more about what all the anti landmine organisations are doing to try and ban landmines, dig up and remove those that have been left behind, and eliminate once and for all this destructive tool of war.

For more information go to the following sites: and


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 186 other followers