One evening when I was hanging out with the samba singer and composer Leandro Fregonesi, he asked me to name some of my favorite Brazilian artists.
I rattled off a few names. But when I came to Luiz Gonzaga, he stopped me and said, "If you like Luiz Gonzaga, then you have to go see this amazing musical about his life."
So on the last afternoon I was in Rio, Fregonesi's mother took me to the working class neighborhood called Ramos to see the musical "Gonzagão A Lenda" ("Gonzaga, The Legend").
Within a few minutes, I was transported to the northeast of Brazil, one of the most musically rich areas of the country. There, in the dry, poor region called "Sertão" is the birthplace of Luiz Gonzaga, the "King of Baião.”
Gonzaga was a master accordionist and storyteller whose popularity spans decades. His songs have been covered by musicians from Gilberto Gil to David Byrne. Brazilians consider Gonzaga a mythical figure, says the musical’s producer Andrea Alves.
"My parents are from the northeast, I grew up listening to Luiz Gonzaga. Any person that's from the northeast considers Gonzaga their greatest icon of their culture, he sings about their pains, about the drought of the sertão and talks about the northeastern culture like no one else."
Alves says "Gonzagão A Lenda" is not only a portrait of the Brazilian northeast but of the entire country.
"Wherever we take this show, we see how people get emotional about it, because we all have a little bit of the northeast. You might have been born in Rio or in São Paulo, but everyone has relatives who come from the northeast and have that common history."
"Asa Branca" is the anthem of the Brazilian northeast. It's a sweet, melancholic song about the plight of poor people, who must leave their home, in search of a better life. But still yearn to go back.
That late afternoon in Rio, half-way through the musical about Luiz Gonzaga, I was moved to tears. Perhaps it was Gonzaga’s story or the touching performances of his songs of love and despair.
Marcelo Mimoso portrays Gonzaga in his 30s. He says Gonzaga's music is universal.
“Fifty years from now, they're going to be teaching "Asa Branca" in schools”, Mimoso says. “It's music that will never die.”
Brazilians have a word that best describes how I felt, after I got back to the US: 'Saudade'. It's a feeling of longing for something you love that's no longer with you.
True, I miss Rio, but the week I spent in this amazing city renewed my appreciation, not just for the music of Brazil, but for its rich and diverse culture. It opened my ears to new sounds and new ways to see a country that’s distant yet so familiar.