How Coronavirus Derailed a Fulbright Fellow’s Musicological Research in Brazil

Shanna Sordahl, Robert Lopez and Bira Santos (L–R) in Brazil.  (Courtesy Robert Lopez)

Robert Lopez was only seven weeks into a nine-month Fulbright trip to Brazil, studying music of the syncretic religion Candomblé, when program officials told him to return to the United States.

The Oakland percussionist and improvised music scene fixture was devastated. Lopez spent years pursuing the prestigious research grant, and he and his partner forfeited their jobs and rent-controlled apartment to move to Salvador, a center of the Afro-Brazilian spiritual practice. “I expected two or three months to plan re-entry,” Lopez said. “Instead it was a matter of days.”

Fulbright told Lopez and other grantees to leave Brazil on March 20 as the novel coronavirus escalated into a global pandemic, revoking his healthcare and withholding 41 percent of the $15,350 grant for living and travel expenses. Instead of enhancing safety, Lopez felt Fulbright actually heightened his exposure risk. “Flying back to the U.S., no one was screened,” he said.

It’s little consolation that Fulbright now considers Lopez a program alum. “That doesn’t mean anything to me right now,” he said. From temporary housing in the Southern California desert, where Lopez and his partner, experimental musician Shanna Sordahl, have self-quarantined, he’s joining with other Fulbrighters to write congresspeople, asking at least for the full stipend.

“But what I want more than anything is to go back to Brazil and finish this project,” Lopez said.

Atabaques, a type of hand drum used in Candomblé music, and yellow flowers symbolizing the deity Oxum.
Atabaques, a type of hand drum used in Candomblé music, and yellow flowers symbolizing the deity Oxum. (Robert Lopez)

Lopez, 37, encountered the ensemble drumming of Candomblé, a religious expression borne of the Atlantic slave trade and Portuguese colonialism, as a Cal State Long Beach undergraduate on trips to Brazil with the World Percussion Project. He moved to the Bay Area in 2011 to pursue a graduate degree in the Mills College music department, and five years ago began studying independently with a master Candomblé percussionist and dancer in Oakland, Jorge Alabê.

Sponsored

In a Candomblé ceremony, musicians lead dancers in tributes to unique deities, known as orixás. The ensemble generally includes a bell player, two support drummers and a lead drummer playing atabaques, hand drums akin to congas. Lopez was moved by the atabaque’s dynamic range and the music’s fluid feel, especially the improvisational lead drum. Studying with Alabê, he grew skilled enough to support Candomblé dancers for educational and ceremonial purposes.

Lopez was fortunate to meet Alabê. Unlike idioms such as samba, master percussionists in the Candomblé tradition are rare outside of Brazil. At the same time, he noticed the music receiving little scholarly attention. He felt the pull of Salvador, a port city in the Bahia state considered sacred in the Candomblé faith, to gain cultural context. “Otherwise it’s like studying jazz coordination patterns on drums without hearing musicians interact in the moment,” Lopez said.

Robert Lopez and Shanna Sordahl parading during Carnaval.
Robert Lopez and Shanna Sordahl parading during Carnaval. (Courtesy Robert Lopez)

Lopez first’s Fulbright application in 2017 was declined. He re-submitted in October of 2018, and was accepted last April. He learned conversational Portuguese, secured a university affiliation and made key inroads with practitioners in Salvador to prepare for the intensive ethnomusicological study. “I am on the cusp of having the knowledge and ability to take a leadership role in the transmission of Candomblé in the US,” he wrote in the project proposal.

For a short while, Lopez was on track to achieve his goals. He and Sordahl sublet the apartment of Rosangela Silvestre, a dancer he’d accompanied as a drummer in California. He received group and individual instruction most days at the Diáspora Art Center in Salvador and private studios from teachers including Nem Britto, Bira Santos, Iuri Passos, Ueslei “Totó” Cruz and Mario Pam. Lopez also developed a daily transcription practice, notating music traditionally taught by example.

In mid-March, Fulbright notified Lopez and some 30 other fellows in Brazil that they could continue receiving medical coverage and their stipend if they signed a waiver releasing the Department of State-funded program from liability. Lopez signed it. Days later, though, Fulbright walked back the option. “The order on the 20th said you have days before your health coverage runs out, and you’re not getting funded,” Lopez said. “Fulbright was totally unprepared.”

Fulbright has called participants’ health and safety its highest priority in the unprecedented program cancellation, which affects hundreds of fellows worldwide. But many fellows believe they were needlessly exposed, especially now that the United States vastly outpaces other countries in the number of confirmed cases. “By far the greatest worry we had about returning to the United States...was contracting COVID-19 while traveling,” Maia Evrona, a writer and Fulbright fellow studying in Greece and Spain, wrote in an account for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Grantees such as Lopez, meanwhile, are now left to recover work and housing in a spiraling economy. “When you leave your place in the Bay Area, it’s hard to come back, especially as an artist,” said Lopez, who’s staying with Sordahl near Joshua Tree. “The next payment is barely a month’s rent.” Lopez previously taught at the Community Music Center and San Francisco Waldorf High School; the music center will rehire him, but the hours aren’t guaranteed, and classes have migrated online. As a musician, his prospects for paid gigs are next to none.

Oxum Square at the Candomblé temple Casa Branca, where Lopez's teacher Jorge Alabê was initiated.
Oxum Square at the Candomblé temple Casa Branca, where Lopez's teacher Jorge Alabê was initiated. (Robert Lopez)

Because Fulbright is paying stipends through June, fellows whose trips correspond with the school year are receiving most of the grant. Lopez, however, is among the fellows who started later, putting him out $6,346. At the end of April, he’s anticipating a final payment of $2,254. Receiving the alum title also stings—it implies there’s no option for him to renew his studies. Not long after recalling 2020 fellows, Fulbright began approving a new round of grantees for 2021.

Sponsored

The experience in Brazil only steeled his resolve to return. Lopez’s interest in the dance of Candomblé, not previously a research focus, grew immensely. His daily transcription practice clarified connections between Candomblé and other Afro-Atlantic religions. He also felt privileged to play support atabaque in a ceremony for the deity Oxúm at the Terreiro Pilão de Prata, he said. “Experiencing the songs, the dance, the trance—that’s what I was there for.”