My story takes place twenty-five years ago in Salvador, capitol city of the state of Bahia, in Northeastern Brazil. I was there to record an album of the sounds and traditional music of Brazil.
On the outskirts of the city every day in the late afternoon, an enormous crowd of people would congregate in a field. They were the followers of a faith healer. He stood on a platform in the middle of the crowd, microphone in hand, and evangelized. Thousands of people stood, transfixed by his words. Many of them came to be healed by him, or else they carried photographs or pieces of cloth belonging to someone dear to them, who needed to be cured or blessed. They would often sing and pray in unison. At the fringes of the crowd, there were people who seemed to be mesmerized or possessed. I saw one man keel over and start clawing the ground. All the while the voice of the evangelist droned on over a series of old fashioned loudspeakers that ringed the field. They distorted his voice terribly so you couldn't clearly hear, or record, what was going on. And this was my dilemma: as a sound recordist, there was only one way to faithfully represent this extraordinary moment, and that was to somehow cleave my way to the center of the crowd to where the evangelist stood on his platform.
Now this was unthinkable. The energy of the crowd was chaotic, unpredictable, scary. As we stood on its fringes, the photographer who accompanied me saw me gazing longingly towards the platform and flatly refused to go where no photographer in his right mind had gone before. Still, I would pass this gathering every afternoon as I wandered through Salvador, and it beckoned me like an unattainable holy grail of sound.
The portable tape recorder I used was the size and weight of a well-fed typewriter. I also carried an array of three microphones and wore a stereo headset. My presence was not low-key. Yet I was under the impression or illusion that wearing the headset and gear was a kind of cloak of invisibility. It was my ghost dance shirt. As long as my intentions were pure, nothing could harm me.
And so, one afternoon, I decided to go for it. One of the few Portugese words I knew was desculpe, "excuse me", and I must have said desculpe one hundred times as I slowly made my way from the outside of the crowd towards the platform.
It wasn't exactly the Red Sea parting, but it was close. With earphones on and microphone in hand, you are both in touch with and isolated from those around you. It's a paradox. I didn't stop to look at anyone; I listened and kept walking. "Desculpe; desculpe." I made it to the platform and the moment of truth. The evangelist's assistant saw me, offered me a hand and the next moment I was on the platform, a white boy with three microphones in hand, surrounded by a sea of brown and black faces, praying and singing.
Then, nearby the platform a woman screamed and went into convulsions. A small circle cleared around her. The evangelist jumped off the platform into their midst, and grabbed the woman, shouting "Embora! Embora!" "Away! Away!" He was exorcizing her bad spirits. Her convulsions stopped; the crowd sang hymns of praise. Thousands of hands holding photographs or amulets waved at the platform, like antennas seeking the vibration of salvation.
A few days later, the headline of every paper in Salvador read that the local police had supposedly moved in to control the evangelist's crowd; there was a riot, and a number of people were killed and others seriously injured. Now, if I had been there on that day, would my cloak of invisibility have protected me? Would the police presence and the energy of the crowd been enough to warn of an impending danger? Or would I have been swept up in forces beyond my control that I could not have foreseen?
When I heard about the incident in Guatemala, that's what popped into my head: what it's like to be an outsider in a situation where you have to make choices quickly, and you hope they're the right ones.
Those are the questions and the choices that turn up every time we travelers step off the beaten path and begin to improvise when things get dicey. Usually, though, it makes for a pretty good story.
Jim Metzner is the Executive Producer of Pulse of the Planet.
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