Last year, Chart Beat spotlighted New York-based singer-songwriter Sarah J as she recapped the process, step by step, of what it’s like to audition for NBC’s “The Voice.”
This summer, Sarah undertook a different kind of mission: teaching music and more in the Amazon.
Here’s her firsthand account of teaching remote villagers the joys of music, as well as what they taught her.
It’s pitch black in the middle of the night, lightly raining, and I hear rats digging through my bags. I hear birds and insects singing. I freeze, holding my breath, doing the only thing I can do: hoping the rats will stay under my bed and not climb over me in my sleep. I am in the middle of the Amazon jungle, in a cabin, sleeping on a wooden-platform bunk bed without electricity or running water – by choice.
Last November, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s long-reaching devastation across the East Coast, I truly realized how fragile life is. I was incredibly lucky to have lost only power, and that just for nine days. Still, it changed something within me and I knew I needed to change my life. I’d been spinning my wheels for the past year, waiting for my next adventure to come along. Hurricane Sandy was not what I had in mind, but it became the catalyst for me to stop waiting.
I had traveled extensively around the East Coast and the Southeast both with my former rock band and as a solo artist. I’d performed at legendary clubs, including CBGB, the Whisky a Go Go and B.B. King’s Blues Club. But I’d never left the US. I grew up poor and we couldn’t afford to travel. As an adult, I always had some excuse as to why I never got a passport. However, for some reason, the first thing I did when power was restored locally was apply for my first passport. I received it in two weeks.
I have no idea why a standard sightseeing trip didn’t cross my mind at the time, but I contacted an old friend, Ben Angulo, who had recently started a non-profit organization based in Maine. Ben and I had met leading camping and hiking trips together almost 15 years ago and remained in touch throughout the various courses our respective lives took. His non-profit organization intrigued me: its goal was to help an indigenous community in the Amazon rainforest learn to live sustainably. I asked if I’d be able to be of any help for a week or two in the village. He said they’d love to have me to help teach English and bring some music there. Armed with the decision to make my first trip outside the U.S. to a remote village in the Amazon jungle in Colombia, I began making plans, crowd-sourcing funds, buying tickets for a June trip and getting vaccinations.
After dinner on our second evening in the village of La Libertad, Amazonas, Colombia, Ben asked me to play for the villagers. I tuned my Martin backpacker (the only guitar I felt comfortable bringing to the Amazon) and began to play for a rapt audience. More stars than I’d seen in my life provided the backdrop for one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever delivered. My skin was covered in layers of sunscreen and bug spray and my clothes were dirty and soaked with sweat and humidity. I hadn’t worn makeup since I’d left New York City almost three days prior and my hair was in the same pinned-up braids I’d put it in two days ago. I’d never been so completely myself for a performance while also being so completely out of my element. Here, nobody spoke the language I was singing in. Nobody wore makeup and nobody cared that I didn’t either.
Though I had just arrived the day before, the villagers gathered around – babies to grandparents – and sat quietly on a bench, on rocks and on the ground. They came trailing out of their homes once I started singing the first songs and continued to sit down and listen until it was completely dark and time for bed. I felt so lucky to have come so far from my fairly sheltered upbringing and to be able to share something that means so much to me with people who truly appreciated it.
The next morning, while I struggled to build a fire with wet rainforest wood, a baby who could barely speak walked up to me in the kitchen, pointed at me and said “¡Cantadora!” which means “singer.” Knowing I’d made an impact, even on such a young person, made everything worth it. A villager around my age told me I sounded like Shakira; coming from a Colombian, that was quite a compliment. She’s been a major influence of mine for more than a decade.
One night I sang my “Penguin Song” for the villagers. It was written by a very dear friend of mine, Griff, who took his own life in 2011 and his family gave me permission to record it and continue performing it to keep his spirit alive. This song, and Griff’s spirit, has now traveled from Georgia to North Carolina, New York, Los Angeles, Vermont and Colombia.
Ben had brought a tablet with a keyboard app on it and one afternoon I played “Stay” by Rihanna while lounging in a hammock. It was the only song I could think of that could be played with the small section of keyboard on the tablet. Our main village contact, Gustavo, had tears in his eyes by the end. I realized the villagers had probably never seen nor heard a piano in person before.
On one of my last nights in the village, I sang while Ben cooked dinner. I actually had children request a song I’d written myself and played a couple of days before. The chorus has the words “baby, baby, please don’t / baby, don’t bring me down” in it and two children said to me (in Spanish): “Sarah, sing the baby song.” Confused, I asked them which “baby song” a few times before one started singing and it hit me that it was my song – my song, a song in English that I had written – that they remembered and wanted to hear. The word “baby” stuck out to them because it’s repeated over and over and they latched on to it. Amazed and humbled, I happily obliged them, feeling more passion for my craft than I’d felt in a long time.
Not only did I have children singing along with me and making up words to the English ones they didn’t understand, but at one point, Yuki, a motherless baby monkey who spent most of his time playing with the dogs in the village, climbed into my lap and started howling along with me. I was shocked. It had taken him a little time to warm up to me and now here he was, sitting in my lap, singing along. A wild animal of a different species who doesn’t speak English and isn’t a pet had willingly climbed into my lap to sing with me. Even now, writing this entry in my apartment months later, I feel the same sense of surprise and unity I felt then.
I’m back in New York living what Ben calls our “vida aburrida” – our boring life, where I do “important” things all day to make enough money just to get by. Who is luckier? Me to live in the biggest city or the villagers to live in paradise? We both struggle with money, food, and what others need or want from us. We are not so different after all. How can I try not to forget what I saw, what I felt, what I learned, while I’m stuck in the rat race? In the village I kept thinking, “This is my real life. Who gets to do this if they don’t have a travel show on TV?”
I want my life to be full of such adventure always. I will always be a musician. Now it is time to be a human, too. To experience, to love, try, take risks, explore, throw caution to the wind. It is time for me to keep living and enjoy and embrace life. I’m grateful to Ben for starting this project and being so knowledgeable, understanding, fun and kind. He has lived a life of adventure – and continues to do so – and I wish for the same for myself. My music will come with me everywhere I go and my journey has only just begun.
For more information on Amazon Pueblo, more in-depth stories from volunteers, or to find out how you can visit the village of La Libertad and share your talents with the community, visit www.amazonpueblo.org