Robert Lopez had only been on Fulbright’s nine-month trip to Brazil for seven months, studying syncretic religious music from Candomblé, when program officials asked him to return to the United States.
That Oakland percussion and improvised musical scene equipment very devastated. Lopez spent years pursuing prestigious research funds, and he and his colleagues lost their jobs and rent-controlled apartments to move to Salvador, the center of Afro-Brazilian spiritual practice. “I expect two or three months to plan to reenter,” Lopez said. “Instead it’s only a few days.”
Fulbright told Lopez and other grant recipients to leave Brazil on March 20 when the new coronavirus escalated into a global pandemic, revoking his health care and withholding 41 percent of a $ 15,350 grant for living and travel expenses. Instead of increasing safety, Lopez felt Fulbright actually increased the risk of his exposure. “Fly back to the United States, nothing is playing,” he said.
A little consolation that Fulbright now regards Lopez as a program alum. “That doesn’t mean anything to me now,” he said. From temporary housing in the Southern California desert, where Lopez and his colleague, experimental musician Shanna Sordahl, had been quarantined themselves, he joined other Fulbrighters to write congressmen, asking at least for full salaries.
“But what I want more than anything is to return to Brazil and complete this project,” Lopez said.
Lopez, 37, met with the drum ensemble of Candomblé, a religious expression brought about by the Atlantic slave trade and Portuguese colonialism, as a Cal State Long Beach scholar on a trip to Brazil with the World Percussion Project. He moved to the Bay Area in 2011 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the Mills College music department, and five years ago began to study independently with a percussionist and master Candomble dancer in Oakland, Jorge Alabê.
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