Cellist Emily Burridge has played with the biggest names in pop music. Outside of her professional work, Emily is a passionate supporter of Brazil’s Xavante people. On Saturday, she’s hosting a Shaftesbury concert, fundraising for the tribe.
If you were one of the millions of people who bought George Michael’s album ‘Listen Without Prejudice’ you will have heard Emily’s cello-playing on one of the tracks, ‘Praying For Time’, released as a single from the album.
“I’ve been working as a session cellist on recordings for 25 years,” said Emily. “Also, I do online sessions for people in different parts of the world. They send me their song. I record in my studio and send it via the internet from my home just outside Shaftesbury.”
On Saturday, Emily will play music inspired by her many visits to a remote, indigenous tribe in Brazil – the Xavante Indians. She has recorded their music and the sounds of their natural environment, mixing that audio into her studio albums and her live performances.
“The music integrates recordings of the Amazon forest, the birds at dawn, fauna, flora and recordings of their singing. It takes the listener on a day in the life of an Indian village,” said Emily, who uses digital recording and playback technology to add different layers to her performance in concert.
“I use looping pedals like Ed Sheeran,” she explained. “I multitrack the cello, recording with my feet while I’m playing. The only backing track is the sound of the forest and the tribal people singing. That piece is seven movements. It runs consecutively for 25 minutes.”
Emily has been a strong supporter of environmental issues and she began her relationship with the Xavante people when was playing the Earth Summit in Brazil’s capital in 1992. “Some Indians walked past the theatre. I invited them in and afterwards found out that they were from the area that I was talking about in the concert,” Emily recalled. “They said, ‘You’re talking about where we come from and you must come and visit us. You must come and hear us sing’. I was a bit taken aback because there were five elders with feather headdresses on in front of me!”
Two years later, when she was living in Rio, Emily received a letter asking for help to build a health centre. She embarked on the long journey to visit the tribe. “I took buses from Rio, and it took two-and-a-half days to get there. Then I got left at the edge of the reservation at six o’clock in the morning,” said Emily.
She was worried when she was left to wait to be collected. “Someone had given me the good advice that I was to just wait until the person who invited me came to collect me. It’s pretty hard around there. They may look at a Westerner and think, ‘money’. A car pulled up, they shoved my bag in the boot and said, ‘Get in. We’ve come to collect you. We’re going to take you to our village’. I had to get my bag out of the car and say, ‘I’m staying here until the person who invited me collects me’. I just waited there for about two-and-a-half hours. By that point, a crowd had gathered. Then this old chief walked through the crowd and I recognised him, thank goodness.”
Emily honoured the request for help she had received. “I set up with them a solar-powered health centre. It was twenty years ago, and it is still functioning today, which is amazing,” said Emily. She also founded a charity, the Indigenous Peoples Cultural Support Trust. “We have no overheads or employees. The Trust ensures that all funding raised goes directly to help initiatives with communities,” said Emily.
She has noticed that Western cultural influences have increased in this remote area. “A lot have got mobile phones now. It’s very useful for communicating. I get called on WhatsApp sometimes. The Chief’s hut has a satellite dish in the main village but not out where the health centre is. When the health centre was inaugurated, to my amazement, someone walked out of one of the huts with a bag covered in chicken poo. They put it down on the table and took off this sack and there was a TV and they said, ‘We can watch videos now’,” laughed Emily.
Recently Emily’s trust has paid for the production of a video. “I was able to help fund a documentary, filming one of their festivals – a coming of age ceremony – from adolescence to manhood. The videos are really important because it’s a means of being able to educate the local Brazilian Portuguese population on the Xavante Indians and their culture.”
As a professional musician and songwriter, Emily has been influenced by the tribe’s music. “It’s central to their culture. It’s core. Someone will emerge from their hut in the morning and their lyrics come from dreams,” said Emily. “They’ll make up a song and this will be shared with the community. At the end of the day, the chief has various songs he sings with all the children and the adolescents. Some of the elders join in. It’s about bringing the community together through song.”
Emily says their music has a distinctive style. “If it’s a group, they often dance at the same time, in a circle. They use their feet as rhythm and it’s quite guttural and repetitive, like a lot of indigenous chants. You have adolescent choirs of just boys. Their singing is higher. There’s a track on the album called ‘Adolescence’. There’s another one ‘Proclamation’, which was a celebration of the health centre being opened and trucks kept on arriving with more Xavante on them. They would just join an enlarging circle of people, singing with this sort of stamping feet sidestep thing in a big circle. It was very powerful.”
Xavante sing in their own language, although Brazil’s national language of Portuguese is often understood, particularly amongst more recent generations. “Some of them have been to university. The younger ones now have got degrees. The village is their home in Brazil, but they’ll go and work for the benefit of their community in a city, or they’ll be working in the village. Everyone has their job in the village. They could be the driver or the person who washes clothes.”
Emily’s Shaftesbury concert will highlight the environmental impact of deforestation of this area of the Amazon. “The burning hasn’t stopped. The devastation is up 212% on last year. I’m going to invite everyone in the audience to light a candle for the Amazon and then, at the end of the concert, they will be blowing their candle out (which is) symbolic of extinguishing the fires. The Amazon is vital to us all. It isn’t just something that’s smouldering in the distance,” said Emily.
Xavante live on an area of mixed woods and grassland, which is also threatened. “They call it ‘the river in the sky’,” said Emily. “The savannah draws clouds down from the Amazon. And it has a whole role in transferring the rain from the Amazon down south. It is the most deforested area in Brazil. I broke my heart when I was there, because it’s a sea of soya, except for where the tribal people live. The plan is to create tree nurseries where the Xavante can then work on them. The idea is for replanting.”
Emily says that the single crop commercial farming has resulted in a monoculture that goes on for thousands of kilometres. “It’s the most shocking thing you’ve ever seen. What is happening in the Amazon now is what Polly Higgins (the late environmentalist) would call ‘ecocide’ and also genocide. The world cannot turn a blind eye to the rhetoric of the current President Bolsonaro,” said Emily.
Emily’s ‘Candlelit Concert for the Amazon’ takes place this Saturday, 7th December at St Peter’s Church in Shaftesbury, starting at 6.30pm. Tickets cost £10.