August 24, 2017

Alumnus’ Brazilian Psychedelic Band The Gringos Strives for International Fame

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“Something happens in your life or you meet somebody and in the moment, it’s just an experience. You don’t really see what it actually gave you until years later.”

When João Castilhos ’03 happened to meet Prof. Jumay Chu, performing and media arts, outside Collegetown Bagels one day he was asked to join a performance in need of male dancers. He had no idea that moment would become an early root of his musical career as the lead singer of the Brazilian psychedelic rock band The Gringos.

“I love dancing and singing at the same time and I never would have guessed that about myself when I was at Cornell, when I was trying to write screenplays, or in my master’s degree preparing to be a teacher,” he said.

A philosophy and creative writing major, Castilhos initially headed to Los Angeles after graduating to try to make it as a screenwriter. He described his journey from Cornell to Brazil and The Gringos as something that emerged organically.

“I came down here [Brazil]. I was teaching, finishing up my masters field research teaching English and learning Portuguese, and I met some teachers at this language school where I was hired,” Castilhos said. “One [teacher] had a house next to the school and we would just go to this house and drink cachaça and break out a guitar and just jam, just for fun.”

Soon, that “just-jamming” led to a talent show, a bar and a venue where one day a voice in the crowd shouted out “Os Gringos!” Since then, The Gringos have continued to grow in national popularity as the rock band strives to create a presence on the international stage.

“Gringos,” meaning foreigners in Spanish, was not planned, but it fit the band’s purpose.

“We stuck with it because – it’s on our website: ‘everyone is a gringo somewhere’ — it’s our story, being in a foreign country as expats — four of the five band members are American — and the whole process of adapting and integrating.”

Castilhos added that this theme of things emerging and connecting organically was also present on his path from Cornell to present day.

Describing the value of his major, he said, “My training in philosophy has definitely enriched me as a person and as an artist and I think the value that I bring to the band is that I hold fast to a philosophical perspective on life. I feel like without the father of philosophy you can’t compose anything real. You can produce products but you can’t produce art because art needs meaning and art needs purpose.”

This philosophical thinking emerges in his choreography and in the themes and lyrics of the band’s recent album The Animal Kingdom.

The Animal Kingdom, Castilhos said, explores humans as both “animals in an animal kingdom” and spiritual beings. The songs are a “journey through the spectrum of emotions,” from “pure ego, pure aggression,” to “meditative feelings of grandeur,” to “hey man let loose and have fun.”

For Castilhos, his life now is inseparable from his time at Cornell.

“My experience at Cornell I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life,” he said. “It kind of defines who I am.”

Looking back, those unexpected dancing lessons from Prof. Jumay Chu and Prof. Jim Self, performing and media arts, years ago seem to him one of the moments that “marked [his] life.”

“Those two professors … helped me discover something that I believe is a very natural art form to me,” Castilhos said. “I bring that to the stage, not intentionally but just quite organically. When I’m singing rock and roll or blues it’s an opportunity to go into a trance and just connect with the divine and be able to communicate my pleasure for something in front of other people and hopefully, that’ll transmit to them.”