Why you should care
Because the answer to crisis may come from the jungle.
Thanks to music and a special boozy drink, the culture of Brazil’s Amazon region is spreading across the country. One ambassador is the 2013 carimbó hit Jamburana, blasted across dance floors nationwide. Over electric guitars, 78-year-old Dona Onete sings about “the jambu’s tremble,” describing another darling Amazonian export: a liquor made from a neon-green-and-pink spiky flowering herb that numbs the drinker’s mouth.
Cachaça de jambu has been seducing hearts and throats across Brazil since 2011, when it was bottled for national distribution by Amazonian bartender Leo Porto. Current fashion dictates a gulp should be swirled between the lips and across the roof of the mouth for seven seconds, leaving a sparkling flavor of fresh herbs and lightly numbing the lips. The drinker is then treated to a fiery throat-searing sensation — cachaça falls squarely in the category of aguardentes: drinks with more than 29 percent alcohol.
In its most well-known form, cachaça began as moonshine on sugar plantations in the 16th century. Brazilians’ creativity with fermenting and distilling fruits, canes, roots and herbs eventually led to a 2009 federal law limiting the use of the liquor’s name. Since jambu is not distilled from sugar, it falls into the vast and beloved category of “all the kinds of cachaça that aren’t cachaça,” according to culture historian Luiz Antonio Simas, along with nonsugar-based liquors made from banana and jabuticaba (similar to a sour blueberry). Porto now sells more than 16,000 bottles of his concoction, at around $20 per bottle, annually.
Drinking [jambu] is like being “restored by biodiversity,” another festivalgoer remarked to me as she sipped the golden drink.
I recently found jambu in the vendor stalls of a festa junina (harvest festival) in Rio de Janiero’s downtown, where it was the perfect tingling finish to sweet corn soup on a winter night. The festival showcases culture of the country’s northeastern farmland, not the Amazon. But Amazonian music had also joined the lineup, including boisterous carimbó dancing emceed by well-known singer Silvan Galvão. Carimbó, Galvão explained, arose from the combination of African and European music with indigenous traditions of tree-trunk drums, flutes, maracas and ballads that originally celebrated a plentiful catch of fish. Its spirit of connection with nature charms Brazilians oversaturated with city life, as does jambu itself. Drinking it is like being “restored by biodiversity,” another festivalgoer, Julia Barros, remarked to me as she sipped the golden drink.
Not all Brazilians want to put their mouths asleep with their hard liquor, though. Milder versions of jambu, with infusions of sweet Amazonian flavors like the purple açai berry, the pearlike cupuaçu and the Pará nut, are also available.
The thirst for Brazil’s traditional cultures is “one way people are responding to political polarization and recession,” explains Simas. Last year, a controversial presidential impeachment divided the nation, the new president’s approval rating is less than 10 percent, and Brazil is experiencing its worst recession on record. “Some people say they want to give up on Brazil,” Simas says, while “others want to look it straight in the eye and realize what they have in common with each other.”
At the June festival, Galvão sang of the place where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Amazon: “You arrived like a full tide and invaded my heart.” The jambu-infused crowd, fully on board with the Amazonian love declaration and moment of community, roared with delight.